Thursday, 10 December 2015

Reforming the Nigerian Civil Service: Tunji Olaopa's Struggles, Pain and Triumphs - Part 3

Dr. Tunji Olaopa
Confucius, the ancient Chinese philosopher, once gave a remarkable admonishment: ‘Study the past if you would define the future.’ And for Edmund Burke, once we take historical knowledge for granted, then we are doomed to repeat those terrible mistakes of the past. There is no better preface on the significance of historical insights into Nigeria’s administrative trajectory. History, any history for that matter, is not a list of boring stories of what had gone by. On the contrary, history is a rich tapestry of human actions and inaction, and the multiplicity of consequences that flows from them. Nigeria’s administrative history stems from the moment the Nigerian state came into its amalgamated existence in 1914.

The history of Nigeria’s reform experiment becomes important once we see it as the ongoing attempt, in administrative terms, to come to term with the possibility of redeeming Nigeria from its postcolonial deficits. Amalgamation was motivated by colonial arithmetic; hence, it lacked any national consideration of progress. The need for administrative reform is therefore premised on the urgent necessity of transforming the civil service into an effective institution that would foreground the nation’s search for an infrastructural revolution that would alleviate the years of denigration Nigerians have suffered under colonial rule.

Within the context of my doctoral investigation of the evolution of administrative reforms, the idea of a trajectory therefore becomes very critical. A trajectory, in this administrative context, becomes an intentional search for an omega-point that is represented by series of successful reform efforts, beginning from an alpha-point. While all the pre- and post-1954 reforms are significant in their own regard, especially in the calibration of what came to be known as the Nigerian Civil Service, the real nation-defining reform issues actually commenced in 1971 with the Adebo Commission. Like most of the others, the Adebo Commission was established to deal with some of the intended and unintended consequences of the Nigerianisation Policy, especially the wage issue.

But the Adebo Commission soon became caught up in two bigger issues, internal and external. While still investigating its terms of reference, the first military coup had happened, and the decline of the civil service structure and organisation had commenced. The military government set in motion several critical factors that instigated the gradual evolution of a structural pattern that consistently whittled down the capacities the civil service has to promote good governance. Externally, the managerial revolution had already commenced, and the British Civil Service was already the focus of its demands through the Fulton Commission of 1968. Thus it was that the Adebo Commission began with a brief to investigate the wage and recruitment issues of the new civil service, but ended up with a more significant managerial challenge bordering on organisation and structure. The Adebo Commission recommended that another public service review commission; the Udoji Commission came into existence.

The Udoji Commission, if I am asked, remains the singular most significant reform commission in Nigeria’s administrative history. It is the watershed of what could have gone right but went wrong with the civil service system in Nigeria. The significance of the Udoji Commission is simple but profound: it is the commission that had to mediate between the new managerialism that was defining the civil service system and the old Weberian tradition on which the Nigerian Civil Service was founded. In its Main Report, the Commission diagnosed the central problem of the Nigerian Civil Service as that of its inability to respond to serious change. When the Commission was in place, the NCS was already too bureaucratic to achieve the postcolonial objective of national development and democratic service delivery to Nigerians. Thus, fully inspired by the UK Fulton Report, the Udoji Commission went on to recommend, on the one hand, a new style public service infused with “new blood” working under a result-oriented management system operated by professionals and specialists in particular fields. And, on the one hand, it recommended standardization of conditions of service, increase in public sector wages, a unified and integrated administrative structure, the elimination of waste, and the removal of inefficient departments.

Andrew Grove got it right: ‘When you’re caught in the turbulence of a strategic inflection point, the sad fact is that instinct and judgment are all you’ve got to guide you through.’ The Gowon administration missed the significance of the ‘strategic inflection point’ that the Udoji Report represented. Rather than Udoji becoming a template for the rejuvenation of the civil service system in Nigeria, it became a slogan for abundant wage. This was because the Federal Government decided to implement the wage component of the Udoji Report rather than the structural components. The turning point was therefore lost in the euphoria of wage increment. It seems to me that since Udoji, the civil service system in Nigeria has been attempting to reverse the mistake of 1975. Udoji casts a long shadow over the stagnation of the civil service.

For instance, it is interesting to understand the dynamics of the next two significant reform attempts in Nigeria-the 1988 Civil Service Reform and the 1995 Ayida Public Service Review Panel. The Philips Commission Report, which generated the 1988 reform recommendation, was forced by inevitable global trajectory to revisit the managerial revolution in administration through its attempt to lay the foundation of a professionalised civil service. Professionalization was thus tied to specialization. Unfortunately, rather than professionalising, the reform entrenched a politicisation of the workforce, especially the status of the permanent secretary which became a political appointment. The conception of professionalism was also curious because it was taken as a function of the location and time span of an officer in a particular ministry. The Ayida Panel was supposed to act in a review capacity to interrogate the recommendations of the Philips commission as a means by which the system can be reinvented. But it took the logic of reinvention the wrong way-it reinvented the pre-1988 civil service system and its managerial deficit! The simple but sad implication of this is that the Ayida Panel did not have a concrete agenda of reinvention; so it recommended a regression back to the status quo ante.

‘Challenging the status quo,’ according to Gary Hamel,’has to be the starting point for anything that goes under the label of strategy.’ While the Ayida Panel failed at doing this, it becomes the administrative standard by which to assess the remaining four reform strategies that define the democratic dispensation in Nigeria-the Obasanjo Renewal Programme, the Yar’Adua Civil Service Reform Programme,the Transformation Agenda of the Jonathan administration, and President Muhammadu Buhari’s ongoing Change Agenda. The four reform agenda are founded on the fundamental principle that no transformation of the Nigerian state would be possible without a capable, efficient and corruption-free public service. The Obasanjo, Yar’Adua and Jonathan administrations therefore accepted the reform blueprint contained in the National Strategy for Public Service Reform (NSPSR) which projected the vision of a world class public service that is professionalised enough to deliver government policies and programmes.

Much as these reform agenda are beautiful programmes of renewal and revitalization that has the benefits of administrative hindsight, visions are often undermined by reality. And the present reality is that the civil service system in Nigeria, in spite of the multitude of beautiful reform visions and strategies, is still struggling to deliver democratic dividends to millions of Nigerians who are sighing under the terrible burden of poverty. The Nigerian Civil Service is still far from being a world class public service.

If, as Norman Cousins insists, ‘history is a vast early warning system,’ have we learnt any good and practical lessons from 1971? From the historical nuggets of reform trajectory that we have outlined here, what are the fundamental administrative lessons to be learnt? What are the defining issues in civil service renewal effort? That will be the subject of the fourth part.

by Tunji Olaopa (with original title - Reforming the Nigerian Civil Service: My Struggles, My Pain, My Triumphs) 

*Dr. Tunji Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary.

Part 4 will be serialised...

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