by Ijeoma Nwogwugwu
Last Thursday, the Adhoc Committee on the Review of the Constitution of the House of Representatives, submitted its report on the Peoples Public Sessions conducted by the committee to let the Nigerian people determine what aspects of the constitution they would wanted amended.
One notable outcome of the public sessions was the overwhelming vote by the people not to include clauses in the constitution to rotate the Office of the President between the north and the south, and among the six geo-political zones in the country. The people also voted in large numbers to fill the Office of the President purely on the basis of merit.
Given the plurality of opinion for entrenching a culture of meritocracy as a basis for occupying the highest office in the land, I often wonder why the same cannot be said for much lesser offices in the country. This question is necessary in the face of continued agitations by one section of the country or the other for the occupation of certain offices the second the last chief executive steps down.
A case in point is the swirling controversy over the recruitment process for the appointment of a substantive executive chairman of the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS). Some sympathisers of the acting executive chairman of FIRS Kabir Mashi, as well others who would prefer that political considerations and not merit be used to determine the selection of a new head for FIRS, have been at loggerheads with the finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.
Indeed, the storm raised over the appoint of a substantive head for FIRS has even led to the institution of a law suit by one Max Ogar, an Abuja-based lawyer. Ogar, on behalf of his clients, is asking the court to declare the process of selecting a new chairman for FIRS as initiated by Okonjo-Iweala illegal.
He is contending that it is the exclusive preserve of the president to make such appointments and has anchored his argument on Section 3(2)(a) of Federal Inland Revenue Act, which vests the president with the authority to appoint any person of his choice to the office. He observed that the president had, in the last two years, appointed chief executives for scores of ministries, departments and agencies, including critical ones like the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, Nigerian Ports Authority and Independent National Electoral Commission, without advertisements and interviews. He further averred that the FIRS’ executive chairman’s position has always been filled by persons appointed by the president, subject to confirmation by the Senate.
To give fillip to Ogar’s suit, special interests from primarily the northern section of the country have also accused Okonjo-Iweala of only appointing people from either the south-east or south-south zone to agencies supervised by her ministry (they can’t seem to make up their minds which zones she comes from or favours).
To buttress their point, they have cited the Sovereign Wealth Fund, Debt Management Office, Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria, Investment and Securities Tribunal, Securities and Exchange Commission and even the Nigerian Stock Exchange, a private sector institution, as being headed by people from only the south-east.
Instructively, they left out other agencies not headed by people of south-east origin such as the Offices of the Accountant and Auditor-Generals of the Federation, Nigerian Customs Service, National Insurance Commission, Budget Office of the Federation, and even the Central Bank of Nigeria, Nigeria Deposit Insurance Corporation and Bureau of Public Enterprises, among a host of other economic or financial system government agencies not under the supervision of the finance ministry. Nor were they willing to acknowledge that the heads of DMO and SEC were put in place by Okonjo-Iweala’s predecessors while that of AMCON was headhunted primarily by the CBN.
They also accused the external consultant, Phillips Consulting, which has been contracted to undertake the recruitment search for the head of FIRS, of working to a predetermined conclusion to favour the dictates of the minister. But they completely miss the point.
The results of the Peoples Public Sessions conducted by the House of Representatives rejecting the inclusion of provisions to rotate the Office of the President in favour of electing a president purely on merit, notwithstanding, goes to prove our preference for speaking from both sides of the mouth. When it gets down to brass tacks, we often sink back to our primordial sentiments. And that, quite frankly, has been the bane of leadership in this country.
If it is widely accepted that the last chief executive of FIRS Ifueko Omoigui-Okauru, who stepped down a year ago, did a wonderful job and performed meritoriously during her stewardship at the agency, why should we be afraid of looking for someone in the same mold to consolidate on her performance and elevate taxation policies and inclusion in the country.
It should also be noted that Okonjo-Iweala would not have sought the services of Phillips Consulting without the president’s approval. Section 142 of the constitution also allows the president to “in his discretion, assign to the vice-president or any minister of the Government of the Federation responsibility for any business of the Government of the Federation, including the administration of any department of government.”
Moreover, it is high time we jettisoned the quota system, federal character or political considerations in determining who should occupy certain critical agencies of government. These should include even behemoths such as NNPC and its subsidiaries as well as NPA. That they are cesspits of corruption and are poorly managed, primarily stems from the calibre of people appointed to run them. These are revenue-generating agencies that are not just unaccountable to the people but even the government that set them up.
The more important question to ponder is if a certain section of the country is afraid to compete? The north needs to do away with its entitlement mindset and become competitive like the rest of the country. The north, more than any other section, has been afraid of and the most resistant to reforms of any kind because change rids the system of cronyism and over-dependency on patronage. If it suffers from a deficit of professionals who cannot compete with their counterparts in the south, then its leadership must begin to invest more in education, training and healthcare to develop its human capital resources and empower its people to commanding heights by dint of hard work and merit.
However, I do not believe that the north cannot present the right professionals for available jobs. I am certain that like all parts of the country, the north boasts highly educated and eminently qualified technocrats. Unfortunately, they are hardly ever pushed forward by the northern establishment to take up positions that place them at par with their southern counterparts. The well-educated people of the north are constantly seen as threats and considered polarising by the powers that be from that part of the country. The establishment is afraid that these northern intellectuals will challenge the status quo and turn the downtrodden (better known as the Almajaris) from which they derive their support and power base against them.
Well, it is left to the north to decide what it wants. It needs to do some soul searching and tell itself some home truth. This mindset of “its our turn to eat” through quotas is no longer good enough. For its sake and the rest of the country, it must seek for and fight for a system that throws up only the best. And this must be applicable to the north, south, east and west.
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Ijeoma Nwogwugwu