Our New Nigeria: The Role of Professionals In Government, By Kayode Fayemi

FAYEMI

It is unlikely that there would have been this much controversy if government positions were truly perceived in terms of responsibility and service rather than power, privilege and prestige. Our national struggle with graft is inextricably linked to the popular perception of public office as an opportunity for self-enrichment – a place to which we are invited to “come and chop” and to claim our own portions of the national cake on behalf of our ethnic groups.

Who is not a Professional?

This conversation about the role of professionals in government must lead us to confront the prevailing and competing conceptions of governance as well as to examine what we understand to be professionals in government.

Our society typically considers professionals in government in comparison to politicians in government. We entertain a false dichotomy between professionals who are credited with expertise in public policy and the mechanics of governance on one hand, and on the other hand politicians who are often perceived as mere jobbers trawling through public life for position and power, and who are mainly motivated by the possibilities of self-aggrandisement. While a problem-solving ethic is attributed to professionals, politicians are seen as janus-faced, opportunistic and self-serving. The devaluation of public service and politics owes something to this perception. This popular perception has made it difficult to understand and mitigate the often unhealthy rivalry that exists between these two important cadres of public officials supposed to be operating collaboratively in the public space for the common good.

The origin of the commonly held concept of professionals or technocrats in government can be traced back to the mid 1980s when technocrats supported by Western donors and the Bretton Woods institutions, came to power in a number of African nations. The belief in these financial institutions was that these technocrats in African governments, being impartial empiricists, would unsentimentally deliver sustained economic growth and development through trade liberalisation and structural adjustment programmes, thereby bringing about political stability and economic growth. The failures of the policies of that era owe largely to the fact that while the technocrats enjoyed foreign backing, they had little local support because they were ill-prepared to manage the expectations and frustrations of the people who were reeling under the effects of structural adjustment programmes and other anti-people policies of that epoch. The failings of the technocrats brought their inadequacies to the fore and showed them to be professionals who were experienced and skilled in the technical requirements of their jobs but who lacked the know-how in people management needed to succeed in public office.

Interestingly, society still continues with this false dichotomy to this day. We still have professionals who when given the opportunity, approach public service with an entitlement mentality. They pride themselves in their positions, often verbalising the cliché “I am a technocrat and not a politician” in an attempt to deflect the negative perception that trails the latter cadre. They elevate the place of superior knowledge over other important skills necessary to excel in public service and get comfortable in their own skin, failing to understand the dynamics of public sector leadership which entails accountability, accessibility and robust stakeholder management. Their arrogance thus puts them at loggerheads with politicians who see them as wanting to reap where they did not sow.

However, what some professionals in government fail to realise is that most politicians are professionals in their own rights, but just don’t wear it as a toga. Every now and then, our society is assaulted with the emergence of brigands to public office with no tenable track records in the practice of any decent profession, but the generality of our politicians over the years have belonged to one professional background or the other and are therefore also professionals. In so far as we understand professionals to be those who have spent requisite periods under tutelage and have garnered sufficient experience on the job to be considered adept, competent, skillful and professional in a particular area of endeavour.

Right from the first republic, most of our politicians have always been prolific professionals. From Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, our first president who was a qualified journalist to Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, our first prime minister who was a professional teacher to Chief Obafemi Awolowo who was an accomplished lawyer. The trend has continued through the years and remains to this day. The point of distinction is that in most cases the politician, though a professional in every ramification, has gone beyond the narrow requirements of his professional calling and acquired critical skills needed to function and succeed in any public sector assignment.

Representation Vs. Meritocracy

Exploring the place of professionals in government also leads us to inevitably considering the collision of two opposing principles of public service recruitment. On the one hand, there are those who believe in merit as the sole requirement for initiating individuals into public service. They believe that the public service should feature our best and brightest. On the other hand, there are those who believe that merit is wholly insufficient as a principle for recruitment and that representing diversity should weigh as much if not more in the constitution of the government. They argue that a strict application of educational qualifications and experience in recruitments would engender the hegemony of certain sections of the country as well as an ethno-regionally lopsided complexion of the national governmental apparatus.

Such an outcome, according to some polemicists, would be grossly injurious to the cause of national unity in a pluralistic society. Advocates of equal opportunity therefore crafted public policies such as the federal character principle ostensibly to guide the equitable distribution of public sector appointments to reflect the breadth of Nigeria’s diversity and to protect minority communities from domination by majority communities. In an ethnically diverse society, appearances matter and the government must not only represent the people, it must be seen to be representative of the people. This, it is contended, can only be achieved by fostering a sense of belonging by distributing positions to representatives of sub-national constituencies.

