Thursday, March 30, 2023 5:52 pm
By Olufemi Awoyemi
Professor Tunji Olaopa is the quintessential academic with high socio-political values, a deep sense of the urgency for action, and an abiding enthusiasm for the possibilities of the future if the proper actions are taken. He reminds me of the character Sekoni, in Professor Wole Soyinka’s 1965 novel, ‘The Interpreters.’Sekoni was feisty, sincere, cerebral, and messianic. He needed to see a better society, he needed to see his people do better. But unfortunately, Nigeria happened to him. The same society that he craved to improve, spat him out like a discarded cigar butt and stamped his remaining dignity and self-awareness into the dirt. Indeed, his friends (and perhaps enemies) learned a bitter lesson: inciting meaningful change is a dangerous enterprise.
Society all too often makes the capital mistake of assuming that to see comprehensivesocioeconomic progress, political leadership must be top-notch, a cut above the ordinary, and committed to seeing new concentric heights of prosperity and progress. The assumption, as well-intentioned as it seems, is wrong. No matter how sincere and hardworking the political leadership of a country is, if the bureaucratic structure needed to turn ideas into projects, programmes, and processes is effete, ineffective, and evasive, the possibilities of political and economic success are slim. The bureaucracy that drives the engine of public policy is more important than the lofty ideas that inspire leadership. No leader succeeds without a bureaucracy that gives life and meaning to political ideas and ideals. A measure of how well a leadership will perform can be gleaned from how well politicianshave structured the public service to meet clear and consistent social and economicobjectives.
If a nation’s public service bureaucracy is corrupt, inept, and incapable of introspection and self-correction;the country is sentenced to a life of struggle, pain, and poverty. No matter how rich a country is in natural and human resources, if the bureaucratic structures that turn the wheels of administration are clogged by the grit, grease, and dust of poor public service management, the nation cannot progress. Citizens become frustrated, treasuries get looted, and resources get depleted. In the words of Francis Fukuyama in his book, ‘The Origins of Political Order’, stable democratic societies require three characteristics: a strong state, the rule of law, and accountability.
These considerations, however, skipped a fourth and powerful democratic feature, the need for a professional and forward-looking public service bureaucracy.In many democracies, public service hides behind the finger of political gamesmanship and in many ways shapes the outcome of a politician’s dreams, wishes, and aspirations. The politician may have his or her say, but the civil servicebureaucrat often has his or her way.
The author alludes to the innate difficulties in turning good policy into institutional action. His early epiphany of the difficulties in administration occurred while he was ‘sucked’into the vortex of student union politics at the University of Ibadan. In chapter eight of the book he points out that ‘With unionism, I began so early to fathom some of the heavy tasks of decision-making, policy formulation and design. By being invited to be a part of the University of Ibadan’s evolving strategic plan at the time, I was drawn into the inner sanctum of serious and institutional policy infrastructures that all the theories learnt from my public administration classes would not have afforded me’
He further observed that ‘Most outsiders to politics and administration are only satisfied with the superficial analysis of the layman: politicians and administrators are greedy; there is more than enough to go around for all Nigerians. It is so easy to come to such a conclusion because politicians and administrators do not themselves help matters. In a country where public officials steal with impunity and the newspapers report, on a daily basis, news of massive theft of our common patrimony, it takes little reflection for the ordinary citizen to surmise that governance is an easy business. Is it not to just provide electricity and build schools?’
In her insightful book ‘China’s Gilded Age’ Professor Yuen Yueng Ang explained that corruption is a universal phenomenon. Nevertheless, in countries like Nigeria, public office corruption is shaped in the manner of ‘petty theft’ and ‘grand theft’ rather than ‘transactional theft’ that involves ‘speed money’ and ‘access money’ as is the case in more developed economies like China. In China, a corrupt public official would enhance and promote business activity by helping the entrepreneur meet his or her business objectives. In Nigeria, the public officer would prefer to create stumbling blocks that frustrate enterprise and then insist on ‘compensation’. The different corruption vectors to a large extent determine the pace of entrepreneurial growth and economic development.
Contrary to popular opinion, corruption is not a socioeconomic deal breaker. What is a deal murderer is the lack of professionalism in Nigeria’s public service and the predominance of ‘grand theft’ as against ‘speed’ or áccess’money. The absence or the non-compliance of public officers with standard operating procedures (SoPs) rips at the heart of the civil service, smashing its credibility to smithereens. The consequence of an institutionally weakened public sector operation is typified by the poor state of Nigeria’s port operations. Public policies mean little, if anything if they are not accompanied by globally recognised best governance practices and unrelenting commitment to projects, procedures, or policy deliverables.
