A bit belatedly, I want to mention that I published an article in African Studies Review back in April. It’s called “The Politics of Technocracy in Fourth Republic Nigeria.”
The article grew out of my frustration, circa 2014 or so, with how some Washington policymakers and think tankers talked about figures such as Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, then Coordinating Minister of the Economy in then-President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration. Some in Washington wanted to classify Okonjo-Iweala as a technocratic reformer while portraying Jonathan as a corrupt bumbler, and they wanted to make a neat separation between the two figures. I repeatedly heard people wonder aloud how Okonjo-Iweala could stand to serve in Jonathan’s administration. For me, though, the whole idea of the technocrat is suspect.
Whether they like it or not, I argue in the article, technocrats find themselves caught up in a web of politics. Politicians use them, and/or they allow themselves to be used. Publics get angry at them. And technocrats are often tempted to enter electoral politics themselves, with varying degrees of success. Moreover, the technocrat doesn’t devise policies in a vacuum. Instead, many technocrats become the representatives of and vehicles for neoliberal capitalism – that is, for privatization, jobless growth, and slashing public sector jobs and expenditures. I see this pattern as a worldwide trend, but in the article I delve into the case of Fourth Republic Nigeria, especially the years 1999-2015.
I focus on six figures who have become famous in Nigeria and around the world. Here I’ll mention two. The first is Okonjo-Iweala, who served twice as finance minister, and who also had a career at the World Bank. The second is Nasir el-Rufai, who oversaw privatization efforts early in the Fourth Republic, then fell out of favor and went into exile, and ultimately returned to Nigeria as a politician.
The trajectories these figures followed show how technocracy is wrapped up in politics. One example comes from Okonjo-Iweala’s involvement, under President Olusegun Obasanjo (served 1999-2007), in creating a document called NEEDS (National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy). Although presented as a Nigerian-led effort, the document was created partly to satisfy the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as part of Obasanjo’s campaign to secure debt relief for Nigeria. In her memoir, Okonjo-Iweala acknowledged that the ostensibly technocratic exercise of drafting NEEDS became politicized. The document, she said, required “marketing” to the public in order to counter its “many critics, including those who felt that the strategy had too much of what they termed a ‘neoliberal’ Western flavor.” Later in her memoir, she wrote,
It was clear to me from the outset of the reform process and the formation of the Economic Team that President Obasanjo saw the team as technocratic and wanted to keep it that way…[But] as the reforms moved along, the idea that economics could be separate from politics and that the reform team could remain as technocratic as it was became increasingly untenable. We needed to explain NEEDS and the economic reforms to the lawmakers so they could understand and back the reforms.
Technocrats run into politics on multiple levels: their policies are political, their relationship with the public is political, and their interactions with politicians are political. There is no such thing as apolitical technocratic governance. You cannot simply ask experts to devise the “correct” solutions according to some economic orthodoxy, and then implement those solutions, without engaging politics. If would-be technocrats such as Okonjo-Iweala don’t have their eyes open when they go into government, harsh realities will soon compel them to open their eyes to the intermarriage between their own work and politics.
El-Rufai’s case is even more dramatic. Initially a protégé of Obasanjo, El-Rufai began to lose favor when he opposed Obasanjo’s bid for an extra-constitutional third term. When Obasanjo shifted his strategy, selecting a northern candidate (in keeping with Nigeria’s rotational politics) as a successor, El-Rufai found himself in a sensitive position. As a high-profile northerner himself, El-Rufai was seen – rightly or wrongly – as a potential rival to the new president, Umaru Yar’Adua (served 2007-2010). El-Rufai left Nigeria, positioning himself as a critic of Yar’Adua. During this time, El-Rufai acknowledged the limits of the technocratic illusion:
I think we all [on Obasanjo’s economic team] made two huge mistakes. First, we failed to appreciate that the political leadership never really bought into the economic reforms we championed, and accepted them only out of necessity. Second, by insisting that we were technocrats, we failed to get deeply involved in the political process and therefore got easily marginalized and policy directions reversed. Clever as we were deemed to be, we failed to realize that politics trumps everything, everyday!
El-Rufai did not make those mistakes again. Instead, he implicated himself more deeply in electoral politics, siding with the opposition in the 2011 presidential election. Between 2011 and 2015, he became a key opposition figure, helping to stitch together the coalition that ultimately brought current President Muhammadu Buhari to power in 2015. In his incarnation as a politician, El-Rufai won office himself, as governor of Kaduna. His tenure there has been full of controversy, but he has been more successful than some of his fellow technocrats who tried to convert their technocratic credentials into electoral success without getting their hands dirty in the real substance of campaigning, coalition-building, and deal-making.
The Nigerian case, then, shows that there is no such thing as an apolitical technocrat at senior levels of government. Voters should keep this in mind when they hear promises of salvation through technocracy, and Washington elites should keep this in mind when they are tempted to put technocrats on a pedestal.