Deep down, the debate over the performance of the chief justice at his confirmation hearing is part of a long-running national conversation about why we need to drive this economy by merit, and how to do it right. The questions that this latter debate has thrown up and our failure to answer them are worsened by the practice in the private sector.


Significant portions of last week were taken up by the public’s reaction to footage from the Senate’s confirmation of the current government’s pick for chief justice of the Supreme Court. Consensus seems to be that the candidate’s performance was below par for the course. In the one clip I stumbled on, the candidate stuttered, before egregiously mixing his metaphors. But it was a very short segment. And without having looked the whole conversation at the Senate over, it’s difficult to cashier the Senate — which went on to confirm him — for not being more rigorous in its confirmation process.

Still, though the clip I saw wasn’t enough on its own to prevent the candidate for chief justice from being confirmed, it raised the more serious question of how we staff important offices in the country. There is affirmative action — masquerades under the rubric of “federal character”, in these parts — as a route to higher office. Then, as revealed recently by President Muhammadu Buhari, there are the preferences of political parties. But neither of these explains why our public offices appear to be staffed by round pegs in square holes.

You may quarrel with the fact that our affirmative action programme lacks a sunset clause. You may even argue that the open-ended nature of the cheque it gives may have engendered in its recipients a sense of entitlement inconsistent with the larger aims of the programme. But no one can argue successfully that any part of this country completely lacks qualified personnel for the jobs at hand. And so, when favoured segments of the country must fill positions that fall to them by rote, they do the country a great disservice when they put placeholders forward. For our political parties, too, the same arguments may be canvassed. Yes, they suffer a surfeit of hacks. But they also have people who would succeed far better in the husbandry of national resources than has been our experience thus far.

That we have a serious vermin problem in Nigeria, both literally and metaphorically, is not in doubt. What we haven’t had, thus far, are good cats. Why? Because those responsible for this space have failed to dimension the problem properly? Or because, for the most part, they cannot tell a good cat from a bad cat..?


Not surprisingly, it is being suggested that an easy way to short-circuit the successive chapters of poor performance in public office this country has suffered since independence, is to advertise the different jobs that need to be filled. Thus, when it was time to appoint a new governor of the central bank, for instance, we could have put the vacancy in the papers, along with the job description. And then ensured a transparent and fair process for picking from a shortlist. How else could a Nigerian have ever become the chief judge of Botswana? At its basic, underpinning this perspective is a philosophy pithily expressed by Deng Xiaoping: “No matter if it is a white cat or a black cat; as long as it can catch mice, it is a good cat”.

That we have a serious vermin problem in Nigeria, both literally and metaphorically, is not in doubt. What we haven’t had, thus far, are good cats. Why? Because those responsible for this space have failed to dimension the problem properly? Or because, for the most part, they cannot tell a good cat from a bad cat, and have thus favoured the hue of the feline’s fur over its proficiency as a mouser?

These are not theoretical questions. They are practical ones, with immense implications for the management of our space. Deep down, the debate over the performance of the chief justice at his confirmation hearing is part of a long-running national conversation about why we need to drive this economy by merit, and how to do it right. The questions that this latter debate has thrown up and our failure to answer them are worsened by the practice in the private sector.

That the “underlying distribution of power among the constituencies” in Nigeria does not conduce to merit-driven institutions is increasingly a self-evident fact. Not so obvious is what we must do to break the feudal thought processes that are responsible for this malaise.


There, fancy consultants are recruited to head-hunt senior personnel, who then go on to act exactly as their predecessors did — in an ethical vacuum. Institutions in the private sector declaim their commitment to change — innovative products/services, efficient processes, and the cultural milieu within which these must take place — only for their recruitment processes to return into office new staff with traditional perspectives.

It is easy to argue that the market functions both as restraint to government excesses, and to curtail the anti-competitive behaviour of businesses. But, I’m increasingly persuaded that the goals to which a people expressly commit themselves to, matter far less than do other aspects of their governance. Raghuram Rajan argues, for example, in his book The Third Pillar that “While institutions matter, they rest on a bedrock of an underlying distribution of power among the constituencies in a country, which may have its sources largely elsewhere”.

That the “underlying distribution of power among the constituencies” in Nigeria does not conduce to merit-driven institutions is increasingly a self-evident fact. Not so obvious is what we must do to break the feudal thought processes that are responsible for this malaise.

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