Olaopa precociously,or perhaps viscerally, understood this in his active days as a student union leader and more contemporarily as a resident academic in the federal public service. He came to the realization that policy success is less a matter of hope and desire as it is a matter of goals aligned to procedures set for implementation. The goals of governance are usually clear, but what appears hazy is the how and when of execution. Tackling execution at the highest professional standard is the ace in the hole, the theatre of maximum conflict with vested interests.
To navigate the minefields of policy inertia, change agents must have a multidisciplinary mindset that enables cross-disciplinary frameworks and models to interact to produce solutions that rise above the one-story narrative, which is usually wrong. Most often in life, our situations are dictated by multiple factors that interact intricately to create situations that easily confuse the innocent or simple. To suggest that corruption or a lack of professionalism is the one single factor responsible for Nigeria’s purportedly poor public service quality would be wrong. From the 1960s to the mid-1980s, Nigeria had amongst the finest public services in the world. Its cerebral and feisty public servants attracted great global praise and admiration.
However, by the mid to late 1980s, something began to go terribly wrong. The public service lost its lustre and Nigeria’s finest minds saw the civil service asan intelligent person’s mental graveyard. Unwilling to be ‘buried’ in this scary environment Nigeria’s clever and brightest voted with their feet by going into the more virile, creative, and agile private sector where material rewards were better. The slow descent from the honeypot of the intelligent and disciplined to the dungheap of the discontented and amoral was decisive in reducing the quality of decision-making and the impact of policy implementation of the public service. The previous statement is a tad sweeping. Nigeria’s public service still retains the loyalty of fine people, with great brains and admirable character, but that population is fast receding, and without remedial measures being taken urgently, Nigeria’s public service will feast on the carcass of a bygone era.
Professor Olaopa’s book is a call to the working of imagination rather than memory. It is a callfor the country to wake up and improve its public service personnel and governance oversight.Improving the standard operating procedures (SoPs) for government ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) would provide the foundation for effective policy administration. Policy and planning excellencerests on laid-down templates and procedures that are taken as minimal standards of operations. In other words, excellence in the public sector would require workable systems and reliable workers. A linchpin of reliability is honour. A point the public sector academic makes in chapter nine of his memoirs. According to Professor Olaopa, ‘An honourable public official is the one who sees to the execution of a policy to the best of his ability even if he disagrees with the policy choice. This is an honourable act because it demonstrates that the bureaucrat’s sense of duty and service overrides his personal wilfulness. This is especially more so within the context of the bureaucratic corruption that exerts enormous pressure on the public servants and, even more so, the reformer, to compromise on her ideals and principles. Honour is also what insists that a reformer must be bound by the force of her conviction about the need to transform the public service. And it is precisely this that also demands that such 108 The Unending Quest for Reform The Making of a Public Servant-as-Reformer a reformer cannot prematurely seek honour and recognition’.
But beyond commitment to accepted standards and rules, Professor Olaopa expands on the concept of optimized communities or Opticom, a framework for rural development advanced by Professors OjetunjiAboyade and Akin Mabogunje. The concept relies on the rural community and its interactive relationships as the hub of socioeconomic growth and development. Effective administration of rural economies would promote the sustained growth of micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) and allow for the dispersion of talent, skills, creativity, and knowledge across communities in a way that tackles the urgent challenges of poverty, lack of financial inclusion and the alienation of relatively low-income Nigerians from the broader economy and production value chains.
The top-to-bottom command structure of the Nigerian bureaucracy and economy has not served the country well. Olaopa like his mentors Aboyadeand Mabogunje, argues that it is important to reverse the order of administrative relevance by making the rural communities centres of excellence and aggregating these centres into a national culture and structure of inclusive and sustainable growth and development. Olaopa’s commitment to the sustained progress of the public sector in the interest of the communities and country is reflective of a mind schooled in the philosophical thoughts of Plato and honed by the practical craft of governance gathered over years of being at the centre of federal public sector authority and might.
I recommend Professor Olaopa’s book to all those interested in engineering a better bureaucratic framework to support a fit-for-purpose public service aimed at the greatest interest of the largest number of citizens. In the general scheme of things, while good ideas are needed to direct society to achieve optimal benefits for citizens, the success of the ideas rests delicately on the quality of public bureaucracy expected to translate those ideas into reality.
Where bureaucracy is weak, unimaginative, and lethargic, the best of ideas and programmes buckle under the weight of public incompetence, mischief, and thievery. Ultimately great administrations are the products of the collaboration between intelligent politicians and outstanding administrators. Where political vision and administrative competence are misaligned, the consequence is nearly always socioeconomic pain.
* Being a rerview on ‘TheUnendingQuestforReform’ being a book by Prof. Tunji OLAOPA by Olufemi AWOYEMI, mni; Chairman/Founder of Proshare LLC / Friday, 10 March 2023 19.12pm
*Olufemi AWOYEMI, mni, FCA, FCTI, FCIB, FIoD
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