Some advocates of equal opportunity contend that a desire for professionalism, as espoused in the preference for competent individuals, and a desire for equality, need not be considered mutually exclusive. It is entirely possible to meet both demands. In reality however, over the past few decades the emphasis on representation has been trumpeted significantly at the expense of merit to the point where considerations of competence and integrity are a distant second place or not even any longer on the radar of concern.

For decades, recruitment into public service has been guided by the desire for a representative bureaucracy that expresses all of our diversity as a people. The constitutionally-enshrined federal character principle is designed to achieve this goal. Under the “Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy” first set forth by the Constitution Drafting Committee in 1978, the provision proclaimed that “The composition of the federal government or any of its agencies and the conduct of their affairs shall be carried out in such manner as to recognise the federal character of Nigeria and the need to promote national unity and command national loyalty. Accordingly, the predominance in that government or its agencies of persons from a few states or from a few ethnic or other sectional groups shall be avoided.” A similar provision was crafted in respect to both state and local governments. This idea was embodied in the federal character doctrine established in the 1979 constitution and retained in subsequent constitutions since then.

The notion of a representative bureaucracy that reflects the diversity of a society and the crafting of statutory measures to enhance a broader participation in the processes of governance is a laudable goal. Affirmative action programmes exist in various formats in countries such as the United States, South Africa and Australia. It is a mechanism for creating equality of opportunity in racially and culturally diverse societies, ensuring that social harmony is maintained. However, in Nigeria the pursuit of equal opportunity in the form of a representative bureaucracy has been conducted in such a way that it has negated merit as a factor in public sector recruitment. The recruitment parameters are circumscribed almost entirely by questions of identity i.e. the ethnicity, state of origin or religion of the prospective public servant.

Even promotions within the system are guided by such concerns. Obsessed with creating parity between ethnicities, states and faiths in the public service, or preventing the presumed dominance of particular groups, the small matter of who is best qualified or who possesses the requisite skills for the job, which should be the overriding consideration, is overlooked. The quest for ethnic balancing and sectional arithmetic in the public service including strategic branches such as the armed forces, the security and intelligence agencies and law enforcement administrations, has often led to the retirement of whole cohorts of officials in order to pave way for the “right person” to fill a leadership position.

An ethical reorientation today must have among its cardinal pillars a restoration of the idea of professionalism to governance, a rediscovery of the idea of government office as a place of responsibility and service of the common good, not sloth and entitled privilege. We must come to see government as an enterprise deserving only of the most exemplary characters. In short our entire conception of public service must change.

In the process, we have sustained huge losses of trained manpower, repositories of institutional wisdom and experience who should otherwise be serving as mentors to incoming generations. These ill-conceived manpower turnovers have also fuelled the loss of confidence within the public service. This explains the widespread lack of institutional memory that characterises official bureaucracies today leading to a distinct textural and qualitative difference between public servants of yore and their contemporary descendants.

Character, Learning and Corruption

Another issue we need to address is the prevalence of some highly qualified professionals, who scale many hurdles to be recruited into public office, bringing with them sterling qualities and great capacity, quickly learning the ropes of political sagacity and thus positioned to succeed, but who fall flat due to character deficiencies, and becoming enmeshed in mind-boggling corruption scandals. In a particular instance, a senior bureaucrat who was brought in to clean up the cesspool of corruption in a particular sector, and who was lauded for the professional way he was able to handle the important national assignment, blocking loopholes and saving the country billions of Naira, was ultimately found wanting at the end of his tenure for borrowing the template of sharp practices he uncovered in also illicitly enriching himself. He was no doubt a professional but was found wanting in character.

It is no longer news that corruption has assumed endemic proportions in Nigeria, with the foregoing scenario being commonplace. According to the historian Peter Ekeh in “Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa: A Theoretical Statement,” (Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 17, No. 1), this phenomenon can be traced to the legacy of colonialism that occasioned the emergence of a unique socio-political dynamic in post-Colonial Africa. In post-colonial African societies, there emerged the existence of two publics. There is a primordial public in which primordial, mainly, ethnic ties and sensibilities determine an individual’s public behaviour. Operating at the same time and in a parallel dimension, is a civic public, a colonially-created space based on civil structures like the military, the police and the civil service, etc, which is the centre of popular politics.

