It is time to restore elitism to Nigeria. Not elitism of privilege and ancestry but elitism of ability. Elitism of ability, in other words, means meritocracy and disrupting the system of nepotism, ethnicity, clientelism and unequal opportunity. The anti-elitism movement of the past was a necessary step in development to liberalise access and create a more inclusive and egalitarian society. It was not intended to aggregate incompetence or lack of ability rather it was to encourage equal opportunities not equal outcomes.

Today in Nigeria equal outcomes have replaced equal opportunity with devastating effect on state capacity. At the root of our complex state incapacity is the repudiation of elitism of ability. The absence of merit-driven recruitment and promotion process in the public sector is at the foundation of the collapsed state capacity to deliver public goods.

Starting from the security services, confronted by serious challenge from an initial rag-tag terror group the Nigerian security system unravelled. Years of poor manpower management led to desertion while the primary law enforcement agency simply disappeared. Complaints of poor intelligence confirmed the fears that our intelligence services were not so intelligent. It became obvious that there was no special fighting force to come to our rescue, we drafted soldiers whose basic instincts needed reorientation against a new type of enemy.

The police Mobile force was missing in action. Boko haram had long running successes in terror attacks, capturing towns and Local Government Areas and taking hostages at will. We talked about Sambisa forest but no one could go there.

In comparison when Colombia was confronted by insurgents, they turned to the British SAS in 1989 who helped set up the Colombian anti-narcotics police elite Jungla or Jungle squad to combat drug trafficking. The 526 strong Jungla commandoes are the elite police force, who many countries including Nigeria are turning to for training. The Jungla is an elite force which recruit and train only the best. The 25 course instructors are still involved in active front-line mission giving them needed credibility in training an elite force.

The rise of drug cartels and the rebel group, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), led the Colombians to review their game plan and turn to the British SAS to raise an elite fighting machine that is the pride of Latin America.
Today Colombia offers training to most Latin American countries facing drug cartels and rebel groups. In a news report in the MONOCLE magazine in 2011, four weeks into the training of 107 police and army officer from 12 countries, 11 of them had dropped out. At the end of the four-month training more than 25 per cent would have dropped out. A country confronted by insurgency and accepting that its current institutions are not fit for the purpose changed strategy and adopted elitism of ability where the best and brightest come together to deliver positive outcomes.

During colonial era, the British rulers founded Kings and Queens colleges to provide a training ground for Nigeria’s best and brightest, an opportunity to join the national elite due to ability and not privilege. Every country needs to create institutions which provides opportunity for its citizens to join the elite through ability. No nation develops without creating institutions based on merit and dedicated to defending or promoting the nation’s interest. Today both schools are not just overpopulated with a small fraction joining on merit, what we have is a shadow of a glorious past. A past where Nigerians from all walks of life, tribe religion, social and economic classes interacted due to their ability to pass the entrance examination.

On the other hand, Loyola Jesuit School, Abuja, a private boarding school run by Society of Jesus, provides an example of elitism of ability. Application has soared over the years with the school only accepting about two percent of applicants in a very rigorous selection process. The school has emerged as one of the best in West Africa claiming the best results in West African Examination Council (WAEC) and Joint Admission Matriculation Board (JAMB) examinations.

The Federal character principle was not designed to enthrone mediocrity. It was not designed to remove minimum standards and minimum pass score. Now, a burgeoning bureaucracy called the federal character commission had turned the noble idea to a national nightmare where excellence has been jettisoned at the altar of national sharing. No government institution in Nigeria is held out as a bastion of excellence, as an elite institution capable of defending the country in the face of economic downturn, sophisticated crime and terror attacks. In other countries agencies like Federal Character Commission talk about increasing diversity, encouraging those states or ethnic groups that are under-represented to take action to improve the chances of their people to compete.

If Bayelsa state, for example, is under-represented in the national bureaucracy the solution is not to lower standards for them but to encourage the state government to improve education and training in the state while creating programmes that will help Bayelsans and other under-represented states to increase access. It cannot be a permanent programme of lowering standards, as it will lead to weakened institutions. Educational institutions like Harvard, Oxford develop programmes to encourage diversity across all social and ethnic divides. It is not designed to lower standards but to create access.
To manage a complex and populous country like Nigeria will require a strong bureaucracy: competent, honest and schooled in a well-articulated national doctrine that will include the vision of building a nation out of disparate ethnic groups and showcasing an African success story. The bureaucracy must be dominated by carefully selected group of people united by shared experiences of meritocracy and competency based progression.

Recently I read that the Nigerian Police will recruit 10,000 police men based on federal character to create jobs for unemployed youths. They announced that the recruitment will alleviate youth unemployment. Who hires Police men to solve unemployment? Policing is a dangerous job, they kill and get killed. They have access to weapons and are trained to use them. Police men and women have access to intelligence and to our national security infrastructure. They enforce the law, investigate crime, arrest and prosecute offenders. They pledge to die in defence of the citizens. Is that a job for alleviating unemployment?
A thorough review of the Nigerian Police, not by former Police Chiefs, with a view to identifying the root causes of the failure of the Police is critical. Is the Nigerian Police too large to manage from a central point? Do we have the required infrastructure for modern policing? Is the recruitment strategy enabling hiring bright minds? What happened to the Mobile Police force that was supposed to be an elite enforcement and fighting squad? Is the Police independent? If not, why? Are the Police as presently configured capable of safeguarding the populace in the face of rising democratisation of violence and Information Technology (IT)- enabled criminality? Answering these questions and many more will lead to a reprogramming of the Nigerian Police. Reinventing the Nigerian Police cannot begin with recruiting 10,000 police officers. It will require, in the immediate, building an elite force that can start the renewal of the Police.

Nigeria is at a critical junction of existential challenges and weak institutions of state, to start tackling the situation will require far reaching and fundamental changes. A logical first step would be to return to a merit-driven transparent process of recruitment and promotion. Conceding that we cannot solve all the problems at once, we need to create special elite institutions and restore elitism of ability which will gradually cascade down.

Source: Nija Eyegermany