By Ulf Laessing
ABUJA (Reuters) - Seven months after Muhammadu Buhari was elected president on a promise to "fix" Nigeria, a policy vacuum has brought decision-making to a halt, hampering everything from national budget planning to new roads and art exhibitions.
Late on Thursday, the Senate ended yet another session screening Buhari's ministerial candidates without giving its approval, leaving Africa's biggest economy with no government since the former military ruler took office on May 29.
With political wrangling in full swing, lawmakers will need at least another week for more vetting. After three weeks, only half of Buhari's 36-strong lineup has got the green light.
Buhari has launched the first steps to reform the oil sector in Africa's biggest producer and fight graft, which is blamed for most of the nation of 170 million people living in poverty despite Nigeria's vast energy wealth.
But some of his high-flying plans are gathering dust in rudderless ministries while entrepreneurs and businessman look on in vain as Africa's biggest economy reels from the decline in crude prices.
"We support Buhari's change but ministers need to get appointed and start working," said Chidubem Nnajiofor, whose computer shop has been struggling to pay for imports because of central bank currency controls imposed to protect the naira.
"You cannot get dollars even if you have a letter of credit."
The 72-year-old president has won praise for a bailout of federal states and audits designed to root out graft but, with the economy flatlining, investors wonder why he took four months to name a cabinet of familiar political faces.
"For a while, one could say that transparency reforms introduced by the new government and the state government bailout possibly trumped the appointment of a cabinet," said Razia Khan, Chief Economist, Africa, at Standard Chartered Bank.
"As we get closer to the budget cycle deadline and important decisions on subsidies and taxation need to be taken, the absence of a cabinet will likely become more glaring."
Parliament typically tables the annual budget in November but there is no draft yet for a planned supplementary budget for this year, let alone a proposal for 2016. Discussions are likely to take longer than normal because of the need of spending cuts.
The lack of a government has hampered even basic ministry work such as aid projects or state-sponsored art exhibitions. Business people and diplomats have been dealing with undersecretaries who are afraid to sign off on anything.
"No political decisions are being taken at the moment at ministries," said a Western diplomat who asked not to be named.
Even when the Senate clears Buhari's nominees, ministers will have to wade through reams of documents that have piled up on their desks over the last half a year before getting down to work.
Many Nigerians support Buhari's cause to fight graft. Most people in the country struggle to make ends meet while a globe-trotting elite has enjoyed an oil bonanza.
To the delight of many, foreign airlines are reporting a slump in first-class bookings as high-rollers take care over displays of wealth, and noticeably fewer private jets jostle for space at Abuja's airport.
But in the absence of ministers, reforms aired before the election - such as curbing food imports to boost domestic farming - are stuck on the drawing board, and without any consideration for their consequences.
For example, if steel imports are curbed, as has been mooted, Buhari may have to drop some infrastructure projects because local steel output is insufficient, executives say.
The cabinet delay is also sowing confusion and intrigue, according to political insiders, with some ministers on the cabinet list telling friends which portfolio they have landed, only to call back later to say they are not so sure.
Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu, head of state oil firm NNPC, is expected to become junior oil minister with Buhari maintaining oversight of the sector.
Buhari - by his own admission not an economist - has tasked his deputy president, Yemi Osinbajo, a commercial lawyer, with overseeing economic policy. Osinbajo has said dollar curbs are only a short-term measure to preserve currency reserves.
But the wider paralysis is blocking nearly all government spending, putting a big brake on growth.
"It's only when government starts embarking on capital projects that there is money," said Joel Mtsor, who runs a printing firm in Abuja that relies on government work.
"Nothing is happening - no workshops, no seminars. As I speak there is no printing company today that is busy," he said.
(Editing by Ed Cropley and Timothy Heritage)