Ministerial nominees: Forward to the past?
Not many Nigerians were excited by the list of ministerial nominees submitted by President Buhari, especially the first batch. Given the time it took the President to unveil the nominees – over four months after his inauguration – people were expecting to be surprised, if not wowed, with the list of ‘saints’ the President gave the impression he was searching for in the supposedly land of sinners.
The good thing is that the unveiling of the ministerial nominees gives hope that at last a Federal Executive Council will be constituted and with that the articulation of what a policy direction for the country. Until now, the government appears to be run on President Buhari’s ‘body language’ and its one-story narrative: to fight corruption to a standstill.
Buhari’s ministerial nominees also triggered an interesting debate on the politics of generation shift. With the average age of the nominees being about 61, many commentators derided many of the nominees as ‘analogue’, ‘deadwoods’ or people ‘exhumed from the archives’. I disagree with this line of argument.
The idea of power shift to the younger generation moved up the agenda of political discourse in 2010 when former military President Ibrahim Babangida, at the age of 69, indicated interest in being the PDP’s flag bearer in the 2011 presidential election. When some people criticised him for being too old for the job the former military president reportedly claimed that Nigerian youths were incapable of giving the country a qualitative leadership. Though the Mina General later claimed he was quoted out of context, the issue of the ‘politics of generation shift’ which his remark raised was not conclusively interrogated.
First the politics of generation shift is often based on a wrong notion of a linear progression from one generation to another. The truth is that every generation embodies something from the preceding generation, something it wishes to do differently from its forebears and also some nostalgia for some values it wishes it could recapture from the previous generation. In this sense, Wole Soyinka was probably too hard on his generation when he declared in the mid-1980s that he belonged to a ‘wasted generation’.
Second, ‘generation shift’ is not a form of relay race between the old and the young, in which the old, out of exhaustion or impending exhaustion have to pass on the baton to the younger and presumably more dynamic runners. In reality, ‘generation gap’ often denotes the dominant ideas and ways of doing things of an era, and subscribers to such new ways could be both the old and young even though certain age groups tend to be more closely allied with certain trends. A good example here is the networking websites like Facebook, which initially was a fad for the young but has since been embraced also by the not so young. In this sense it may be necessary to make a distinction between ‘old young people’ (people who may be relatively old in age but continue to feel young in their minds and who constantly ally themselves with modern trends and progressive ideas) and ‘young old people’ (young people who are resistant to change).
Third, the politics of generation shift could be a double edged sword for young people (i.e. people under 50). Since young people appear to be taking responsibility at a much earlier age than their forebears across the world, including in our country, it could be argued that youth is no longer the future but the present. This means that young people are on the spot – just like their elders – and should share responsibilities for the problems of the current era. In fact most of Nigeria’s leaders – Presidents and governors- fall within the young category of age: Tafawa Balewa was 48 years old when he became Prime Minister of the country; Ironsi succeeded him at the age of 42, Gowon took over from Ironsi at the age of 32, Murtala Muhammed succeeded him at the age of 37 while Obasanjo, in his first coming was only 39 years. Shehu Shagari, who became a Federal Minister at the age of 25, became president of the country at the age of 54. Muhammadu Buhari was military Head of State at 41, Babangida at 44, Ernest Shoneka at 57, Abacha at 50, Abdulsalami at 56, Obasanjo’s Second Coming was at 62, Umaru Yar’adua succeeded him at 56, while Jonathan was 53 when he succeeded Yar’adua.
At the state level most of the governors came to office while under 50. Statistically therefore when we talk of ‘generation shift’, it is difficult to know, whether we should be arguing for a shift from the under-50s to the over 50s or vice versa, or which of the generations should be blamed for what we now call the ‘current mess’. Suffice it to add that in the USA, Donald Trump who is the front runner for the Republican presidential nomination is 69. Hilary Clinton, the front runner for the Democratic Party ticket is 67 while her closest rival in the polls, Bernie Sanders, is 74. The Vice President, Joe Biden, who is being urged to throw his hat into the Democratic nomination field, is 74.
The point is that a more rational approach to the politics of generation shift will be to find the right balance between the experience and maturity that often come with age and the vigour and idealism that are usually associated with the youth. It will also be necessary to separate the ideas needed to take the country to the next level from those purveying such ideas. All over the world chronological age is not what it used to be – people not only live longer but also healthier. In the politics of generation shift, both those over 50 and those under 50 could make strong claims for being marginalized and why the other should concede the moral right to rule.
While I believe the focus on the age of the president’s ministerial nominees is misplaced, I also believe the President’s failure to wow us with ‘saints’ as his nominees – as he made us believe he would – will inevitably affect the perception of the whole fight against corruption. It may also force him to rethink his one-story narrative. From Ngige who benefitted from a stolen mandate in Anambra state to former governors Amaechi and Fashola who have been accused of corruption, several of the nominees in the cabinet may not be able to pass the integrity test. The President had earlier declared that he would not have anything to do with anyone ‘tainted’ with corruption.
Since most of the nominees can be effectively marketed on the basis of their competence - rather than their ‘incorruptibility’, the president is challenged to find a broader narrative within which his fight against corruption will be subsumed. Certainly the mantra cannot be ‘change’ – as some APC apparatchiks erroneously keep mouthing. ‘Change’ is usually a slogan of the opposition party seeking to dethrone the party in power. APC is now the ruling, not the opposition party.
The President’s anti-corruption campaign has made several false starts – declaration that it would be limited to the Jonathan administration (making it vulnerable to charges of selectivity), not coming up with a clear operational definition of what it means by ‘corruption’, not developing a framework for the fight other than to make ‘probe; the new mantra and more seriously believing that corruption, rather than the crisis in the country’s nation building is the fundamental problem facing the country.
It is of course understandable that in selecting the ministerial nominees, the President faced the Devil’s Alternative. There are people like former Governors Amaechi and Fashola who made huge sacrifices that contributed significantly to Buhari’s victory. If Buhari did not get them into his cabinet, he will be accused of ‘use and dump’. On the other hand, their inclusion when there are allegations of corruption against them raises its own questions. For instance, if the President rightly argues that both Amaechi and Fashola have not been convicted by any court of law, then he is also signalling that the country should extend the same benefit of the doubt to the likes of Diezani Alison-Madueke and Saraki, who though accused of wrongdoing, are yet to be convicted by any court of law. If president suggests that he included them because he believed that they are victims of smear campaign or politics - then others similarly accused of corruption or wrong doing could also blame their travails on politics and smear campaign.