Buhari’s (Nearly) Bare Cabinet

Muhammadu Buhari promised to end corruption, defeat Boko Haram, and end Nigeria's oil woes. But six weeks into his presidency, he hasn't picked any advisors to enact his ambitious agenda.

Nigerian President Mohammadu Buhari raises his fist to greet the crowd before taking oath of office at the Eagles Square in Abuja, on May 29, 2015. Buhari, 72, defeated Jonathan in March 28 elections -- the first time in Nigeria's history that an opposition candidate had beaten a sitting president. AFP PHOTO/PIUS UTOMI EKPEI        (Photo credit should read PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images)
Nigerian President Mohammadu Buhari raises his fist to greet the crowd before taking oath of office at the Eagles Square in Abuja, on May 29, 2015. Buhari, 72, defeated Jonathan in March 28 elections -- the first time in Nigeria's history that an opposition candidate had beaten a sitting president. AFP PHOTO/PIUS UTOMI EKPEI (Photo credit should read PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images)

ABUJA, Nigeria — Just who is governing Nigeria?

On May 29, Nigerians thought they had a ready answer. New president Muhammadu Buhari took office that day in a grand ceremony in Abuja’s Eagle Square, standing on a dais alongside his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan. With the country still basking in the success of the March 28 election — which yielded a smooth, internationally celebrated handover of power — the new team looked set to hit the ground running.

Expectations were high: Buhari, an austere retired general who served as Nigeria’s military ruler from 1983 to 1985, would invigorate the war against Boko Haram, clean up the corrupt oil sector, and take on a political culture riddled by graft. In the run-up to his inauguration, he promised to form a government of experienced technocrats, while his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), held a euphoric two-day policy forum, at which former British Labour MP Peter Mandelson urged bold action, especially against corruption, in the first 100 days of his administration.

Six weeks later, Nigerians find themselves trapped in a maddening guessing game. Buhari has yet to name a single minister. He has not selected his chief of staff or any policy aides. He has finally replaced the military top brass — but there is no defense minister to oversee them.

Without a government in place, Buhari has resorted to bringing advisors without official titles on his trips outside the country — to Niger and Chad, Nigeria’s allies against Boko Haram; to Germany for a G-7 summit; and to South Africa for an African Union meeting. When Buhari meets with President Obama in Washington, D.C. on July 20, it is unclear who will travel in his delegation to meet U.S. officials, or in what capacity.

Just like in the United States, it can take some time in Nigeria to appoint a full cabinet and for Parliament to confirm its members. But the vacancies at all positions, even on the president’s own policy team — the equivalent of White House aides — have left even savvy observers scratching their heads.

“Not filling key positions makes people wonder how ready he could be,” one Abuja political insider said, requesting anonymity in order to speak frankly. “For many, the appointments are the most basic decisions he is expected to make. And while they will not be perfect, not doing anything at all suggests fear and uncertainty.”

Around the Villa, as the presidential residence is known, the default mode is silence. Faction leaders, power brokers, even monied patronage politicians in Buhari’s APC, all appear in the dark about decisions on policy and personnel. “They never know anything until he’s done,” said Akin Oyebode, an APC operative and campaign policy adviser.

Femi Adesina, a presidential spokesman, said on July 7 that Buhari was still getting briefed by bureaucrats — in the absence politically appointed ministers, the top career civil servants, known as permanent secretaries, are in charge — and will name his cabinet in “the fullness of time.”

Of course, even without a cabinet, these permanent secretaries can “keep the lights on” indefinitely, Oyebode said. And Buhari does have a cadre of trusted political allies who turn up frequently at his side, giving rise to a local Kremlinology, in which observers match names to potential positions. Many are well-regarded, particularly the former governors of Lagos state, Babatunde Fashola, and Ekiti state, Kayode Fayemi. A top retired general, Abdulrahman Dambazau, and the dynamic new governor of Kaduna state, Nasir El-Rufai, are known to be close to the president, and Olusegun Obasanjo, a former president and éminence grise, is “widely consulted,” Oyebode said.

