Sophistry: 1. A subtle, tricky, superficially plausible but generally fallacious method of reasoning. 2. A false argument; sophism.Dictionary.com (Online)
“At present, ASUU wants the Federal Government to pay N92bn in extra allowances, when the resources are not there, and when we are working to integrate past increases in pensions. We need to make choices in this country as we arOe getting to the stage where recurrent expenditures take the bulk of our resources and people get paid, but can do no work.” Dr. (Mrs.) Okonjo-Iweala, Address to the National Council on Finance and Economic Development, Minna.
In March 2012 shortly after the nationwide strike against the oil subsidy removal by the Jonathan administration in which she is a key cabinet member, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala made a revelation in an article that was published in the March 3, 2012 issue of that iconic newsmagazine of British and global finance capitalism, The Economist.
The revelation considerably startled the writer of the article. It certainly startled me, so much so that I have never forgotten it. What was this revelation? It was a bluntly stated assertion that corruption and waste were so endemic to Nigerian politics and governance that she, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, would be satisfied if by the end of her current tenure in 2015 as the nation’s Finance Minister she would have cleaned up as much – or as little – as 4% of the waste, mismanagement and corruption in the affairs of the Nigerian government. 4%? Yes, 4%.
When I came across this figure of the pace in which our Minister of Finance and the Coordinating Minster for the economy thought corruption and mismanagement could realistically be cleaned from Nigerian governance, I read and re-read the article, thinking that, surely, there was an irony, a hidden meaning or perhaps a playful signification on the usually inflated claims of the statistical sciences intended in that 4% target.
But there was no irony, no sarcasm and no ludic intent of any kind in the bar Dr. Okonjo-Iweala had set herself. This is because, as totally absurd as it may seem to ordinary folks like you and me, in the reified calculus of the technocratic gurus that run the nations and business conglomerates of the world, 4% of trillions upon trillions of naira – especially in the context of the monumental swampland of Nigerian corruption – is very consequential. You and I might think that the 96% that remains after 4% might have been reduced means that so much has been taken out of our national coffers that could have considerably made life easier for millions of Nigerians now and in the years head. But the technocratic mind – or more precisely the kind of technocratic mind embodied by our Minister of Finance – does not see things the way we see it. You may call it a form of cynicism that expresses itself as a professional ethos, but to the kind of technocratic rationality we encounter here, 4% recovered in five years is good enough.
This, I suggest, goes to the heart of Okonjo-Iweala’s presuppositions in her strident attack on the ASUU strike earlier this week. In the justifiable rush to condemn the Finance Minister for her intervention the ASUU-Government negotiations, I suggest that it is in our best interest to pay attention to where Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is coming from, specifically to the kind of technocratic sophistry that underpins her reasoning and conclusions. But before getting to this point, a full disclosure of the sources and nature my interest in the matter is necessary, for I am far from being an intellectually detached observer or a dispassionate commentator on the case.
As perhaps some of the readers of this column know, I was the National President of ASUU some 30 years ago, precisely between 1980 and 1982. And when I was succeeded by the late Mahmud Modibbo Tukur, I served as ASUU’s Immediate Past President (IPP) between 1982 and 1986. Moreover, between 1984 and 1987, I served as ASUU’s representative on the Central Working Committee (CWC) of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC). I mention all of this background not only to show and declare my strong connections and solidarity with ASUU but also to indicate that in the course of my work in ASUU, I came across many bureaucrats and technocrats, in government, among employers of labour, in the universities and other tertiary institutions themselves – and even within the rank and file of ASUU membership!
I mention this last point deliberately because I think it would be a mistake not to recognise that the likes of Dr. Okonjo-Iweala do not constitute an aberration but are, rather, a part of the corps of elite bureaucrats in charge of the management and administration of the affairs of this world. The word “technocrat” is indeed an appropriate indication of the elite status of this corps of bureaucrats.
Dear reader, look at the suffix “crat” in the following terms: democrat; plutocrat; aristocrat. In all of these cases, that suffix lends a seal of respectable identity and pedigree to each term. In the particular case of technocrats, they are – and are regarded as – the cream of the bureaucrats that run the nations, business empires and international organisations of the planet. And we must recognise this: within this demographically tiny elite group in our world, Okonjo-Iweala is among the most celebrated, the most sought after, a fact that she never lets anyone, her fellow cabinet members included, forget. What Okonjo-Iweala does not recognise, what in fact we must not let her and technocrats like her ever forget, is the fact that technocrats and technocracy often get things horribly wrong in our world at the cost of a lot of needless hardship and suffering of hundreds of millions of ordinary folks.
To speak to this last claim, think of the following fact that has almost entirely been missed in the justifiable outrage that the Finance Minister’s intervention in the ASUU strike has caused: the very day before Okonjo-Iweala made her statement about the federal government’s impossibility of meeting ASUU’s demands, she held a press briefing at Abuja in which she informed the world and the nation of the efforts – the technocratic efforts, I might add – that her Ministry had been making to reduce corruption, waste and mismanagement in those arms of government and parastatals known as the MDAs (Ministries, Departments and Agencies).
