Reforming The Nigerian Civil Service: My Struggles, My Pains, My Triumphs (I)
This period is surely a very emotional one for me. I am exiting a profession that has defined my life and my sustained focus for the last twenty seven years. The civil service is an institution that I shied away from joining at a very tender age when my blood was still boiling and my youthful energy was still very exuberant for a more concrete job to make ends meet. If, as I was coming out of the university, I had been told I would celebrate a silver jubilee in the civil service, I would have laughed such a terrible proposition to scorn. But it is the civil service that ended up taking my whole life, my youthful and aged energies, my intellectual focus and my consistent cogitations.
I truly came to love this very institution that stands at the very heart of the Nigerian predicament as both a problem and a solution, simultaneously. I came to generate a very intimate knowledge of its operations and processes; its problems and complexities; its projections and possibilities; and the very people—the representation of Nigeria’s diversity—that makes the institution a resilient one since its inauguration in 1954. This is the institution I am exiting twenty seven years after I first reluctantly entered its complex corridors in 1988 as a rooky Principal Research Officer.
I know I have come a very long way in unadulterous and undiluted service. Once I became convinced enough to step into an institution that was far from what I dreamed of becoming, I never looked back. I channelled all my energies, physical and intellectual, into understanding and reforming the system. I saw it quite very early that Nigeria would not be able to move forward or make any appreciable progress in national development and national integration until and unless it calibrates a coherent and sustainable reform philosophy that will be grounded on institutional rehabilitation and reconstruction. I saw it quite immediately that, quite contrary to the reigning perception that government work is a sinecure, I had signed on for a helluva profession that would not permit any other side attractions. The Nigerian civil service is a jealous partner that demands unstinting attention.
Exit is always a problem. It is a huge problem for me. Malcolm Muggeridge understands my agony very well: ‘Few men of action have been able to make a graceful exit at the appropriate time.’ For me, there is no grace leaving an institution you have come to love; a system you want to willingly give your life for. If I am asked, it is definitely not the time for me to go. I doubt that I have served this Fatherland enough; I doubt that I have achieved what I set out to achieve. And certainly not at this time of imminent change that PMB is methodically putting in place in all areas of the Nigerian institutional life. This is a season of reminiscences for me—remembrance of pains and struggles and conceptual agonies and practical difficulties. It is a period to come to term with my institutional mortality. I have had no illusion of being an institutional messiah; the only person gifted with the knowledge of reform. I am just another critical player in a dynamic institution that has bred countless others—Simeon Adebo, Allison Ayida, Sule Katagum, Jerome Udoji, Phillips Asiodu, Ahmed Joda, etc. And like all players, the music must one day come to end, and the hall would become empty. In As You Like It, Shakespeare captures the inexorable trajectory of exit:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
I definitely had my entrance into this noble and ennobling profession. Now, it is time to exit. I guess I have gone the full ‘seven-age’ circle of my ‘acts’ as a civil servant. Now is the time to allow others connect the vision and the action, and move the Nigerian Civil Service beyond the imaginable.
The challenge for me now is that of how to continue the business of reform from outside the critical space afforded by an inside perspective on the civil service system. But then, operating from outside the space has its own advantages. For one, it affords an outsider’s perspective with its own objective assessment of what is wrong, what can be done and how it can be done
I received hundreds of calls from all over when the retirement notice came in; hundreds of calls showing concerns, puzzlement, encouragement and prayers. And I assured everyone that I am still around. Exit, for me, is not disappearance or abandonment. George Grossmith, the British entertainer and writer, once remarked: ‘I left the room with silent dignity, but caught my foot in the mat.’ I may have left the civil service, but my foot is still caught in the dynamics of reform and institutional reconstruction. I am a full-fledged Nigerian who, like other well-intentioned citizens, is very much interested in the direction the nation is headed, and what can be done to redirect its national path. I have been very much involved in the intricate institutional dynamics of helping to make the civil service an efficient and effective world class institution that delivers the goods of democratic dividends to Nigerians. I have been involved at several high-powered meetings, conferences, study groups, experts working groups and delegations at national, continental and global levels, that attempted to hammer policies together to inject infrastructural strength into the Nigerian society. I have been involved in many intellectual fora and seminars where the civil service system in Nigeria was the critical concern. I have written eleven major books and dozens of essays and delivered series of lectures on what went wrong and what could be done to arrest the dysfunction. I am involved. And so it is to be expected that in spite of professional exit, my foot would still be caught in the mat. If I am no longer a critical insider, I owe all my colleagues still in the system and still struggling to bring the institution into the light of global recognition the duty of remaining a critical outsider.
Right from its founding in 1954, the civil service system in Nigeria has remained an interesting, challenging and confounding institution. In spite of its many challenges from independence till date, the system has remained tenacious and strong. It weathered the Nigerian Civil War, doggedly withstood the abuse of the military’s insensitive command structure, and is still standing in spite of the many debilitating dysfunction, politicisation and corruption that tears its fabric apart. This is one institution you really love to hate, but you have to acknowledge its potentials and possibilities.
The challenge for me now is that of how to continue the business of reform from outside the critical space afforded by an inside perspective on the civil service system. But then, operating from outside the space has its own advantages. For one, it affords an outsider’s perspective with its own objective assessment of what is wrong, what can be done and how it can be done. Most often, what institutional complacency has blinded an insider from seeing becomes perceptible to the critical outsider. In this regard, I consider myself most fortunate for the opportunity to act in both capacities. In this eight-part series, I set out to lay down a personal, historical and institutional analysis of my critical connection to the Nigerian Civil Service, my intellectual agitations over its reform, my frustrations concerning why reforms keep failing and my optimism about an imminent reconstruction of the system. Reform is an unceasing institutional quest for betterment; and for me, I am entering into another phase of my unceasing engagement with the Nigerian Civil Service.
Dr. Olaopa is retired Federal Permanent Secretary