By Chidi Amuta –
This is political appointments season. It is also a season of migrations to Abuja and the various state capitals where there are new governors and overlords. It is the season of intense shoving and jostling for choice government positions. Predictably, there is a virtual stampede at the entrance door of the new administrations at federal and state levels.
Most hotels in Abuja and some state capitals are fully occupied. Hotel lobbies are brimming with all manner of fringe politicians and their appendages. Smart lobbyists are also making a kill in fees and back pocket payments from desperate job seekers. All manner of resumes are flying around just as lobbyists are having a hard time. In a nation of gifted artists, sifting plain idiots from the few who have anything to offer can be tough.
It is mostly an elite game. The elite is literally on bended knees at the feet of new political deities and men of power. It is understandable. In Nigeria’s peculiar ecosystem , politics is almost the only industry with guaranteed funding and almost instant returns.
As the hustling rages, the common folk who trooped out to vote at the polls in February and March have since moved on. Their hope and expectation is that the new leadership will use good people to do good things for the people. There lies the importance of this appointments season in the unfolding culture of democratic succession and seasonal renewals. But we need to put the season of stampede into context.
Since 1999, democracy has delivered two predictable dividends in Nigeria. There is now a fairly predictable calendar of national democratic succession rituals. There is above all the rise and consolidation of a clear political industry complete with all the features of a real industrial complex in a free market.
Imperfections and disfigurements notwithstanding, we now have a fair idea of what must happen in the political industry every election season of four- year cycles. The noisy campaigns. The festival of rallies and mob assemblies. The pageant of politicians in garish robes who address mobs of starving illiterates in English. The parade of aspiring messiahs and the reduction of our national hopes into party marketing slogans. There are of course the few good men and women driven by good intentions and lofty ideals. After the elections, the mournful processions of losers and their crashing ambitions drowned by the drums of triumphant winners heading towards immense power, wealth and glory.
It is not just democracy as a desirable imperative of nation being that is coming to stay. There is a more fundamental development. Like elsewhere in the ‘free’ world, the rituals of post election succession now taking place in Nigeria form part of the seasonal worship of something no one wants to call its real name. The deity in season is the goddess of the political industry. The season of appointments is the time for the selection of the managers and messengers who will preside over the state for at least another four years.
There is perhaps nothing to be prudish about this. It is only natural that those who worked for the electoral victory of the new overlords should expect compensation through this seasonal bazaar of appointments. But there is a logic to it all. You cannot have a free, open liberal political system without its corresponding economic equivalent. The ethos of the open market economy dictates that the political order also partakes of the manners of the market place. Or, better still, the political order must carry the imprints of its enabling economic environment. Open society, open market, free wheeling, dealing and stampede in appointments and trade in lucrative positions. Nothing out of the ordinary!
So, our politics has become a full- fledged industrial sub sector, a gigantic trading floor. Votes and alliances are bought and sold freely. Even personal integrity has a price tag and is up for sale. Political parties are run more like joint stock companies. In these parties, nomination forms for contests for high political offices attract gigantic ‘market determined’ price tags (N100 million for the last APC presidential ticket)! The prices are fixed by captains of the political industry and determined by the anticipated returns on the initial ‘investment ‘ recoverable in the form of pork and patronage when the ‘food’ of electoral victory ‘is ready’.
Beyond this drama, the real dividend of democracy for the practitioners may be the emergence of a political industry that remains largely unregulated. Yet, politics and politicians regulate and direct every other aspect of our lives. The political industry through its control of the mechanics of government is the ultimate allocator of wealth, opportunity and privilege. It owns and controls the public sector through the complex machinery of the administrative state. It also indirectly controls the private sector through regulatory institutions like the stock exchange and the Central Bank in addition to frequent legislative disruptions and interventions. The political industry has a monopoly of the awesome power of pork, patronage and elaborate rents.
As the political enterprise has blossomed into an industry, a big question has arisen: who regulates the political industry? This question has become urgent and necessary as the nation reels under a prevalent and crippling deficit of competence, accountability and responsibility among key captains and operatives of the nation’s power and politics complex. The appointments will be made all right. All manner of miscreants and a few people of honour will be named and sworn into positions bearing fancy titles and lofty appellations. But the nation and its governing state will remain static.
Appointments into our political industry are mostly not really about competence and efficiency. It is mostly about filling slots and extending patronage. This industry is an expansive all- dominating industry. It is a manpower dominant industry, employing a huge army of people with their own extended family of hangers on and subordinates. It is equally an influence driven industry. Most importantly, this is an industry that controls every other industry, regulating the environment in which others practice, thrive or wither.
The political industry is a super ordinate behemoth, one that determines its own rules and regulations, sets its own entry requirements, procedures and performance standards. For the nation at large, the choice of who leads us is vested in the political parties which act as insular clearing houses for the political industry.
We can only guess the precise size of this industry when we estimate the sheer number of elective and appointive offices and their correlates that have featured in the political cycles since 1999. There are at any given time, the President, Vice President, about 36-42 ministers, 30-100 presidential advisers (special, senior special, plenipotentiary etc),109 Senators, 360 House of Representative members (add at least 500 legislative aides), 36 Governors, 36 Deputy governors, about 540 commissioners, about 1,000 plus members of state houses of assembly, 776 Local government chairmen, 9,288 Councilors. There are probably more to count!
