A new reality is upon us. It is one in which everyone is scampering for safety. Safety valves are being triggered to save humanity. Whilst some countries that have prepared for the rainy days are not caught unawares by the Covid-19 pandemic, some are caught pants down. The latter category is where our dear country belongs. Nigeria is unable to effectively respond to this pandemic, not only in terms of health alone but in virtually all sectors. In the health sector, Nigerians across board, right from the parliament to the executive, all agree that the country does not have the wherewithal to confront this pandemic.
In fact, at a point in time, the Secretary to the Federal Government who doubles as the Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on Covid-19 had to confess that he never knew that the state of our health facilities was this bad. In the judiciary, hearings in the different courts have been suspended for more than a month as we never really prepared for virtual hearings, both in terms of legal framework nor technologically. In fact, in most of the courts that have attempted both e-fillings and recordings, let me mildly and courteously say the output has not been impressive to say the least. In the educational sector, we have not promoted e-learning and now, emergency and caricature mechanisms are ditched out daily to bridge the vacuum. In some cases, students must go and sit before the television or listen to radio broadcast to learn, or where able, join the unfamiliar e-learning platforms. This is in the midst of no light, no internet service.
Even where there is internet penetration, the epileptic nature will not permit any meaningful learning. Woefully in all these, there is hardly steady power supply to operate the devices and where there is, it is not affordable to majority of Nigerians whose children are to benefit from the e-learning, as sizable number of them are daily earners, self-employed and transporters. It will be regrettably recalled that the Minister for Power just recently declared that two-month free electricity is impossible for the citizens who were compulsorily locked down at home, just because some rich people will benefit from it. The Minister forgot that the percentage of these rich people is insignificant relative to the majority of the poor and vulnerable people in the country. He also forgot that pertinent to all Nigerians now is information dissemination, without which the fight against the pandemic is impracticable.
The modes of getting this information largely requires power to energize the equipment. He also ignorantly claimed that eighty percent of the poor people lack access to light. One wonders why we therefore need a Minister for Power! He, therefore, in his wisdom or reasoning chose to throw the baby and the bath water away. Who does this? Except a person devoid of holistic picture of a situation. He forgot that the same government he serves under the Ministry of Education expects all pupils all over the federation to learn through the devices alluded to above. If truly eighty percent of the children of the poor lack access to the facilities provided, then why invest in it? This shows the haphazard reasoning of the federal government team.
I can continue to replicate all these states of unpreparedness in all the sectors of the economy but suffice to just state that Covid-19 has helped unveil the weaknesses of our various institutions, including even our economy. The question is, therefore, how did we get here? A lot of write ups have attempted to address this recently but one area that I have not seen exposed is that of patronage and by extension, the incompetence of most of the public officials.
The country is haemorrhaging all over but this area is one of the deadliest areas that we need to treat, hence this diagnosis and prognosis. This area, of course, basically concerns the social scientists like psychologists, sociologists and others. Hope they will pardon my incursion into the area. However, as lawyers, we pride ourselves as learned because we claim to know virtually everything. Law itself is considered as an instrument of social engineering, thereby making myself a social engineer. An online dictionary defines “patronage” as “the power to control appointments to office or the right to privileges.” Patronage, in this regard, has multiple connotations or means of manifestation or by which it is exercised depending on particular situations, context or perspective. The commonest areas of manifestation in Nigeria is award of contract and appointments.
Imagine putting an incompetent person in office as a result of patronage, wrongful location of project due to patronage borne out of ethnicity, sheer irredentism or clannish nepotism etc. I am not too sure that patronage is a bad concept on its own as resources are meant to be allocated, appointment to offices are meant to be made as part of governance processes while privileges definitely may not necessarily connote allocation based on merit. It is where patronage is wrongly done and is injurious to our collective interest that it becomes worrisome. A further peep will reveal this fact. However, before delving more, it is important to point out that patronage in the public sector is mostly premised on political considerations and could be another manifestation of corruption or corrupt tendencies.
In the private sector, factors like corruption, ethnicity, religion etc. do not usually play pivotal roles or are not as pronounced as they are in the public sector. I am, therefore, more concerned about the public sector for two basic reasons. First, it is a sector in which I have had the opportunity of serving for some years and could see its evil effects on our general interests, and second, it is an area that concerns and affects all of us. Let me proceed by stating that I cannot confidently say what obtains in most advanced countries in terms of political patronage but I suspect strongly that it cannot be said to be totally non-existent. Again, I am equally not too confident that it is absolutely evil to give political patronage.
