By Azu Ishiekwene
Those familiar with road travel before fancy luxury buses and jeeps displaced wooden-back Bedford light trucks, famously called mammy wagons, might remember this ubiquitous message in cursive, bright colours scrawled on the rear and sometimes on the sides of trucks plying highways in Nigeria’s South-East: “No condition is permanent.”
I’m not quite sure what the motivation was. My guess is that it was a message of comfort to the despairing and a warning to those who take life too seriously: No condition is permanent.
True in life as in politics, that message rang again this week with wide-sweeping changes announced by President Bola Ahmed Tinubu that could affect top appointees in up to 567 parastatals, government departments and agencies.
You would be forgiven to think it was not a transition from one All Progressives Congress (APC) government to another. The scope, speed and extent of the changes from Tinubu’s inauguration on May 29, make it look like a hostile takeover, the sort of thing one might have expected if the opposition had won the presidential election.
No one is exactly sure of the number of persons that may have been affected by the changes announced this week. But even if allowance is made for a few parastatals whose CEOs may remain in place and will now report directly to the President, instead of the boards which have now been dissolved, we may be looking at over 3,000. That is, assuming that each of the roughly 570 affected establishments has a board of at least six members. Often, the figure is higher.
Regardless, every job loss is different in its own way, both in how it affects those directly involved and those who depend on them. Each political appointee has a personal story not conveyed in the usual press headlines of how many have been beheaded, politically, and how many more heads may roll. Like sharks, the press loves the smell of blood, as long as it is not their own.
It doesn’t matter how prepared those fired may be, they never seem prepared enough when the hammer eventually falls. It’s human nature. And those who take their place never fully learn the lesson of the message on the back of those South-East bound trucks until they, too, become victims.
Imagine, for example, the response of former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Babachir Lawal, when six years ago he was told of a statement by the Presidency announcing that he had been removed as he emerged from a meeting in the Presidential Villa.
“Who is the Presidency?,” Lawal asked State House reporters in a voice full of blessed self-assurance.
Well, that was his last question as SGF. He found, to his shock and surprise, that no condition is permanent. He had indeed been removed “with immediate effect,” with barely enough time to gather his files.
He should have learned from the public encounter of the great Nnamdi Azikiwe with Dr. Ukpabi Asika, who had been seconded by the military from the University of Ibadan to be civilian administrator of the East-Central State. Azikiwe had criticised Asika’s administration and the administrator didn’t like it at all.
He replied mocking Azikiwe as “ex-this, ex-that, and ex-everything else,” adding that Azikiwe was just a politician craving relevance.
Azikiwe, who had the gift of asking his adversaries to go to hell and still make them look forward to the trip, replied Asika that one day, he too, would be ex-administrator of the East-Central State, as Asika’s father had also become ex-post master general of the post office in Onitsha, his hometown. The message on the back of the mammy wagon, he told Asika, is the inevitable story of every appointee: No condition is permanent.
Leader of the APC and former governor of Osun State, Bisi Akande, among the lucky few who lived to tell his own story recalled in My Participations, how in 1984 after General Muhammadu Buhari’s military coup, “fallen big men of yesterday wept like babies” when soldiers descended on them as was often the case during military rule.
In the last 24 years of civilian rule, the experience of political appointees has been somewhat different. Perhaps former President Olusegun Obasanjo holds the record of the highest number of federal firings, especially after he retired scores of military officers who had been “politically exposed,” and followed up with public sector reforms that left even scores more out of jobs.
Perhaps because Obasanjo’s successors between 2007 and 2015 were also from his Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), and also because of his longevity in office, no other PDP president after him retired or sacked as many political appointees as he did.
Sixteen years after Obasanjo left office, Tinubu, a president from a rival party, appears ready to upend a record that once again reminds the public of the message on the back of the mammy wagon.
Even Buhari, who took over the reins of power as president from the opposition and matched Obasanjo’s two-term four-year tenure, did not seem to have the amount of appetite for table-shaking that Tinubu has shown in less than one month in office.
Apart from retaining the service chiefs he inherited from former President Goodluck Jonathan for nearly three months, for example, Buhari also retained the suspended Central Bank Governor, Godwin Emefiele, and a number of heads of MDAs, first appointed by Jonathan.
Of course, Buhari made some changes. But with a few exceptions, he seemed to make changes only at gunpoint. Which was neither necessarily strategic nor carefully thought out.
There were cases where as a result of poor record-keeping, for example, appointees whose tenures were due escaped removal or where the president yielded to political pressure to extend the tenures of persons who had no business staying on.
Buhari’s 30-year absence from power, his nearly zero rigorous public activity after office, his narrow, clerically-biased social circle, and his introverted style were major handicaps after his election as president.
His poor health in his first term did not help matters also. Yet, not a few close to him said once he made appointments, he had a tendency to abdicate rather than delegate responsibilities, often letting some of his appointees run amok.
That is partly why Tinubu’s actions in the last few weeks, especially the sackings this week, are looking like a hostile takeover.
But they are not. A number of the decisions taken by Tinubu since he assumed office, particularly the removal of petrol subsidy and unification of the exchange rate, were long overdue. Buhari ignored calls to act, even from a few inside his inner circle, choosing instead to bury his head in chaos under a rubble of debt.
As for the dissolution of the boards and the removal of service chiefs, it’s a ritual of every new government. The problem, in Buhari’s case, was a frighteningly bizarre absentmindedness or perhaps indifference, that left vital positions, especially in the Judiciary, unfilled; and overdue retirements unattended or indulged by unwarranted extensions.
On the whole, under Buhari, it seemed, once appointments were made, “all conditions were permanent!”
To be fair, accusations of nepotism against him during his first term were not entirely justified, at least up to December 2018. The data which I obtained from the Presidency at the time showed a distribution of 278 to 289 in the appointments of heads of parastatals and Federal agencies between the South and the North, as a whole.
Contrary to the trope of nepotism at the time, the North Central and South West had 102 and 101 respectively. The story changed in Buhari’s second term. And now, the public is watching to see how Tinubu, who has started the difficult task of correcting the outrageous lopsidedness in Buhari’s second term, manages the process.
Announcement of new policies and personnel changes, however crucial they may be, are only a form of signalling. The more difficult part would be what follows next, especially the institutional changes required to make public offices more responsive, less amenable to the whims of appointees and accountable and service-driven.
For now, I recommend the message on the back of the mammy wagon to both the incoming and outgoing appointees: No condition is permanent.
Ishiekwene is Editor-In-Chief of LEADERSHIP