Both public realms differ mainly in the nature of their relationships with the individual. The individual feels morally bound to the primordial public of which he is a member. For instance, he may comply with its informal taxation in the form of voluntary contributions to ethnic associations and other requirements that enable ethnically-owned community projects. In return for his material investments, the individual receives intangible, immaterial benefits in the form of a sense of belonging or psychological security. The relationship between the individual and his primordial public cannot be defined by economic equations.

On the other hand, the civic public, the putative national space, carries no such moral significance for the individual. While many Africans contort themselves to help and sustain their primordial publics, they seek only to gain from the civic public. The individual’s relationship with the civic public is measured in material terms but is biased in favour of the former. While the individual seeks to gain from the civic public, there is no moral urge on him to give back to that realm in return for his benefits. Duties are de-emphasised while rights are squeezed out of the civic public.

The friction between both the primordial and civic publics lies at the core of the crisis of post-colonial nationhood and is a major engine of endemic graft in Africa. If there is such a thing as the philosophical basis of corruption in our society, it is the unwritten rule that inheres in the dichotomy between the two publics that enables an individual to vandalise and plunder the civic public for personal gain while attending to the primordial republic with a remarkably high sense of responsibility. We have seen this dramatised by the spectacles of officials either removed for gross misconduct or convicted in law courts returning to their home towns to be serenaded as heroes in a triumphal entry or awarded chieftaincy titles in their communities or even ranks in their places of worship.

The scholar Richard Joseph corroborates this point, arguing that prebendalism is the primary operating principle of government wherein government offices are perceived as prebends allocated to the elites purporting to occupy such positions on behalf of ethnic and sectarian constituencies. For these constituencies, the presence of a son or daughter in a government position offers psychological gratification through a vicarious sense of shareholding in the public square that can only be sustained by vigorously supporting their kin’s continued stay in office regardless of their actual conduct and performance.

It is for this reason that Claude Ake famously described the Nigerian state in “A Nation Dying by Instalment,” (Tell, January 11, 1993) as a field of conflict – “the arena where the different groups go, armed to the teeth, to battle for appropriation of what should be our commonwealth.” Within the context of a political economy based on rentier dynamics, the prebendal conception of public office is a major factor that explains the endemic levels of graft in Nigeria. As Tunji Lardner Jnr. once observed, holding public office in Nigeria is seen as “virtually a free meal ticket to instant wealth.” The Nigerian public actually “expects the public servants to fiddle with the till and it is almost with a touch of disappointment that the public abides a public servant who comes out clean” (in “Questions and Answers,” Newswatch, March 31, 1986).

This philosophy which succeeding generations of public servants have been socialised into over the years has to be expunged from our collective psyches if we are to make progress as a nation.

The Nigeria We Seek; the Professionals We Need

The recent controversy over the new administration’s appointments so far and the preemptive accusations of ethnic lopsidedness and bias reflect this perennial obsession and anxiety over representation at the expense of actual performance and service delivery. It is unlikely that there would have been this much controversy if government positions were truly perceived in terms of responsibility and service rather than power, privilege and prestige. Our national struggle with graft is inextricably linked to the popular perception of public office as an opportunity for self-enrichment – a place to which we are invited to “come and chop” and to claim our own portions of the national cake on behalf of our ethnic groups.

Given the clear commitment of the present administration to fighting corruption, it is also clear that a key component of any holistic anti-corruption campaign should be a battle to redeem the hearts and minds of Nigerians. There are changes that will be accomplished through diligent prosecution of official wrongdoing and reforms in the architecture of our institutions – certainly – the culture of official impunity can be dispelled once it becomes clear that for the first time in our recent history, there is a confluence of the political resolve at the highest levels with refined and strengthened institutional capacity to ensure consequences for bad behaviour. The certainty of punishment is one of the strongest disincentives for official misconduct. But ultimately there also has to be a values reorientation of the society at large.

Today, there are grand possibilities for change. To begin with, we have in the presidency two men who register very favourably in the integrity perception index. They are very worthy and believable vessels of the message of values reorientation. An ethical reorientation today must have among its cardinal pillars a restoration of the idea of professionalism to governance, a rediscovery of the idea of government office as a place of responsibility and service of the common good, not sloth and entitled privilege. We must come to see government as an enterprise deserving only of the most exemplary characters. In short our entire conception of public service must change.

