Bureaucracies and Political Parties as Pillars of Strong Institutions in Democracy

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Salihu Moh. Lukman
Progressive Governors Forum
Abuja

My good friend, comrade and political associate for over three decades, currently serving as Chief of Staff to His Excellency, Sen. Ovie Omo-Agege, Deputy President of the Nigerian Senate, Dr. Otive Igbuzor, posted the challenging remark on his Facebook timeline on Wednesday, January 6, 2021: “Strong institutions that are not corrupted and people of integrity who value their name and fear God. How do we build this in Nigeria?” This was in reference to the decision of US Vice President Mike Pence as the Chair of the US Senate and Congress to certify the victory of Joe Biden, the Democratic Party Presidential candidate during the US 2020 elections as President-Elect. At the time, all the eyes in the world were on the US Vice President, who is vested with the responsibility of announcing the decision of the US Congress regarding the result of the electoral college votes.

Given a reported twit by US President Donald Trump who was quoted to have said that Vice President Mike Pence has the power to reject the verdict of the electoral college, which returned Joe Biden as the winner of the election by a wide margin of 306 to 232 for President Trump, there was the anxiety that the election of the world acclaimed most powerful democracy is about to be manipulated and victory taken away from the winner. In a letter however, to members of Congress, Vice President Pence said, “It is my considered judgement that my oath to support and defend the Constitution constrains me from claiming unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not.”

This was what Dr. Igbuzor had in mind when he posted that Facebook remark on Wednesday, January 6, 2021. Noting that Mike Pence is the running mate to President Trump, everyone with a Nigerian or Third World mindset would imagine that it is impossible for Vice President Pence to summon the courage to defy what could have ordinarily been interpreted to mean an instruction from President Trump to his Vice President. To be able to resist such a temptation that would have prolong Mike Pence’s tenure as US Vice President for another four years wouldn’t have been made possible without incorruptible strong institutions, combined with the leadership of experienced people with integrity who have both values and the fear of God.

The question of how we can build that in Nigeria or may be more appropriately put, how US was able to achieve that is certainly an issue worth exploring or interrogating. The answer may lie somewhere around the submission of Fareed Zakaria in his weekly presentation in CNN Global Public Square of Sunday, January 10, 2021 with the theme “The paradox of democratic dysfunction”. Noting that in between the bad news surrounding the attempt by President Trump to subvert the will of the American people as expressed in the 2020 elections, “there is the good news hidden within it because this is a chance to renew the American promise”. The major highlight of Fareed’s submission was that all the events surrounding the contestations of the US 2020 election will lead to strengthening of US democracy and the US will emerge stronger.

How is that going to happen? A lot of the submission by Fareed, supported by respectable American former public servants and scholars, notably Collin Powell, Anne Applebaum and Ezra Klein, has to do with the optimism that US democracy transcend the narrow interest of President Trump. Beyond the issue of guaranteeing a successful transition, there is the strong possibility of late impeachment and probable prosecution against President Trump. No doubt, these are all taking place against the background of strong institutions. What are these strong institutions?

They are mainly the bureaucracies that coordinate the affairs of US government, which influence all decisions taken and also their implementation. Note that the results of the 2020 US elections represent decisions taken by the people of the US. In simple terms, the bureaucracy is made up of the US civil service and the different layers of administration at all levels of government. Part of its defining characteristics is that it is rule based, hierarchical with rational distribution of activities, disciplined and methodically oriented with written documents and files guiding processes of both decision making and implementation. Rules and procedures are clearly provided, which therefore constrain discretionary or arbitrary exercise of authority.

Given that we also have civil service and bureaucracy at all levels of government in Nigeria, why is it difficult to have our officials in government imbued with the kind of values and the fear of God demonstrated by Vice President Pence? Could it be that even when our leaders demonstrate such values, we are unable to recognise and appreciate it? Most likely. Without therefore deviating from the question of whether Nigerian democracy can attain the standards of US democracy, in many respects, it can be argued that there are ongoing contestations in Nigeria that equates to “The paradox of democratic dysfunction”.

Part of the issue is that it is almost always easy to recognise and respect positive attributes emerging from political contestations when it come from the advanced democracies, especially the US. But we are always quick to condemn political contestations in our own setting. Almost all political contestations in Nigeria are easily dismissed as either reflections of personal political ambitions of political leaders or being influenced by some primordial sentiments around religion or ethnicity. If the US scenario is to happen in Nigeria, there is every likelihood that Vice President Pence would have been accused of some surreptitious political ambitions or being influenced by ethnic or religious considerations, which based on US reality could be interpreted to mean some barefaced allegations of racial mischief.

Nonetheless, however considered, Fareed Zakaria is right, political contestation could manifest itself as “The paradox of democratic dysfunction” and if well managed could lead to strengthening of democracies. How layers of bureaucracies, are able to coordinate processes of decision making and implementation will be the determinant of whether the result will produce democratic strengthening. The fact that already, the US has certified the victory of Joe Biden as the President-Elect and the Congress is considering motion for impeachment against President Trump signal the high possibility that beyond the issue of sanction, US Congress may review laws and conventions guiding political transition in the US. Some of the conventional practices around political transition based on discretionary decisions of candidates may be strengthened to compel or at least minimise many of the reasons that created all the infractions against the expressed will of the American people as represented by the results of the US 2020 elections instigated by President Trump.

