The excitement, craze, suspense and drama surrounding the nomination and confirmation of Buhari cabinet members are not funny or entertaining. It’s a childish scene which makes our country, outside of Abuja and Lagos, the laughing stock of the world.
The Buhari nomination theater shows us an opposition leader who was more interested in winning an election than properly prepared to govern a country.
When David Cameron won the British general election earlier this year, on May 7th, 2015, his government key members were announced in the afternoon of May 8th, and the full cabinet was officially announced on May 11th, which means four days after the election results had been announced.
One might argue it was easier for Cameron as his was a second-term government. Good point, but let’s look back at what was the timeline when Tony Blair won his first term as the Labour Party leader on May 1st, 1997, after 18 years in the opposition. Blair’s full government was announced on May 2nd, 1997 — the day after.
Buhari’s failure to form a cabinet five months after being elected is something that would be unheard of in countries where the practice of a shadow cabinet exists and has become a tradition, like the United Kingdom or Australia. In those countries, opposition parties are always ready to step in to govern the country almost immediately because they run a full-time alternative government.
What is a shadow government?
According to the British Parliament glossary, “The shadow cabinet is made up of frontbench MPs and members of the House of Lords from the second largest party, or official opposition party. The opposition party appoints an MP to shadow each of the members of the cabinet, in this way the opposition can shadow each government department and can question them thoroughly. It also means that the opposition has MPs and lords that are ready to take specific jobs in the cabinet if they win at the next general election”.
In other words, the opposition party forms an alternative government with the structure and ministers’ portfolios mimicking the ones in the official current government.
In the UK, the shadow cabinet is a formally recognized political body and is called “Her Majesty’s official opposition”. The leader of the opposition receives full salary from public financing, and the ministers of the shadow government are usually members of the parliament which means they are already salaried as MP.
Following that tradition, five months after Cameron formed his second-term government, the Labour Party cabinet was announced on September 14th.
In Australia, the opposition shadow cabinet is also a formally recognized political body. Shadow ministers’ salaries are set at the same rate as ministers. Reserchers and other staff also receive an allowance, around one-fifth of that allocated to ministers.
What are the benefits of a shadow government?
There are three main benefits.
A shadow cabinet helps the opposition to become an organized and disciplined political body. Losing power usually leads to disarray, disaffection and internal conflicts that often damage the image and the morals of members of the opposition. However, the immediate requirement to elect a new opposition leader, define a new political agenda and also form a shadow cabinet with possible future ministers has the virtue to bring in fresh ideas, new faces, and revive the opposition’s fighting spirit to get back to power.
Next, the opposition party is always ready to step in with an alternative government. The shadow cabinet usually models its structure on that of the current government. By doing so, and by having shadow ministers for the various portfolio areas, the opposition would be in the capacity to follow, understand, oppose and offer alternative to the actual government’s polices and decisions.
The shadow cabinet settles specialization among opposition members, as it’s not possible for the opposition leader or the party spokesperson alone to comment knowledgeably on all issues. Shadow ministers are positioned to tackle their counterparts in the government with deep knowledge of sectorial issues, and exert one-on-one pressure on ministers whilst developing alternative policies and plans.
For example, in recent political campaigns in Australia, the campaign debates were not limited to face-to-face between the opposition leader and the ruling party leader, but also featured face-to-face debates between ministers and shadow ministers in various high-profile portfolios, such as health, industrial relations and finance. These debates were much more specialized, more informative for the public and the media for the evaluation of policies and government performance.
Finally, a shadow government provides training to potential future ministers and helps them gain experience. For wannabe ministers in the opposition, competing for nomination in the shadow cabinet, then exerting the role of shadow minister constitute a ground for training in these two areas: the skill to argue, debate and project a strong public image as opposition member, and the skill to coordinate, organize and administrate. These are necessary for a minister-to-be.
Nigeria should follow others’ example
A shadow cabinet is a miniature of a full-blown cabinet with less workload, less stress and accountability. For example, in a real cabinet, the members compete for resources and priority of policies, while a shadow cabinet is much more collegial, less internally competitive.
Regardless of the limited training, a shadow cabinet could offer to prepare shadow ministers for the scale and depth of activity of a government. It still is the best way to provide familiarity to the forms and processes used in government to future ministers.
The following countries have adopted the shadow cabinet tradition for the benefits we have described above: Australia, the Bahamas, Canada, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Lithuania, Malaysia, New Zealand, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Thailand, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, Scotland, Wales.
In Nigeria, the PDP should initiate that healthy tradition to avoid the full-scale ridicule the APC is subjecting our country to.
For more information on the history and practice of shadow cabinet, you can start with this free study done by the Australian parliament. For in-depth consideration, these two books could be recommended: The Shadow Cabinet in British Politics, 1969, by DR Turner, and Frontbench Opposition: The Role of the Leader of the Opposition, the Shadow Cabinet and Shadow Government in British Politics, 1973, by R.M. Punnett.