Ordinarily, last week’s appointment of Yusuf Magaji Bichi, a retiree of the Department of State Services, and the removal of the acting Director-General, Mathew Seiyefa, would have attracted little notice, and in all likelihood passed over as a routine exercise of President Muhammadu Buhari’s powers of deployment. Against the tumultuous background of the removal by then acting President Yemi Osinbajo of Lawal Daura, the former Director-General, who authorised an invasion of the National Assembly, however, the final chapter in a rich national political drama was bound to attract more than casual inspection.
Leading the charge against Bichi’s appointment was a group of elder statesmen from the Southern and Middle Belt states, quoted in the opening paragraph of this write-up. The group said that the recycling of Bichi, who hails from Kano State, suggests that “Buhari does not care a hoot about the unity, cohesion and oneness of Nigeria”. Tireless advocates of the political and administrative restructuring of Nigeria, the elder statesmen spoke candidly, in a tenor and vigour appropriate to an election season.
As a preliminary remark, let us remember that there are those like the late radical historian, Dr. Yusuf Bala Usman, who argue that public discourse in Nigeria makes too much of political appointments, whereas they do not significantly alter the material conditions of the majority of the citizens. According to this line of thought, the questions to ask are: Did the advent of a President from the Niger Delta region change the fortunes of that afflicted part of the country beyond creating a handful of billionaires? Has Buhari’s Presidency altered in any significant way the economic and social conditions of the deep North? If one can hazard a guess, the answer will be No, judging by the voluminous data on deepening poverty in both regions. So, there are obviously class limitations to the politics of , and hoopla over, elite political appointments.
That said, we raise the question: Do political appointments count? Yes, they do, partly because in a fragile nation, waiting to be built, appointments are symbolic and semiotic resources to build, or to divide the nation. Appointments can also be used to denote a moral compass, to the extent that appointees are mirror images of the appointing authority. The federal character provisions in the 1999 Nigerian Constitution specifically state that “The composition of the government of the federation or any of the agencies and the conduct of its affairs shall be carried out in such a manner as to reflect the federal character of Nigeria and the need to promote national unity, and also to command national loyalty”.
Of course, there is a debate as to whether the application or abuse of this bridge-building provision has turned federal character into “federal discrimination” as Prof. Sam Oyovbaire once expressed it. That notwithstanding, the constitution at least in broad terms envisages fairness, equity and sensitivity to our ethnic and religious composition in making key national appointments. That is why the lopsided appointments in the security department, where close to 90 per cent of the chief executives in the intelligence department, as well as service chiefs come from the North, has generated allegations of sectional bias and insensitivity.
To be fair, Buhari’s spokespersons insist that the extreme lopsidedness of appointments in the security sector does not represent the broader base of political appointments in the current administration. That point is noted, but it still does not answer the query why the security sector appointments are dramatically skewed, considering the importance of that sector. So, when Daura who comes from Buhari’s home town was removed and replaced by Seiyefa from Bayelsa State, not a few critics of Buhari argued that, in spite of the transgressions of Daura, the President in all probability would not have removed him, if he was in Nigeria at the time.
Seiyefa, many felt, constituted a breath of fresh air and technocracy in an environment dominated by politically oriented bureaucrats. Interestingly, Seiyefa, in a bid to reposition the organisation, reached out to the civil society and the human rights community, to show that the authoritarian and opaque ways of the past had gone for good. Another way of looking at Seiyefa’s reformist outlook, is that he had started to give the administration a new image and had brought into security a liberal outlook, more in tandem with the national and global human rights communities. Had Buhari retained him, he would have achieved several objectives, namely, he would have reduced the heavy concentration of northern appointees even if minimally; he would have directly associated himself with what can be referred to as the human and liberal face of the security department, and last but not the least, he would have endorsed the kind of competence that Seiyefa is acclaimed to represent.
Those apart, he would have shown that one does not need to be the good boy of any key figure in the administration to reach the apex job. There is a broader issue playing out here: Can Nigeria build a system in which hard work, merit, and of course loyalty in broad terms become the drivers of success? Is there a system properly so-called in the first place, that can accommodate high flyers who have no political agenda or godfathers? Too often, those who get to the top do so through cronyism, the composition of fawning and adulatory praise songs to the high and mighty, rather than on their own steam. Is the polity so unstable and uncertain that it cannot tolerate an outstanding personnel who does not chant glory to the boss every morning?
That is another way of saying that if we are to build institutions and if those institutions are to endure, we must somehow find ways of making them run on auto-pilot, supported by rational and meritocratic norms. Former President Goodluck Jonathan has obviously fallen on hard times, blamed for monumental sleaze that characterised his administration. Nonetheless, he once granted an interview in which he claimed that he never met Prof. Attahiru Jega, before appointing him the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission. Of course, not all of Jonathan’s appointments were as clean as that of Jega, who conducted a largely free and fair election that increased the stature of our democracy.
The point being made is that when important appointments are directly yoked to serve political interests, the system diminishes. Can it be true, in this connection, that Seiyefa’s removal and the appointment of Bichi is the handiwork of a cabal within the administration, which must carefully scrutinise all key appointments according to the criteria not made known to the public.
If that is the case, then it will be interesting and important to see to what extent Buhari will either free himself from, or become totally captive of this cabal, as he contemplates a second term. That is another way of saying that for Nigeria to turn around, it must enlist in a search for respite, all the devices of building credible and efficient institutions that can assist the journey towards a viable future.