Rather than therefore ask the question of “How can we build this in Nigeria”, we should be more interested in how the issue of “paradox of democratic dysfunction” has been manifesting and why have our bureaucracies in Nigeria been unable to facilitate processes of decision making and implementation in ways that can strengthen our democracy? Somehow, it is very probable that processes of democratic strengthening are already taking place in Nigeria. Typical scenarios of “paradox of democratic dysfunction” were the cases of attempted third term of former President Obasanjo and the poor management of the sickness of late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. Remember the celebrated resolutions of all these cases by the National Assembly leadership in these two instances. Our desire for strong institutions may have not allow us to associate the resolution of those two instances that threatened our democracy with the presence of strong institutions. But it should give us hope that all is not lost.

Besides, given that the presence of strong institutions is a critical determinant of ensuring that responses of political leaders correspond to some minimum rational expectations, it may also be more practical to identify how our bureaucratic institutions can be positioned or repositioned to serve as facilitators of political decision making and implementation. That we are still advocating for strong institutions in Nigeria in order to strengthen our democracy, does it mean that the resolutions of instances of “paradox of democratic dysfunction” weren’t followed by corresponding review of legal and conventional practices guiding democratic decision making and implementation? Whether this is the case or not, the fact that many Nigerians are very much in agreement that our institutions are weak reflect an aspiration for stronger bureaucracies to guide and influence processes of political decision making and implementation in the country.

As things are today, our politics is largely insulated from influences by bureaucratic structures. Instead, it is our politics that dictate and determine the conduct of bureaucracies. To a large extent, this is not limited to government and the corresponding political structures such as political parties. Across board in the country, there is contempt for bureaucracy, to the extent that political leaders hardly regard organisational bureaucracies as sources of guidance for decision making and implementation. With the probable exception of big businesses, outside government, structured, rule based, hierarchical and disciplined bureaucracies hardly exist in many of our non-governmental organisations. In many of our civil society, trade unions, religious and traditional organisations, most of our bureaucracies are weakened, and appointees mainly recruited based on loyalty factors to leaders and therefore professionally unable or incompetent to consider any position other than the ones held by leaders of the organisations.

Our reality in Nigeria truly confirms the view expressed by Warren Bennis in the book Beyond Bureaucracy: Essays on the Development and Evolution of Human Organisation, “Cynical observers have always been fond of pointing out that … leaders who extol the virtues of democracy on ceremonial occasions would be the last to think of applying them to their own organisations. To the extent that this is true, however, it reflects a state of mind which by no means is peculiar … but which characterises all … citizens of democracy.” The view that our institutions are weak in Nigeria reflects basically the state of reality of almost all Nigerian organisations. If we want to have strong institutions in Nigeria, why do we prefer to have weak bureaucracies in our organisations? If we orient our formal life to be intolerant of rational conducts, which require consideration of objective rule-based proposals by bureaucracies, how can we have “people of integrity who value their name and fear God” to preside over implementation of democratic political decision making and implementation?

As it is commonly said, Rome is not built in a day, the foundation for strong institutions managed by “people of integrity who value their name and fear God” is derived from our commitment to nurturing bureaucratic practices and our compliance with expected standards that recognise and respect proposals to guide and implement political decisions. It is pretentious to expect to have strong democratic institutions at national level while at the same time undermining bureaucracies in our organisations. It is the same destructive disposition that individuals carry into politics, which re-enforces weak institutions.

The point is, if we are to have strong institutions that are capable of guiding processes of political decision making and implementation, we must broaden it to cover the development of bureaucracies in our organisations and how leaders are oriented to recognise and respect proposals and recommendations from the officials in our bureaucracies. As much as it is important to continue to advocate for rational decisions by our political leaders at national levels, if our advocacy for strong institutions is genuine, we should cascade it down to all levels of organisations.

In doing this, a very significant priority is the development of bureaucracy within our political parties. This is largely because given the role of political parties in producing political leaders, once our parties are unable to recognise and respect the value of bureaucracies to guide processes of decision making and implementation within the party, elected leaders that they produce would most likely go into government with a mindset that at best disregard proposals and recommendations from civil service and other government bureaucracies. This can only breed administrative authoritarianism, which as argued by Camilla Stivers in the book Bureaucracy, and the Study of Administration, “Administrative authoritarianism, officiousness, and arbitrariness are much more serious threats to the rights and liberties of the individual… The real protection of the citizens lies in the development of a high degree of democratic consciousness among the administrative hierarchy.”

