Screening for Loyalty

After the first three days in which more than half of the ministerial nominees have been screened by the Senate, Nigerians have a better idea what the nation’s current leaders consider their principal ideology when making administrative choices: loyalty.

Besides “take a bow”, “loyal” has been often-repeated  in the red chamber. It has featured more times than “competent”, “character”, “hardworking”, “integrity”, “accountable”, “transparent” or any other of that family of words job seekers typically need to have in their CVs to convince employers of their value. For legislators under Senator Ahmed Lawan’s leadership, the label that guarantees the product worthy of purchase is “Loyal”.

Which is not to say loyalty is a bad thing. Ministerial posts are political – before policymaking – offices. Because he couldn’t possibly govern all sectors of an economy by himself, the Chief Executive hands part of his authority to a select number of citizens to be in his place. They will ad-minister in his stead, pledging – when confirmed – to discharge the president’s duties as though he were there to do so himself. Taken in that light, it is not unreasonable to demand that whoever will accept to perform ministerial functions must profess fidelity to be a true representative of the president.

However subjective that may sound, it is the reality of politics everywhere. What distinguishes better democracies, though, is that loyalty is not loosely defined in such ways that turn it into allegiance to a personality cult. When Boris Johnson assembles a cabinet of core brexiteers (without parliamentary screening), the public expects they will be loyal to the cause of delivering Brexit, not to sing praises of his personality uncritically. When Donald Trump berates his Attorney General for recusing from an investigation into Trump (an ostensibly disloyal thing to do), the public’s reading is different.

Prioritizing loyalty has cognitive and performance consequences. You would tend to see your primary calling as a minister in terms of doing the president’s bidding. And because the president is significantly influenced by his party leadership, your policy choices and priorities are subject to review by his party’s kingmakers. The larger consequence is that the most effective channel for rising through ranks of political office at other levels is willingness to be a vassal. In other words, young people who hope to ascend high office in future must play down other competency factors; you simply have to be ready to do as you are told. This is feudalism. No democracy with hopes of development and prosperity operates this way.

Little wonder people rarely resign public office in Nigeria, unless to contest another public office. Under the doctrine of loyalty as the supreme virtue, to do so will be to mock the emperor’s clothes. What reason could you possibly have for resigning: Ideological difference? Unique views on implementing policy? Disillusioned with slow pace of achievement? You were not hired for any of this in the first place and to raise them will mean you were never loyal. A certain former Lagos stage Governor would know.

So why don’t the Senators, as members of an independent branch of government holding trust for the public, quiz according to objective standards of public service other than loyalty? Surely they could find out what the ministers would do to make their departments more transparent and accountable to the public. They could have demanded the re-nominated Minister of Education justify his potential re-appointment despite evidence indicating he deserves the contrary. One of the prospects could be asked to opine on the Government’s philosophy on equal justice and rule of law, in the context of arbitrary arrests by law enforcement and indefinite detentions? “Sir, are there circumstances under which you would be uncomfortable to stay on your role?”

Asking any of these, like meticulous HR staff responsible for the well being of a firm would do, would imply a higher set of guiding principles are considered necessary. For now, subservience to the chief is the instrument and end of being minister.

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