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Presidential policy retreat: Beyond a talk shop?

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f it was intended to change some of the unedifying narratives associated with the present administration of President Muhammadu Buhari, the recently scrambled Presidential Policy Retreat that was held during the week in the Presidential Villa, remains a welcome development, even if it may not have lived up to its billing. Under the name of a Presidential Policy Retreat, the ordinary interpretation of this mission is a platform for providing the President an opportunity to brainstorm directly with designated, mission critical government officials and other so disposed members of the society, in order to obtain critical insights from same. In the Presidential system of the United States where the dispensation enjoys a full panoply, a presidential retreat is what all serving Presidents of that country look forward to and participate in periodically, as it provides the opportunity for refreshing and recharging them for better service delivery. In that context, a Nigerian version of the programme constitutes an eloquent testimonial for Muhammadu Buhari as a listening President.

The President had used the opportunity of the retreat to celebrate once more the strides achieved by the government in the first term, especially in the field of agriculture and some other areas of national life, and looked forward to the forum articulating valuable insights that will drive the second term of his tenure. Just as well his valedictory address to the retreat at its end on Thursday captured his satisfaction with the run of the programme. Nevertheless, from a dispassionate perspective features a complement of operational glitches which if they had been considered and addressed earlier would have maximized the dividends from the exercise.

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Firstly, is that the timing of the forum preceded the confirmation and subsequent full deployment of the ministers who as statutory members of the President’s cabinet and therefore operational agents, raises the significant question of who bells the cat, with respect to carrying out whatever resolutions and plans of action from the forum. For as at the time of the retreat, the ministerial nominees were still at the screening point in the Senate, awaiting confirmation for deployment. Except the ministers are intended to be deployed eventually as metaphorical ‘errand boys’ whose role in the policy formulation template can be dispensed with, the retreat should have been delayed until the ministers are fully on seat, and therefore disposed to more profitable participation in such an all-important, top level parley. Given the humongous scope of the challenges facing the country from different fronts, the least that should be done is the mobilization of as many assets that can be mustered for appropriate deployment.

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Without doubt the mis-timing of the retreat also manifested in a second glitch which borders on the less than optimal attendance as well as participation by critical assets in the parley. As reported in the media, the attendance was sub-optimal for a parley of its scope and rank, not to talk of the nationwide spread of the various interests in the country. Specifically, the participants featured beyond the Presidency, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and some other leaders of the institution, 11 out of the 36 state governors, representatives of the private sector led by Aliko Dangote, the APC top hierarchy led by the National Chairman Adams Oshiomhole and some members of the academia. From this body the President demanded high impact recommendations with which the administration hopes to make “life more meaningful for Nigerians” during the second term in office. According to the President, the ministers will be availed the outcome of the parley whenever they are deployed. How such a scheme will serve the best interests of the administration constitutes a mystery in the annals of world best fit administrative practice., as cabinet ministers are not expected to serve as a latter leg in a relay race with respect to matters of governance. As the actual operatives that will be eventually tasked with the responsibility of implementing whichever policy of the administration, the retreat should have been delayed enough to allow them land on the same page with any contributor and delivery.

On a critical note it would be that the organisers of the present retreat may have discountenanced whatever legacies from the Buhari first term, as well as similar brainstorming exercises even before the Buhari Presidency. It is beyond conjecture that lying on the shelves of the Presidency are uncountable reports and other resources that capture the problems of the country, many of which have been age long in tenure. The challenge facing the country now and which will make any new Presidential Policy Retreat is one that is targeted at ‘how to’, ‘when to’ and ‘by whom’, with respect to solving the country’s problems. It needs to be appreciated that much of the country’s today problems are challenges of the past which were not resolved and have metamorphosed into what they are today. Needless therefore to dwell fortuitously on the outcome of any magic wand from a fresh retreat, beyond the extant ones waiting for implementation.

A significant aspect of the terms of reference of this Presidential Policy Retreat is that they easily compare with those of virtually all past fora of such magnitude. Often too the repetition and recommendations are also similar, if not a simple repletion of past editions. In deed in most cases only the organisers and participants in designated retreats are different from previous ones. For instance, hardly can any major differences in insights and recommendations, can be located in the National Conferences of 2005 and 2014 under Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan, respectively. It is significant that even in the current parley organized by Buhari during the past week, some of the participants were active in at least the conferences of 2005 and 2014. Hence beyond rehashing the positions of the past, hardly can any other good come from the parley as they cannot re-invent the wheel.

It would have been most refreshing if the President can return merit to the recommendations of the past conferences, which he rejected at the start of his tenure, and seek their implementation. Seen in proper context, his earlier rejection of the reports of the various conferences organised by his predecessors, was an affront on Nigerians at large, who collectively worked on them, and not necessarily against the seemingly targeted predecessors in office.

In the absence of resorting to the earlier conference reports, with a view to teeing in from them in terms of implementing their recommendations, any fresh parley by him, will hardly be seen by observers, as beyond another sterile, talk shop.

 

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