Reforming The Nigerian Civil Service: My Struggles, My Pains, My Triumphs (II)

By Tunji Olaopa   |   20 December 2015   |   1:56 am  



I prefaced this long series, in the first part, with a narration of the pain of exit and how, for me, retiring from the Nigerian Civil Service (NCS) is definitely not the end of my reform business to transform a system I have dedicated twenty seven years of my life to. I made the point that exit simply implies that I am transitioning from being a critical insider to becoming a critical outsider who can bring an external perspective to bear on what the civil service has done wrong, what it has done right and in what direction we can move towards becoming a world class institution. For me, my institutional life may have come to an end, but my foot is still caught in the mat of the institutional dynamics of the NCS. I am too involved to just bid goodbye to a system I see as being critical to the coming national glory of Nigeria.
But first, it is necessary that I tell the story of how I came to be in this system in the first place. I must say it has nothing to do with fascination or coincidence. Far from it. Rather, I would say Providence perhaps planned it all along! I am a scholar by heart. My original and lifelong desire is to be a philosopher. I have a sanitized spirit that is suitable for contemplation, and the cloistered life of the ivory tower.

In my projection, if I would ever come in contact with administrative matters, then it would be on the pages of critical and scholarly books and conferences. Opting for Political Science, rather than Philosophy (on the prompting of my parents), made this projection more realistic. But I was deluding myself all along—reality is much stronger than projections! And the reality in the late eighties for me, while I was in the postgraduate school, was that, following Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I needed to survive so urgently before I could think of climbing the ladder of self-esteem towards scholastic attainment. The Nigerian Civil Service, through the Presidency, came to my rescue. And at the centre of my entry dilemma was Professor Ojetunji Aboyade. He played several subtle roles that played out into larger future dynamics for me as a critical change agent in the reform of the civil service system in Nigeria. ‘To be a catalyst,’ Theodore Zeldin informs, ‘is the ambition most appropriate for those who see the world as being in constant change, and who, without thinking that they can control it, wish to influence its direction.’

Ojetunji Aboyade was exactly that, an intellectual catalyst that turned my rabid fear of systemic dysfunction in the civil service into a serious fascination with the dynamics of institutional change. He influenced the direction that would become cogent for me to becoming a change agent. He supplied me with the intellectual prism from which to refract the dysfunction into a philosophy of reform. And that became the research dynamics which I have pursued since I determined to obtain a doctorate hinged around the consuming desire to understand the operational dynamics of the civil service system in Nigeria. I was however very lucky to have entered the civil service when Prof. Aboyade was struggling with Nigeria’s development planning through policy designs and advisory professionalism. Aboyade came into public service with all the energies of a committed intellectual ready to inject sound ideas and practices into the system. Unfortunately, Nigeria was at that point under the terrible pathology of the Dutch and Double Dutch Disease arising from the oil windfall of the 70s. It was not long before all his tight implementation schedules and the tightening of the Development Planning praxis met the fundamental challenge of weak institutional and executive capacity in the civil service and national valueless-ness. Aboyade was therefore caught in between development visions, policies and plans, on the one hand, and implementation and development outcomes on the other. This was with the full conceptual awareness of the intellectual current of the time that was hinged on the seminar contributions of institutional economists and implementation researchers whose advocacy birth the dominant though controversial reform theory of our age, the new public management (NPM) paradigm.

This was precisely the depressing administrative context within which I began my initiation into the civil service system and public administration research. The redeeming factor for me was that it was also an incredible period that gave birth to critical research dynamics spearheaded by Aboyade himself. I had no choice at the time but to accept Aboyade’s challenge to me—‘You need to transform from being just a researcher to be a change agent; with the transformation of the civil service system through expert knowledge and reform as your mission’. And the initiation I needed came when I became Assistant Secretary to the White Paper Panel on the Ayida Public Service Review Panel of 1995 through invitation. The Ayida Review Panel was commissioned to revisit the 1988 Civil Service Reform which had failed to redress the administrative system into a desired projection. Its task was to reinvent those factors that would facilitate the restoration of the civil service into an effectively performing institution.

Being the technically-minded member of the White Paper Panel’s Secretariat was a blessing! It afforded the internal perspective in articulating and interrogating all aspects of administrative system. But in a concrete sense, this was the point at which my research focus took hold and took off. The dynamics that connects the Prof. Dotun Phillips Study Report, the Koshoni White Paper, the Decree 43 of 1988 and the Ayida Review Panel gave me the intellectual impetus to commence a critical interrogation of the civil service system in its entirety and the condition for its institutional reform. For instance, as Assistant Secretary to the Ayida Review Panel, I had the opportunity to not only confront the weaknesses of Decree 43, but also the limitations of the Ayida Panel Report itself. It immediately became clear to me that theory and practice must be integrated if a committed reformer must achieve a coherent and robust rejuvenation of the civil service system in Nigeria that speaks to the nuanced chemistry of the administrative system. Theory and practice are already implicated in the complex and complicated trajectory of linking vision of reform to its implementation, especially within a difficult administrative context like Nigeria.

So, after a thorough Master’s degree in political theory, public administration offers the most immediate theoretical entry point into the challenge of understanding the civil service system in Nigeria. By 2002, I had the second privilege of heading a technical team from the Management Service Office (MSO) that was to undertake a strategic planning study and exercise that could facilitate the proper restructuring of the system. This study turned out to be a conceptual revelation for me because, apart from the exposure it afforded through Donor Agencies technical assistance that enable study tour of over 25 public services around the globe, it threw up those critical questions that enabled me jumpstart my doctoral reflection on the civil service. These fundamental questions remain fundamental to the reform of the Nigerian civil service: (a) what kind of public service does Nigeria need to successfully manage the dynamics of a transition from military authoritarianism to civilian democracy? (b) How can the vision of building a public service that works for the people be realised within the shortest possible time? (c) How can the size of the chronically imbalanced bureaucracy, with a structure that harbours 70% of the workforce at the unskilled level, be streamlined? (d) How can the skills deficit at the senior management levels be corrected through re-skilling and the injection of skills from other sectors, without a far-reaching process of painful rightsizing and declaration of redundancies? (e) What are the appropriate personnel policies, pay structure and operational cost ratios that are most cost effective and consistent with the optimal productivity level of the national economy? (f) How can the civil service be made more sensitive to the political objectives of policy makers and be, at the same time, accountable to the people as clients without its independence and professionalism being undermined? (g) What should ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) be doing that is different from what they have been doing to become strategic partner in national transformation?

When my research got under way, I was buoyed by the enthusiasm about what is possible. Ludwig Wittgenstein, the German philosopher, accurately captured my dissertation mood: ‘The riddle does not exist. If a question can be framed at all, it is also possible to answer it.’ The bubble of reform enthusiasm that began a long time ago, stayed with me till retirement. It nearly burst through the many terrible encounters of disillusionments, frustrations and dejection. Once, at reform training in Wellington, New Zealand, a renowned reform expert specifically told me: ‘With your passion and depth of knowledge for reform, be ready for war!’ My reform efforts bred friends and foes. But it also generated invaluable theoretical, historical and practical insights that are the sine qua non for transformation. One of the achievements of the doctoral dissertation is that it enabled a concise but critical assessment of the trajectory of reform in Nigeria, especially from 1974 to date. I will examine this in the next part.

Dr. Olaopa is retired Federal Permanent Secretary

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