It Is Our Turn: A Discussion Between Mediocrity And Meritocracy




“I am by heritage a Jew, by citizenship, a Swiss and by make up, a human being and only a human being, without any special attachment to any state or national entity whatsoever “ Albert Einstein.

Mediocrity refers to a state of ordinariness, nonentity, and poor quality. It also defines a lacklustre and amateurish situation. Simply put, it denotes a performance that is below average. Most people, if they had a choice, would rather not be found in this definitive categorisation. Naturally, a system run on the basis of mediocrity will produce mediocre results. And it is a question of time for such a system to deteriorate and finally collapse.

Meritocracy on the other hand is a term coined by Michael Young in his book titled “The Rise of Meritocracy”. He used it to define an organisation or group where best people and ideas win. A system where the most capable and those with the best ideas take leadership to create value for all. It guarantees superior results and performance. Meritocracy favours knowledge and not ignorance. It encourages a competitive mindset and not primordial sentiments. It has no room for mundane and less important considerations like race, creed, religion and sometimes sex as a basis for selection or appointment. Able and talented people are naturally encouraged to lead with the understanding that they are more likely to create value for the benefit of society. Merit driven people focus on how to bake the cake and not how to share it.

We seem to be institutionalising mediocrity on the alter of meritocracy in the country and it shows in the mediocre results that we get in most aspects of our national life. But our capacity for “insanity” seems to be infinite. Quoting Albert Einstein again, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”  Somehow, we know that the choices we have made in the past have not worked and we seem to expect that they will work some day and therefore seem to be reinforcing those same choices.

One area we have shown incredible capacity not to change is in what we call “Federal Character” I’m not sure that those who crafted the term knew that it would be extended to the limits where we are today with it. In seeking placements in the civil service or parastatals, federal character seems to be the guiding principle for recruitement. Sometimes I wonder what goes through the minds of those implementing the policy. It goes without saying that someone who performed abysmally in a recruitment test and has no clue about the requirements of a job is hired just because he comes from a particular area while someone who did very well and has capacity to perform better on the job is ignored. Even in promotion, some people insist on reflection of federal character. The implication is that considerations over and above merit determine who is promoted to the next level. Before you know it, such people assume leadership positions of such organisations and we may turn round to wonder why the organisations are inefficient and unproductive.

In admitting students into our institutions of higher learning, particularly those owned by the federal government, the institutions stick to a quota system which allocates admissions along lines of locality, educationally disadvantaged states, university discretion etc. We are not unaware that some people are admitted on the basis of merit. Here again we end up taking people who had low scores over and above those who performed very well in entrance admissions. This becomes more pronounced as demand for admissions keep outstripping the available number of spaces in the institutions. At the end of the day, we begin to wonder about and decry the quality of graduates our institutions of higher learning are churning out. Granted that quality is affected by other factors including funding, corruption, quality of teaching and research and examination malpractices, but a chunk of the blame is at the doorstep of the admission process in the first place.

When the process is floored and encourages the admission of mediocrities, it is very unlikely that the institutions would graduate brilliant people. When you garbage in, you will sure garbage out. Having sat at interview sessions in my previous life, I can assure readers that it has become a very herculean task getting good quality people from the pack of graduates coming out of our universities. There is no doubt that the entry of private universities has helped a bit, but some of them have joined our public schools in churning out half baked graduates as some are challenged by resources both human and material.

The greatest area where another term referred to as “zoning” or “rotation” is often used is in the politics of the country. Owing to the palpable fear of one set of people dominating the rest, our politicians introduced zoning into our political lexicon. Zoning connotes everything that is unwholesome. It speaks of tribalism, ethnicity, religion, sectionalism, discrimination and segregation. Some people will be quick to justify it by speaking about equity and fairness. While one is not oblivious of this, the questions to ask will include: how did we get to the stage where we have come to define ourselves along the lines of ethnicity, religion and tribe? How come where one comes from and one’s religious inclinations have become more important than what one can offer in terms of intellect and capabilities? Why have we descended to such a level that we do not care about the fact that when we place mediocrities in positions of authority, we have consigned ourselves to mediocre performance? What is the guarantee that fielding someone from our side of the country will ensure we get more than our fair share of the spoils of that office? There is no gainsaying that sometimes people wage the ethnic war without thinking about the full implications of their actions and how it benefits them. The fact that someone from your locality is occupying a position does not mean that you will benefit from that position.

