Apart from his personal limitations, President Jonathan also faces systemic constraints. The constitution stipulates that the president must appoint a minister from each of the 36 states. Given that the constitution already provides for a bicameral legislature as well as a majoritarian presidency that embodies the will of the greatest number of Nigerians, having a minister from each state is superfluous. For one thing, it adds to the bloat of government. For another, it unnecessarily bestows on ministers a representative function that properly belongs to the National Assembly. The ministers belong to the executive branch whose mandate is to execute. The National Assembly scrutinizes what and how the executive is executing.
Ideally, a president could appoint all or most of his ministers from any state. Where they come from is inconsequential. Performance should be the only yardstick for judging their conduct.
Clearly, the constitution’s framers doubted that politicians would act fairly if allowed to freely select their ministers without any regulatory constraint. The stipulation emanated from a legitimate concern with ensuring fairness in the distribution of government posts. However, politicians now use the constitution’s concern for representational equity as a basis for patronage by insisting that state governors nominate candidates to represent their states in the federal cabinet. The result is a systemic paradox that cripples presidential decision-making.
A representative cabinet evokes the collegial atmospherics of a parliamentary system’s dynamic of shared responsibility but it is illusory. By appearing to incorporate collective responsibility into our presidential system, we have inherited the worst of both worlds – a limited liability presidency where the president has great power but can distribute culpability for failures among ministers whom he can legitimately claim were foisted on him; and a nominally representative council of ministers constituted by politicians who typically represent only themselves and their political benefactors, and who are rarely competent enough to execute. Their loyalties are frequently divided between the president who appointed them and the godfathers who nominated them.
The president, who must define his administration’s mission, finds himself working with lieutenants that owe him less than total allegiance. Consequently, the unity of command and purpose that should characterize presidential governance is often lacking. The operational swiftness that comes from executive cohesion is distinctly absent. If ever a mode of government was designed to fail, this is it. But this is not solely a constitutional flaw. The constitutional requirement of 36 ministers is bad enough, but opportunistic politicians exploit it for pork barrel politics and subvert the executive responsibility ethic of presidential democracy. In practice, it is an equal opportunity kleptocracy as a perverse brand of affirmative action.
Thus, one of a president’s most arduous struggles is to assert ownership of his presidency by picking his own team. President Shehu Shagari surrendered his cabinet appointments to the prebendal calculations of his party and lost control of his administration. Obasanjo’s absolute grip on his presidency enabled him pursue his reform agenda. A major concern is that Jonathan conceded too much to governors and other interests in constituting his cabinet.
Will the president’s languid style be enough to manage his cabinet and umpire the potential friction, for instance, between the Finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who has unprecedented latitude over economic matters and the Petroleum minister, Diezani Allison-Madueke who directly oversees Nigeria’s cash cow? Both women technocrats are strong personalities and lay claim to primacy in the administration’s cosmology – Allison-Madueke as a presidential favourite and confidante and Okonjo-Iweala as Jonathan’s economic czarina and guarantor of international credibility for his economic agenda.
Presidents must quickly assert their authority over special interests. They must show that, in General Ibrahim Babangida’s words, they “are not only in office but also in power.” Shagari was unable to curb his party’s profligacy and was overshadowed by the powerful rice importation czar Umaru Dikko. Obasanjo retired military officers who had held political appointments in previous military dictatorships thus securing his administration against the wiles of a politicized military. President Yar’Adua attempted the same by firing Obasanjo-era centurions like Nasir El-Rufai and Nuhu Ribadu who were deemed too powerful but his presidency was hobbled by the influence of fiendish cronies like Michael Aondoakaa and James Ibori.
Asserting his leadership will require Jonathan to defy influential interests as well as power blocs within the PDP, the National Assembly and the increasingly powerful governors’ forum. His vaunted transformational agenda cannot thrive in the nursery of politics as usual. Jonathan’s strengths are as a conciliator and a dealmaker. His natural instinct is to please everyone in the room and harmonize opposing forces often by redistributing portions of the national cake. “I have no enemies to fight,” he said constantly in the course of his campaign. However, at this point in our history, a pacific temperament guiding the presidency is not always a virtue. In fact, Nigeria has enemies that have to be fought and the presidency is a sovereign weapon fashioned to actualize the possibilities of our republic. When a president with convictions brings the moral, institutional and political weight of his office to bear on an issue, things get done. But the presidency is a blunt sword in the hands of the feckless, cowardly, pork-sharing pacifism often relished by Nigerian politicians.
Precisely because the presidency is so powerful, it either possesses its occupant or is possessed by him. Obasanjo’s military background predisposed him towards autocratic behaviour that often injured our institutions. For reluctant leaders like Shagari and Yar’Adua, the presidency was a black hole that swallowed them alive, leaving their aides to indulge in unhinged delinquency. Could Jonathan find the golden mean in the exercise of presidential power?
Psychology offers ample reason for apprehension. Confronted by contemptuous rivals as well as rising extremism and terrorism, Jonathan may be tempted to overcompensate for his perceived weakness by delving into the presidential armoury of repressive devices. He could be persuaded by hawkish political operatives to adopt more authoritarian measures to deal with dissent in the guise of a tougher posture on law and order.
Some politicians are temperamentally unsuited for the presidency. Shagari, who had been schooled in the conciliatory craft of parliamentary governance during the First Republic, seemed distinctly uncomfortable with presidential power. Remarking upon Shagari’s famed lifelong ambivalence about seeking office, his biographer David Williams wrote, “He has never sought high office; it has always been thrust upon him…his own ambitions have been for useful but narrow offices.” Shagari attributed this reticence to his deep distrust “of secular power” and his belief that “whoever lusts for political leadership should be rebuffed.” But he also believed that “whoever the community asks to lead is duty bound to accept the invitation.” This self-effacing modesty is incompatible with presidential power.
As Stanley Macebuh wrote ten days after Shagari’s inauguration in 1979, “Only those congenitally desirous of power can be comfortable with the prospect of the degree of loneliness which every president must live with. Prime ministerial government has at least the advantage of collegiality. The prime minister can share responsibility with his colleagues, if not with the legislature, when things go wrong. But a president has no one else to blame when he makes disastrous mistakes.” Shagari, he observed, “had not shown any great desire for the sort of imperial power that could compensate for his inevitable loneliness.” Successful leaders embrace the solitude that comes from not seeking to please every interest.
Of course, seeking power is not a sin. What matters is whether one perceives power as an ultimate goal and therefore as something to be worshipped and pursued at any and all costs, or as a tool, a means to an end, regulated by a high moral purpose. Power without purpose and vision is the chronic affliction of Nigerian governance.
Shagari’s preference for a communal draft rather than an individual’s voluntary pursuit of power has since become a template for leadership selection. It casts politicians as reluctant messiahs beseeched by benighted communities to undertake their deliverance. Not only does this create a dangerous dependency on the president, it inverts democratic responsibility by indebting the people to the government instead of holding government accountable to the people. The tragic irony is that Nigerian politics often anoints those who possess neither the desire nor the equipment for public office while relegating the ambitious and the prepared to the political wilderness.
Political fortune seems to consistently favour the unprepared and the unwilling. Yar’Adua was poised to take a university teaching appointment before Obasanjo virtually conscripted him into the presidential race in 2007. Obasanjo himself had described his invitation to run for the presidency by several retired generals and politicians shortly after his release from prison in 1998 as an “ambush.” It took a first term of trial and error for him to establish an agenda for his second term and assemble a team of able lieutenants. However, Jonathan does not have the luxury of a probationary period.