After four years in the saddle, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo and his boss, President Muhammadu Buhari, must have discovered with delight that experience is truly the best teacher.
With the benefit of hindsight and on-the-job experience, it is safe to assume that those teething problems of 2015 must have been solved to make the running of government now seamless and more efficient. If that is the case, what gave rise to Osinbanjo’s lamentation – his passionate outpouring of grief or more appropriately concern induced by a clear inability to get some badly needed square pegs in some square holes – must have given way to a well-deserved sigh of relief and, possibly, the singing of hosanna.
Barely six months in office, Professor Osinbajo, admitted that the Buhari government, like new administrations anywhere else, was confronted with staff recruitment blues. This symptom of apparent nervousness or inability to throw the net wide in search of the best and the brightest staff, did not come as a surprise considering the fact that many world leaders, some even more politically and administratively savvy, had had to contend with this true acid test of leadership capability – getting the right staff to man key offices in the administration.
Having been voted into power, every administration requires trusted and capable staff to implement its plans and help to translate its vision into reality. The Buhari administration was not an exception. After he was sworn-in on May 29, 2015, it took the president nearly six months to form a cabinet and to put in place the full complement of government that would implement his programmes and give meaning to his vision. Critics interpreted this delay variously – either that he didn’t come prepared to govern, or he was simply not in a hurry to move the country forward as enunciated in his party’s manifesto.
Whatever was the case, he did not hit the ground running in tune with popular expectation. But we were to learn later from the vice-president the enormity of frustration that confronted the administration when it came to getting the right kind of persons to play key roles in government. And that apparently explained the delay. Speaking in Lagos at the annual dinner of the Apostles in the Market Place in February 2016, the vice-president confessed that he and President Buhari had been finding it extremely difficult to get the right persons to handle nation-building tasks for the administration.
He regretted that their administration was operating in a system “where the norm is corrupt behaviour across all the arms of government. I have had several long discussions with President Buhari, the key issue always is finding the right persons for any task, a tough task indeed in a corrupt system.”
In my column titled, “Osinbajo’s lamentation” in the Guardian of February 25, 2016, I expressed sympathy with the president and the vice-president. My take though was that the Buhari administration’s search mechanism had not been meticulous enough in its search for the best and the brightest. “This country,” I reminded them, “has many Buharis and Osinbajos, enough of them to make the desired difference. But will the system allow them to flower and triumph?” The question, then and even now, is will the corrupted search mechanism locate such men and women scattered all over the country who can make the difference to Buhari’s earnest desire for a more productive change?
One may sound cynical but the fact that looks too obvious to be ignored is that today our leadership recruitment process has become rather appalling. The premium has shifted to money and the ability to steal it and amass illegal wealth and not the ability, capacity and the strength of character and the intellect of the person seeking a public office.
On this score, I still think President Buhari deserves pity. No matter how much he pontificates on the issue of morality and saintliness, he seems, willy-nilly, to have always looked the other way when the wrong persons get recruited into public office or when they are caught pilfering the commonwealth, not to say anything about the wilful bastardisation of official process.
There is a joke in some circles that since honesty is no longer the best policy, your integrity and your willingness to do good to all manner of people can actually be held against you if you are seeking a public office.
But it has not always been so. And I can prove it. In January 1984 when General Muhammadu Buhari took over from the Shehu Shagari administration, he sought to put in place an enviable policy of rewarding honesty and integrity. When it was time to recruit people into his nascent cabinet, he went for the best. And he did so without prevarication and little or no dithering. Apparently the system did not even allow it. Those he recruited into public office didn’t come lobbying with sacks of money to bribe government officials and the Dodan Barracks courtiers.
Chief Chike Francis Ofodile of blessed memory was Buhari’s first Attorney General and Minister of Justice. It is on record that when he could not be contacted, the Buhari head hunters despatched an Air Force plane to fetch him from Enugu. Flustered, the legal luminary regained his composure only after learning that he was not a candidate for Ikoyi Prison. And that was after he had come face to face with the Head of State. He was gently persuaded by General Buhari to offer his services to the nation in the capacity of Attorney General of the Federation.
Chief Ofodile’s cabinet colleague for the Ministry of Transport and Aviation was Abdullahi Ibrahim, SAN. Apparently they knew where to locate him. Prior to his appointment, he had come from Kaduna to Murtala Muhammed Airport Ikeja on official assignment in January 1984 a few days after the coup. On his way back, he called on me at my office at National Concord newspaper located a stone throw from the airport.
Our small talks veered off into the thrust of the new military administration and what it possibly could offer the country. Bearing in mind how the Senior Advocate of Nigeria had walked out of the military government of Kwara State led by Col David Lasisi Bamigboye also of blessed memory where he served as commissioner for only three months, I told him that I was sure that General Buhari and his team would be looking for credible people like him to serve in his government. I urged him, therefore, not to turn them down in case they got in touch with him.
The following day he called me from Kaduna to say that I was prophetic. A letter from General Buhari was waiting for him. And he requested him to offer his service to the nation. Abdullahi, SAN, as he is fondly called, served initially as Buhari’s Minister of Transport and Aviation but was later moved to the Ministry of Education. In those good old days, these gentlemen of sterling qualities didn’t have to lobby to serve their country. Neither did their other colleagues in the Buhari cabinet. Any government would be proud to enlist such men of integrity and capacity.
Today, the story, as the vice-president has alluded to, is vastly different. Those who clearly have nothing to offer because of clear deficiency in intellect and character are the first persons to swoop on the government’s recruitment machinery. And because the machinery is compromised with corruption, they easily find their ways into public office despite President Buhari’s loud protestation.
With an unofficial policy that encourages cash for job in the public sector, it is easy for these clear misfits, like the proverbial camel, to go through the eye of the needle. But we shall soon see if these four years of learning experience will make any outstanding change in the make-up of President Buhari’s next level cabinet and other features of the administration. We shall see.