The Politicization and Destruction of the Nigerian Foreign Service


The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) began as a department in the office of the prime minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, in 1957 with the name “Department of Foreign Affairs and Commonwealth Relations”. It was to handle all aspects of Nigeria’s bilateral and multilateral relations with the outside world, and, to successfully do it, only the best ought to be recruited. A colonial officer, Mr. E. J. V. Williams, headed it until shortly before independence when the prime minister himself took charge of the department up to May 1961.

In all the changes that had taken place over the years like changing its name from Ministry of External Affairs to Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the ministry has retained its unique and specialized character and mandate; and it has striven to maintain its high standard by attracting the best brains that any country can be proud to have.

In terms of recruitment into the Foreign Service, even at its infancy, only the best were recruited, and this explains why the first 12 rookie career diplomats recruited in 1958, later affectionately referred to as the 12 Disciples, were carefully selected and properly groomed for optimal performance.

The bar was deliberately set very high. After all, if the career diplomats are to interface with foreign diplomats who are also the best from their own countries, Nigeria should only present the best. The ministry has been involved in the recruitment of its career officers since the 1960s even though the Federal Civil Service Commission (FCSC) is constitutionally charged with recruiting officers in the federal civil service. This is to ensure that only the best are recruited into this unique ministry.

However, since the 1980s, unlike in the 1960s and 1970s, the Federal Civil Service Commission has been recruiting officers for the ministry without its involvement or input despite consistent prodding by the ministry. Over the years, the high standard of the Nigerian career diplomats which has been acknowledged nationally and internationally began to dwindle due to the recruitment of unsuitable materials over the years. In essence, incompetence and mediocrity set in, which is dangerous for the ministry and the nation. Due to the huge but unwanted number of officers recruited in both branches A and B in the 1980s, no recruitments were carried out for 10 years because of over-staffing. Recruitment began only in 1993.

The appointment of Alhaji Shuaibu Kazaure as chairman of the FCSC in the 1990s helped to save the embarrassing situation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He severely criticized the ministry itself for its penchant to convert half-baked officers from Branch B to Branch A. He insisted on recruiting only the very best for the Foreign Service. An upright, honest and no-nonsense seasoned public servant, Alhaji Kazaure not only stood firm to save the ministry but also insisted that it must put its house in order. That was how the ministry started recovering its pride and honour.

If Alhaji Kazaure, a seasoned technocrat, had worked tirelessly to help the Ministry of Foreign Affairs return to its professionally high standard, the current chairperson of the FCSC, Deaconess Joan O. Ayo, seems to be hell-bent on politicizing, if not destroying, the Nigerian Foreign Service. People who have no business being in the Foreign Service are now being blindly recruited or transferred to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from the various other ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs). The only thing going for such people is that they are connected to top politicians, at the expense of professionalism and merit.

These transfers from various ministries to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by the current FCSC are being carried out ostensibly to cover so-called “succession gap”. But, a committee set up by then President Jonathan chaired by then Vice President Namadi Sambo clearly stated in its May 22, 2015, Memorandum in paragraph 3 thus: “That there are no succession gaps in MFA but vacancies would be filled through the normal promotion exercises within the ministry over the next two years.” The idea is that when the current directors numbering over 100 retire between 2016 and 2018, the ministry should, like in the 1960s and 1970s, become compact and manageable.

One cannot understand or even justify the current indecent haste by the FCSC to recruit outsiders into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs just because they are powerfully connected. By her actions so far, which are clearly neither in the interest of the ministry nor Nigeria, Deaconess Ayo’s FRSC is bent on destroying the Nigerian Foreign Service after she has succeeded in politicizing it. Indeed, there is no basis for recruiting an outsider into the MFA from GL 12-16 as she currently plans to do because, according to the Nigerian Foreign Service Regulation No.2 Subsection 6: “In view of the uniqueness of the Foreign Service, there shall be no transfer of lateral conversion above GL 10”. This is because any officer above that level cannot be effectively trained or efficiently adapt to the unique professionalism of foreign service.

The practice of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs being part of the team to interview applicants to the ministry has been jettisoned by the FCSC because it wants to continue the bad practice of recruiting favoured sons and daughters of politically connected big men, regardless of their suitability or qualifications. Consequently, the Foreign Service is now getting filled up with mediocre persons, hence the current dysfunction of the ministry. But it is clearly stated in the Nigerian Foreign Service Regulations that “as a result of the uniqueness of the Foreign Service, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs shall be involved in the appointment, promotion and discipline of Foreign Service officers”. So the commission is going against this.

The pioneer career officers who had passed away unsung like ambassadors Ukegbu, Harriman, Sanusi, Garba and Jolaoso must be turning and twisting in their graves, lamenting how the service they spent their entire working life building has not only lost its glory and prestige but is being systematically destroyed. Surviving ones like Ambassador Olisemeka must be in extreme pains seeing how the Foreign Service that they so cherished and nurtured is fast losing its international reputation.

With all the mess being deliberately created by the into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the establishment of a separate Foreign Service Commission is now an absolute necessity. Such commission, to be composed of seasoned career diplomats, will strive to re-professionalize the Foreign Service as well as reduce the current over-staffing, especially the Branch B (non-diplomatic) ones. In this age of ICT, whatever the Branch B staff are doing, a properly trained Branch A (foreign service officers) can easily do. There is no alternative to re-professionalizing the Foreign Service instead of politicizing it, for Nigeria to have effective representation and respect abroad.

History is on the side of the oppressed.

Pix: Nigeria’s foreign affairs minister Geoffrey Onyeama

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