Buhari’s kitchen cabinet is key

May 4, 2019
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PRESIDENT Muhammadu Buhari’s electoral success in March did not come as a surprise. Most pundits expected him to win, including those who had reservations about his temperament, health and capacity, his controversial record as president notwithstanding. But due to the fact that he had just muddled through a first four-year term between 2015 and 2019, few expected him to go about the task of assembling his new cabinets (kitchen and general) with the casualness, narrowness and languid indifference with which he approached the matter after he was announced winner in 2015. He is not starting from scratch; he is now fairly experienced, and cannot pretend not to know his staff and appointees of four years and other great minds who possess the intellect and character indispensable to his government.

After his first poll victory in 2015, he curiously held court with the aplomb of a monarch, receiving visitors and lapping up all manner of effusive congratulations. If he spared a thought for the tasks ahead, especially given the destruction visited upon the country’s finances and values by his predecessor, he did not betray it at all. Perhaps he outsourced that inconvenience. Whether in Katsina, his home state where he felt more at home, or the soulless federal capital city, Abuja, the then president-elect received hordes of visitors massaging his ego and pandering to his every whim. In the end, when he finally and reluctantly assembled his general cabinet, no tremors were felt anywhere. When he disclosed his kitchen cabinet, some of them revealed by default or a slip of the tongue, the country was astounded by its narrowness and restrictiveness. Perhaps the president knew something the country did not.

More alarmingly, months of perusing handover notes and reconciling transition programmes and policies led precisely to, at best, a peculiar floundering, and in some instances, to a cul-de-sac. It became obvious that the president-elect spent the many months before inauguration preoccupied with inhaling and regaling himself with the trappings of power. Few policy initiatives were announced, and he did not give the country the benefit of his thoughts on the salient issues that either bothered the people or held within its rubric a catastrophic potential for the future. But when despite himself his government managed to announce discernible policies, some of them were inexorably undermined by incoherent actions and weak or excessive supervision. Recession was inevitable, and so too was the attendant blame game.

Now, it must be assumed that the president has grown up. He knows the country far better than he did before assuming office in 2015, but it is doubtful whether he knows enough for the good of his presidency. His fiery but inscrutable temper has also been moderated a little by the refusal of the country to pay obeisance to his monarchist bent. Some of his excesses have no doubt endured, chiefly relating to his persistent misreading of the constitution and his inexpert drawing of boundaries between his powers and the privileges of the citizens. But now he has developed a fair sense of where he stands in respect of the rights of the people and the deliberate and provocative leeway he has granted his presidency. He knows little about the rule of law, and he has never been comfortable with the arcanum of justice, but on the whole, he will sense that he must continue the hated habit of giving and taking that typifies politics.

But it is not his experience and maturity, both of which have admittedly inched up in quality, that will determine his success in his second term. His difficult and ascetic nature and disputed lack of capacity appears programmed to give him an uneventful and undistinguished second term. However, what indeed will make the difference this time around will be the quality of his kitchen cabinet, not even his general cabinet. For his general cabinet, the constitution constrains him to some degree of national spread. Since he was never a man about town, and is unused to the amenities of the fine arts, and his reclusiveness would have led him to mysticism had he been steeped in religion as his visage infers, it is unlikely he can have total control of the selection of his general cabinet, regardless of how stony-faced he postures. More frighteningly, there is nothing in his background or which acquired in his first term that gives any indication he will use the best or most scientific yardsticks to pick that cabinet.

Notwithstanding this, his general cabinet will be a fair representation of the country, probably deliver a mechanical balance between Christians and Muslims, gesture in the direction of competence, and contain a sampling of women. If he should manage to produce enough open-mindedness to spread the powerful ministries among appointees from all parts of the country, irrespective of tribe, religion or gender, it will be a very pleasant surprise indeed. But don’t count on it. That decision requires depth, philosophy and vision. His last general cabinet produced some high achievers, nearly all of them men who by dint of their own mental strength and vision produced remarkable performance. Their individual achievements had little to do with the president’s own vision. Indeed, those achievements transcended the president’s incoherent vision. It is, however, expected that in large measure, even if by accident, the president will still manage to assemble enough serious men and women to help take his presidency a notch higher.

