Mr. President-Elect: People, Policies, or Projects…Which Way?

Nigeria President Elect

“Inheriting a country whose infrastructure is damaged and in desperate need of repair, many look towards Obama’s appointment of cabinet members as a sign of change.”
– Michael Gallagher


Mr. President-Elect’s Hand is a Tough One

In any game of cards, success has a lot to do with the type of cards you are dealt. The set of cards a player has in a game is called a hand. The odds are better with a better set. However, a good hand doesn’t guarantee a win. A win takes experience and skill. A telepathic peek into the hand dealt to Mr. President-elect would show that he has been dealt a tough hand. His situation reminds one of the idiom “between a rock and a hard place”. He is being thrust (more like thrown) a dire situation as he chanted “Change, change, change…”.

He and his Vice President-elect are being dealt a hand in which the economy is in the emergency ward (more like surgery or recovery room): foreign reserves are at an all-time low; exchange rate high and not abating; more debt is being acquired to fund salaries and overheads and not bridges and railways; and price of crude oil ‘goes down’ low and will likely remain.

He is inheriting a Nigeria with the longest and most extensive insurgency ever. Added to the insurgency in the North is the veneer of youth restiveness around the nation and a heightened sense of despondency exacerbated by unemployment and corruption. Not to mention the combustible mix of ethnic and religious polarization and the challenge of citizenship and nationhood that are on this hand served to Mr. President-elect. Included on the other hand is the need to shed the perception in the international community that we are undecided about corruption.

Whilst some pundits suspect that the beneficiaries of the last two political dispensations might seek ways to undermine his tenure. It sure is a tough hand. If he and his Vice would win this ‘game’ they would need skill…a lot of skill. Should they dive into these challenges by enacting policies, inaugurating projects or by selecting the people they would work with first?

Between Scylla and Charybdis

President-elect Muhammadu Buhari clearly is “between Scylla and Charybdis”. Would he choose to solve this horn of a dilemma by choosing to confront Scylla or by confronting Charybdis? Where should he start? Is there a starting point that would signal the beginning of the change espoused? Should he start by biting deep and quick into one of these projects or policies or should it be people selection? People, Policies, Projects…whither? Mr. President-Elect?

Scylla and Charybdis were mythical sea monsters noted by Homer (a poet); and later Greek tradition sited them on opposite sides of the Strait of Messina between Sicily and the Italian mainland. Scylla was rationalized as a rock shoal (described as a six-headed sea monster) on the Italian side of the strait and Charybdis was a whirlpool off the coast of Sicily.

They were regarded as a sea hazard located close enough to each other that they posed an inescapable threat to passing sailors; avoiding Charybdis meant passing too close to Scylla and vice versa. According to Homer, Odysseus was forced to choose which monster to confront while passing through the strait…” (ref. Wikipedia).

As all fingers aren’t equal even so all choices aren’t equal. Of all the options open to Buhari-Osinbajo, the selection of cabinet members (ministries and parastatal heads) is by far the most important, the one to come first, the signal of true change and the first sign of success in a four-year race.

People Before Policy or Projects

Jim Collins is one of a few people who has done quite some work on what it takes to manage great institutions. There is a remarkable discovery they made a few years back which is well documented in his book, Good to Great.

Hear from Jim Collins,

“When we began the research project, we expected to find that the first step in taking a company from good to great would be to set a new direction, a new vision and strategy for the company, and then to get the people committed and aligned behind the new direction. We found something quite the opposite. The executives who ignited the transformations from good to great did not first figure out where to drive the bus and then get people to take it there. No, they first got the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and then figured out where to drive it.”

They said, in essence, “Look I don’t really know where we should take this bus. But I know this much: If we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we’ll figure out how to take it someplace great.” It was people first, then policies or projects.

People Selection Much More Crucial in Public Sector

Apparently cabinet member selection is a topic that people have always been concerned about – it is an age-old concern and a global one for that matter. Even in 1860 when Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican President of the United States this same issue of cabinet selection came up.

“We needed the strongest men of the party in the cabinet,” Abraham Lincoln stated, “We needed to hold our own people together. I had looked the party over and concluded that these were the very strongest men….I had no right to deprive the country of their services.” (ref.

He took it as far as selecting one of his political enemies, Edward Stanton, into office. In one speech he (Edward) called Lincoln a “low, cunning clown,” in another he said, “It is ridiculous to go to Africa to see a Gorilla when you can find one just as easily as in Springfield Illinois.”Lincoln never responded. When he was elected President and needed a Secretary of War, guess who he chose? Edward Stanton. When friends asked him why, Lincoln said “Because he’s the best man for the job.”

Years later as the slain president’s body lay in state; Edward Stanton looked into the casket and said through his tears, “There lies the greatest ruler of men the world has ever seen.” His animosity had been broken by Lincoln’s long-suffering, non-retaliatory spirit. His biographer, Stephen Ambrose, wrote that Dwight Eisenhower (34th President of the United States) “wanted competent, proven administrators, men who thought big and acted big.

Completely free of any need to boost his own ego, or to prove his decisiveness or leadership, he wanted to ‘build up’ the men who worked with him.” Eisenhower not only picked good people, but he assessed each person’s strengths and weaknesses and put together a team of complementary skills and temperaments. Prof. Walter Williams asserts that,

“No presidential management task is as important as picking top White House aides and Cabinet members…”

Good People then Good Government

Lee Kuan Yew was the prime Minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990. He and his team took Singapore from being underdeveloped to becoming a prosperous nation – literally from nothing to great. In his book, From Third World to First World, he had this to say:

“My experience of developments in Asia has led me to conclude that we need good people to have good government. However good the system of government, bad leaders will bring harm to their people.”

