Nigerians applaud as Buhari fills Cabinet with nonpoliticians

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

''Enter your ministers,'' shouted a newspaper headline last week. ''Buhari picks his ministers,'' proclaimed another of the many rival papers in this congested city of voracious newspaper readers.

At the crowded intersection of Martins and Breadfruit streets, where hundreds of narrow market stalls line up like teeth in a comb, newspaper sales are outstripping purchases of shirts, sheets, suitcases, and ice buckets.

Beeping taxis nose or shove their way through waves of people and crosscurrents of tied-up traffic in what is perhaps black Africa's most congested city. A slim young girl, arms rhythmically swinging at her side as she balances a swaying bucket of water on her head, takes it all in stride.

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''Nice ice water, nice ice water,'' she calls out musically.

But the public seems more thirsty for news of the Cabinet Maj. Gen. Muhammad Buhari named Jan. 18 - a group faced with the awesome task of lifting Nigeria out of its economic morass.

Hit externally by the slump in oil prices and internally by many venal politicians who plundered the treasury, the country is struggling with an external debt of about $14 billion.

What newspaper readers discover amid the pulsating sounds of the catchy African song ''Yeah, yeah, yeah, Africa is my home'' coming from sidewalk loudspeakers is that civilians outnumber the military 11 to 7 in the 18-man Cabinet. But top policymaking decisions rest with the Supreme Military Council.

The new Federal Executive Council responsible for the day-to-day running of the country is a neat balancing act with all but 1 of the 19 states in Nigeria represented in this group. The lone state not represented is Bendel, but it has been amply compensated with the appointment of G. Longe in the crucial position of head of service.

In swearing in his new Cabinet, General Buhari pointed out that the ministers would be held accountable for the success or failure of their departments.

''It is necessary to restate that this administration, born out of the circumstances very well known to you, will not tolerate fraud, indiscipline, corruption, squandermania, misuse and abuse of office. . . .''

Asked for his reaction to the new government, a Nigerian businessman in a dark cinnamon safari suit gathered his colleagues around a table in a side alley and spread out the newspaper showing the pictures of the 18 new ministers and listing their portfolios.

The men shook their heads. They felt unable to comment. Only one man was recognizable to them - a reflection of the determination of the new military rulers to bring forward new faces with clean records in Nigerian politics.

The recognizable face was the new minister of external (foreign) affairs, Dr. Ibrahim Agboola Gambari, whose appointment has been widely hailed by both Nigerians and the diplomatic corps here.

A modest, almost diffident, soft-spoken academician and aristrocrat, Dr. Gambari comes from the middle belt region of Kwara State and is a close relative of an emir, a Muslim king. Until his new assignment, he was director general of the prestigious Nigerian Institute of International Affairs.

The important and politically sensitive post of the minister of agriculture in a country that ran up a staggering $2 billion food import bill in the early 1980s has gone to Dr. Bukar Shaib.

The challenge facing Dr. Shaib - trying to turn Nigeria from Africa's largest food importer into its largest food exporter, a status the nation held in the 1960s - is familiar to him. He was responsible in 1980 for heading Nigeria's ''green revolution'' campaign, which has attempted to reduce the nation's overwhelming dependence on oil as a revenue raiser. Oil accounts for some 93 percent of Nigeria's foreign exchange earnings.

The man entrusted with the even more difficult assignment of budgeting the country's shrunken reserves is the new finance minister, Dr. O. O. Soleye, who has previously served as a commissioner (minister) in his home state.

One of the reasons many of the faces are not recognizable to Nigerian newspaper readers in the capital is that many of the new Cabinet ministers have had experience at the state but not the federal government level.

The impression here is that General Buhari, who became Nigeria's head of state after a Dec. 31 military coup, has passed his first critical test: the appointment of a Cabinet of responsible and trusted officials that balances the military with considerable civilian input. He has earned public approval along the way. ''It's a good start,'' says Clara Osinulu, a Lagos anthropologist who is well connected in Nigerian political life.

General Buhari's next hurdle will be to find ways to refinance the country's debt. Refinancing is likely to be tied to a loan from the International Monetary Fund.

Buhari has urged the IMF to show sympathy for Nigeria in light of recent developments and is resisting suggestions that he devalue the Nigerian naira.

The advantage of an IMF loan is that it would put an international imprimatur on Nigeria's fiscal worthiness. Without such a badge of approval, analysts here are not sure where the country could turn to gain the financial assistance it needs.

But Buhari argues that it makes no sense for Nigeria to devalue because such a step would automatically cut oil revenues abroad. (Nigeria has also asked its fellow OPEC members to raise its oil production quota of 1.3 million barrels per day.)

Diplomatic observers suggest devaluation would give Nigeria a needed competitive advantage in farm exports and boost efforts to accelerate agricultural developments.

These observers are not sure that Nigeria could escape devaluation, an almost certain condition to secure an IMF loan.

It is in the field of economic strategy that most Nigerians are holding their breath. A Lagos contractor who says his business is at a standstill ran his eye down the list of Cabinet ministers and failed to see anyone who felt reflected business interests.

That's a shame, he said. ''The government and the business community must work together. What it all boils down to is money. . . , how much the government owes overseas and how much will be spent here. . . .''

An astute Nigeria-watcher here suggests that the problem of the August civilian elections was not that they were rigged, as the Yorubas in particular have charged, but that they was ''irrelevant.''

Shehu Shagari, who was resoundingly reelected as president in August but ousted four months later, was voted into power by a subsistence economy - by humble folk who after the election went back to the chores of scratching out a living on land parched by drought.

But the problem for this country, many Nigerians say, is to modernize a state that is deep in debt and that had an elite that was given to a profligate style of living. The elite were prepared to debate Shagari's legitimacy as leader every time he demanded greater austerity of them. They had benefited from patronage, which may become less available under the Buhari regime.

As this observer saw it, the problem for the new head of state was to persuade an urban middle class of professionals, bureaucrats, and entrepreneurs that the sacrifices to be made of them are just and emanate from an authority that has the right to make such demands.

It appears to be making an example of many members of the previous government. On Thursday, according to Brig. Gen. Tunde Idiagbon, 71 politicians, state governors, and others were held in detention near Lagos and 300 others in the provinces on suspicion of corruption. About 200 of them have been released, officials say.

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