Written by Theophilus Abbah and Lawan Danjuma Adamu
.Many things have changed in the State Housein the last 30 years since Buhari left office
.He shoud insist on a thorough handover
Dr Aliyu Modibbo worked in The Presidency for over 12 years in various capacities. Later, he served as minister in different ministries in the governments of former presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Umaru Musa Yar’adua. Sunday Trust approached him to discuss the intricacies involved in the transition from one government to another. In this interview, the former minister, who earned a PhD for his studies and research into the politics of presidency across the globe, revealed the politics involved in the process.
The much-awaited 2015 presidential election has come and gone. What’s your take on its outcome?
First and foremost, let me congratulate Nigerians for this smooth transition from one government to another. I also congratulate the president-elect. I must commend the outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan for the statesmanship, which is unprecedented in Africa. President Jonathan has written his name in the annals of history as one of the African heads of states to accept a defeat in a contested election like ours. By and large, Nigerians were apprehensive about the 2015 elections, and everyone thought doomsday was coming. Certainly, if it were not for the conduct of some individuals and Mr President, as well as the opposition, things would have really been bad for us. The greatest of all is the prayers by Nigerians, and God has answered our prayers for a smooth transition. We’re hoping that the governorship election will be the same. From now on, we can say we’ve joined the democratic nations of the world.
Between now and May 29 is the transition period from President Jonathan to General Buhari, the president-elect. During a period like this, what usually happens in The Presidency, based on your long years of experience and being a scholar in this field of study?
In my view, based on my experience of working in The Presidency for over 12 years in Aso Rock Villa, and being a scholar in Presidential Studies, we’ve got it wrong in the transition from one government to another. There was no transition between the government of the late Tafawa Balewa and the late Aguiyi Ironsi. It was a coup and the leaders of that government were killed; hence there was no transfer of institutional memory of the Balewa regime to Ironsi. Also, when Ironsi was removed, there was no transition. When Gowon took over, the government had to start everything from the scratch. There was no institutional memory because everybody was chased away. When General Obasanjo took over from General Gowon, it was the same disruptive process. There was no continuity, no institutional memory. Even if there was, they would be very few because the governments that took over would say they wanted to start everything anew. They would not be mindful of certain things that were in place before they came in.
The first actual transition we can think of was the one from General Obasanjo to Alhaji Shehu Shagari in 1979. The transition was clearly demarcated. Records were compiled, passed and handed over to the new government. But because Alhaji Shagari was inheriting a military regime which had no mandate from the people, it was very difficult to continue with the programmes which Obasanjo started. Certain things had to collapse eventually. If you recall, during Obasanjo’s second coming in 1999, he lamented that when he left government, there was an airline, shipping line, etc, but he did not meet any of them when he returned. But because the government that took over from him was a democratically elected one, it had to alter the programmes to certain levels; and the accountability requirement was different.
By the time Shagari was toppled by Buhari, there was no transition. Everybody was thrown away, except for the permanent secretaries. Some of us who have been ministers have realised that permanent secretaries don’t tell ministers the truth. When I was removed as FCT minister and another minister came, even in the same government, the permanent secretary didn’t guide the minister about the programmes in place which needed to be continued. Unlike me, when I took over from Nasir el-Rufai, I was properly briefed and I knew some of his programmes that I needed to continue with, some I needed to adjust, etc. In administration, it’s good to refine programmes, not to throw away what has been in place before you took over. But permanent secretaries, as a result of either eye service, lack of commitment, incompetence, laziness, I can’t tell, don’t push the political principal to continue to see the merits of some of the programmes that were in place.
By the time Buhari toppled Shagari, all the programmes were jettisoned and new ones were put in place. Then came President Babangida, and of course, there was no proper transition. Everybody was removed. And then, Babangida stepped aside for Shonekan, but there was no proper transition, like a template. The man was left on his own, so transition didn’t take place.
It’s the same when Abacha overthrew Shonekan, and the same with Abacha/Abdulsalami. Abacha died and Abdulsalami took over, therefore, there was no transition in the process. I have been part of the process from the era of Babangida/Shonekan because I witnessed those ones. The other ones I’ve mentioned I know based on my study and research into the history of The Presidency in Nigeria.
