The spirit of merit
Merit, that “quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward,” has a spirit. It is that spirit that compels us to reward or acknowledge the best mind or effort in a competition or an examination or a process of appointment. The spirit of merit is infectious, could be infectious. It could spur people into working harder, aspiring higher. The spirit of merit has a deep meaning for those who subscribe to it; it increases faith in the boundless capacity of the human mind. It helps to build organisations and society. It encourages people to aim for the best in all fields. The spirit of merit is always appreciated by sincere persons, by persons who believe that the man for the job should get it.
There are people who always strive towards excellence by working extra hard; such people do more than what counterparts do. They sometimes deny themselves of the pleasures of the world – lack of sleep, no drinking, no womanising, proper focus, frugal with money, no excessive consumption of food. Sometimes they are rewarded with a high performance score; better than the scores of others during the process of evaluation. Through ranking based on a set yardstick someone may come first or second or third till the last person in the chosen scale.
At other times, people who are naturally gifted than others always top the list of competitors for a job or in a race. Throughout our school days we knew some classmates who did not keep late nights studying as some of their classmates did; yet at the end, they would top the class because their level of comprehension and abilities are greater than that of others. Such persons may not be common; but they exist. In a normal situation the person who comes first is given priority either in getting a job or a prize.
There are times when the best person is not rewarded for his meritorious performance. At such times the organisers set different criteria or considerations, often underhand, for giving out the reward, or the job or the commendation. As a result, although a man came first in the interview, he may not get the job. Issues as frivolous and mundane as – ‘he doesn’t socialise; he is a loner; he does not show enough respect; she is married; she is conservative, he will not honour the existing (faulty) status quo- are raised and used against the person who deserves the position on merit. There are also some bosses who use merit all the time, no matter the circumstances. They are known for stressing merit. In giving out awards therefore such a boss would be trusted to stick to the declared criteria.
There are times when powerful interests either within or outside an organisation could put pressure on the organisation leaders or Chief Operating Officer. The pressure group could be financiers or big time depositors or powerful politicians or men of power. This is where compromise becomes inevitable – you either bow or be asked to leave the position. In our clime those who stand firmly against the pressure often suffer. Sometimes they are disgraced and humiliated and asked to go the moon to enforce idealistic values. Sadly, the available institutions are not strong enough to defend such persons. The man or woman begins to ask in a soliloquy: where did I go wrong? Should I have acquiesced? Where do I go from here?
It is true that sometimes a man who gets a position or a job or scholarship through merit could fail to deliver, or to perform very well on the job. This happens often in administration. A brilliant academic mind, for example, could become a disastrous manager of people, of men and resources. A man who got a position through merit could also be frustrated by some dangerous interest groups around him. Indeed, oftentimes a man of merit who stands shoulder tall over his peers could become a target of a vicious campaign of calumny. Yet, we cannot disregard merit. The same process of merit which placed the man in the position would also ease him out. Let the best person for the job or position, get it.
In a pluralistic or multi-ethnic society or in a society where some persons are systemically disadvantaged other criteria may be introduced. In other words, different percentages or points may be allocated to the variables or criteria. As a result, merit gets 70 per cent while other factors as a combine may form the rest 30 per cent. But if 30 per cent is allocated to merit and other non-tangible factors form the rest then a slide would begin. It may take a long time before the effects are felt.
A society which sacrifices merit on the altar of base conditions cannot thrive; cannot make progress. For example, if powerful interests simply impose persons without the necessary competence on the polity on account of their State of origin, the effect will be felt ultimately. Sometimes, political or ethnic or religious considerations make people sacrifice merit. What part of the country do you come from? What religion do you practice? What connections do you have? Are you a member of a cult? Which interest group do you represent? It must be said that in almost all societies and to some degree organisations and individuals stress some of these negatives in appointing people to positions. But suffice it to say that the institutions work in some societies better than in others; as a result excesses or failures can be checked before overall damage is done.
The spirit of merit is the proper spirit to guide a nation that really wants to develop its potentials. And it should not matter where the person comes from. Mediocre persons could become a liability to the appointing body and the appointees themselves. A mediocre woman or man who gets to the top through nefarious means would also like to encourage mediocrity. It becomes a vicious circle. In Nigeria, let appointing bodies know that even if they want to encourage national spread, the best minds must always be put forward. National financial institutions, for example, should not be managed by people who came to the fore only on account of their ethnic origins.
Finally, the point must be made that there are some institutions- national, State, or private- which require merit only. Such institutions must be respected at all times. We would be destroying the very fabric of the nation if mediocrity is entrusted with management of excellent institutions. In such institutions, particularly academic institutions which thrive on intellectual fecundity, workers build self confidence and go the extra mile to achieve milestones that are beyond the ordinary.