If the president is to put up a superlative performance and ensure an enduring legacy, he must pay thrice more attention to picking his kitchen cabinet than he has paid to picking his general cabinet. Here, sadly, the chances are very slim. In his first term, his kitchen cabinet was essentially made up of a powerful cabal quartet. They wielded huge influence in picking his general cabinet and security team, and masterminded a ferocious takeover of key ministries and agencies. They sometimes worked at cross-purposes, leading to high-profile disputes in the appointment and retention of agency heads; but overall, the quartet became the mind and soul of the president. In fact, by some accounts, they even determined the president’s likes and dislikes to the point of sowing acrimony where it matters most to the president. The kitchen cabinet was powerful and influential; but it was also insular and schizoid. There was nothing expansive about their worldview: no vision of a multicultural country, and no idea about a common national destiny and identity, or global reach and ambition. Nothing about them was deep or transcendental. And nothing was really ever altruistic.

The president, it is now widely believed, assembled his 2015 kitchen cabinet almost by default, because the quartet had always been integral to his adolescence. If he is to produce a superlative performance in his second term, he must do two things: he must know the value of a kitchen cabinet, whether they are cabalistic or not; and he must subdue his own prejudices to pick the wisest he can find in the country. If ancient kings and emperors knew the value of close advisers, and constantly seek among their captives who to induct into that select group, President Buhari has no excuse in this day and age to restrict himself as he unwisely did as a military head of state and in his first term. He is the architect of his own misfortune. Whether he likes it or not, few describe him as wise in the strictest definition of the word. And fewer still recognise him as a broadminded leader exposed to modern global trends. He will therefore need a kitchen cabinet composed of deep, wise minds, men and women of exemplary courage, conduct and judgement. They may not grovel before him, as Governors Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna and Yahaya Bello of Kogi do, but he must recognise that wise and confident officials will offer him the best advice possible and protect him from error and perverse judgement.

His success as president is really in his hands. If he makes the right call, he will succeed beyond his wildest imagination. If he sticks to his narrow base, a base so contorted by ethnicity and religion that it is of no national use, then he will have signposted his own defeat and neutralised any legacy he might dream of. Does history not tell the president that he could never succeed by picking a kitchen cabinet that is from one section of a country comprising more than 250 ethnic groups, and a security team from that same narrow section? How does his security team consider and debate the issues and challenges that affect the entire country? Could they be trusted to give him the kind of advice John F. Kennedy’s kitchen cabinet gave him during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962? George W. Bush may not be the most cerebral of United States presidents, but he had a kitchen cabinet that at least devised the New American Century, a concept upon which almost the entire Bush presidency was anchored. That concept was deeply flawed, as top political scientists and philosophers very well knew; but it gave the US and Bush presidency a raison d’être.

In his first term, President Buhari devised nothing spectacular in terms of grand and uplifting policy initiatives. He settled for the mundane. There is of course the question of whether he has the capacity to grasp anything complex and philosophical, let alone follow the complicated trajectory that helps a country produce the ambition needed for regional, continental or global dominance. However, President Buhari must surely possess a modicum of native wisdom potent enough to help him fish for the right men and women these times urgently need. He gravitates towards the naturally obsequious, perhaps in line with his fundamental mindset, but he must subdue that instinct, and like Ronald Reagan who acknowledged his shortcomings, look for those who will add value to his predictable presidency. Already, the fear is that given the choices he made over the last four years, nothing in President Buhari indicates he will substantially modify his style or ideas, or even ensure, unlike ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo, that his successor would be a strong candidate capable of exceeding his achievements and refining his agenda. In 46BC, Julius Caesar made Augustus Caesar his legatee because he saw courage, character and capacity in his young but sickly grand-nephew. A leader has an uncanny ability to see far deeper and larger and longer than the ordinary man, if only he can subdue and control his base instinct. By selecting a kitchen cabinet in 2015 that reinforced his self-doubt rather than challenged his failings, President Buhari didn’t show enlightened self-interest and gravely risked his entire presidency. Now, he needs to say more, do better and tolerate even much more than he has ever done to show his capacity for leadership and greatness.

The success of his second term, and by implication his entire presidency, will depend on what he does with his kitchen cabinet in the next four years. The general cabinet is undoubtedly important, but its value is not anywhere near that of the president’s kitchen cabinet. Before the 2015 poll, this column was one of the president’s most avid supporters. Immediately the complexion of his kitchen cabinet became known, this column wrote him off. When the shape and complexion of the president’s kitchen cabinet for his second term is exposed, this column will determine whether to hold out hope for his success or rule him out completely and finally. The option he does not have at all is to retain his existing kitchen cabinet. His struggle should be finding ways to pick the very best, the wisest, not the most obsequious. It makes no sense that in a nation of about 200 million people, some of them first-class brains and liberals par excellence, the president has restricted himself to a suffocating narrow base.

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