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If you want nothing done – form a committee

I had a problem with my jaw recently. I was following Nigeria’s problems with the Boko Haram terror group, and the recent truly horrific abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls. The girls have been missing for weeks, and fears abound that they have been sold into slavery in neighbouring countries.

Few of us can truly appreciate what the parents of those girls must be going through. After waiting for their government to do something, anything, to bring their daughters back, the mothers took matters into their own hands and protested on the streets. A global social media hashtag, #BringBackOur Girls, swept the globe.

Finally, Nigeria’s president decided to take action, a full 18 days after the abductions occurred. He made an announcement that a presidential committee would be formed to bring the girls back. A committee of no fewer than 17 luminaries, led by a retired army general.

Hence the problem I had with my jaw. It dropped sharply and painfully in disbelief.

Some questions sprang to mind, once the jaw was back in normal position. A committee, really? A committee will be commissioned, will get a budget, will find a place to sit down together, will do much throat-clearing and observing of protocols, and then will commence deliberations and consultations and ruminations? Really? For girls who have been kidnapped?

Now wait. This isn’t about Nigeria alone. Here in Kenya we have the same penchant for committees and commissions of notables to investigate every damn thing. Why do we do this?

What are committees actually for? The original intention behind them was, of course, thoughtful. When you encounter a situation where the answer is not obvious, you do need to apply many minds to the problem. You may require multiple perspectives on a problem, and you do not want one person rushing to a flawed conclusion based on a biased view of the world.

That’s not how it has worked out, however. Committees have become synonymous with time-wasting and ineffectiveness all over the world. They are a substitute for action. The wits have had many a field day with them. A committee is “a group that keeps minutes and loses hours,” said Milton Berle. “If Columbus had an advisory committee he would probably still be at the dock,” wrote Arthur Goldberg.

We can laugh, but a cursory look at the various commissions we have formed in this country since independence suggests that the joke is wholly on us, expensively.

So why, why, why do we love committees, especially at the national level? I can see three reasons why a committee might be the obvious answer. First, because we want to merely give the illusion of doing something, as opposed to doing something; second, because we want to ensure all political constituencies are represented and all cronies and campaign supporters rewarded, and committees provide an easy vehicle for this; and lastly, because of the money. In recent years, committees and commissions with their astronomical sitting allowances and per diems have become very lucrative.

I don’t doubt that the Nigerian authorities are not relying merely on this committee. I don’t doubt that the problem of Boko Haram is a very difficult, multi-faceted one which requires reflection. I don’t doubt that securing the safe return of those girls will be fraught with difficulty.

But a committee is not the answer. A culture of forming committees that solve nothing is in fact what allows problems to brew unchecked, until they become intractable. We have to learn to prefer speed and coordination to pontification and prevarication. We also need leaders who stand with the people and feel their pain. Would the committee be the answer if the daughters of leaders had been abducted?

May every effort be made to bring those girls back. The whole world is watching now.

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