Change, Politics

Seat Fillers or Potential Legacies?

In a hierarchical society, the goal of many persons is to someday get to the top. Whether in the public service or in the private sector, holding the top role in an organization is usually the ultimate aim. Having recognized this drive for the zenith, one wonders whether hierarchy should be treated as sacrosanct, or whether hierarchy should sometimes be ignored in the best interest of an organization. This is not a palatable thought, but in the interest of providing platforms for lasting legacies, it is a thought worth considering.

The past week featured questions and guesses about the new leadership of the Nigeria Police Force. As Solomon Arase approached his retirement date, commentators wondered who would succeed him as the next Inspector General of Police. The guessing game ended on 21 June 2016, with the appointment of Ibrahim Idris Kpotum as acting IG, pending confirmation by the Nigerian Senate.

Looking at the last ten IGs in Nigeria, only Ibrahim Coomassie (1993 – 1999) spent more than three years in office. The immediate past IG, Arase, only spent a year in office, a fate shared with his predecessor, and Ogbonna Onovo (2009 – 2010). Four other IGs served for two years, while two held the top role for three years.

A similar trend can be seen at the Supreme Court. Among the last ten Chief Justices, only Muhammed Uwais (1995 – 2006), Mohammed Bello (1987 – 1995) and Atanda Williams (1979 – 1983) deviated from the norm to serve for at least four years. The others served for either a year or two before being due for retirement. From these two organisations, it can be assumed that the trend would be similar across other government organisations.

The most stable organisations have CEOs that spend at least four years providing leadership and a roadmap for the future. The present Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts, has been there since 2005. If this were to happen in present-day Nigeria, maybe the sun would not shine for a year. The four-year tenure of the executive branch in Nigeria, beyond spacing election-linked instability, provides time for officials to get used to their new roles and execute their vision for a particular office. This cannot happen in one-year tenure scenarios.

See what happens when X becomes IG a year to retirement. X spends the entire year practically preparing to retire. X avoids starting new plans that need more than a year to execute, knowing that policy continuation is virtually a strange concept in Nigeria. Every action or inaction of X is painted by X’s knowledge that the end is near. Finally, X retires without any concrete legacy.

Nigeria needs to look at the reasons for top officials having little time to spend in office. Is it that the bureaucratic structure ensures that people are unable to reach the top until they have two days left in their careers? If this is the case, then our bureaucracies need strategic deliverance to ensure that brilliant, visionary persons can arrive at the top while they still have energy and useful time to make a difference.

Conversely, if we refuse to unwind bureaucratic bottlenecks to early career advancement, then we may need to offend the gods and overlook seniority in selecting top guns. What is the use of selecting the most senior person when such a person barely has a year left in his/her career? Such persons enter such offices simply to have their names on the list of those who occupied such offices. Whereas some persons may balk at the idea of overlooking seniority, it is already being done when political interests are involved. In more than one occasion, an IG has been appointed who had superiors in the force. If this is being done for political reasons, why can it not be done for stability and developmental reasons? Instead of picking someone already at the exit door, get someone who is capable and also has some useful time left before the sun fades on his/her career.

In a way, the new acting-IG, Ibrahim Kpotum, fits the bill. From his public records, he appears qualified for the job, and at 57, having joined the force in 1984, he has three years left before he would be due for retirement under both the age and length of service criteria. The question is whether he would be allowed to spend his remaining three years as IG. This question is important because his grandfather in office, Suleiman Abba, having spent less than a complete year, was removed with four years still remaining on his career timesheet. If Kpotum is given enough time, he “may” leave a legacy, but if not, he would be like the others whose names are forgotten once they retire.

“Soldier come, soldier go”. Whether it’s the police, the judicial branch, the army or an “ordinary” government agency, the change Nigeria seeks cannot happen if we continue to fill top roles without recourse to considerations of stable, visionary leadership. Short-termism has never, and would never help this country. Maybe when we start looking beyond cronyism and overt embracing of seniority, we would consider providing a platform for stable legacies, and stop enthroning seat fillers focused on maximizing their retirement benefits.

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