Merit and the people of the South By Lekan Sote

Merit and the people of the South

Those cry baby people of Southern Nigeria who (albeit justifiably) accuse President Muhammadu Buhari of skewing his first set of appointments to favour the North, or the North-West, should come to grips with reality, and align with the thinking of foremost agronomist, Dr. Lekan Are.

Pressure groups, like Afenifere and Ohanaeze Ndigbo rightfully hinge calls for more equitable appointments on Section 14(3) of Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution: “The composition of the Federation or… its agencies, and the conduct of its affairs shall… reflect the federal character of Nigeria… and there shall be no predominance of persons from a few states… ethnic or other sectional groups in that government or in any of its agencies.”

Section 17(2) adds: “Every citizen shall have equality of rights, obligations, and opportunities before the law.” And Section 8 of Part 1 of the Third Schedule of the Constitution empowers the Federal Character Commission to “work out equitable formula… for the distribution of all cadres of posts in the public service… the armed forces…, the Nigeria Police Force, and other government security agencies, and government owned companies and parastatals.”

The commission must also “promote, monitor and enforce compliance with the principles of proportional sharing of all bureaucratic, economic, media and political posts at all levels of government; take such legal measures, including the prosecution of the head or staff of any ministry or government body or agency which fails to comply with the federal character principles or formula prescribed or adopted by the commission.”

Despite these constitutional requirements the President picked his personal staff as follows: Four – his aide de camp; Chief of Protocol; Senior Special Assistant, Media and Publicity; and Senior Special Assistant on National Assembly Matters (House of Representatives)—from the North-West.

The remaining three – Chief of Staff to the President; Special Adviser, Media and Publicity; and Senior Special Assistant to the President on National Assembly Matters (Senate) – from the North-East, South-West, and South-South in that order. That makes five from the North, two from the South; a ratio of about 70 to nearly 30 per cent.

Also, the spread of chief executives of strategic, military, security, economic and interventionist agencies are: seven from the North-West; five from the North-East; three apiece from North-Central (home of Secretary to the Government of the Federation) and South-South; two from South-West; and nil from South-East.

That’s a tally of 15 from the North, and five from the South; or 75 per cent from the North, and 25 from the South. The Head of Service and the Inspector General of Police, respectively from the North-East and South-South, were appointees of former President Goodluck Jonathan.

Those with good memory will recall that no one from the South-West geopolitical zone was in the first ten positions of President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration – from the President, through the Vice President, heads of the two chambers of the National Assembly, their deputies, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Chief Judge of the Federal Appeal Court, SGFand the Head of Service.

Yet perhaps the only negative of that arrangement was that it excluded the South-West from contributing to policy making and execution at the highest echelon. Perhaps – because the South-West functioned effectively from the middle level and somehow produced the Vice President in the new dispensation.

It is interesting (and commendable) that Mr. President made these appointments by merit, rather than federal character, as provided for in the Constitution which the Oath of Office of the President requires him to “protect and defend.” It looks like this era of change will bring forth real changes. One is therefore worried that Southern Nigerians, who worship on the altar of merit, which got nary a mention in the Constitution, are angry with the President over his mode of appointments.

You must agree that this President, of Northern Nigerian origin, amply demonstrated that the North has academically qualified and experienced men who can handle complex government assignments. Those gentlemen are solid. He probably drew the first blood for merit…to intentionally kickup discussion for merit and true federalism.

Dr. Are reasons: “The problem with many Nigerians is that, on the one hand, they want merit, (but) on the other hand, they are talking about federal character.” He declares, “The concept of federal character should be expunged from the constitution,” and adds, “What we need are the right people in the right places, no matter where they come from.”

If you know the Yoruba phrase, “owo o kola,” money has no tribal marks, you can take Dr. Are’s argument one more notch up: That as long as the appointees are competent, abide by Section 14(1) of the Constitutionwhich provides that “The Federal Republic of Nigeria shall be a state based on the principle of democracy and social justice,” and therefore equitably allocate resources for the greatest good of the greatest number, “nothing spoil!”

Mr. President could go the whole hog, send a Bill to ask the National Assembly to expunge federal character from the Constitution, and replace it with merit. Concepts like quota, catchment area, and educationally-disadvantaged, which breed mediocrity, must be excised from Nigeria’s body politics. A man should not be placed above men to whom he is inferior on account of the spurious principle of federal character.

Do you know that only the individual that is unjustifiably appointed to a position beyond his competence (remember Peter’s principle), and maybe his family, close friends and associates, derive direct advantages from his appointment? The ordinary members of his ethnic group or region do not. Well, apart from the vicarious symbolism of having a kinsman in high office, and maybe token handouts or assistance for those who can reach him.

In addition to the Federal Character Commission, other such agencies, and especially the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board – the administrative bottleneck that uses quota system to make candidates with better results yield space for candidates from so-called educationally-disadvantaged regions, but with lower grades – should also be dismantled. And scholarships should be given on merit.

Nigeria’s tertiary institutions should revert to the old system of direct admission by merit, and without the encumbrances of JAMB. The recent crises in tertiary institutions erupted because some candidates with relatively higher scores, but from states with higher JAMB cut-off points, were denied admission, in favour of candidates with lower scores, but from so-called educationally-disadvantaged states. Surely, President Buhari wouldn’t approve of that.

But to run a merit-based democracy, like the model established by the Americans in the New World, there must be some kind of Marshall Plan to educate every Nigerian child to the best of his abilities. Only enlightened citizens can run a merit-based democracy.

To groom this calibre of citizens, Nigeria could adopt the multiple-intelligence model of Harvard University’s professor of education, Howard Gardner. It’s an all-round intelligence that emphasises language proficiency; logical-mathematical aptitude; appreciation of space that enables the architect’s imagination for use of space; and musical depth.

Others are bodily kinesthetic that enables the supple body for dancers and athletes, and dexterity of hand by surgeons and weavers; interpersonal relationships, useful for salesmen, evangelists, and politicians; and intrapersonal relationships, the source of self-confidence. Citizens with these kinds of capabilities are necessary for a robust democracy.

PUNCH