As President Buhari is castigated from multiple directions over his request to the World Bank president to “focus” on the North of the country, combined with criticisms of his approach to the secessionist agitations, and allegations of bias in his appointments, there is a quote attributed to him which keeps popping up. Read it below:
“I hope you have [a] copy of the election results. Literally, constituencies, for example, that gave me 97% cannot in all honesty be treated, on some issues, with constituencies that gave me 5%. I think these are political realities. While, certainly, there will be justice for everybody but well, the party in constituencies that by sheer hard work got their people to vote and ensured that their votes counted, they must feel that the government has appreciated the effort they put in putting the government in place. I think this is really fair.”
As the article linked above points out, with the myriad issues facing Nigeria today and the accusations of partiality leveled at the president, it is, at the least, a most unfortunate quote to find attached to his name and one which I am sure his media people hope would go away post-haste. So, naturally, we will look at it.
But rather than trying to fathom whether the president actually meant the north-east which is facing a grave famine or whether he literally did mean the “northern regions”, I’d like to examine here the greater trend of Nigerian political thought.
Just to be clear, I am a firm believer that an elected official (any government official really) is to serve the people in their entirety, not just those who cast votes in his/her favour. The electoral process is a competition, no argument there, but it should be a competition between parties who want the best for everyone, they just disagree on how to achieve that. In that spirit, once the winner is decided, there should no longer be any kind of partisanship from the office so won. The idea, therefore, that the president is the “leader” of his party is one that should, in this writer’s opinion, be rejected most strenuously. But moving right along…
The Spirit of Compromise
If it is true that actions speak louder than words, then we can safely put proclamations aside and conclude that Nigeria is a country with one culture and one religion in the ways that matter. The culture in this country is patronage and the national religion is nepotism. Because when, as a Nigerian, you get into a position in a government agency, it is incumbent upon you to hire as many of your kinsmen as possible, indeed it is your duty. If you somehow manipulate yourself into an executive position where you have awesome powers, you reward your cronies by creating new parastatals and agencies for them to run as Director-Generals. Forget how the government is meant to pay for this new agency, it must learn to generate its own revenue somehow, usually from the poor citizen who ends up bewildered and overwhelmed by the number of agencies and offices that need to be paid in order to get a permit, else risk losing their small business, or worse. Now, keeping in mind that this is what is expected of any man or woman who comes into a political office, you can begin to understand the concept of “zoning” when it comes to presidents and governors.
For the non-Nigerian readers, zoning, in the presidential example, is the practice of the major political players where they all agree that a region of the country should produce a president for two terms before passing it on to the next region. I know, I know, it defies the concept of democracy, but hey, This Is Africa.
Zoning, at its core, pretty much does away with an idea enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution; the idea that, after a 4 year term, the people have a right to decide whether they would like a continuation or a complete and absolute change. It does so by essentially guaranteeing anyone who can win one term a second term in office, pretty much a case of “ELECTION DAY SPECIAL: Win one, Get one Free” because, as we have seen in the past, it is damn near sacrilege for a sitting president to be contested for the party’s ticket and the fact that we have only ever had one opposition presidential victory is not a coincidence at all.
That the opposition victory came at the expense of a sitting president who had defied (defiled?) the zoning agreement in the previous election is especially telling.
“No Nigerian arrangement is permanent unless that which has been arrived at by negotiated compromise.”
– Peter Enahoro, How to be a Nigerian (1971)
But apart from the unconstitutionality of the practice or its possible illegality, certainly its moral ambiguity, there is a reason why the zoning principle is acceptable to the ruling political class across the board. The claim that zoning is a practice initiated in the interests of fairness to all regions of Nigeria is patently false. Ignore the proclamations of “national character”, “representation” and the like; the true reason for the concept of everyone having a turn is because the political class have accepted nepotism as a norm in Nigerian political society and so, in the spirit of fairness and well-being for the entire country, they have agreed that everyone should get their turn. That way, the scales are expected to balance out but, if perchance they do not, then you can’t blame someone else; it is your fault for not knowing how to play the game. It’s a bit of honour amongst thieves or, better yet, reminds me of a friend who got robbed at gunpoint but the robbers gave him transport money (out of what they stole from him) to get home.