The first proper transition that took place, in my view, was the one between Abdulsalami and Obasanjo in 1999. At that time I was in the Office of the Staff Officer to the Head of State. I’ve been there since the Abacha regime. I had to midwife the transition package, in terms of the documentation, programme outline of what had happened in accountability. Since 1999, there has been a duality of structure in government, particularly under the Head of State or President. You have the State House, and you have The Presidency, which is like under the Secretary to the Government of the Federation. The SGF is in charge of the wider bureaucracy in the Ministries, Departments and Agencies. The task of compiling institutional memory of the Head of State or the President resides in the Aso Rock Villa. This is done by the principal secretary, chief of staff, etc. So we had to package the transition in two phases. The first part was the substantive one – the institutional memory of all the MDAs, accountability. Then we had the ceremonial part of the programme: how the handover activities would be. On the instruction of General Abdulsalami, I was responsible for the collecting of all the documents from the MDAs. We put them in 20 volumes. Each ministry submitted its programmes and visions.
What happens when transitions are not done properly?
When transitions are not done properly there could be serious dangers. When Abacha started Vision 2020, a very cardinal programme of government, chaired by Chief Ernest Shonekan, he brought people from all over the country and other parts of the world. A wonderful document was produced for each milestone in every aspect of the polity and economy. Because there was no proper transition, by the time Abdulsalami came, it was put aside and jettisoned. By the time Obasanjo came, it was not mentioned in the transition. Then the Obasanjo regime in 1999 started replicating some of the things in the Vision 2020 document. The discussion on the Vision 2020 took about a year. The document was dumped. The Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF) under General Buhari, for example, was a great programme. If there was a proper transition, that programme would have continued. But it was just thrown away, then later we started duplicating the programmes: NAPEP, SURE-UP. These were things done by other regimes.
What is the process of a proper transition?
The first step is for the president to ask all ministers and direct them to prepare and submit their ministerial briefs and handover notes. Promptly, a transition committee will be set up. In 1999, I recall that the outgoing Abdulsalami government had its own transition committee and the president-elect Obasanjo had his own team. But what was remarkable was that by the time Obasanjo came for the briefing, his transition committee under General T.Y Danjuma, Ahmed Joda, Dele Cole, Phillip Asiodu, etc, already had their prepared documents and plan, which they were not going to share with the outgoing ministers. They came for about two or three briefings and it didn’t continue. But I need to say that even the transition briefings are normally conducted at different levels. The one I’ve just described is the intense level. Then you had the sectorial briefing by key sectors, like the service chiefs, SSS, NIA. They would brief the incoming president. In 2003, Obasanjo was just handing over to himself. There was only the ceremonial handover.
From your studies, do you sense a kind of suspicion between the outgoing and incoming teams?
In the transition in 1999, I could see that there was this nonchalant and condescending attitude for the outgoing regime. The incoming regime was populated by heavyweights, especially because of the Generals on the incoming transition committee. They were not enthusiastic about what the outgoing administration was handing over. The exception was when Obasanjo identified some talents. When the then Minister of Power, Engineer Bello Suleiman was briefing the team, Obasanjo was fascinated by the explanation of the minister, and immediately gave the minister a job as Managing Director of the PHCN. Obasanjo had made up his mind to make the late Chief Bola Ige Minister of Power, so he had to make Engineer Suleiman head of the PHCN. It was also during such briefing that Obasanjo identified the talents of Malam Nasir el-Rufai and picked him as head of the Bureau for Public Enterprises (BPE). Even Steven Orosanye encountered Obasanjo and was picked for a key position in The Presidency. What happened in 1999 between Abdulsalami and Obasanjo is similar to what is going to happen between President Jonathan and General Buhari.
Why do you say they would be similar?
I say so because, just like the then incoming PDP under Obasanjo thought that the military had messed up the country, and whatever the military had done was upside down, and there was need for reconstruction, that’s the kind of attitude we have now. The APC believes the PDP has messed up the country in the last 16 years and they are coming with a new template. If we’re not lucky we’ll fall into the same trap that the Abdulsalami/Obasanjo was caught in. Hopefully, the president-elect and his people would see that a proper transition is done, leaving nothing left unturned to understand the programmes of the outgoing government and pick the ones that are good, refine them and continue with them; pick the ones that are outdated and do away with them. This not to say that even within the same government, there are no challenges. If you take the Yar’adua/Obasanjo, there was a kind of enthusiasm because it was like Obasanjo was handing over to his godson, somebody that he believed would carry on with his programme.