But the combination of slowness and secrecy is raising concerns among Buhari’s own supporters (on Nigeria’s vociferous social media platforms, he has begun to be mocked as “Baba Go Slow,” or sluggish old man). And veteran analysts, such as political scientist Jibrin Ibrahim, head of the Center for Democracy and Development in Abuja, have asked how long Nigeria can operate without a formal government. In a July 5 column, Ibrahim warned that entrusting power to the president’s “coterie of committed believers” risked alienating Buhari’s party and souring public opinion. “President Buhari would do himself and Nigeria well by immediately making his appointments,” Ibrahim concluded.

As the sense of urgency in Abuja dissipates, the stakes for Nigeria — the world’s seventh-most populous country, with some 175 million inhabitants, and Africa’s biggest economy — are rising. The war against Boko Haram is flailing. A pre-election offensive under Jonathan, paired with military deployments by Chad, Cameroon, and Niger, flushed Boko Haram out of some of the towns it held in northeastern Borno state, its heartland, but the group has responded with a wave of guerrilla tactics, and stepped up operations away from its main turf. This month, the group hit the north-central cities of Jos, Kano, and Zaria, as well as N’djamena, Chad’s capital, with a series of suicide bombings. Boko Haram’s growing use of female bombers, in addition, is raising fears that it is brainwashing captives, perhaps including the 267 kidnapped “Chibok girls.” And its allegiance to the Islamic State, though hard to gauge, is a rising global security concern.

Nigeria’s oil-dependent economy, too, is in bad shape. Opaque dealing in the oil sector surged under Jonathan, and the APC has committed to cleaning it up. But now, low global oil prices have crimped revenues and shattered budget forecasts. The naira has lost 18 percent of its official value in the past year (more on the parallel market), despite a haphazard set of central bank restrictions aiming to stabilize it. Nigeria’s 36 states, most of which rely on oil revenue distributed by the federal government, are having trouble paying salaries and pensions.

Buhari has not been completely idle in the face of these challenges. There has been movement on the military front in particular. In Buhari’s first policy move, announced in his inauguration address, he decided to move the army’s tactical command against Boko Haram from Abuja to Maiduguri, capital of Borno state and the war’s de facto front line. The next week, he held talks with Nigeria’s neighbors, agreeing to revive a regional counter-insurgency force. Neither decision has been fully implemented yet, and neither alone can stem Boko Haram’s tactical shift towards dispersed urban bombings.

The replacement of the national security adviser, military chief of staff, and service chiefs, announced on July 13, may bring new impetus to the campaign. Early reaction from Nigerian security experts was positive, with retired Gen. Babagana Monguno, the new national security adviser and a native of Borno state, earning praise for his professionalism.

On the economic front, Buhari’s main accomplishment so far has been bailing out state governments, many of which are months behind on paying civil servant salaries and have little internal revenue to make up for federal oil shortfalls. After meeting with all state governors on June 23, he approved a rescue package of some $2 billion, drawing on the dividend from the state natural gas company and a new lending facility from the central bank.

This aid will allow states to pay salary arrears, said Oluseun Onigbinde, lead partner of BudgIT, a citizen venture that tracks public finance. But he cautioned that it was just a stop-gap measure, lacking conditions that would deter state governments from lapsing back into commercial debt and waiting for their share of oil revenue. “It fails to address structural issues,” Onigbinde said. “People will still go back and take irresponsible loans for frivolous projects, and come to Abuja every month to get the oil rent.”

But with multiple economic indicators in the red, and chronic woes such as fuel shortages and a deeply dysfunctional electric power system sapping Nigeria’s competitiveness, each week without policy leadership in key ministries chips away at the country’s economic position, and keeps domestic and foreign investors guessing. “Buhari has yet to constitute an economic team to lead Nigeria out of its challenges,” Onigbinde said. “There is a lack of policy direction. We are rudderless.”

