Is President Buhari Making 'the Perfect the Enemy of the Good?'

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari
Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari addresses a plenary meeting of the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit 2015 at the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan, New York September 25. Andrew Kelly/Reuters

This piece was originally published by the Council on Foreign Relations.

President Muhammadu Buhari was elected president of Nigeria on March 31. He was inaugurated on May 29. Yet, he appointed his chief of staff and the secretary to the government of the federation—key positions in any administration—only in August. He still has not made any cabinet appointments, though his spokesmen are promising that they will be announced on September 30.

Meanwhile, the lack of an economic policy team ruffles international investors. The lack of a foreign minister deprives foreign governments their traditional interlocutor. A new and presumably still incomplete personal staff means that presidential mistakes are made. For example, the Nigerian media is reporting chagrin that Nigeria did not attend a meeting organized on the fringe of the UN General Assembly by the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator on internally displaced persons in the Lake Chad basin, most of whom are Nigerians fleeing the depredations of Boko Haram.

Why has the president moved so slowly? First, Buhari, personally incorruptible, campaigned on the basis that he would clean up Nigeria's corrupt governance. He has consistently said he would not appoint the corrupt to his cabinet or his staff. Are his standards too high? The Nigerian media reports that leaders of his political party, the All progressives Congress (APC) are telling them that they are, that he is making 'the perfect the enemy of the good.'

Second, Nigeria is a notoriously difficult country to govern. Buhari's APC is a big tent that includes many rivals and factions to be balanced. For example, the Nigerian media reports that Olusegun Obasanjo met with Buhari in New York against the backdrop of the former president's differences with party stalwart and former Lagos governor Bola Tinubu over cabinet nominations.

Third, Buhari has raised the need for structural reforms in government institutions, specifically, the need to reduce the unwieldy size of the cabinet now seventy-two ministers and ministers of state. But, that raises difficult political problems, as under the principle of 'federal character,' each state is entitled to a minister and a minister of state. If cabinet appointments are announced on September 30, it remains to be seen whether Buhari will nominate a complete list. Buhari has also raised the possibility of reducing the number of Nigeria's diplomatic missions because of their cost. But, ambassadorships are an important source of patronage and they, too, are usually distributed more or less equally among the thirty-six states.

Finally, Buhari's presidential electoral victory surprised almost everybodyincluding many in the APC. Hence, there may have been little practical preparation for governing before the elections actually took place, such as advanced consideration of personnel appointments.

John Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa for the Council on Foreign Relations.