The next point is that sometimes, those who push the ethnic and religious cards do so for selfish reasons. It is all deceit as some people have argued that most times when people are talking of zoning, they have someone in mind who will benefit from that arrangement. In some cases, once they have achieved their purpose, they tend to abandon the concept or at best be indifferent. It is more of an opium than anything else. Because a lot of our people are still gullible with limited education, it is easy to sell such garbage to them.

Like I had argued in the past, it is difficult to determine that zoning is finite. The point is if you agree that a particular position should be zoned to the south for instance, how do you determine which of the states in the south should be the beneficiary? Even when you zero down to a particular state, how do you determine the local government, ward, village, hamlet, family and compound? Today, it has become a constitutional matter that there should be a minister from each state of the federation. What was the sense in enshrining this in our constitution? As people clamour for more states, even though I hold a different view as I believe most of the existing states are not viable, how about if somehow, we end up with 50 states? Should we then have 50 ministers and think of portfolios for them later?

I strongly believe that we need to rethink some of the policies we have brought onto ourselves just to promote medieval sentiments. The National Assembly should begin to look at those laws and policies that divide us rather than unite us with a view to repealing and replacing them with nationalistic laws. These will include Federal Character, quota system and zoning. We should aim to promote excellence and merit just like the private sector and in fact, most other modern parts of the world. Our problem is not ethnicity, tribalism or religion. They are unfortunately used as smokescreen to promote selfish agenda of the elite. As I was concluding this column, I came across a statement credited to our former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar which is simply fit for purpose. Advocating an end to the indigene-settler dichotomy, Atiku had this to say: “A modern united Nigerian society can only be built on the basis of common citizenship for all based on residency in a state or locality, rather than the local government or ethnic group one is born into. Nigerians should be free to live, study and work anywhere in the country as long as they are law abiding”. I agree with him completely. As highlighted in Einstein’s quote above, it is high time we began to see ourselves as human beings created equally by God, placed in Nigeria to conquer the territory for the betterment of mankind. We should not define ourselves by where we were born, which by the way is an accident of history, but by the fact that we are brothers and sisters in the same geographical entity called Nigeria. We should harness our full intellect and capabilities wherever we find them to contribute positively to the benefit of all Nigerians.

I cannot end this piece without quoting my brother from another mother, the very brilliant and outspoken Emir Muhammad Sanusi II. In 2009, as the Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), he was speaking during the presentation of the book, ‘Nigeria, Africa’s Failed Asset’ by the foremost Attorney, Olaniwun Ajayi. He said: “Before colonialism, there was nothing like Northern Nigeria. Before the Sokoto Jihad, there was nothing like the Sokoto Caliphate. The man from Kano regarded himself as Bakane. The man from Zaria was Bazazagge. The man from Katsina was Bakatsine. The kingdoms were at war with each other. They were Hausas, they were Muslims, but they were killing each other.

The Yoruba were Ijebu, Owo, Ijesa, Akoko and Egba. When did they become one? You had the Sokoto Caliphate that brought every person from Adamawa to Sokoto and said it was one kingdom. They now said it is a Muslim North. The colonialists came, put that together and said it is now called Northern Nigeria. Do you know what happened? Our grandfathers were able to transform to being Northerners. We have not been able to transform to being Nigerians. The fault is ours! Tell me, how many governors has South-west produced after Awolowo that are role models of leadership? How many governors has the east produced like Nnamdi Azikiwe that can be role models of leadership? How many governors in the Niger Delta are role models of leadership?…There is no evidence statistically that any part of this country has produced good leaders…The problem is everywhere in this country, there is one Hausa, Ibo, Yoruba and Itsekiri man whose concern is how to get his hands on the pie and how much he can steal. Whether it is in the military or in the civilian government, they sit down, they eat together…The problem with Nigeria is that a group of people from each and every ethnic group is very selfish” Need we say more?