Thursday, December 4, 2008



By Jerry Okungu
Atlanta, Georgia
December 2, 2008

The other week, President- elect Barack Obama presented to the Americans his Economic Advisory team that included his proposed Treasury Secretary; the equivalent what we in Africa would call Minister for Finance. This week, he again unveiled another batch of his team; the National Security team that included the Secretary of State for Foreign Relations.

Listen to what the announcement said:
“Yesterday, President-elect Barack Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden announced key members of their national security team.
Barack and Joe have asked some of the country's most experienced leaders on national security, foreign policy, law enforcement, and military matters to come together to renew America's security and standing in the world.
Hillary Clinton, U.S. Senator from New York and former First Lady, will serve as Secretary of State. Secretary Robert Gates, the current Secretary of Defense, will continue to serve in that role. Eric Holder, former Deputy Attorney General and a former United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, will serve as Attorney General. Janet Napolitano, Governor and former U.S. Attorney for Arizona, will serve as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Dr. Susan E. Rice, a Senior Foreign Policy Advisor to the Obama for America campaign, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, will serve as Ambassador to the United Nations while General Jim Jones, USMC (Ret), former Allied Commander, Europe, and Commander of the United States European Command, will serve as National Security Advisor.”

On both occasions the process was thoroughly transparent and structured. In close and constant consultations with his Vice President –elect; Joe Biden, Obama has had one-on-one consultations with several candidates for each post before deciding on the choice to be availed to the public.

More importantly, he has avoided the temptation to arbitrarily appoint people whose only qualifications might have been that they campaigned for him or supported him in one way or another.

The mere fact that in nominating candidates for Congress’s consideration, he has included known Republicans, some appointees of GW Bush and former staff of the Bill Clinton era is an indication that Obama has gone for talent, competence and merit rather than blind loyalty, cronyism or political party partisanship.

Looked at another way; both Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton were Obama’s rivals for the Democratic nomination. After he beat them for the Democratic ticket, he first picked Biden for running mate and after beating John McCain for the White House, he has now included Hillary Clinton in his top team.

Unlike back in Africa, checks and balances in choosing an American cabinet make it impossible for the incoming president to reward his cronies unless one is as arrogant and lacking in self confidence as GW Bush was.

This self confidence is the reason once Obama assembled a team that had agreed to his nomination, he first presented them to the public through a press conference so that the media could kick off the debate on their characters before they appear before the Senate Confirmation Committee. In other words, the mere fact that Obama has nominated these Americans for various positions is not an end in itself.

The hard part is yet to begin when each one of them will appear before the Senate Committee for thorough grilling before they are appointed. It is at this stage where those with questionable characters and doubtful past records will meet their waterloo. Although presidential appointees rarely fail the test at this stage; it will very much depend on how much the President -elect carried out his background checks on each one of them so that there are no surprises at this stage.

Another thing; the courage with which Barack Obama chose some of the toughest, most controversial and high caliber Americans from all walks of life speaks volumes about the President elect. It shows the degree of confidence he has in himself to harness their varying talents into a productive force to drive the American economy and security concerns.

Back in Africa, political appointments are largely rewards for families, clansmen, tribesmen and campaign funders some of who literally pay their way into the cabinet irrespective of their competence. Sometimes positions are distributed according to tribes and regions rather than competence. We appoint a cabinet with the next general elections in mind; never mind the ability to deliver on our promises.

Take the case of Kenya when Daniel arap Moi ruled my country for two and a half decades; cabinet ministers, permanent secretaries and holders of constitutional offices including his vice president would be appointed by the roadsides as the president stopped to buy vegetables from grocery hawkers. At other times, he would appoint them at public rallies or even in village funerals or at annual goat auctions in his village. Most of the times there would be surprise announcements on radio at lunch time or at the 7pm news bulletin on the national broadcaster.

At those times; each announcement would carry a rider that the appointments were with immediate effect; meaning that the office holders had to vacate their desks immediately, sometimes without the courtesy to hand over to the incoming men and women. There were occasions when official chauffeurs abandoned government officials in different cities once new announcements were made, giving excuses that they were not allowed to ferry non- government officials! In other words; in Kenya one would wake up a cabinet minister and go to bed the same day a common villager!

The reason we still don’t have a government in Zimbabwe is because two politicians are still haggling over which cabinet posts to share. Had the system allowed Parliament to vet individuals for various positions such shameful scenarios would not occur.

Africa must look to the day when the government in power would appoint the president’s rivals to the cabinet; not a forced settlement like in Kenya and Zimbabwe. We must look to the day when loyalty to the president would not supersede that of the nation so that when the ruling party sacks its president, other cabinet ministers would not necessarily resign in solidarity with their boss.