By Patrick O. Okigbo III
I have always known that political patronage is a terrible thing. What I didn’t realise was that it came with a “generational” curse. This is until I read the 2017 research by Guo Xu**, a professor at Berkeley Haas School of Business.
Guo Xu spent three years studying the nature of political appointments under the British colonial government where the Secretary of State “enjoyed the privilege of patronage” with the appointment of governors for the 70 colonial territories. Between 1854 and 1930, the Secretary of State had the uncontested prerogative to appoint anyone of his choosing to the territories under the British Empire. This practice continued until 1930 when the Warren Fisher Civil Service Reforms stripped the office of this privilege.
For the first time, and as part of the study, Xu digitized over 135,000 pages of government archives (from 1854 to 1930). She matched this record with data she collected on family trees, biographies, schools attended, etc. The combination of these records enabled her to measure connections between the Secretaries of State and the governors of the various provinces. She found that the Secretaries of State appointed their family members and friends to what were considered the most lucrative territories. These were territories that returned the highest revenue for the British government. Using revenue generation as the measure of performance, Xu ran an experiment that compared performance among the territories in the years of patronage (1854 – 1930) to their performance in the post-patronage years (post-1930). Her study showed the following results:
1. Governors who were connected to the Secretary of State earned more than their peers. This is simply because the Secretaries of State posted their people to territories that offered higher pay. However, this salary gap vanished after the 1930 reforms.
2. Governors who were connected to the Secretary of State were, on average, poor performers. They generated less revenue, invested less in public goods, and experienced more social unrest. These levels of poor performance disappeared after the 1930 reform.
3. Patronage induced misallocation. The study found that revenue and investments grew less under the administration that were connected to the Secretary of State. The removal of patronage in 1930 mitigated this problem.
4. Patronage has a persistent effect. Here is the “generational curse”. The research found that modern countries which evolved from colonial territories that were exposed longer to governors who were connected to a benefactor still exhibit lower fiscal capacities even to this day. These were “countries” that were high performing before they became subject to the scourge of patronage. Almost a century after the removal of the patronage system, these countries still have lower-quality tax systems.
Imo State in Nigeria has a patronage problem. The governor of the State, Owelle Rochas Okorocha, has presided over a lack lustre administration in the last seven years. As he prepares to leave the government (after two tenures), he has announced his intention to enthrone his son-in-law as governor. You may recall that he is the same governor who appointed his sister as Commissioner for Happiness and Couples Fulfilment.
While many people, like me, realise that patronage undermines government effectiveness, many do not realise that it is really a virus that does not only destroy today but has an effect that sustains for close to a century. Outrage on the poor performance of the Rochas administration and his attempts at political hegemony has inspired many excellent candidates to emerge in opposition. However, this is now a problem.
A number of my friends are in the race for governor of Imo State. Most of them are long on passion and short on strategy and the resources required to deliver the votes. In private, I have appealed to many of them to get out of the race, summon a “Convention of Opposition Candidates”, select and support a candidate who has the best chance of unseating Rochas and his son-in-law. Political ambitions are good but the overriding objective should be to stop this virus from finding a host.
I have not gotten any takers on this offer. They have all continued with their campaigns; with most still not gaining any momentum. I do not have a crystal ball but I can see that unless the opposition is able to coalesce, Rochas will have his way. Then, Ndi Imo will understand the full meaning of a “generational curse”.
Mr Okigbo III wrote from Port Harcourt, Nigeria
* [Quick Read] Xu, G. (2017). Thank you for your patronage: Discretionary appointments and bureaucrat performance. Available at: https://voxdev.org/topic/public-economics/thank-you-your-patronage-discretionary-appointments-and-bureaucrat-performance. (Uploaded October 10, 2017; accessed May 06, 2018)
** [Long Read] Xu, G. (2017) The Costs of Patronage: Evidence from the British Empire. Job Market Paper, January 4, 2017. Available at: http://www.guoxu.org/docs/empireJMP_Xu.pdf. (Accessed May 06, 2018)