By Alexis Akwagyiram
ABUJA (Reuters) – President Muhammadu Buhari has chosen a cabinet dominated by political veterans, opting to strengthen his power base rather than surround himself with technocrats who could overhaul Africa’s biggest economy.
Buhari won March’s election on promises to usher in a new era in the West African nation where a rich elite has controlled key state jobs for half a century. Most Nigerians live in poverty despite the enormous oil wealth of Africa’s top producer.
The former military ruler had asked Nigerians to be patient and get ready for “change” as he took four months to pick his cabinet while a plunge in oil prices triggered the worst economic crisis for decades.
But in the end the 72-year-old has selected many familiar faces – those who helped him win the election and some who had hoped for jobs at a national level since he first ran for office in 2003.
Out of 36 nominated ministers, about 20 are veterans from Buhari’s party, former state governors, ministers or associates from his military career. A dozen could be classified as ‘technocrats’.
“It is a cabinet that seems to have been drawn from different interests that brought Buhari to power,” said Clement Nwankwo, director of the Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre, a think-tank in Abuja.
Buhari will unveil portfolios only after the Senate has approved his list.
But his nominations show a desire to close ranks in his All Progressives Congress (APC), an alliance of powerful Nigerians united by a desire to remove the People’s Democratic Party of his predecessor Goodluck Jonathan rather than a shared vision.
While he promised during the election campaign to take on the establishment in order to root out corruption, Buhari’s priority was to overcome APC divisions and reward allies such as party spokesman Lai Mohammed with cabinet jobs, analysts say.
To reinforce his power base, Buhari has even taken on the controversial figure of his campaign manager, former Rivers State governor Rotimi Amaechi, who has been accused of corruption. Amaechi has denied the accusations.
“It was the political trade-offs which definitely cost a lot of time. There was internal wrangling within Buhari’s party,” said Bismarck Rewane, CEO of Lagos consultancy Financial Derivatives.
As a result, most ministers have had careers that span decades making Kemi Adeosun, a 48-year-old former investment banker and one of the technocrats, his youngest nominee.
Other prominent veterans include Babatunde Fashola, former governor of the commercial capital Lagos, who won praise for getting infrastructure projects off the ground but also criticism for clearing slums.
Buhari’s cohort must stave off a recession next year due to a collapse in oil revenues that has weakened the naira and driven up inflation. The government also needs to win back investors upset by hefty foreign currency restrictions imposed by central bank governor Godwin Emefiele, who filled a vacuum in the absence of a finance minister.
Buhari’s selection process was complicated by the fact that he was constitutionally bound to select a minister from each of Nigeria’s 36 states to reflect the character of a nation of 170 million people from 250 ethnic groups.
Despite this, he picked some fresh faces from outside the establishment with backgrounds in accounting, law, medicine and finance.
“Those expecting a list formed wholly of technocrats were being unrealistic,” said Kayode Akindele, a political consultant and partner at private equity firm TIA capital. “He has a good mixture. You could have key portfolios with technocrats, which would help to drive reforms.”
Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu, head of state oil firm NNPC and a former ExxonMobil manager, is expected to become junior oil minister as Buhari wants to head the oil ministry himself.
Reform-minded observers are likely to have been cheered by Kachikwu’s Senate hearing appearance in which he vowed to take action regarding poorly performing refineries, which force Nigeria to import most of its fuel.
Okechukwu Enyinna Enelamah, a former Goldman Sachs banker who heads Nigeria’s biggest private equity firm, African Capital Alliance, is a candidate for the finance minister.
Adeosun, a UK-trained accountant and finance commissioner of southwestern Ogun state, is also a candidate for the finance portfolio. At her hearing, Adesoun sought to assure investors that central bank controls aimed at preventing a collapse of the naira would be accompanied by measures to stimulate growth.
“So what the CBN governor has done just brought in some breathing space … (but the) exchange rate is not the silver bullet,” she said. “It would have to be accompanied with fiscal policies, monetary policies and industrial policies.”
But with no sign of any increase in oil prices, the reliance on crude sales for 70 percent of government revenues will make it difficult for Buhari to keep his promise to diversify the economy.
“Public finances are so fragile that there are a relatively limited number of policy options,” said Antony Goldman of Nigeria-focused PM Consulting.
(Reporting by Alexis Akwagyiram; additional reporting by Camillus Eboh and Chijioke Ohuocha; Editing by Ulf Laessing and Giles Elgood)