It is never too late to do the right thing. On Wednesday President Muhammadu Buhari directed his ministers and other political appointees as well as heads of ministries, departments and agencies, including extra-ministerial bodies who are interested in political contests in 2023 to quit.
No doubt, forced by searing and ceaseless attacks on the perfidy unfolding in his camp, the president had to pull the rug off the feet of his men, who by their conduct had shown a regrettable lack of integrity. The unfortunate saga began when Abubakar Malami, his attorney-general and minister of Justice, at different times, misguided Buhari to refuse assent to the Electoral Act Amendment Bill 2022 because of two clauses, the mode of primaries and Section 84 (12), which excludes serving political appointees from the nomination process.
Elegant arguments portraying the two clauses as undemocratic and restrictive of the right of a class of persons were displayed to mask the selfish interests behind the objections. But Nigerians were not fooled not to see beyond the veil. It was always known that Buhari’s appointees were bent on having their cake after eating it. They wanted to use their offices to influence not only the nomination process to their selfish advantage but also to direct the outcome of the 2023 general election.
The absurdity of their proposition was unclear to only them. Otherwise, how could they not have seen the unfairness and the illegality of their participation in the procurement approval processes for the election management body? That action alone would have amounted to insider trading in the banking and stock market sectors. More ridiculous is the expression of partisan interest by persons in whose custody the printing and safe storage of sensitive electoral materials were to be entrusted.
The more unfortunate thing is that these sit-tight appointees are the very ones who have failed so spectacularly to deliver on their tasks in the last seven years or so. Niger Delta Minister Godswill Akpabio has not been able to constitute the board of a vital parastatal like the Niger Delta Development Commission for more than three years contrary to law; after spending billions of US dollars on railways, Rotimi Amaechi, the minister of Transportation, could not secure the coaches from avoidable terror attacks; fuel queues have reared their ugly heads again in Abuja and its major cities just after a few weeks of relief under the watch of Timipre Sylva, the minister in charge of petroleum; and as the industrial crises in the education sector worsened, all the ministers who should be looking for resolution, Chukwuemeka Nwajiuba and Chris Ngige, could worry about was how to become the president of Nigeria.
To be clear, the purpose of Section 84(12) of the Electoral Act 2022 is to level the playing field by curing the mischief of political appointees using public office to the disadvantage of other players. And contrary to the mischief being peddled by Malami, who had shown interest in the governorship of Kebbi State, it is similar to Section 66 (f) of the 1999 Constitution as altered which requires public servants to stand down before any election, they are interested in.
It is curious though that the stand-down presidential directive to the political appointees and public servants came a few hours after the Court of Appeal restored the legality of Section 84 (12) of the electoral law. Some critics have contended that the president acted in the enlightened political interest of his All Progressives Congress, which appeared to be taking a grave legal risk of fielding defective candidates on account of a possible affirmative determination of the dispute over the controversial exclusionist yet a positive section of the law by the Supreme Court.
Nevertheless, the president deserves commendation for realising his mistake and having the conviction to correct it. After all, the country had passed through this path before. Former presidents had asked their appointees to stand down if they wanted to enter the political fray. Even now, at least three governors, all of the APC, Adegboyega Oyetola (Osun), Babajide Sanwo-Olu (Lagos) and Nasir el-Rufai (Kaduna) had since asked politically exposed officials to resign from their government.
And to be fair to the ruling APC, it demonstrated its commitment to the fairness of the electoral process when Article 3 (l) of its Guidelines for the Nomination of Candidates for the 2023 General Elections adopted Section 84 (12). It states, “No political appointee at any level shall be a voting delegate or be voted for the purpose of the nomination of candidates. Any political office holder interested in contesting for an elective office shall leave office 30 days prior to the date of election or party primary for the office sought.”
The party had earlier given an indication of this commitment when during its special convention for the election of its national executive committee, it applied Section 84(12), excluding serving political appointees, particularly ministers from voting. It is, however, not clear if it would have the courage and firmness to go the whole hog.
Following the presidential directive, some of the ministers, including Nwajiuba, Akpabio and Ogbonnaya Onu of the Science and Technology ministry have thrown in the towel. The trouble though is that going by the strict interpretation of Article 3(l) of the party guidelines, they are already out of time. Safe for Nwajiuba, the resignation came on Wednesday, a clear 12 days behind time. That would amount to double jeopardy should they be disqualified by the screening committee.
This perhaps has thrown the other aspiring ministers, including Malami, Ngige, Sylva and Amaechi into a serious dilemma as they have been caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. While Sylva and Amaechi who have procured the mandatory N100 million presidential nomination forms are yet to resign, Ngige and Malami are still procrastinating even after the deadline for the procurement of forms. Maybe they will pick them up at the parallel market before the deadline for the submission of the forms.