By Tolu Ogunlesi
March 25, 2010 01:25AM
If there is one thing Acting President Goodluck Jonathan has going for him, it is the fact that as a politician he is often underestimated. Perhaps this has to do with his mien, or the fact that his political trajectory has largely been circumscribed by accident, not ambition.

This tendency to be underestimated automatically confers on him the ability to catch people by surprise. Which is what he has done since he was designated Acting President by the legislature on February 9. When he was expected to dissolve the cabinet, he instead settled for a minor reshuffle. He then set up a Presidential Advisory Committee, reportedly with minimal input from the powerful state governors. Then he fired the National Security Adviser and replaced him with a previous occupier of the post. He delayed the sacking of the cabinet, and when he eventually did, he caught most of its members unawares.

But the most surprising move of all in the one-and-half-month old Jonathan administration is the ongoing reconstitution of the cabinet. There were hopes that Mr. Jonathan, burdened by a sense of urgency (his administration has only a year to run, and the PDP's zoning policy appears to rule him out of a shot at the Presidency in 2011) would fill his cabinet with technocrats who would bring much needed change to governance, especially in terms of infrastructure.

However, the list, which has just been made public, appears to signal the emergence of a government that is far less a meritocracy than an oligarchy. Dominated as it is by persons who have occupied prominent political positions especially over the last decade, it raises questions about the extent to which Mr. Jonathan is prepared for a radical departure from the status quo, and casts serious doubts on the potential of the new bureaucracy to register a dent on Nigeria's perennial challenges.

At least a third of the thirty-three nominees are returnees to ministerial office.

Nine of these served in the recently dissolved cabinet, while the rest served in previous administrations. Jubril Martins Kuye served as Minister of State (Finance) in the Obasanjo administration; Sanusi Daggash was appointed Minister of National Planning by President Yar'Adua in 2007, and sacked 15 months later; Suleiman Bello is a former Minister of Power and Steel (during the Abdulsalam Abubakar regime) and also a former Managing Director of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN), who left that position in controversial circumstances in March 2009. Josephine Anenih was a Special Adviser on Women Affairs to former President Obasanjo, before being sacked in 2006. She is the wife of Tony Anenih, a former chair of the PDP Board of Trustees and former Minister of Works under President Obasanjo.

The Imo State nominee, Captain Emmanuel Iheanacho, a mariner, is a second-time nominee for a ministerial position. In November 2008, a Nigerian newspaper reported his nomination by President Yar'Adua, as a replacement for Achike Udenwa, who allegedly did not scale the mandatory security screening. Udenwa however, eventually made it into the cabinet, putting paid to Iheanacho's chances. Navy Captain Olubolade belongs to the clan of retired military officers who have actively sought post-retirement relevance in politics. He decamped from the Action Congress to the ruling People's Democratic Party in January 2007.

Speculations that a Jonathan presidency will effectively be a neo-Obasanjo presidency appear to have been confirmed by the preponderance of Obasanjo loyalists on the list – Martins Kuye and Ndanusa Alao being prominent examples.

Ndanusa Alao is a journalist and former Managing Director of the New Nigerian Newspaper. He left the company in controversial circumstances in 2008 after members of staff embarked on an indefinite industrial action and petitioned the Northern Governors' Forum seeking his removal. There is also a class of persons who appear to be on the list on the basis of familial links. Murtala Yar'Adua, nephew of the ailing President; and Josephine Tapgun, sister of Fidelis Tapgun, who, apart from being a former governor of Plateau State, served President Obasanjo as Ambassador to Kenya, Director-General of the Obasanjo-Atiku Campaign Organisation, and Minister of Industry.

Very few of the nominees are apolitical technocrats. Segun Aganga, a Managing Director at Goldman Sachs in London, and founder of the Nigeria Leadership Initiative (NLI) falls into this category. Chris Ogienwonyi is a former Group Executive Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), who retired in 2009 after a thirty-five year career in the Federal Civil Service.

Mr. Jonathan's decision to take a pragmatic, as opposed to radical, approach in his composition of a cabinet raises suspicions that he is interested in contesting next year's Presidential elections. It appears that he is keen to explore the possibilities of building a political base across the country, by appointing prominent politicians as opposed to politically inexperienced technocrats. By allowing the state governors to nominate the new ministers he also seems eager to avoid alienating them, especially against the backdrop of their complaints about the constitution of the Presidential Advisory Committee.

On their part, Nigerians appear to be preparing themselves to expect no miracles in the coming months. Much of the internet commentary over the last 48 hours regarding the list has been heavily tinged with frustration, and disappointment. It is hard to blame anyone. To put it mildly, this cabinet, heavy on recycled material, is one weak, uninspiring assemblage.