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People, Policies, Projects: Whither Mr. President-Elect?


“Inheriting a country whose infrastructure is damaged and in desperate need of repair, many look towards Obama’s appointment of cabinet members as a sign of change.” – Michael Gallagher

Mr. President-elect’s hand is a tough one
In any game of cards, success has a lot to do with the type of cards you are dealt. The set of cards a player has in a game is called a hand. The odds are better with a better set. However, a good hand doesn’t guarantee a win. A win takes experience and skill. A telepathic peek into the hand dealt to Nigeria’s President-elect would show that he has been dealt a tough hand. His situation reminds one of the idiom “between a rock and a hard place”. He is inheriting a situation that was bequeathed to him as he shouted “Change, change, change…”

This is the scenario facing him and the Vice President-elect: The economy is in the emergency ward (more like the surgery room): foreign reserves at an all-time low, exchange rate high and not abating, and price of crude oil low and nowhere inching up. He is inheriting a Nigeria with the longest and most extensive insurgency ever. Added to the insurgency in the North are the veneer of youth restiveness around the nation and a heightened sense of despondency exacerbated by unemployment and corruption. Not to mention the combustible mix of ethnic and religious polarization and the challenge of citizenship and nationhood.

Included on the hand is the need to shed the perception in the international community that we are undecided about corruption. Some pundits also expect that the beneficiaries of the last two political dispensations might seek ways to undermine the new administration. It sure is a tough hand. If he and his Vice would win this ‘game’ they will need skill, a lot of skill.
Between Scylla and Charybdis

President-elect Muhammadu Buhari clearly is “between Scylla and Charybdis”. Would he choose to solve this horn of a dilemma by choosing to confront Scylla or by confronting Charybdis? Where should he start? Is there a starting point that would signal the beginning of the expected change? Should he start by biting deep and quick into one of these projects or policies or should it be people selection? People, Policies, Projects: Whither Mr. President-Elect?

Scylla and Charybdis were mythical sea monsters noted by Homer (a poet); and later Greek tradition sited them on opposite sides of the Strait of Messina between Sicily and the Italian mainland. Scylla was rationalized as a rock shoal (described as a six-headed sea monster) on the Italian side of the strait and Charybdis was a whirlpool off the coast of Sicily.

They were regarded as a sea hazards located close enough to each other that they posed an inescapable threat to passing sailors; avoiding Charybdis meant passing too close to Scylla and vice versa. According to Homer, Odysseus was forced to choose which monster to confront while passing through the strait…” (ref. Wikipedia). As all fingers aren’t equal, even so all choices aren’t equal. Of all the options open to Buhari-Osinbajo, the selection of cabinet members (ministries and parastatals leadership) is by far the most important, the one to come first, the signal of true change and the first sign of success in a four-year race.
People before Policy or Projects

Jim Collins is one person who has done quite some work on how to manage great institutions. He made a remarkable discovery a few years back which is well documented in his book, Good to Great. Hear from Jim Collins, “When we began the research project, we expected to find that the first step in taking a company from good to great would be to set a new direction, a new vision and strategy for the company, and then get the people committed and aligned behind the new direction. We found something quite the opposite.

The executives who ignited the transformations from good to great did not first figure out where to drive the bus and then get people to take it there. No, they first got the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and then figured out where to drive it.” They said, in essence, “Look I don’t really know where we should take this bus.

But I know this much: If we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we’ll figure out how to take it someplace great.” It was people, then policies or projects.
People selection much more crucial in public sector

Apparently, this is a topic that people have always been concerned about – an age old global concern, for that matter. Even in 1860 when Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican to become President of the United States, this same issue of cabinet selection came up. “We needed the strongest men of the party in the cabinet,” Abraham Lincoln stated, “We needed to hold our own people together.

I had looked the party over and concluded that these were the very strongest men….I had no right to deprive the country of their services.” (ref. He took it as far as selecting one of his political enemies, Edward Stanton, into office. In one speech he (Edward) called Lincoln a “low, cunning clown.” In another he said, “It is ridiculous to go to Africa to see a Gorilla when you can find one just as easily in Springfield Illinois.” Lincoln never responded.

