Africa, Headlines

POLITICS-NIGERIA: New Cabinet Gets Down to Business

Remi Oyo

LAGOS, Aug 25 1998 (IPS) - Nigeria’s new 31-member cabinet this week got down to the enormous task of running a government, which in the eyes of most people, is working on borrowed time.

Only eight of the new ministers served in the regime of the late Sani Abacha, while the others are not strangers to the hall of government.

But their performance this time around, is under a public microscope as the nation watches whether General Abdulsalam Abubakar sticks to his promise of handing over power to civilian rule by May 1999.

“They all know what’s at stake…perform or get out. I don’t think the Head of State left anyone in doubt as to what he expects,” said one government analyst.

“There is a monitoring committee that has been set up to constantly assess performance at all levels,” the analyst added.

Mamman Kontagora, a retired Major-General, known for his stern looks and principles, is already reported to be shaking up the administration of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), where the Nigerian capital Abuja is located.

The FCT was previously administered by retired Lt.-Gen. Jeremiah Useni, a close ally of the late Abacha. Abubakar dissolved Abacha’s cabinet, which included Useni.

“If what I have heard about the administration of the FCT is true, it means that we have lost time, money and the opportunity to develop FCT in the last few years,” Kontagora said on Monday when he assumed his new duties as Minister of the Federal Capital Territory.

Nigeria’s new Minister of Finance, Ismaila Usman, appears to have a Herculean task before him. The former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank must not only get the economy back on track, but also is faced with a myriad of corruption scandals, including the misuse of funds by the Central Bank.

“Usman was suspended by Abacha for going against some frivolous spending of the nation’s foreign exchange earnings. With him at the helm of affairs, there should be sanity in the Central Bank of Nigeria and the financial spending of government,” predicted one economist.

Minister Usman told directors in his ministry: “We are determined to do our best within the available short time to make the difference.”

To achieve this, the economist said, one job the new minister has before him is “to unravel the mystery surrounding the huge sums of money reportedly moved from the Central Bank on Abacha’s orders”.

In a move to show his commitment to transparency before leaving office, General Abubakar scrapped the Ministry of Petroleum Resources and has created a Special Adviser in the Presidency to oversee the Directorate of Petroleum Resources.

Under former Minister Dan Etete, the oil industry suffered unprecedented problems. The ministry was widely linked to corrupt practices and mismanagement, and the country, despite having one of the largest oil industries in the world, was plagued by constant shortages.

The nation’s four refineries, with a combined capacity for 445,000 barrels per day, were run aground during Abacha’s rule, and fuel queues became the order of the day.

“Government’s latest move to retain the supervision of the ministry is indicative of the resolve of the Head of State to urgently find a lasting solution to the on-going energy crisis,” said Alli Ogunyemi.

At the weekend during the swearing-in ceremony, Gen. Abubakar warned the new ministers not to involve themselves in corrupt practices.

“My administration is aware of the public perception that government appointments offered a life-time opportunity to acquire enormous wealth through unwholesome means. My tenure will not be associated with such corrupt practices,” he said.

The government, Abubakar added, would closely monitor all activities of the new ministers to ensure that their assignments are not used as springboards to acquire wealth illegally. Such tendencies would be appropriately and firmly dealt with to reduce the level of corruption in the public service, he said.

The new Nigerian leader also reminded his cabinet that their first priority was to the Nigerian people and the nation as a whole.

“While you are representatives of our people, you are not called upon to serve the parochial interests of any person or group of persons which are at variance with our national interest,” he said.

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