The senate poor screening exercise, the excuse of ministerial portfolio and the letters of the constitution

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The last week has seen the senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria put up a poor showing in the much vaunted ministerial screening. I expected a robust screening, punctuated with insightful questions that will test the credibility and competence of the ministerial nominees but alas it has been the usual drama of comedy. Even some questions that looked brilliant where nothing but orchestrated questions to make the nominees shine.

I think Nigeria deserve better from their elected representatives at the senate. When the revered Okoi Obono Obla wrote that the senate has no constitutional powers to screen but to only confirm the nominees, I wrote in defense of their constitutional right to screen the nominees before confirming them. But is this the screening the framers of the constitution envisaged? I don’t think so.

The excuse that the screening is made difficult by the fact that the nominees are not allocated portfolios prior to screening is just that: an excuse. Infact the letters of the constitution is even against this prior allocation of portfolios. Let’s look at section 147(2) “Any appointment to the office of Minister of the Government of the Federation shall, if the nomination of any person to such office is confirmed by the Senate, be made by the President.” What this section is saying is that a person cannot be appointed minister unless he is screened and confirmed by the senate. So the name sent to the senate are not ministers, they are mere nominees; until they are cleared by the senate they cannot be appointed ministers. Hold that thought as we look at section 148 of the Constitution.

Section 148(1) says that “The President may, in his discretion, assign to the Vice-President or any Minister of the Government of the Federation responsibility for any business of the Government of the Federation, including the administration of any department of government.” Did you see that? Section 147 was talking about their nomination, screening and confirmation. In section 148 they are referred to as ministers; this is clearly after their nomination, screening and confirmation. And it is section 148 that talks about the allocation of responsibilities and portfolios. The constitution doesn’t mandate the president to allocate portfolios to nominees but to ministers. So the senate should look for another lame excuse for their poor showing in the screening.

This shouldn’t even be an issue because it is trite law and practice that the President can appoint one a minister of Health today and move him to the ministry of Information the next day without sending him to the Senate for another round of screening and clearance. This is the certainly the purpose and wisdom behind section 148. It is to avoid a situation where a nominee is sent for screening with a portfolio attached to his name and he is confirmed as the minister of such a portfolio and when the president deems it fit to transfer him to another ministry, the issue will arise that he wasn’t screened and confirm for that portfolio and so the president can’t transfer him. Talk about whittling the powers of the president.

At this stage in our political odyssey the Nigeria Senate ought to have developed a robust and scientific set of questions and questioning pattern that is aimed at testing the Intelligence quotient, credibility quotient, performance quotient, patriotism quotient and corruption quotient of ministerial nominees. We want to tune our television sets and watch ministerial screening not Night of a Thousand Laughs.

Even some of the nominees, like Fashola, Fayemi, Audu Ogbeh, and Amina, that came out shining was clearly because the senators did not do their homework well. I’m not saying we will not see brilliant showings if the senators have asked their questions well. But these set of “brilliant” nominees have not really earned it. I know some of them can earn it but the senate poor screening didn’t give them a chance to earn it. You can’t ask a question without a follow up and clap for the nominee for giving you a flowery half answer.

With all sense of modesty, I’m a speaker and I teach public speaking. I know when moving oratory is clearly lacking substance. In public speaking reeling out statistics is different from talking about how you intend to deploy results. And this is what, for instance, Audu Ogbeh’s responses consisted of. He was telling us about how many gallons of milk cows in London, US, Australia and Nigeria produce. Those are statistics available in the public library and internet. Anyone can read that up and reel it out. You don’t have to be a farmer or Agricultural Science graduate to know that. I was expecting a senator to ask Mr Ogbeh a follow up question that will compel him to show us how he intend to use the statistics he reeled out to deploy results in the Agricultural sector but no, we are still waiting to be blessed with such a senator.

I just hope this quality of screening is not a prediction of the quality of legislature we have foisted on ourselves. Maybe you should call your senator to find out.

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