On the other hand, I have seen several societies well-governed in spite of poor systems of government, because good, strong leaders were in charge… the single decisive factor that made for Singapore’s development was the ability of its ministers and the high quality of the civil servants who supported them.

Whenever I had a lesser minister in charge, I invariably had to push and prod him, and later to review problems and clear roadblocks for him…because of our relentless and unceasing search for talent both at home and abroad to make up for the small families of the well-educated, Singapore has been able to keep up its performance.” “After several years in government I realized that the more talented people I had as ministers, administrators, and professional, the more effective my policies were, and the better the results”.

Parallels Between Obama and Buhari – How Did Obama Use the Hand Dealt Him?

Incidentally some parallels can be drawn between the hand served the President-elect Muhammadu Buhari and that served President Obama when he was elected for the first term in 2008. The US economy was facing a recession; uncertainty and despondency had risen; huge resource commitments to fighting terrorism overseas; etc.

“Inheriting a country whose infrastructure is damaged and in desperate need of repair, many look towards Obama’s appointment of cabinet members as a sign of change.” – Michael Gallagher.

 And here is what Obama did: the presidential transition period began following Obama’s election to the presidency on November 4, 2008. During the transition period, Obama announced his nominations for his Cabinet and administration. Barack Obama was inaugurated on January 20, 2009. He officially assumed the presidency at 12:00 noon,EST and completed the oath of office at 12:05 pm, EST.

He delivered his inaugural address immediately following his oath. After his speech, he went to the President’s Room in the House Wing of the Capitol and signed three documents: a commemorative proclamation, a list of Cabinet appointments, and a list of sub-Cabinet appointments, before attending a luncheon with congressional and administration leaders and invited guests (ref. Wikipedia). In simple English, Obama selected his people, almost immediately, then picked the policies and projects to push.

True change by a Change Team

For the change song to become a change show, only a change team would do. We are expecting to see the most audacious, deep, extensive and rigorous search for talent like we have never seen. Hopefully. Let Buhari-Osinbajo say like Brutus “Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more”.

Let them scour Nigeria and overseas for men and women of verifiable competence. One Prime minister recently went as far as reaching out to his people on Facebook to help him nominate his cabinet.

They must send a message that the task of leading Nigeria into the future is too delicate to be left to the hand of novices. They must send a message that the days of using cabinet positions to reward loyalists are over!


They must be self-assured and focused enough to surround themselves with people more qualified than they. They must, like Abraham Lincoln, separate their personal feelings from the analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of potential cabinet members. Let ‘yes-men’ and sycophants remain at home, instead they should seek out independent minded but team oriented personalities. My tent is pitched with Jim Collin’s discovery that

“Great vision with mediocre people still produces mediocre results.”




  1. BIODUN OKE says:

    Nice piece!!!
    Sometimes in first quarter of 2015, I was at a seminar where Bismarck Rewane (a man regarded as an Economic prophet and MD of Financial Derivatives Ltd) spoke on the outlook for 2015; this was at the beginning of the oil price crash in the international market. The summary of his talk was that no matter who won the 2015 presidential elections, the country was in for a tough time. This was obvious to the blind looking at the mono-economy that we run here.
    Against this backdrop, It was absurd when the APC came up with some impossible election promises like free meals to all primary school students, naira appreciating to N1/$1, PMS price dropping to N45 per litre etc. We do not need a seer to know that a famine is here examining the number of states unable to pay salaries, yet some desperate folks told us the impossible to gain our votes.
    Desperate times like this require desperate actions and not a ‘slow motion’ movement. APC to me appears to be unprepared for this task and like a colleague of mine would always say, ”its seems APC’s common aim/goal was to take out GEJ and afterwards went blank”. This is evidenced by the current power tussle being experienced at the upper and the lower houses & PMB’s inability to choose his cabinet members. I ask this questions, what was this new government doing since March 31 when it was declared winner of the presidential elections? Does PMB plan to travel to heaven to recruit men for his cabinet or won’t these men come from this same nation? The whole world awaits Nigeria yet all parastatals are on a standstill. Speak with government contractors and you will understand the gravity of the current situation. The Stock Market is crumbling and the naira is set for another round of devaluation yet the President is on ‘slow motion’ mode. I believe we all need to be objective and not excuse a poor start by a new government.

    • Aruosa Osemwegie says:

      Interesting points raised Biodun. We hope for the best for our people.

  2. FUNSO-AINA TOBI says:

    The write-up has well pointed out what the President and his vice need to do first to get it right through their 4 year leadership. I hope they can get to read this so as to know they can’t afford to select the wrong men and women to serve alongside them. The nation has suffered too long from ill-chosen service men and women to have another blow.
    Nigerians of quality and proven prowess abound within and outside the nation, am hopeful they haven’t selected any yet because they are still searching for the best marksmen that will deliver accurately. To Mr. President and the vice I say their are more land to conquer. Not until when beggars reduce on our streets, robbery ends, insurgency becomes past, public servants need not become ghost workers so as to run their own businesses, infrastructures are put in place and the little ones in public primary schools can say GOD BLESS OUR LEADERS because the standard of education makes to happy to learn will NIGERIANS accept they haven’t given power to the wrong movers of CHANGE.