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What the constitution says about ministerial screening

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PHOTO: Twitter/NGRSenate

Mixed reactions, which are normal, anyway, have trailed the release of 43 ministerial nominees sent to the Senate for confirmation by President Muhammadu Buhari. Accordingly, the Senate has been screening the nominees since the names were released to it. The reactions, however, prompted me to look at the constitutional provisions guiding such nominations and screening. The entire exercise is constitutional, meaning that actions and reactions of anyone should be guided by the law. That way, all the venom flaring left, right and center over what ordinarily should be routine in the Senate, is somehow, misplaced, unnecessary and uncalled for.

It is amazing that every four years, when ministerial nominees are sent to the Senate, it looks as if it is the first time. But whether or not the nominees are confirmed, a government is already in place and running. It is not that their non-confirmation would stop the government from carrying on. It is just in the national interest for the Senate to do the needful by confirming them without putting unnecessary wedges. Incidentally, both the president and Senate are always at the center of the storm – the president, for making nominations that many see as unimpressive and the Senate for just accepting the bow of nominees and not being tough.

But there is no way the Senate could do a more rigorous screening than what it is doing at the moment without portfolios attached to each nominee. The nominees, no doubt, are qualified to be ministers. But not all are qualified to handle certain posts. You can’t know when portfolios are not attached to each nominee. How then do you screen a nominee on what he/she has not been designated to oversee? It would be waste of time. The president is to blame for the shallow screening.

My colleague Martins Oloja, reminded me that the only country in the world that sends ministerial nominees to Senate without portfolio is Nigeria! What a grievous failure that has been accepted as a norm. That is why most of the ministers don’t perform well.

I have written in this column, severally, that the only way to get the right candidates for the job is to attach portfolios. Otherwise, the screening amounts to mere entertainment. In fact, there is no screening mere show yourself parade. Asking any nominee to recite the national anthem, for instance, is insulting and laughable. Such jests arise because there is no concrete thing to ask.

It is not that the Senate is made up of angels who are now called upon to screen mortal men. As a matter of fact, the ministerial nominees are no lesser mortals than members of the Senate. Everybody is in the same troubled Nigerian ship that needs rescue. Pointing accusing fingers to your fellow sailors, instead of finding a way to steer the ship away from wreckage is senseless.

I say this because nobody is making noise over the delayed appointment of commissioners by some state governors. Under the system we are operating, the commissioners have more a direct impact on the daily life of the people than the ministers. Yet, not all the state governors have appointed commissioners since the May 29 inauguration (exactly two months). The state governors, presumably, are taking time to select the right people to work with. It is in the interest of the president and governors to appoint capable hands to help them accomplish their campaign promises. Otherwise, any failure is the legacy of the president or governor. There’s nothing special about the delay in appointing ministers/commissioners. I am not saying that the delay is ideal.

Section 142 (2), in the case of ministers, gives the President power to nominate persons for the post of ministers of the government of the federation, who in turn have to be confirmed by the Senate.Section 147 (1) says, “There shall be such offices as Ministers of the Government of the Federation as may be established by the President.” This means that the President has discretion to handle the issue of ministers as he likes. There is no stipulated time frame within which the President must nominate his ministers. The President has the discretion to nominate the ministers whenever he deems fit.

A president may decide to nominate his ministers as soon as he is sworn into office. He could also decide to take his time before making any nomination. The President has the freedom to nominate his ministers in batches or at once. Whatever the Senate receives at any given time is what they should confirm. Going by Section 147 (5), the only qualification for one to be appointed as minister is that the person must be ‘qualified for election into the House of Representatives’.

Having made the nomination and forwarded same to the Senate, it is left to the Senate to do their job by confirming the nominees. The Constitution did not specify the way and manner by which the Senate should confirm a ministerial nominee; the Senate has the prerogative to decide.

But Section 147 (6) gives the Senate 21 days within which to complete the screening. The Senate has no right under this Constitution to refuse to confirm any list of nominees sent to it on account of not being complete, i.e., not having all the nominees at the same time. This issue arose four years ago when president Buhari sent his nominees in batches.

Furthermore, Section 149 says: “A minister of the Government of the Federation shall not enter upon the duties of his office unless he has declared his assets and liabilities as prescribed in this Constitution and has subsequently taken and subscribed to the Oath of Allegiance and Oath of office for the due execution of the duties of his office prescribed in the Seventh Schedule of this Constitution.”

This provision rules out the threats by the Senate that nominees would not be confirmed unless he or she declares his/her assets. The declaration of assets and liabilities comes after confirmation and the nominee has taken the Oath of office. The declaration of assets is not done on the floor of the Senate. A person who has not been appointed cannot go to the Code of Conduct Bureau to declare assets. It is unconstitutional to demand that ministerial nominees must declare their assets prior to confirmation and taking the Oath of office. As lawmakers, the Senate should save us time and allow the rule of law to prevail.

If anyone has grudges against any nominee, the right place to channel it is the President who made the nomination. But again, I doubt if President Buhari would entertain such distractions when he has already taken time to make his nominations. It is wrong not to confirm any nominee based on frivolous allegations that have not been proven.

Constitutionally, once the list of nominees has federal character as stipulated in Section 147 (3), which requires the President to “appoint at least one minister from each state, who shall be an indigene of such state,” then it is okay. The states that have more than one nominee are simply favoured by the president.

The number of ministries has nothing to do with the federal character demand in the appointments. That is to say, even if the President decides to reduce the number of ministries to 10, he is still duty-bound to appoint one minister from each state. Since we have 36 states and Abuja FCT, there should be at least 37 ministerial nominees.

It is not constitutional that every minister must be assigned to a ministry. Section 148 (1) allows the President to use his discretion to assign ministers to any business of the Government, including administration of any department of government. That is to say, any minister could be assigned to a ministry, department or agency of government. There are enough businesses in government to be assigned to the ministers. The impression that ministers must be assigned to head ministries is wrong.

Those complaining that the president nominated more politicians than technocrats are right in a way. There are just few politician-technocrats. Peopl gbonnaya Onu are technocrats in politics. However, the constitution did not say who should be nominated. Everything is the discretion of the president.

And as I said earlier, it is in the interest of the president/governors to nominate competent hands to help them and not just payback “good boys” for whatever political role they played. Senators who are gearing up to frustrate the nominees from their states are not doing their people any good because whether or not the state has a minister, the business of government will continue.


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