This is what is meant when you hear of how corruption has been institutionalized in Nigeria, all the way through our national discourse because, if every president or every governor was held accountable and expected to be fair to all, there would be no need for a zoning agreement. However, when it is accepted that everyone should tilt the scales in favour of their kinsmen then the only way for there to be any kind of balance would be for everyone to get an equal turn at tipping the scales and let God (and the volatility of international oil prices) determine the end result. I suppose it is a form of corruption democracy at its best. This country truly is a compromise in every way. Sure, we are corrupt, but at least we are democratic about it.
Peter Enahoro encapsulated it best in his 1971 classic, How to be a Nigerian, in the chapter titled “The Spirit of Compromise” when he said “No other sphere of national activity provides better opportunity for compromise than when Nigerians agree to arbitration, which in Nigerian parlance means a compromise between settling a dispute and reaching no conclusions.”
You can find a digital copy on Scribd, but here are a couple more quotes from the same chapter to buttress the point:
“When you summon a Nigerian, saying to him: ‘Will you please come here a minute?’ he will say to you, ‘I’m coming.’ In fact, he’s not moving. What he really means is that he will join you as soon as he can – which may be ages. Therefore, his answer is a compromise between outright refusal and rushing over to see you.”
“Civil servants are also a compromise between incivility and servitude…The civil servant is underpaid, which makes his service equivalent to servitude. On the other hand, the civil servant takes a razor-sharp tongue to work and will snap like the jaws of a crocodile at the least provocation. Thus, while he is not civil, he is a servant.”
But I would venture to argue that President Buhari came in on such a wave of popularity that he could have done away with the instruments of institutionalized corruption (call it what it is) at the time and been forgiven. Unfortunately, it appears he didn’t quite have his plans in order when he first stepped into that office.
Who We are in the Dark
And, while we’re on the subject of the civil service, I’d like to make a recommendation. I don’t think all that talk of “federal character” in appointments and recruitment shows what the true character of the federation is, but rather it’s designed to keep everyone’s cronies satisfied. Because the true federal character would not be an equal distribution graph for the simple reason that the country is not equal in most respects. It is well-known, if an example is even needed, that northern Nigerians are far behind their southern brethren in terms of education.
And so to my recommendation. In my opinion, every current employee of the government, as well as anyone who intends to apply for a position, should first have their details registered by an agency, perhaps the National Orientation Agency (NOA) or perhaps the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). That agency will collect and file your personal details like name, ethnicity, etc, and give you a randomly generated identification number in return, which you will then use in your application (preferably online) in place of all other details. In this manner, those tasked with hiring have no way of knowing the candidate’s name (which could lead to tribal or religious bias) or any other information and would have to make their decisions based on qualifications or (if they’re petty enough) where you went to school. Of course, they would be able, in this system, to get the identification numbers of their kinsmen for the sake of nepotism, but it is easier to trace and address a bias between people who know each other than implicit bias where someone hates you without ever meeting you. Finally, this is where true federal character comes in because, if the data is being held by the NBS or the NOA, they will be able to aggregate it and inform both citizens and the government what our true character is. For instance, if it turns out that there are distressingly few people of Niger Delta heritage in the oil sector, then the government’s job should not be to artificially inseminate more of them, but rather to maybe establish scholarships in the region in hopes of encouraging more young
people to consider a career in that field. Simply hiring more to artificially sex up the numbers does nobody any good. In this way we could begin to really address the problems facing Nigeria rather than just papering over the cracks.
The problem, of course, is that Nigerian politicians cannot afford to think long term. I say cannot afford to because, in a weird way, I kind of understand. Rod Sterling, the American screenwriter, is quoted as having said, “It is difficult to produce a television documentary that is both incisive and probing when every 12 minutes one is interrupted by 12 dancing rabbits singing about toilet paper.” In the same vein, it’s hard to think of and handle long term issues when you’re interrupted by electioneering and campaigning every 2 years. Yes, 2 years, because in Nigeria silly season starts halfway into your 4 year term, regardless of what the Electoral Act might say. Hang the Act.