For us to be able to develop the needed democratic consciousness among the hierarchy of our political leaders, we need to focus ourselves on issues that will support the development of strong bureaucracies in our parties. As things are, what exists as bureaucracies in our political parties are highly fragile and hardly guide processes of decision making and implementation. Part of the reason why there is always a lot of public debates preceding important decisions by our parties has to do with the combined reality of lack of competent utilisation of party rules in directing processes of internal party decision making, as well as the absence of competent personnel to guide processes of implementation of decisions. Almost every situation requiring political decisions is allowed to degenerate to the level of manifest “paradox of democratic dysfunction” before decisions are taken, which often get interpreted based on subjective biases even when rational considerations may have guided the decisions of political leaders.

There are many instances where decisions are taken by our parties but never get implemented. There are also cases where decisions are taken but implementation poorly done, which create new problems. Most times, it is very easy to make sweepy remarks about the need to build strong institutions in Nigeria. Even as committed activists and leaders, we reduced these issues to general remarks, which hardly focus on the important issue of building our parties as viable democratic institutions with strong bureaucracies that are capable of guiding processes of political decisions. The attraction or priority is always about processes of elections and who eventually emerge as the winner. Whether bureaucracies are able to competently play their expected roles in guiding political decisions and implementation is hardly the focus.

Had US Republican Party been contemptuous of bureaucracies, Vice President Pence may not have been able to discharge his constitutional responsibility in the way he has handled it in relation to the US 2020 elections. In fact, the support of many Republican Party Congress members in certifying the victory of the Democratic Presidential candidate, Joe Biden, as President-Elect confirms the strong institutional orientation of the Republican Party and the commitment of their leaders, including elected officials, to proposals and recommendations aimed at enforcing democratic standards coming from the relevant arms of government. These are the issues that should be recognised.

The question of how we can build that in Nigeria should therefore be answered with reference to how we can develop our parties such that they are able to have competent, efficient and effective bureaucracies to guide processes of decision making and implementation. This is where those of us in APC, including Dr. Igbizor, with the capacity to raise issues that focus the attention of our leaders to take the right initiatives must go beyond the simple presentation around strong institutions. We need to support our leaders with specific recommendations that can direct consideration to initiate processes of putting in place the kind of bureaucracy that would facilitate rational political decision making and implementation. Many often ask the question, will our leaders listen or consider such proposals? Such a question is already defeatist. The courage to make proposals must be founded in our commitment to engage our leaders and the democratic process such that proposals and recommendations are not assumed.

Other related issues have to do with our aspirations to ensure that we contribute to, in particular, the transformation of APC as a truly progressive political party in the country. Recognising the contagious influence of the PDP on basically the operations of all political parties in Nigeria, including the APC, given all its negative orientation being a ruling party for 16 years at the beginning of the Fourth Republic, which include encouraging the contemptuous mindset of political leaders against building a party bureaucracy, we must engage our leaders in APC with proposals that encourage them to recognise and respect the value of building a party bureaucracy. This will require some important initiatives, which include:

  1. The need to undertake audit of what currently exist as the party’s Secretariat, its functions and personnel. For instance, how is it structured to provide services to the APC as provided by the constitution of the party? Are there supportive rules provided for the operation of the party bureaucracy? How effective has the applications of those rules been? What is required to strengthen the rules guiding the discharge of functions of the Secretariat?
  2. How are the personnel of the Secretariat recruited? Are there standard recruitment guidelines, highlighting qualifications requirements? How can the process be strengthened?
  3. The third issue is the question of funding. How is the work of the Secretariat funded? Once funding is not guaranteed, it will affect the quality of personnel and also the proposals and recommendations which they make.

It is very easy to raise these questions but extremely difficult to get them to the level of actionable consideration by our leaders. The fact that as members of APC we can raise these issues present some advantages for the party. As far as PDP is concerned these are issues that are foreclosed. As a party, PDP has over the years lived in complete denials of all its internal organisational challenges. Therefore, the issue of building the PDP as a strong institution is limited to winning elections, as far as PDP leaders and members are concerned. If anything, the lived experiences of PDP confirms that winning elections is not the same as strengthening the party. Even with weaker parties’ elections can be won.

For us in APC, we must always celebrate the honest disposition of our leaders, on account of which they are able to recognise challenges and take appropriate steps to resolve them. In any case, given the request of President Muhammadu Buhari to APC leader as reported on September 13, 2019 following the judgement of the Presidential Election Tribunal affirming the victory of the President in the February 23, 2019 election when he urged fellow party leaders “to institutionalise the party so that when we leave, the party will continue to lead”, as loyal party members, we should be able to appeal to our leaders to respect the wishes of the President by taking all the necessary steps to institutionalise the party, which should be about the development of the party bureaucracy.

The starting point should therefore be to strengthen the commitment of political leaders produced by the APC to consider rational political proposals and recommendations as well as their implementation, once decided. As Nigerians, we must wake up to the reality that there cannot be a strong democracy without strong political parties. Once our political leaders are unable to orient themselves to respect and recognise proposals from the party’s bureaucracy, they will be weak in respecting, recognising or working with proposals from government bureaucracies when elected to office. There is no shortcut to these issues!

This position does not represent the view of any APC Governor or the Progressive Governors Forum

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