Another problem in transition is that you may have people who belong to different eras or generations, or people who are not attuned to the realities of the moment. For instance, when Obasanjo came in 1999, he had been out of government for almost 30 years. All his team when he returned were like his friends. They were part of the government the previous 30 years. It’s like the kind of thing that would happen in the Buhari administration under the All Progressives Congress (APC). If one is out of government for 32 years, his primary source of information is the media. Primarily, he’s not in government to feel what was happening. His template, knowledge, memory would be from the previous era, particularly for someone who had been a Head of State. He may feel that it’s the same State House that he left 32 years ago that he’s returning to. It’s just like Obasanjo thought he was returning to the Civil Service he left in 1979 that he would meet in 1999. Everything has dramatically changed. If you come to government with an old template, you’re bound to introduce a dramatic reversal of everything. But hopefully, because of the composition of the APC (many of them have been in power in contemporary Nigeria), things may be done differently. But there may be some persons behind the team with whom the president-elect had worked before who may come on board. So there must be understanding of this reality and things should be done pragmatically.
You were actively involved in the Obasanjo/Yar’adua transition. What happened?
I had known Yar’adua for over 12 years before he was elected president in 2007. We were very close. I was a Minister of Commerce (on my second ministerial appointment) before he came to power. I saw that he was a little bit disorganised. He had very little knowledge of people beyond his domain in Katsina. Those around him were from Katsina; they had not worked with the Federal Government before then. When he came, I advised him to appoint intelligent people into the transition committee, and he advised me to act as coordinator of the process. I asked him to talk to Obasanjo to allow me do it, and the former president agreed. We started the process quite well, the ceremonial part and the institutional aspect.
For the second part, Obasanjo took full control of it because he wanted the briefing to be very thorough. As a matter of fact, we spent two days non-stop, doing marathon briefing. It became a little bit superfluous for the same government handing over to another. But Obasanjo wanted everything to be thoroughly explained to the incoming president. But you can see that even with all of that, Yar’adua had his own idea of what he wanted to achieve. It was later on I discovered it. After all the briefing, he called me and asked me to take down his 7-Point agenda which he wanted us to put in his inaugural speech, which he did. His mantra, which was a little bit different, was rule of law, anti-corruption, power sector reform, etc. We may even hear all this when the APC regime comes on board. At that time, political appointments were not discussed (during the transition).
In my view, there are certain appointments that should be in place before the transition is done. It’s not proper to begin to scout for key ministers after the transition is completed. You may need some key officials, especially those who don’t need the National Assembly’s approval before their appointments. For instance, it’s good to have the SGF in place before the transition is done. Even if he’s not so named, he should be attending the briefings, and the president should take him into confidence by saying he would be the SGF. That position is very crucial for the country’s bureaucracy. It’s the institutional memory of government since colonial times. The Chief of Staff is something new. President Yar’adua had to jettison it and adopted the traditional position of principal secretary, which I think was not a good idea.
Also, the National Security Adviser should be with you during all the briefings. Hopefully, everything would be done differently this time, not like the zoning principle in the PDP, where the SGF is zoned. Zoning the SGF will prevent the president from choosing the best person for that job. During that Yar’adua era we settled for Ambassador Babagana Kingibe because he was a permanent secretary, an ambassador and he was prominent in and outside Nigeria.
We hear some ministries have hidden bank accounts. Is it possible for some permanent secretaries to fail to do full disclosure during a transition period?
Definitely. Let me give you an example, when we came we found, in the Ministry of Works, that there was an outstanding liability of N1 trillion of work done, but not paid for. Even at the FCT, I had certificates of works done by contractors worth N145 billion. But it was not in the handover note given to me. Therefore, my focus had to change. If I had to service the debt from the ‘envelop’ given to me as minister, it meant I could not embark on new projects. It would be better, if during this transition, the president-elect and his team are told the magnitude of liabilities in each ministry and the quantum of money we have. This will inform how they would approach issues when they assume office. Then you have key ministries that must do full disclosure – petroleum, finance, Central Bank of Nigeria. They need to brief the incoming president one-on-one fully about what monies are where. It’s very important. The president will know the landmines that he’s getting. He would find a way to communicate that to the public. When I told President Yar’adua of the liabilities I inherited, he told me there was no need for me to start opening up new districts in the FCT. But people began to criticise me for not opening up new districts. I was not given land allocations because by the time I came I realise that my predecessor had given out some 27,000 plots of land. My view was that land is the capital, the oil of Abuja. So if all the land had been given out, there was little I could do. People didn’t realise that those obligations entered into by the previous regime were obligations that must be honoured. The contracts needed to be paid for.
