By Muiz Banire, PhD, SAN
Since the new democratic dispensation in Nigeria, the issue of the inclusion of ‘technocrats’ in the composition of cabinets at the federal and State levels have been a controversial one. Technocrats, as used and generally acceptable by the stakeholders in the political environment, are those with competencies in certain fields but are not politicians or active participants in politics.
Except at the local government level in which the cabinets are often populated by the politicians, at the other two levels of governance, ‘technocrats’ often featured prominently in the composition of cabinets. Should this be, or should not, remains a raging debate, initially within the political space but now across the strata of the Nigerian society.
It will seem historically that after the conclusion of elections and the emergence of a political party as a winner thereby forming government, the pattern had been that the cabinet would be filled with politicians or those who participated in the political activities of the political party.
The rationale then had been that the political class constituting the cabinet had been part and parcel of the political activities birthing the success of the political party, and, therefore, were in the best position to appreciate the issues that would be confronting the political governance of the constituency in terms of the manifesto of the party.
Again, as it used to be, appointments were rewards for participation in the political activities that gave victory to the political party. In this wise, it is seen as compensatory.
In addition to the above, the staffing of the cabinet with politicians was to enable other political party members that are not privileged to be appointed into the political offices to have access to those appointed, who then can feather their nest. This stems from the reality that in the course of carrying out political activities, this class of people must have met and interacted with those privileged to be appointed, and by that familiarity, unfettered access is created.
Here lies the wisdom in appointing the political party members to those positions. If the success of Late Alhaji Lateef Jakande is celebrated today, such cannot be divorced from this, as virtually all the cabinet members were grassroots people. The era of appointing ‘technocrats’ into the cabinet of governments crawled in during this current republic.
The argument for so doing is not far from the fact that the heads of government believed that the political appointees that are politicians might not be able to take some critical decisions because of their political tendency, and secondly that those cabinet members that are political could be easily distracted by the politicians. This is coupled with the presumption that the technocrats are experts in their areas of calling, that which is now desirable to compliment the government.
The issue came to the fore recently when the Lagos State House of Assembly rejected seventeen of the thirty-nine nominees of the Governor into the cabinet of the State. The House’s position, as inferable from the pronouncement of the Speaker, is that those nominees are not only unfamiliar with the party manifesto and activities but also in some instances have failed in the first tenure of the Governor to impress members as representatives of the people. Certainly, this has not gone well with some Nigerians. The truism in this or otherwise in terms of being a basis for rejection is not the concern of this conversation as I know some politicians featured amongst those rejected. The poser, therefore, as postulated above is, which side of the divide enjoys preference? In responding to this query, let me start by categorically saying that since my days in politics and government, I have always believed that the word ‘technocrats’, in the context of our discussion, is a misnomer.
I say this because if the criteria for regarding such people as technocrats is that they have competences in some fields, I submit that such competencies are never lacking within the political fold. Apart from politicians with such basic competencies, there are several other politicians with better qualifications than those regarded as technocrats. In that wise, I believe that if the threshold is that of special skills, they are in abundance in the political parties and therefore cannot be the basis of preferring such people. If, therefore, that was the basis of giving preference to those people hitherto, such can no longer hold as a premise. Somehow, probably due to the ‘lucrativeness’ of political appointments; seen in contemporary times as a short cut to wealth, so many professionals have migrated into the political arena. I am aware of multiple of bank managers resigning to join politics; just as lecturers even moved to join. Even in the remotest sacrilegious area of the bench, we have witnessed both serving and retired judges joining politics.
Military officials, serving and retired have equally joined the frail. So, unlike at the commencement of this dispensation when it could be said that there was dearth of professionals, same cannot be said now. To this extent, the justification for the inclusion of the so-called technocrats is presently untenable.
Consequently, if any person is now to be appointed as a technocrat into a cabinet, I am sure such person, with the required skill or competence, can be found in surplusage now in the political parties. Now, do you actually require such technical person in the cabinet to achieve the desired goals? ME THINK NOT. This brings me to the role of the civil servants in the governance of the country at any level. By the strict nomenclature, civil servants are actually the class of people to be regarded as technocrats.