However, where such patronage is carried out to the detriment of our collective interest, then, we must be concerned. In other countries, patronage is carried out in a manner that gives major consideration to the collective or national interest first. Even where such is to be done, respect and compliance with due process is often adhered to. In award of contracts, for example, in advanced countries, contracts are not simply awarded on the strength of political considerations.
In Nigeria, I am aware that at virtually all levels, there are procurement rules arising out of the Procurement Act or Law depending on whether it is at the national or State level. These statutes are so robust to ensure clear award of contracts to competent hands. However, what do you find? Complete neglect or compromise of the process is the order of the day. The laws are rather implemented in the breach than observance. Where is the compliance officer? What is he doing? How can contracts be awarded without due compliance with rules and regulations?
Probably the compliance officer is in a trance or truancy. Not so much because he wants to be in all cases but because there is a superior directive that must be complied with if he still wants to retain his seat or, rather to his personal advantage, he is already compromised. What we then end up with is the award of projects to incompetent hands with the catastrophic consequences of abandonment, compromise of standards and/or poor project delivery. Where you are lucky, the project eventually gets delivered over an unreasonable length of time than contracted with costs of completing the projects several times reviewed resulting in over-inflation of budgets. Nothing still happens as we are a nation of no consequence since the offender ‘is one of us’ whereas several supposed beneficiaries of the public utility intended to be provided have suffered or paid the price of the delay, at times, with death. Hospital projects, for example, when delayed or stifled, have claimed several casualties beyond what statistics in nations of no records can cope with.
It is equally the case that road projects that take decades to complete have not only killed the economy in terms of man hours spent on the road without contributing anything to economic development but have made many travellers food for the famished roads. The interesting thing is that we have laws that are pretentious about patronage, the Independent Corrupt Practices Act, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission Act, the Procurement Act etc. The laws are there truly in the statute books but are incapable of self-execution and human agents that are to make them valuable and effective would seem to have abandoned their duty posts in many cases.
The price of incompetence is greater than the price of corruption. The relationship often is that the former is a product of the latter while the former in turn promotes the latter just like a son is a father of a man. In our ensuing discussion next, we shall adumbrate on this. Going further, the filling of positions in the country is another area of concern. For the tendentious tribal jingoists, ethnic irredentists, religious bigots and their likes, they will have to pardon me for I am not their fan on this. I believe that competence rather than ethnicity, tribe or religion must be the overriding consideration into appointments into offices. I have been advocating this competence question and I repeat that for our country to be cured of her ailments, we need to move away from quota system, federal character and their ilk. It is simply not progressive. No nation stays healthy on the strength of this. Reverse discrimination that used to be the basis of these mechanisms no more exists in our nation. The origin of the federal character principle and quota system was from the reverse discrimination principle in the early days of the United States of America. It is a concept with always a terminal date. It never inures in perpetuity.
In Nigeria, however, it seems now to be eternal as if a particular tribe or ethnicity has been consigned permanently to retrogression. In fact, in some instances, it is meant to be a form of affirmative action. From my interaction with all tribes in Nigeria, I am not aware of any tribe that is naturally disadvantaged, particularly academically, for example. In fact, in terms of employment, what is even required now is affirmative action. I am of the strong opinion that if all positions in the country are brought up, there are sufficient northerners that are competent to fill all without compromising standards. Ditto for all other tribes. The narrative is often given that would anyone of us allow an incompetent pilot from our tribe to fly us or a quack medical doctor from our village to treat us? I am sure certainly not.
Our attitude in this regard must change. I was recently contacted by several people on the recent teachers’ recruitment in Lagos State. The belief is that it is another patronage issue and I should be able to use my small clout to secure some patronage. I was expected to influence the recruitment of some people into the teaching service, certainly qualified or otherwise. My answer was simple. I would not do so except the person passed the qualifying examination. Why this reaction? Simply because my own children do not attend the public school must not mean that I must unleash danger on the children of the less privileged by aiding the recruitment of incompetent teachers to teach their children. A lot of us won’t think that deep before acting. We need this change of attitude urgently to save the system. The question is: why are we endangering ourselves in the name of patronage by appointing incompetent people to offices? In the midst of plenty competent hands, can’t we make do with the meritorious ones? It is my prayer that we need to have a rethink. If an appointment is to be made, ensure that competence is the yardstick. Nothing prevents a leader from appointing people he knows provided they are eminently qualified and prepared, both bodily and mentally to do the job.
