Nigerians get wired over Cabinet nominees

They say the quickest way to know your family history is to run for office in Nigeria. Or have your name forwarded to the Senate as a ministerial nominee, as it turns out.

On Wednesday, Nigeria’s acting President Goodluck Jonathan revealed a new Cabinet list comprising 33 names, nine of which were former ministers.

Within hours, Nigerians took to the cyber streets and hacked the list to pieces.

Lilian Agbaso wrote on the Facebook page of one local political activist: “Why is it the same old tired cheesecakes on the list?? Some of these people have done 3 — 4 terms as ministers already!! Common sense dictates that if they were that good before we won’t [sic] be here as a country today.”

Ubong Ekpe Okon wrote a suggestion to the acting president on the website of a leading Nigerian newspaper. “My suggestions: Goodluck, please make another round of millionaires and leave those ones.”

As news organisations and profiles on social media networks began to dig up the dirt, Nigerians emerged from around the world to give the ministerial nominees a virtual flashback of their personal and political history.

Josephine Anenih, the wife of a once-influential member of the ruling party, was reminded that she had a thief for a husband, as he had “looted billions earmarked for road rehabilitation” — and for which her husband has been indicted. Another reader identified a widely-reported incident where she “impudently slapped” a certain gentleman over a senatorial ticket. Next came the charge that Anenih is estranged from her husband, which of course failed to assuage the mob. “Is being estranged from her husband enough proof that she is not part of the PDP [Peoples Democratic Party] rot?” one reader asked.

But then Anenih was far from alone.

Fidelia Njeze received flack for going from running a pharmacy in eastern Nigeria to becoming a junior minister for defence in a country of 150-million people and, later, ending up as a junior minister for agriculture under the ailing President Umaru Yar’Adua. Labaran Maku was mentioned as being the deputy under a governor arrested over alleged fraudulent award of contracts and stealing of public funds estimated at N15-billion.

Chris Ogiemwonyi’s wife was listed as being a close associate of Jonathan, which, the poster alleged, made his nomination possible.

But more than merely dishing dirt and having a good vent, Nigerians are increasingly taking advantage of the anonymity, reach and impact of social media to make themselves heard, against a long history of political impunity.

Nigerians are making the most of this online opportunity to ensure they are no longer merely witnesses to democracy. They are now using the internet and its social network to successfully gatecrash their way into it.

Nefarious nominees?
But these readers are not merely being emotional.

In June of 2008, several newspapers reported on a parliamentary indictment of Allison-Madueke for withdrawing $263-million in unspent government money within six days, just hours to the country’s 2007 fiscal year-end.

She was one of 16 government officials subsequently recommended for prosecution over mismanagement of public funds, alongside Anenih’s husband in a report issued by the Senate in October 2009 following the probe.

A closer look at the new nominees also brings up several curios. Ten have either been junior ministers or been handpicked into office at various levels, while others have varying degrees of political and even filial connections to the ruling party.

Full list of nominees

Emmanuel Iheanacho was rejected as a ministerial nominee in President Yar’Adua’s last major Cabinet reshuffle when youth leaders in his home state claimed his nomination was against the political zoning formula of the state. He gets a foot in the door this time, it seems. Then there is Murtala Yar’Adua, the ailing president’s nephew. ” … a Yar’Adua in the Cabinet to compensate the family for losing the presidency due to ill health?? We are all jokers … there should be blood in the streets with a list like this,” Dissapointed-in-Lagos wrote on the local newspaper website, NEXT.

Bala Mohammed also made the list. He’s a serving senator and leader of the National Interest Group, a pressure group of lawmakers, whose actions resulted in an unprecedented move that enabled Goodluck Jonathan run the country in place of Yar’Adua.

Umar Sani offered the acting president some belated advice the Facebook forum; ” … all he needed to do was to award contracts to these people on the list so they can leave him alone to appoint credible people on the basis of merit.”

But it is most likely the urgency of online outrage from individuals and news agencies from within, as well as outside Nigeria, which has prompted its senators to make landmark decisions.

For the first time in the country’s 50-year history, the Senate will break convention and hold a plenary session on a Monday to screen the 33 ministerial nominees. The process, usually in form of oral interviews, will also be aired live on daytime TV.

The same lawmakers who came under public criticism for going on a month-long recess while Nigeria’s lecturers were on strike last year have postponed their Easter holiday by one week will be working to ensure there are no leadership vacuums.

Deleting the Constitution
But while these decisions had Nigerians rejoicing over a much-sought inclination of lawmakers towards true democracy, by Thursday morning things were not so bright.

Nigerian papers reported this morning that the Senate “voted to delete an aspect of the Nigerian Constitution which prohibits people indicted for various offences from contesting elections”. That removes Section 137 (1i) which prohibits people who have been “indicted for embezzlement or fraud” by state or federal panels of enquiry or tribunals from running for presidential office.

According to local reports, the deputy senate president defended the decision before journalists yesterday by saying the clause was being exploited by politicians to witch-hunt their opponents.

But they didn’t stop there. Seventy-three of Nigeria’s senators also voted for a removal of clauses that prohibit lawmakers from cross carpeting, leaving Section 68 (1g) out of play, a stipulation which says federal legislators who choose to leave whatever political party brought them to power must vacate office unless there is a division in that party.

While the nation is still yet to digest this latest twist in plot, a spokesperson for the Senate told journalists that “returnee ministers will be taking more questions based on their performance during their stewardship. Everybody will answer questions on what he or she has done or failed to do.”

That may be the only way for the lawmakers to redeem their image in the public eye as Monday’s historic ministerial screening goes live.

But Nigeria’s senators won’t be doing only themselves a favour. Looking back on recent protests, pockets of ethno-religious violence and ahead to the increasing online and offline anger of the citizens of Africa’s most popular nation, enduring a public airing of their personal and political skeletons should be the least of their worries.

  • Ruona Agbroko is a Nigerian journalist and the 2010 Niall Fitzgerald scholar studying Journalism at Wits University

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