To some extent, Buhari’s delay stems from a dysfunctional transition process. The outgoing Jonathan administration handed over its “transition notes” only four days before Buhari’s inauguration. Nigeria has never before had a transition between democratically elected governments of opposing parties; it also lacks a formal transition process and budget. “We are in uncharted territory here,” said Tunji Lardner, a media consultant and prominent civil society activist. Buhari’s own transition team delivered its recommendations — an 800-page tome — on June 12, two weeks into his term.

Yet Buhari may have tactical reasons to delay staffing up as well. In particular, a series of recent moves suggest he is ramping up efforts to tackle corruption. By keeping vacant ministerial posts — prime positions for graft through bribery and fraudulent contracting — Buhari has given himself time to vet candidates on his own. And launching audits and prosecuting top officials sends a message to potential appointees and their political patrons: stay on the straight and narrow.

The National Economic Council, an advisory body chaired by the vice president that includes all the state governors, is reviewing the government’s oil revenue accounts, along with those of the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). Recent revelations capped by the release of an international audit report point to some $18 billion of unaccounted-for NNPC revenue, and another $2 billion mysteriously drawn down from a federal account in the last few years. Because the states depend on oil revenue, the team of four governors leading the review is unlikely to let the powerful and opaque NNPC off easily.

According to local press reports, Buhari also ordered the outgoing military service chiefs to provide a full account of arms procurement in the anti-Boko Haram campaign. Nigeria’s defense budget is roughly $2 billion, but troops fighting the insurgency have found themselves chronically under-equipped, and soldiers and watchdog groups have alleged widespread corruption in military purchasing.

There are signs, too, of a crackdown on corruption by top officials. One vehicle for this process is the country’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), which has brought new cases against several former governors. Rumors in Abuja also have it that the presidency is pressuring targeted individuals to return ill-gotten gains in exchange for some kind of amnesty, a method that may be effective but lacking in transparency. “There are a lot of things happening under the radar, especially in the oil sector,” said Lardner. “They are squeezing these oil boys and making them uncomfortable.”

In the Machiavellian universe of Nigerian politics, Buhari’s approach has a certain logic. The APC is not a cohesive party, but the result of a 2013 merger of four parties, each with its own powerful faction heads and patronage networks, some along regional lines and others across them. Buhari’s election launched intense jockeying for positions, including a fight between APC factions for leadership positions in Parliament. In addition, Nigerian law requires that each state be represented by a minister or junior minister in the federal government — an attempt to compel ethnic balance that doubles as a patronage channel for regional power brokers. In delaying these appointments and keeping his deliberations secret, Buhari may be forcing all the aspirants to restrain their behavior. “There is a Buhari effect,” Lardner said. “These guys are being very careful.”

Yet Buhari’s political reasons for delaying appointments must be balanced against the growing restiveness of public opinion and, most of all, the lack of accountability that comes when unofficial advisers are running a country. “We can’t use non-state actors to run official positions,” said Onigbinde. “It’s inappropriate.” He urged that Buhari name, at the very least, his chief of staff and top policy aides. Compounding the problem is Buhari’s “lackluster” media team, as one Abuja insider put it, which has been haphazard and reactive, earning widespread derision on social media, and squandering the opportunity to explain directly what the president is doing.

Next week in Washington, where major security issues will surely be on the agenda, the composition of Buhari’s delegation will prompt fresh speculation back home. It will also draw scrutiny from U.S. policymakers interested in rebuilding a cordial but complicated relationship, harmed last year by the cancellation of a military training plan, and more recently by a new Amnesty International report detailing widespread abuses by the Nigerian military.

Already, Buhari’s understaffed government leaves him dangerously exposed: Though he now has new military chiefs, he does not have ministers or top personnel to deploy in the event of a political or economic crisis, or to take the fall on his behalf when something goes wrong. Some Abuja observers expect appointments soon, but others caution that it might take several more months. In that scenario, Buhari risks a crisis of democratic accountability — not a good look for a former military ruler.

Photo Credit: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP



Siddhartha Mitter is an independent journalist in New York City. He tweets @siddhmi. Twitter: @siddhmi