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Bureaucracy, democracy and state potency

By Alade Rotimi-John
22 May 2015   |   12:08 am
IT may be proper to start by warning against any undue admiration for the system that produced our recent widely acclaimed political successes. There has been a most astonishing conspiracy of silence to maintain the illusion that the Nigerian system has come of age. Many commentators have tried, with unconscious humour, to put the best…


IT may be proper to start by warning against any undue admiration for the system that produced our recent widely acclaimed political successes. There has been a most astonishing conspiracy of silence to maintain the illusion that the Nigerian system has come of age. Many commentators have tried, with unconscious humour, to put the best positive complexion on the development. It is however important that we continue to seek or work for clear proposals to streamline the machinery of government.

Public administration in a democracy is required to be more efficient than our present prognosis indicates or foretells. It should be likened to the success of the great joint-stock companies, the success of which depended on a due mixture of special and non-special minds – “of minds which attend to the means, and of minds which attend to the end.”

Some of the negative connotations of bureaucracy as government by officials are corroborated by such perceptions of it as a combination of arrogance with servility, etc. It has acquired for itself the characteristics of unlimited power. Most times, the term “bureaucracy” is reserved for the case where officials control state affairs, as was witnessed during the period of military rule in Nigeria. The officials were simply the agents of government, the instruments of the dominant class. We are confronted here with a paradoxical situation of the permanent paid government official – that one who appears more and more distinct from the source of his authority, often in opposition to it and certainly devoid of charisma or is non-descript. The paradox: his involvement in power does not stem from his position in society; on the contrary, his position in society is derived from his place in government. It is important to understand this species of humanity as an inevitable feature of modern government.

At the pith or centre of elective government resides the government machine, the bureaucracy, the Civil Service. The functions and workings of this intricate mechanism are the product of convention, tradition and administrative practice. It is a moot point that it is unknown to the formal legal theory of the constitution. The real government machine (its operative parts, its personnel, its committees, its agenda, its conclusions, its ethos, its traditions) is shrouded in mystery. Its deliberations are concealed behind the legal fiction except in so far as the veil is lifted during open discussions or public hearings. The Civil Service being in fact close to the seat of power, its influence needs to be studied closely even as its operations bear some of the responsibility for what has been happening in Nigeria, particularly since 1999.

Except for the Law Officers of State and probably a coterie of professionals at the Treasury, Government is largely a government by amateurs, mediated and actuated into action by professionals. Britain’s Cabinet Ministers are experts. Few achieve Cabinet rank from the outside without years of apprenticeship in one House of Parliament and usually some experience of subordinate office. Even then, they too are amateurs. Their sole qualification to govern is based on a result of a general election and a real or presumed capacity to persuade parliament to accept or acquiesce in the decisions arrived at Cabinet meetings. This trial and error template to governance by political actors inevitably slows down the machinery of government even as it enlarges the surface area of the possibility of fundamental slips. So, the appropriately trained body of men and women referred to as bureaucrats [or facetiously called technocrats] stand in the gap permanently.

It is hardly possible to argue that this is an ideal system of government. It is a major fact in the ever-increasing remoteness of government from the people. We are burdened with a government by a bureaucracy of mandarins or powerful officials of high rank and their subordinates imposing on the people partisan policies devised by a government of amateurs who have achieved their position by a supposed majority of votes under an unfair voting system, bringing into parliament or the National Assembly candidates selected by local caucuses and having little to commend them but their party loyalties or their loyalty to the party’s totemic leader. Various types of remedies have been put forward; the political adviser whose main function is to dilute or weaken the control of the Civil Service by keeping the minister more strictly to the party line, a greater degree of fluidity between the Civil Service and industry, a less stringent entry qualification to allow for a wider geo-social panoply or coverage.

We discern the administrative class as not the product of parliamentary government, nor yet of democracy. It is however necessary to divine its origin. It came, [whoops!] from imperial China. Even though it may seem so surprising that an institution so alien and so remote is so firmly rooted in our administrative thought process or in empirical reality, the irony becomes less biting in the rave of globalisation or the reality of “the global village.” Without the administrative class of the Civil Service, our top-heavy, over-centralised and excessively intrusive system of bureaucracy would have developed into an intolerable fascism. It is due to this class that our government, at the best of times, has remained reasonably just or tolerably sensible.

The place of the paid official in modern society has received a great deal of academic and professional or learned discussion. It is an increasingly important type of social role, discussants are agreed. Its distinctive features are that the individual has specified duties to perform and that the facilities and/or resources necessary for fulfilling those duties are provided by someone other than the role holder. He is however imbued with ostensible authority. In organisation, it is possessed of a series of characteristics – precision, continuity, discipline, strictness, reliability, etc. It will appear that bureaucratisation is an inevitable process. The development of modern organisational forms in all spheres (e.g. state, army, party, the economy, interest groups, church, voluntary organisations, charitable bodies, etc) has been facilitated by this corps of brilliant modern public administrators. But its ways and methods could be an incomprehensible vagary of what modern social science is. At some extreme, public officials fail to make use of specialised knowledge. In the formulation and interpretation of policy, the official is expected to make use of the best sources of information and maintain contact with all levels of the public.

However, in the exercise of his judgment, the official is caught in a dilemma since “too great a compliance with statutory rules is popularly denounced as bureaucratic and too great a reliance on initiative in order to realise the spirit, if not the letter, of the law is popularly derogated as an abuse of power, or as interfering with legislative prerogative.”

Hordes of politicians and technocrats are today positioning themselves for the juicy perquisites of office; they are lying in wait for the return of business as usual; they are reminiscing the “good old days” of sleazy conduct in office and of those times when they took advantage of the crack or space in public morality and in the state’s political economy. They must be resisted or confronted in more decisive ways than one. The lessons of the limits of the effectiveness of state or of its administrative efficiency must be brought home to all who fate has placed in positions of authority over us. They must be taught to be suave, continent or self-controlled in their management of the commonwealth or even of their ambition.

We identify the limits of the effectiveness of the state or of the weakness of our system of government as consisting in a fawning, sycophantic legislature, an over-weaning executive and a weak or shackled judiciary.

• Rotimi-John, a lawyer and commentator on public affairs, wrote from Abuja.