Between technocrats and politicos, By Uddin Ifeanyi

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If the all-in salary of a minister of (or is it “for”?) the Federal Republic of Nigeria is about N900,000 per month, then the debate around the Tinubu government’s possible cabinet goes beyond how long it took the administration to compile the list. And the respective competences of the persons on the list

the much bruited about case amongst our chattering classes for appointing “technocrats” to these functions. The “all-in” part of the salary conversation matters a great deal to clear the discourse around this issue. For many of us will remember that the Obasanjo administration monetised the in-kind benefits of most public officeholders.

Okay, so, N900,000 monthly is not enough to keep a minister in fine fettle today, and this was long before the price reforms embarked upon by the new administration temporarily upset things. Relentlessly rising domestic prices

the result of poor ministerial lists making lousy decisions on the economy’s outlook, and an inefficient process for ensuring that ministers are paid a living wage

— through regular reviews of their emoluments —

(again the result of indecent governance

) are to blame for this sorry situation.

All of which raise one question: Why would a Nigerian of means (and former governors in these parts, are nothing, if not men and women of means) accept (even actively lobby for) a job at compensation levels guaranteed to leave them poorer after office than before they came in? “Patriotism” is one possible answer. As an absolute proposition, the state of the Nigerian economy calls from those who run it for the levels of sacrifice, ideation, and courage last seen when Heracles diverted the flow of the rivers Alpheus and Peneus to clean King Augeas’ stables. In relative terms, stronger economic response functions, and hence, outcomes in South-East Asia, South America and the Middle East threaten to confine most countries on the African continent to the fringes of human progress, where we may then reinforce the most vicious racist tropes. All of which call for a new kind of leadership in the country, if not on the continent.

As is the case, when folks in the private sector describe taking a pay cut to join another company, nearly always, talk around the notion of “patriotism” is of the opportunity to do things differently, to create long-term value that eventually compensates for today’s temporary losses. In this sense, it matters that would-be members of the federal cabinet are persons of means. Or else, retired folk with children and wards out of school and profitably employed. Otherwise, confronted by the risk of gradual impoverishment that is a fact of life for most Nigerians, they would be tempted to find less-than-licit ways of augmenting their income.

Still, two facts make nonsense of this case for patriotism as the underlying argument for our would-be ministers’ choice of impoverishment, though. First, is that, as with most of their colleagues in the private sector, our ministers rarely ever create long-term value for the state. On the other hand, which is the second argument, there is ample anecdotal evidence that they nearly always leave office richer than they went in. Hence, our governments’ legitimacy is not a function of how well they better the lives of their electors. Rather it is in the degree to which successive policies rob the people of the capacity to act in their own interests

— and against bad governance.

How does this strengthen the justification for more “technocrats” in government? There is a very strong case for appointing as ministers to the health, education and finance ministries, and central bank, persons familiar with developments in these spheres worldwide, and who have given more than passing thought to how to productively translate those examples into the local experience. If nothing else, improved domestic outcomes (social and economic) depend so much on this genre of choice. Set against this need, however, is a story told to me by a fly-on-the-wall of one of the many transition committees that we have had since 1999.

Underwhelmed by the transition committee members’ insistence that the forthcoming federal cabinet comprise experts in the respective fields that government is composed of, one of the politicos in the session (who went on to become a minister) asked where these experts were when “they” spending oodles of naira (and the occasional dollar) criss-crossed the country canvassing for votes. Appointments into public office, he said, was the consequence of both loyalty to the party and its candidates, and recompense for their expenditure of money and time.

As the possible appointments to the Tinubu cabinet indicate, this remains and irresistible argument.

Uddin Ifeanyi, journalist manqué and retired civil servant, can be reached @IfeanyiUddin.

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