Take the total emoluments, allowances, perquisites, paraphernalia and benefits of all political office holders at the various levels of government and you begin to imagine the expanse, size, capital and recurrent costs of the political industry. A recent industry market survey has determined that official Nigeria alone buys more Japanese SUVs every four years than all the desert safari companies of the Gulf Arab states put together!
Most importantly, the captains of this army of political officialdom are responsible for determining the national, state and local government budgets. They allocate the resources, appropriate the funds and expend same on behalf of all of us!
Yet somehow, politics manages to disguise its industrial scope and status by focusing public attention on the myth and ritual of democracy and ‘service to the people’. This is further decorated with the rhetoric of representative government and public service. Sometimes, politicians have focused attention on the gaming aspect of politics, playing it more like a vicious but unserious sport. A few honest political animals will come close to admitting their role as ‘players’ in an all -important industry devoted to serving a nebulous client called ‘the people’.
But we can temporarily forget the myth of service to the people and focus on the controlling powers of the political industry and its operators on the rest of society. As leaders and controllers of the mechanics of government, politicians as captains of their unique industry determine the basic outlines of our lives and livelihood as private and corporate citizens. They determine your access to basic services, how much you will pay as tax and what will be left for you and your family. They determine how much you will pay for darkness punctuated by electricity, the quality of teachers that your children will be saddled with, what your essential drug will cost, how many toll gates will dot your way to your village as well as the size of your retirement pension if any.
Some people endlessly trumpet the relative independence and awesome powers of the private sector. The argument pretends as though the private sector is a self -driving machine of progress, a counterweight to an overbearing public political domain. That is false.
It is the political industry and their control of the machinery of government that creates the legislative and general macro economic regulatory environment in which the private sector can even operate. Even the boldest and most massive private sector investment and initiative can be neutralized overnight by a casual regulatory twist by the political establishment.
The political industry also happens to be the most attractive and profitable sector of the economy. It guarantees an out of this world return on investment. It powers the creation of new social classes at a rate that would make any business entrepreneur blue with envy. It used to be the belief that education or entrepreneurship are the quickest routes out of poverty. Not anymore. The political industry is the only one in which a destitute can leapfrog into the billionaires club in less than four years. A local government councilor or chairman can transmute, in a very short time, from a miserable jobless pauper into an upper middle class poster boy cruising around in fancy cars, living it up in five star hotels and jetting around the globe.
This is precisely because the main unofficial economic activity of the political industry is rent seeking and rent sharing. This is a complement to the allocation of pork as well as the privatization of constituency benefits. In Nigeria, political office holders tend to be state officials in the day and rent seekers and pork administrators at night. Due to the preoccupation with rents, a political city like Abuja is easily the most expensive piece of real estate anywhere on the African soil. Property prices and rentals as well as the general price levels for luxury goods tend to bear no relationship to the value of the item on sale.
This is not peculiar to Abuja. It tends to apply to most political capitals in the world. In the United States for instance, of the ten most expensive neighborhoods nationwide, five are in Washington DC. In a rent seeking economy, the proceeds come from an invisible trade in favours, influences and connections up to the highest level.
Like every other industry, our political industry has a monopoly of its own recruitment and entry requirements. The strengths and defects in the system are showcased by the performance of the leaders of today especially our imperious state governors. In all fairness, the system has also thrown up a few good men and women.
From this mixed bag of possibilities, the question that therefore arises is this: Are the captains of the political industry a special interest elite or just strange bed fellows? Are they recognizable by certain features beyond their garish costumes and humongous SUVs? Is there a unity of purpose, a solidarity of ways and means or some esprit de jouer among them as political players?
Let us make no mistake about it. Politics everywhere is about the allocation of pork and portfolios of patronage among contending political elites. But in admitting this truism, there is an overarching moral question. Where does enlightened self interest stop and the pursuit of the public good begin? The Nigerian collective mind is haunted by the imbalance between the instant prosperity of political office holders and the abject poverty of the general populace who vote at elections. Worse still, the poor quality of social service delivery to the public is a constant glaring indictment of the quality and competence of those who jostle for public offices in the country.
For the political leadership of the country, therefore, there is a pressing burden in this appointment season. It is that of appointing ‘fit and proper’ persons to ensure the highest level of service delivery to the public in all spheres of government responsibility.
Currently, our seasonal political appointments tend to replicate the same embarrassing incompetence that the public has come to associate with government presence in our lives. That has fuelled a tradition of public apathy and congenital cynicism about government among the populace.
But there is a way out. Appointments to strategic government positions in areas that drive service delivery and the overall efficiency of the state must be guided by merit. Politicians should appease themselves with private sector support and patronage. The core of national trained manpower and technocracy should fill the positions that drive a functioning republic. This should be the guiding spirit of this season of mass appointments into key public offices. The current crowding of the entrances of the corridors of power in a mass quest for mostly unmerited government positions (‘jobs for the boys and girls’!) should be abandoned.
Let the core machinery of the state be run by the best among us while politicians can reward themselves in other ways for enabling and sustaining a functioning republic.