They are so regarded because of the peculiar skills they are presumed to have in the different sectors of governance. Beyond the fact that in most cases, the civil servants possess the basic professional qualifications, they enjoy the preeminence of experience in their chosen fields. In fact, some of them are encyclopedia of their competencies. To that extent, they are the true technocrats that the government desires. Consequently, seeking out other people with special skills already possessed by the civil servants is only complimentary.
The point being made, therefore, is that possession of such special skills must not be a condition precedent to appointing a person before traction can be gained in governance. The basic question is what is the role of political heads as chief executives of their ministries, agencies and departments? To the best of my knowledge and experience, they are essentially political makers and administrators.
The essence of having the civil servants is to render technical back up to the chief executives in the implementation of policies. Basically, if the truth must be told, it is not the role of the chief executive to implement policies, even if he wants to lead from the fronts. Using my case as an illustration, I am neither a scientist nor engineer to have run the transportation and environment ministries in Lagos state and with all sense of humility, I sincerely believe I made a difference whilst in the saddle.
To show that it was not like that before, for example, Chief Ayo Rosiji, who was Minister for Health and later, Information, in the First Republic, was an engineer and later a lawyer but was never a medical doctor and he performed creditably well in both offices. That assigned administrative role to the chief executives is probably buttressed by the fact of their not being the chief accounting officers of the entities.
The civil servant, typified mainly by the permanent secretary is regarded as the chief accounting officer as he takes full responsibility for the implementation of all the policies and programmes agreed upon by the policy makers. Except where a cabinet officer or head of an entity decides to dabble into financial expenditures, they will not be primarily liable for the misappropriation of funds in their ministries, parastatals and agencies. Thus, to contend that a cabinet member must have technical knowledge of the ministry in which the person is to serve, except for the Attorney General specified by the Constitution, it will be a misplaced priority and a relegation of the expected role of the civil servants in the governance of the nation.
This will further suggest the incompetence of the civil servants, being an inefficient lot. If this were to be so, why did we not get rid of them and now know we will be replacing them with technical political appointees.
Why continue to retain them if they add no value to the system? Where this is not done, then it becomes a glaring indictment of the chief executives. If someone is not good for your system, why retain him if not that the chief executive himself is either incompetent or compromised? Again, why do we spend billions of naira in developing their capacities if their skills and competencies are not trusted? Is that not wasteful? My contention remains that substantial number of them are useful for the purposes they are required and must be relied upon, thereby dispensing with the mandatory need for a cabinet nominee to be a technocrat.
Therefore, we need to perish the thought that the cabinet and other chief executives must, as of necessity, be technically sound except where such is obviously inevitable. What happens to consultancy also? Can’t they be engaged as consultants where inevitable and desirable? What is paramount, in my view, is the administrative competence and ingenuity of such a nominee.
No doubt, possession of the competence can be an added advantage but must not be a pre-requisite. In fact, I have seen non-graduates in some instances delivering more than professors appointed into the same position, so what are we talking about? Hence, without losing sight of the controversy we are interrogating, let me state that the additional basis of appointing such nominees from the political space is the reality that they are closer to the people who they are meant to serve and therefore politically savvy. By their closeness to the people, they are supposed to have a sense of responsibility as they desire to have the support of their people and hence will like to perform in office. In concluding this conversation, I must also not fail to register the point that from my experience and in the light of bourgeoning cost of governance in Nigeria, it is getting close to start having part time cabinet members who just will routinely assemble to form policies and develop programmes for the technocrats, i.e. the civil servants to implement.
The import of this is that the cabinet members need not be full time public officials like the civil servants. This probably will further help to eliminate the exorbitant severance packages we pay them on disengagement. The further logic here is that such appointees are able to carry on with their trades without impairment. This is how genuine leaders that are out to serve the people will emerge.
These are thoughts we need to agitate further before the country sinks under the burden of recurrent expenditures. In all, it is my perspective that the insistence on the use of the so-called technocrats in governance is misplaced, and that where such is inevitable, such capable people can be gotten within the political parties. Except that politicians have demonized themselves as incompetent lots, even where they possess the competencies, there is absolutely no difference in their competencies and those people that are being sought outside the political parties. The regrettable thing is, no matter your skills and qualifications in contemporary times, once you venture into the political arena, you become tainted and cease to be regarded as a technocrat. What a shame!