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[This is an excerpt from an article in The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs. Opinions do not reflect the position of the Round Table editorial board.]

The question of who should get more attention in diplomatic appointments – careerists or non-careerists – is an important one. While a careerist is usually a Foreign Service officer, a non-careerist is an individual appointed outside the professional diplomatic corps usually on the basis of political patronage (although sometimes talent and exceptional performance in public offices could play a role). Non-careerists are individuals from other professional backgrounds with no connection to the foreign ministry.

The tradition is that the chief political executive could appoint anyone – careerist and non-careerist alike – to represent a state’s interests abroad (including at the levels of international organisations and other specialised missions). Withal, some counties have succeeded in building a Foreign Service that is populated and dominated by the members of the professional diplomatic corps. A situation in which the figures tilt more in favour of the political appointees may not bode well for a country’s foreign policy. As a result of the competence and diplomatic savviness of careerists in the pursuit of foreign policy objectives, scholars and practitioners usually favour the appointment of more career diplomats.

A number of issues (mostly negative) are associated with non-career diplomatic appointment. First, there is always the perception that non-professionals – unlike careerists or professionals – do not have the required academic background and experience. However, this stereotyping may not always be tenable. The political nature of their appointment notwithstanding, not all of them have mediocre testimonials. Also, some may have acquired valuable experiences over time that could be useful and relevant in diplomatic roles. Second, the party patronage factor in non-career diplomatic appointment will, as likely as not, make them vulnerable to attack. Third, a preference for the appointment of more non-careerists may affect the career prospects of trained or professional diplomats.

At the inception of the Nigerian Foreign Service, diplomats were appointed predominantly from the professional diplomatic corps. During this period, political appointees or non-career diplomats represented a tiny fraction. In fact, under the government of Presidents Murtala and Obasanjo, there was almost no representation for non-professionals in the Foreign Service. However, this orientation began to change under the government of Shehu Shagari. His civilian presidency lifted the number of non-professionals to over 30. This was done to compensate politicians who lost out in the electioneering process and could not secure ministerial or board appointments. This new development affected the morale and prospects of senior career officers as those who were qualified for ambassadorial appointments missed out and many could only be appointed as substantive deputy chiefs of mission to politically-connected ambassadors.

Following the Shagari effect, successive political administrations in Nigeria have appointed a very high number of non-career diplomats. While more than 30 of such appointments were made by the military administration of Ibrahim Babangida, the civilian administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo had almost 70 non-careerists. In recent years, the number of non-career ambassadors has been on the rise. Expressing his displeasure about the current situation, retired Ambassador Oladapo Fafowora (one of Nigeria’s finest career diplomats during his time in active service and a former president of the Association of Retired Career Ambassadors of Nigeria) noted that an arrangement in which the number of non-career diplomats exceeds that of the professionals would undermine professionalism, weaken the Foreign Service, and hurt Nigeria’s image abroad. He therefore noted that the ratio of 60 non-career ambassadors to 40 career ambassadors under the current government of President Muhammadu Buhari was not justifiable.

Ademola Azeez and Segun Oshewolo are wih the Department of Political Science, Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti, Nigeria.