I’m glad to hear that the APC government is thinking of changing the modus operandi of the Federal Executive Council, where every Wednesday, FEC awarded contracts. A FEC should be like the one during the Balewa regime. It was always a meeting where policy matters were discussed. Expenditures were taken as a very last resort when approval is given by the president as a very last resort. But because we are in an era of political patronage, people, even cabinet members, feel they need to know when contracts are awarded. Then, the constitution says that every state must have a minister. The ministers were largely sponsored by governors, so they don’t see the president as the one appointing them. Their allegiance is to their governors. But now, with the process of putting the president’s election before the governors,’ the governors will not hold the president to ransom with the argument that they helped the president to power.
During the transition under Yar’adua, we failed a real problem over governors’ prerogative in the appointment of ministers. The late president asked me to send out letters to governors, requesting each PDP to send in three people for consideration as ministers. He instructed that where the governor was PDP, the letter should be written directly to him; where there’s no PDP governor, it should be written to the chairman of the party, a copy sent to the PDP candidate that lost the election. When we did it and the return came back, we saw that the first names of each list were those of outgoing governors to be considered as minister. At first, he didn’t put any former governor as minister, but subsequently, he succumbed when he did the cabinet reshuffle. I’m sure the APC will go through that dilemma. Jonathan faced it, where all the outgoing governors wanted to be ministers or senators. Hopefully, the APC will overcome that challenge. If the president knows his ministers very well before he appoints them, it would make the job easier for him. That was what Obasanjo did the first time. He brought in people he knew very well – Bola Ige, T.Y Danjuma, Zango Daura, Adamu Ciroma, etc. Later on, he began to appoint younger elements into the regime.
From hindsight, what kind of challenges do you expect Buhari to face when he assumes office on May 29?
The most fundamental, in my view, will be his team in the State House. Whatever you may say, if you have a good team in the State House it will be implemented properly. State House is the clearing house of the presidency. If he makes the right appointment of all his immediate aides, he will succeed. If he wants to fight corruption, everybody in the State House must be above board; they must share the same ideal; they must not go cutting corners; he must not hear news of anyone of them doing the contrary. This is because that is the first frontline. The second frontline is that of an excellent SGF and NSA, and the third tier is the ministers. Nothing should be taken for granted. Even the cleaner in the State House, the gardener, secretary, chief of staff, permanent secretary, the media assistants. They must all buy into the mantra.
When we used to work in the State House, we used to say our loyalty and allegiance was to the president, not to the wider bureaucracy. We were for him, to protect his image, to make sure his programmes were understood and implemented correctly. The other aspect the president-elect must understand clearly is that things have changed. So he must endeavour to understand the reality of the times. He must not use the template of 1983 to measure today. State House is not the same, ministries are not what they used to be. If I must give you an example, the first week Obasanjo came into office there was a FEC meeting, and usually, I would write my minute one or two days later. The meeting ended about 2.00pm, and Obasanjo called my boss at 5.00pm, saying he wanted to have the minute. I said I would give the minute to my boss tomorrow, but he said, no, Obasanjo told him that was not how they used to work in the past. What I’m saying is that there are good practices of the past that could be revived, but Buhari should realise that not all can be brought back. Again, during our time, no mistake was entertained in any written communication from the president’s office. But some time ago, a friend called me to say he had a letter written from the presidency, and that there were five mistakes in it. He was shocked. During our time, it was absolutely not possible. A letter passes through several checks, due diligence would be done before they were passed to the president for signing. So Buhari would need to ensure that due diligence is done before decisions are taken, particularly because this is one of the most popular mandates given to any government in this country. People are expecting a lot; they’re expecting miracles or magic. But as it is said, Rome is not built in a day. We wish the incoming administration every success.
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