In that press briefing, she was very sanguine about the successes that her Ministry was beginning to make, against all the odds. She mentioned that she had set up two bodies that henceforth would ensure the full rationalisation of the operations of all the MDAs, all the personnel of these government units, together with their activities. Here are the names of these two bodies, both reeking with a maximum of technocratic smarminess: IPPIS – which stands for Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information Systems; and GIFMIS – which in turn stands for Government Integrated Financial Management Information Systems. [Watch out all you government employees! IPPIS and GIFMIS are watching you!]
In the press briefing, Okonjo-Iweala also said that the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) had hired 53 consultants that would verify the accuracy and probity of revenue generating MDAs like the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) and the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) in their collection of revenues and remittances of parts thereof due to the government. To cap it all, Okonjo-Iweala at this press briefing last Monday announced that so far, 46000 ghost workers had been discovered and the sum of N53 billion naira had been saved through the work of all these technocratic instruments she had put in place. Hallelujah!
Quite apart from the fact that at this press briefing Okonjo-Iweala did not mention the name of a single public official or MDA that had been responsible for misdeeds and/or incompetence, the figure of N53 billion naira “saved” is worse than a joke; it is the expression of a kind of intellectual fraud and professional complacency that technocrats routinely perpetrate around the world, especially in the poor countries of the global South. Last year alone, an Ad Hoc Committee of the Senate on the oil subsidy scandal of 2011 found that the colossal sum of N2.58 trillion had been siphoned from the national treasury.
As I observed a few weeks ago, that sum represented more than half of the national budget for the entire country that year. The oil marketers that were illegally paid this humungous sum are not “ghost workers”; they are known, their names were published, together with how much each real or fake marketer was paid. And yet to date, not a single kobo has been paid back by these looters and not one of them has been arrested, let alone sent to jail.
As far as I am aware, Okonjo-Iweala has said and done nothing to recover any of that N2.58 trillion naira. Neither has she nor her Ministry gone after the huge pension funds scams that rocked the country last year and earlier this year. N53 billion saved; meanwhile the N2.58 trillions looted in the oil subsidy scam stand unrecovered and are perhaps are unrecoverable in the scheme of things.
In her defence, it could of course be argued that Okonjo-Iweala had told us exactly what to expect from her. She had told us that by 2015 to expect no more than 4% reduction of the monumental waste and corruption plaguing the land. To argue the case for this “defence” it could be said that technocrats are not police detectives; they are not enforcers of the law; and they are not moral crusaders. Their work is to make the machinery of governance work smoothly and efficiently, every cog in the wheel of management and administration moving along its apportioned groove.
Pressing the case for this “defence” further, we could accept the fact that in the modern world, we cannot do without technocrats; and Nigeria in particular needs able and conscientious technocrats to counter the deadweight of entrenched mediocrity and incompetence in the corridors of power and the halls of governance in our country. But the great flaw in the worldview of the Okonjo-Iwealas of this country and this earth is the idea, the belief that to be a good technocrat you must be “realistic”, you must content yourself with the 4% that you can reduce, leaving the moralisers, the idealists, the romantics and the would-be messiahs to worry about the 96% that remains. This in effect means keeping quiet about and acting as if unconcerned with that lion’s share of 96% that the looters get away with.
In conclusion, we need to anchor these generalised reflections in the specific case of Okonjo-Iweala’s extremely unconscionable intervention in ASUU’s negotiations with the federal government over the ongoing strike. Here, once we see clearly that the Finance Minister is basing herself on the assumption that only 4% of what is looted, wasted and mismanaged is recoverable, then we can perceive the fact that her assertion that “the resources are not there” is completely bogus and untenable.
For only by a very sophistical reasoning in which ASUU’s demands are reduced to the purely technocratic formulation of “recurrent expenditure” can Okonjo-Iweala assert that the resources are not there. In this case, the gap between sophistry and truth is bridged by the fact that her brand of technocracy is perfectly compatible with all the scams, all the looting going on in the administration of which is a major player in an alliance of technocrats with kleptocrats.
This alliance of Harvard and MIT – or Cambridge and LSE – educated technocrats with thieving, mediocre and unpatriotic politicians is, by the way, not unusual in the developing countries of the world. Since 1999 when our current failing experiment in democratic governance began, it has indeed been part of the justificatory myth of the ruling party at the center that notwithstanding all the unending crises we have gone through and are still going through, the “experts” have been recruited and will guide us to our destiny as one of the biggest economies in the world by the year 2020.
This is of course a fantasy. To make it a probability, we need to adequately fund our universities and their teaching and research staff. How ironic then that the one member of the present administration that embodies this justificatory myth more than any of her colleagues should be the one to whom the task is delegated to say, quite untruthfully, that the “resources are not there” to resuscitate our universities!
Biodun Jeyifo, first President of ASUU, is Professor of African and African American Studies and Comparative Literature, Harvard University. He wrote this article for his syndicated newspaper column based on the lecture he gave at the 79th birthday lecture of Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka on July 13