…we have encouraged the politicisation of the public sector, its perversion as a zone of patronage where politicians can reward cronies and party loyalists with positions and the perception that it is a theatre of sectarian contestation by sectional champions purporting to seek positional advantages for the narrow constituencies and interests they claim to be representing. Indeed, the default assumption at the heart of the way the public service is run is that its purpose is simply “representation” rather than “service.”

President Muhammadu Buhari has already long expressed his intention to fill his cabinet with technocrats. We may interpret the term “technocrats” to mean “professionals” who bring experience, expertise and integrity to their respective briefs. He has also signaled his disdain for pork barrel politics and distributing government appointments as mere “jobs for the boys”. When a preference is expressed for technocrats in government as against simply lavishing public office on run-of-the-mill political jobbers, we are casting our vote for a knowledge-based, values-driven and ideas-oriented approach to managing our common aspirations. We can therefore infer that his administration will favour the rise of professionals to the fore of power and responsibility.

We must however ensure that professionals, who would be privileged to serve in this dispensation and after, understand the need to be equipped with much more than professional competences in dispensing their duties. A dose of humility is required by technocrats and professionals when they contemplate engagement with governance. It is not enough to be professionally qualified for the job; professionals need to purge themselves from the entitlement mentalities which hinder them from adapting to the peculiar environment of public office. In order to succeed, professionals need to learn the social skills and graces that will enable them function effectively in leadership positions in public service without necessarily making the full transition to becoming politicians.

Over the long term, professionals need a clean break from the prevailing philosophy that characterises our educational systems – the undue emphasis on certification above thorough education which only serves to produce professionals with character deficits.

The Case for Meritocracy

Looking forward to the new Nigeria we seek, only a meritocratic system can deliver excellence. By opting for the low hanging populist fruits of equal opportunity at all costs within the official bureaucracy, we have sacrificed the means by which we can achieve a truly equal society. Worse still, we have encouraged the politicisation of the public sector, its perversion as a zone of patronage where politicians can reward cronies and party loyalists with positions and the perception that it is a theatre of sectarian contestation by sectional champions purporting to seek positional advantages for the narrow constituencies and interests they claim to be representing. Indeed, the default assumption at the heart of the way the public service is run is that its purpose is simply “representation” rather than “service.”

Perhaps, the most tragic implication of the cavalier way in which the public service has been handled is that we are also sending a dangerous signal to the young about the relationship between competence and honesty on one hand and promotion and recognition on the other. Nothing destroys the work ethic like the idea that hard work is futile; nothing subverts public ethics like the idea that honesty does not pay. One of the reasons public service is not esteemed in Nigeria is because it is regarded as a realm in which factors other than merit dictate one’s progress and promotion. A perverse notion of affirmative action and entitlement feeds a sense of unfairness and grievance which ultimately saps morale.

Consequently, we cannot attract our best and brightest into the public service and so cannot but put forward the most ill-qualified or at best average products to undertake critical national tasks. This has also popularised the association of public service with mediocrity. The mediocre and ill-qualified personalities who rise to leadership positions become faces of the nation and degrade the public service even further. Many of our top public functionaries through their substandard performances have contributed to the poor reputation of the public service. It is said that we perpetuate what we permit and we receive what we reward. Mediocrity thrives because it is permitted and rewarded. Excellence will flourish and proliferate when it is not merely permitted but celebrated, encouraged and rewarded.

Conclusion

The task of national rebirth is not for government alone. It is a collective duty that requires the enlisting of every one of us. We must reestablish the foundations of honesty and diligence as the surest way to success. Thus, the role of professionals, not only in government but the larger society cannot be overstated. Too often, we see that official graft and nonperformance is usually aided by accomplices from the larger society, those who have learnt but whose characters have not been developed.

We must be reminded that in the pristine traditions of education and the intellectual grooming of succeeding generations, certificates from our citadels of learning are awarded to those who are considered worthy in both “Character and learning”. We must start putting round pegs in round holes, and entrench a meritocracy which enlists true professionals in every area of our national life, from the artisans to the public service to the private sector, even to the sanctums of faith. We must discourage the adulation of overnight successes and stop fawning after those whose rise cannot be traced to a process of disciplined tutelage, selfless service and sound character development. We must denounce many of those whose rise to the limelight was aided by corruption and deception – those intelligent rogues who profit from the misery of others. We must restore the dignity in labour.

We must rekindle the patriotic spirit that favours the common good over personal interest in every area of our national life, so that finally, government working with an energised and empowered citizenry can deliver on its promises of tangible and intangible goods by which the Nigerian people will know without a shadow of doubt that Change has come and a New Nigeria has been born.

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