The public is the beneficiary of such gestures. And that is why J. F. Kennedy was reported to have quipped when he was challenged for appointing his younger brother as his Attorney General by asking whether among his peers, he was not as qualified as any other person for the job. And the office of the Attorney General was a post Robert Francis Kennedy did not disappoint in holding as the balance of history may still be said to have tilted in his favour. Thus, where political patronage is carried out but with evidence of merit, one may only find a purely sensational criticism based on mere sentiments.
The critic may not find a foothold in the arena of public support in such a situation. Of importance and equally retrogressive is the idea of demoralizing and corrupting civil servants in the system due again to the issue of patronage. Some of these people came into their various organizations with zeal, focus and energy to deliver on their mandates with the ultimate intention of attaining the peak there. Some even undergo special training and capacity development sessions at their own costs. What do we find? At the penultimate level of their career, a person is brought from nowhere to head the organisation thereby demoralizing the existing officers. Sometimes, a cab driver in the UK, who failed at all efforts at home and thereby relocated to a foreign land and has acquired no useful training abroad other than dishwashing, is brought home by a political leader who feels that his primary obligation is to satisfy his friends and family.
Such a person is then appointed the Director General of an organisation required to provide an essential service of which the man is ill-suited as expertise in cab driving is not the skill required. With pretentiously horrifying phonetics and terrible jargons, he presides over the affairs of the State over his superiors who are only not fortunate enough to receive the same kind of political patronage he has succeeded in getting. And it does not take him time to drop the phrase “in the UK” (pronounced “you kayhee”) in order to intimidate the civil but unfortunate servants placed under him. I am not too sure that this same plague is not what is afflicting our sports performance in international competitions. A situation where excellent sportsmen and women are jettisoned in the name of federal character calls for urgent ‘repentance’ as such discriminatory act is even sinful, apart from being retrogressive.
At times, the country would have spent so much on developing the capacity of a number of civil servants without optimal reaping of any benefit as they are not allowed to put to beneficial use the knowledge they have acquired with sponsorship by the nation. The worst scenario is usually in the regimented forces like the armed forces, the Police, Immigration, Customs etc. where, once someone of a junior rank is picked for elevation in order to serve the parochial purpose of a leader, all his seniors are automatically retired! Little wonder most of the contemporary civil servants have resorted to illegally amassing as much material gains as possible in order to compensate themselves for the sacrifice of not attaining the peak. Another point of hemorrhage! Finally, our state of comatose as a nation today is, therefore, not unconnected with this enthronement and entrenchment of incompetence and parochialism in the system.
In the face of all these, the country will continue to be sick except we readjust. I am of the view that, as leaders, in whom public trust is vested in terms of allocation of resources, we can still patronize our supporters without hurting the system. I recall my days in Lagos State Government. We patronized round pegs for filling round holes. The beneficiary was the masses. When it comes to engaging politicians for the sake of patronage and to sustain their allegiance to the party, you can always join them with other competent hands that will empower them without endangering us. However, in terms of the core operators of the system, it is substantially a no-go area for patronage except in extenuating circumstances in which the peculiar competence is not necessarily required. And in such a situation, merit is still the watchword. At this juncture, let me reiterate the fact that if we agree that the injury or affliction of incompetence on our nation’s health is higher than the price we pay for corruption, we, therefore, need to double, if not triple our efforts in waging a war against this inimical patronage beyond that we dissipate on corruption. Recent harvests of death in Kano, for instance, in which several prominent names have been interned with their bodies, have shown that, as a nation, we need to reflect and retrace our steps. Notwithstanding the failure of proper records, higher patronage of cemeteries and mortuary attendants in the State has exposed whatever the State might be covering up.
A woman recently lamented the loss of her son-in-law on the social media in an audio clip that went viral on how our system was unable to respond to the gradual loss of his son-in-law until the young man became a victim of the ubiquitous Covid-19 in Kano. It was evident that as at then, there was no single test center in the whole of Kano and there was no single means of treating anyone who contracted the deadly virus. As if our leaders were under a spell to make their own human souls contribution to a witchcraft coven, they allowed the ignorantly joyous multitudes of Almajiri to continue singing Babu Corona until the latter proved its existence by taking the pride of the State. What a nation allows that? The lie of the land right now does not impress anyone. Thus, for the sake of our nation and generations yet unborn, I appeal that we turn a new leaf. As we lay our bed, so shall we lie on it as we are currently witnessing.
Dr Muiz Banire is a lawyer, politician, former Commissioner of Environment in Lagos state and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN)