An Army of Special Assistants

Ebenezer Obadare, Photo credit: Good Governance Africa

Ebeneze Obadare

Why do public office holders in Nigeria increasingly appoint a large number of personal aides?

Ebenezer Obadare

In November 2022, barely six months before the expiration of his term of office, Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike doubled the number of his Special Assistants on Political Affairs from an already staggering 100,000 to an incredulous 200,000. At the inauguration ceremony of the additional 100, 000 appointees, Wike justified the move as the “implementation of the policy of stomach infrastructure” aimed at “putting money in the hands” of his constituents.

200,000 special assistants may have been an outlier (for Wike’s critics, it was a disguise for a personal militia, albeit raised at taxpayer expense, intended to intimidate political opponents), but the phenomenon that their appointment helps draw attention to could not be more real. On average, the governor of a state in Nigeria (there are thirty-six in total) is served by one hundred aides, all appointed at the discretion of individual governors. The following is a random sample: Caleb Mutfwang, the Governor of Plateau State, is attended to by 136 special assistants; Edo State Governor Godwin Obaseki has a total of 186, which breaks down into 34 senior special assistants and 152 special assistants; Kano State Governor Abba Yusuf has 97 special advisors; Adamawa State Governor Ahmadu Fintiri has 47 media aides. As Governor, Senator Adams Oshiomhole reportedly had 1,093 aides at his disposal.

Whatever the cognomen—special assistant, special advisor, media aide, media advisor, coordinator, personal assistant, personal aide—a common thread runs through these appointments: appointees, though compensated from the public purse, serve at the pleasure of the governor, senator, or whoever the appointing public office holder happens to be. Edo State Governor Godwin Obaseki’s reminder to his retinue of assistants could not be clearer: “You are all my appointees, you work for me, not the local government.” (Emphasis added.)

What norms and expectations in the broader political culture do these appointments, apprehended by many Nigerians with a knowing wink, signal and gesture at?

The first is the personalization of power (personal aides are exactly that) and the attendant erasure of the last vestiges of the distinction between office and office holder. Here, Governor Obaseki’s by no means unique warning to his appointees that they work for him and not the government is a perfect illustration. Personalization invariably gives rise to paternalism, whereby the individual, having arrogated power to himself, feels responsible for the “care” and “security” of his subjects. Governor Wike did not mince words during the inauguration of his 100,000 extra special assistants: “It is me who is appointing. It is me that wears the shoes that knows where it pinches. It is not you outside because you are not part of government.”

Wike was invoking the idea of a “good leader” as the one who excels as “caregiver,” and who, short-circuiting the bottleneck of bureaucracy, “creates jobs” for his people and, as Wike boasted, puts money directly into their hands.

Neither personalization nor paternalism would be possible sans a bedrock of cultural license. Office holders, rising up to the expectation to be perpetually benevolent, dispense largesse as they see fit. The question of the ownership of the money they spend is not irrelevant. To the average Nigerian, “government money” is ultimately nobody’s money, a mentality that, mutatis mutandis, applies to public attitude towards “public” utilities and informs the way people think about official graft. In any case, and considering that state revenue owes less to direct taxation and more to oil rent, there seems to be an unwitting sociological truth in the idea that government money in Nigeria is, properly speaking, nobody’s money. In the event—Nigeria is not alone here—fiscal recklessness is incentivized, while governance is reduced to the perverse allocation of unearned goods. Across the oil producing Niger Delta, ordinary people, perhaps rightly, often justify flimsy appointments and some such droppings from the mighty engine of political patronage in terms of benefiting from the “ancestral wealth” that should have been theirs ab initio.

The politics of affect, understood as “who” you know as opposed to “what” you know, have always been a central part of this cultural calculus. Accordingly, it comes as no surprise that the immediate circle of personal assistants or advisors tends to comprise relatives and kin (real and fictive) of the office holder. Partly, this is explained by the social expectation that those who have found professional success owe a duty of “care” to their siblings or relatives who have not been as lucky. In this manner, the office holder who creates a sinecure for a relative kills two birds with the same stone: he discharges a familial mandate without the pressure of having to pay out of his own pocket.

All this matters for at least two reasons.

First, the phenomenon throws a special light on the problem of administrative bloat and the prohibitive costs that are its concomitance. Complaints about this have rightly dominated public sector reform advocacy across Africa.

Second, increasing reliance on unelected appointees raises the specter of financial opacity and bureaucratic atrophy. The existence of a network of minions accountable only to the public office holder weakens state capacity by authorizing official irresponsibility.

Reina Patel contributed to the research for this article.

*Professor Ebenezer Obadare is Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). This article was originally published by the CFR as part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy: