Easing the pain of political transitions

We need security, Nigerians cry out

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One of the main tenets of democracy is that citizens get to choose their leaders every so often. In Nigeria, every four years. Historically, the period of transition from one government to another has been relatively seamless. The official photograph of the former leader is brought down, placed facedown on the floor and that of the new leader is put up, and everything carries on as normal. This happens mostly without major changes, except, of course, changes in personnel.

 

However, in 2015, Nigeria had its first transition from one ruling party to an opposition party at the national level. This threw up a lot of issues. The incoming party accused the government of the day of refusing to give it handing over notes. What was not apparent to many was that the preparation of the sort of detailed handing over notes that the incoming government was asking for was not what the civil service was used to producing, and that there was limited internal capacity to produce them. Some of us were eventually drafted in at the last minute to help in its compilation and editing, but there were still major concerns by the incoming government when we eventually delivered the handing over notes.

 

As Director-General of the Bureau of Public Service Reforms at the time, we organised a series of trainings for civil servants on how to cope with this unusual change in government and produced a number of manuals on how the bureaucracy should prepare itself to assist the new government. Take up was low and many senior people, such as Permanent Secretaries, that would have benefited from it sent very junior staff instead. Early in 2015, I attended a seminar organised by the US-based National Democratic Institute, focused on the need to legislate the political transition process. The House of Representatives eventually brought forward a Presidential (Transition) Bill, 2015: “A Bill for an Act to provide for the smooth and orderly transfer of power from one government to another and other related matters”, to try and address the matter.

 

Among other things, the Presidential (Transition) Bill requires the sitting President to, within two weeks of the results of the election being declared, provide working space for up to 10 people nominated by the President-Elect to “begin a review and analysis of budgeted expenditures during the tenure of the incumbent President.” It also provides that he should pay the allowances of members of the President-Elect’s Transition Team and constitute his own Transition Team, with the freedom to draw members from any area of the public service.

 

Interestingly, the Bill makes provision for the appointment of an Administrator-General after every general election, to take an inventory of all Federal Government assets, ensure that all assets are maintained, ensure the provision of documents to the Transition Team of the incoming government and prosecute any person that breaches the Act. The penalties in the Bill are N10 million, or 6 months imprisonment, or both. The sitting President was also required to make budgetary provision for this activities of not more than N100 million and ensure that it is appropriated for in the budget of the election year. I believe that the Bill was passed by the House of Representatives but has not yet become law.

 

There were some issues with the Bill. Firstly, it is tantamount, in a way, to preparing a will, something that most Nigerians are not enthusiastic about. Secondly, the appointment of the Administrator-General is only expected to happen after general elections and it is not clear whether or not it is a permanent or tenured position that will see to the maintenance and public publication of an inventory of all government assets, and liabilities on an ongoing basis once they are acquired. It is whatever the Administrator-General is given by the incumbent government that he or she has to work with. This would still leave a gap between what the outgoing government says it is leaving behind and what the incoming government says it inherited. Lastly, it gave no deadlines for when a handing over note must be prepared.

 

Many other countries have Presidential Transition Acts. The closest to home is Ghana that enacted a Presidential Transitions Act in 2012 and used it, for the first time, in its 2012 elections. The Ghana Act is more robust, in my view. It provides for a Joint Transition Committee made up in equal numbers by nominees of both the President and the President-Elect. Its roles include ensuring the smooth handover of power, providing daily national security briefings to the President-Elect and ensuring that government continues to meet its obligations. It also provides for an Advisory Council headed by the Speaker and made up of one nominee by the sitting President and another nominee by the President-Elect. Additionally, it provides for an Administrator-General in a seemingly permanent capacity and a Presidential Estates Unit under the Administrator-General to keep an inventory of all government assets and ensure their maintenance.

 

Significantly, the Ghana Presidential Transition Act stipulates that handing over Notes must be presented to the Administrator-General no later than 30 days before the date of the presidential elections and that he shall make them available to the Parliament, Chief Justice, Council of State and Public Records and Archives Department. If this sort of law had been present for the 2015 elections, it would have greatly avoided the issues that arose during that transition and reduced, to some extent, the level of distrust between the outgoing and incoming governments.

 

I believe that the issues are in even sharper focus at state level. Every four years, claims and counter-claims are made by outgoing and new governments about how much was left in the treasury of the state. Following the 2019 elections, we saw something similar to the situation at national level in 2015, in that there was a change of power from a ruling party to an opposition party in a number of states. In Imo State, for instance, the new governor alleged that no handing over notes whatsoever was provided to him, never mind one of inadequate quality. He also conducted the press round the governor’s office which appears to have been vandalised, with papers strewn everywhere. Interestingly, he asked the Head of the Civil Service who was present during the inspection of the governor’s office whether she thought it was a fit environment for the new governor to work out of and she said: “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.” I digress.

 

In my view, there is an urgent need to legislate Transition Bills at both national and state levels. This will ensure that the circumstances of 2015 and 2019 do not recur. The Ghana example of ensuring that handing over notes, with specific guidelines on what it should contain, are delivered 30 days before the date of the elections, is worthy of emulation. It also makes sense to have a Presidential Estates Unit under an Administrator-General who has a fixed tenure that transverses the transition period. This will ensure that there is an inventory of all government assets as they are acquired and that those assets are constantly maintained. It will make it difficult for public servants to disappear with vehicles, computers and other assets when one government ends and before another one commences. It will also make it possible to provide the information, on request, to civil society organisations, the media and the courts, in case of a corruption trial.

 

I would similarly argue that such a Transition Act should make it illegal to employ any new personnel during the transition period. This will stop the current practice of governors flooding the public service with thousands of new employees a few weeks before handing over, putting them on the payroll and landing the incoming governor with the problem of either paying them and risking not having enough money to spend on capital projects, on the one hand, or sacking them and risking emotive accusations of having deepened the unemployment of people who didn’t employ themselves, on the other.

 

A lot of the challenges we contend with year after year can be addressed relatively quickly if we want to. That we do not address them is not because we do not know what to do, but because we do not want to.

 

 Joe Abah, Ph.D.

*Dr Joe Abah is a development practitioner and the immediate past Director-General of the Bureau of Public Service Reforms.

 



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