When he was elected President and needed a Secretary of War, guess who he chose? Edward Stanton. When friends asked him why, Lincoln said “Because he’s the best man for the job.” Years later as the slain president’s body lay in state, Edward Stanton looked into the casket and said through his tears, “There lies the greatest ruler of men the world has ever seen.” His animosity had been broken by Lincoln’s long-suffering, non-retaliatory spirit.

Biographer, Stephen Ambrose, wrote that Dwight Eisenhower (34th President of the United States) “wanted competent, proven administrators, men who thought big and acted big. Completely free of any need to boost his own ego, or to prove his decisiveness or leadership, he wanted to ‘build up’ the men who worked with him.” Eisenhower not only picked good people, but he could also assess each person’s strengths and weaknesses and put together a team of complementary skills and temperaments. Prof.

Walter Williams asserts that, “No presidential management task is as important as picking top White House aides and Cabinet members…”

Good people then good government

Lee Kuan Yew was the Prime Minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990. He and his team took Singapore from being underdeveloped to becoming a prosperous nation – literally from nothing to great. In his book, From Third World to First World, he had this to say: “My experience of developments in Asia has led me to conclude that

we need good people to have good government.

However good the system of government, bad leaders will bring harm to their people. On the other hand, I have seen several societies well-governed in spite of poor systems of government, because good, strong leaders were in charge… the single decisive factor that made for Singapore’s development was the ability of its ministers and the high quality of the civil servants who supported them. Whenever I had a lesser minister in charge, I invariably had to push and prod him, and later to review problems and clear roadblocks for him…because of our relentless and unceasing search for talent both at home and abroad to make up for the small families of the well-educated, Singapore has been able to keep up its performance.” “After several years in government I realized that the more talented people I had as ministers, administrators, and professionals, the more effective my policies were, and the better the results”.

Parallels between Obama and Buhari – how did Obama use the hand dealt him?

Incidentally some parallels can be drawn between the hand served the President-elect Muhammadu Buhari and the hand served President Obama when he was elected for the first term in 2008. The US economy was facing a recession; uncertainty and despondency had risen; there were huge resource commitments to fighting terrorism overseas; etc. “Inheriting a country whose infrastructure is damaged and in desperate need of repair, many look towards Obama’s appointment of cabinet members as a sign of change.” – Michael Gallagher.

And here is what Obama did: the presidential transition period began following Obama’s election to the presidency on November 4, 2008. During the transition period, Obama announced his nominations for his Cabinet and administration. Barack Obama was inaugurated on January 20, 2009. He officially assumed the presidency at 12:00 noon, EST and completed the oath of office at 12:05 pm, EST. He delivered his inaugural address immediately following his oath. After his speech, he went to the President’s Room in the House Wing of the Capitol and signed three documents: a commemorative proclamation, a list of Cabinet appointments, and a list of sub-Cabinet appointments, before attending a luncheon with congressional and administration leaders and invited guests (ref. Wikipedia). In simple English, Obama selected his people almost immediately, and then picked the policies and projects to push.

True change by a Change Team

For the change song to become a change show, only a change team will do. We are expecting to see the most audacious, deep, extensive and rigorous search for talent like we have never seen. Hopefully. Let Buhari-Osinbajo say like Brutus “Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more”. Let them scour Nigeria and overseas for men and women of verifiable competence. One Prime minister recently went as far as reaching out to his people on Facebook to help him nominate his cabinet.

The President-elect and Vice President-elect must send a message that the task of leading Nigeria into the future is too delicate to be left in the hands of novices. They must send a message that the days of using cabinet positions to reward loyalists are over! Gone! They must be self-assured and focused enough to surround themselves with people more qualified than they.

They must, like Abraham Lincoln, separate their personal feelings from the analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of potential cabinet members. Let ‘yes-men’ and sycophants remain at home, instead they should seek out independent minded, but team oriented personalities. My tent is pitched with Jim Collin’s discovery that “Great vision with mediocre people still produces mediocre results.”

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