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Oct 22, 2015 | 09:15 GMT

5 mins read

In Nigeria, Cabinet Selections Show Policy Priorities

(BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has finally selected all 36 members of his Cabinet, and not a moment too soon. While the Nigerian Senate still needs to approve his nominees so they can be sworn into office, Buhari has already taken his time in appointing his Cabinet almost five months after being sworn in as president. Patience has worn thin in corners of Nigeria as the new president's opponents — and even some of his supporters — have waited to see what his policy priorities are and how they will be implemented. Despite the country's need for cautious leadership and fair distribution of power to promote national stability, it is clear that various interests in Nigeria will move to protect, or in some cases win, their influence. And it will be the president who manages the country's priorities and responses to them.

At this point, Buhari has clearly prioritized the counterinsurgency campaign against the Islamist militant group Wilayat al Sudan al Gharbi, more commonly known as Boko Haram. Former Chief of the Army Staff Gen. Abdulrahman Bello Dambazau's appointment to the Cabinet, possibly as defense minister, attests to this. But continued suicide bombings in Nigeria's North-East region raise tension and social displacements in the area. For example, suicide bombers struck the town of Maiduguri for the second day in a row on Oct. 16. And though the Nigerian military's successful campaigns against Boko Haram forces have retaken population centers from the group, forcing it to shift away from conventional tactics and toward terrorism, continued advances will require further financial and political support.

However, Nigerians concerned with an effective response to Boko Haram are not only expecting a military offensive against the insurgents but also want a broader socio-economic plan to improve the impoverished region, mainly because its large pool of unemployed youth easily falls prey to militant groups. Social spending to improve economic standards would go a long way in reducing if not denying jihadists new recruits. However, diverting spending to the poorest region of the country is not an easy political sell for Buhari. The military needs funds to fight Boko Haram. Moreover, other regions want to support their economic bases and will pressure the president for the same finite resources.

In the country's South-South, or Niger Delta, region, activists are awaiting clarity on Buhari's intention to continue an amnesty program that provides material support to former militants belonging to groups such as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. Buhari has worked with several Niger Delta leaders, including Cabinet nominee and former Rivers state Gov. Rotimi Amaechi, to facilitate continued stability in the oil-producing region. Some militant leaders such as Government Tompolo, who enjoyed patronage under former President Goodluck Jonathan, are continuing to see their private regional security operations contracts honored. Still, a long-term understanding between Abuja and the region's political and militant elite has yet to be arranged. But again, like with the North-East region, it is politically difficult for Buhari to focus on this region and neglect others, especially since the Niger Delta enjoyed its turn commanding considerable influence under Jonathan, who hailed from the region's Bayelsa state.

Buhari's anti-corruption campaign, which started when he became president, has seen some high-profile developments as well. The president, seeking to fulfill his electoral pledge and make governance more transparent, has detained a few former high-level officials on corruption allegations and dismissed potentially poor-performing appointments made by the previous administration. Most recently, former Petroleum Minister Diezani Alison-Madueke, who served under Jonathan, was arrested on corruption allegations in the United Kingdom on Oct. 2. So far, Buhari has managed to drive his anti-corruption crackdown with the force of his personality alone. However, to sustain it, Buhari will need to institutionalize the campaign, ensuring that there are empowered government agencies to independently investigate, prosecute and convict on corruption charges without requiring Buhari's close attention.

Talk of creating a special anti-corruption tribunal has emerged, but the president has yet to actually convict former government officials. Moreover, even prosecuting and convicting officials through domestic courts in a relatively timely manner will be a test of Buhari's ability to follow through on his campaign promises on this popular issue. And while the Nigerian public wants the government to rein in corruption, there will be political costs to doing so, such as alienating other powerful political leaders who do not want to be investigated. Buhari, as with the other national issues, will need to be both careful and successful, before using that success to deflect the enemies he will undoubtedly make.

Similarly, the Nigerian president is also attempting to inject transparency into government accounts and finances. Buhari implemented a treasury single account on Aug. 9 to capture revenues from all government agencies and ministries at the Central Bank of Nigeria, reducing the risk that cash held by these departments could be misallocated if not outright stolen. Previously, government officials and the civil service practices enjoyed vast autonomy, having little to no financial oversight under Jonathan. Reintroducing such accountability measures, especially on political leaders who have grown accustomed to privilege, will be a burden for Buhari, who is already trying to substantially reform the regions and the country as a whole.

But Buhari has demonstrated that he is a cautious but forthright leader. He challenged powerful factions within his own All Progressives Congress that wanted him to follow his predecessors' footsteps by taking advantage of his position to promote his support base's narrow interests while shutting out his opponents. In doing so, he showed his ability to lead and cemented his administration's control, enough to begin the process of reforming Nigeria. But asserting policy priorities will be a long-term effort given the country's multiple political, economic and security challenges, as well as historical practices that undermine attempts to solve those problems. Some regions and political leaders will work to protect the influence they have won from previous administrations. Others will equally strive to win patronage for the first time after suffering neglect in the past. Buhari's difficulties are only beginning, and so far he has only nominated a Cabinet.

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