The Chief, Justice, and Merit, By Uddin Ifeanyi - Premium Times Opinion

Opinion: The Chief, Justice, and Merit, By Uddin Ifeanyi

22.7.2019

Opinion: The Chief, Justice, and Merit, By Uddin Ifeanyi

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 …

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 “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.

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. 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”.

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.

It is easy to argue that the market functions both as restraint to government excesses, and to curtail businesses’ anti-competitive behaviour. 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”.

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