The Unending Quest for Reform: Critical Reform  Direction for the Tinubu Administration

Habitable Nigeria

When former president of Nigeria, and the Letterman himself, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, mounted the podium to declare open the April 6 Nextier-curated public presentation of my memoir—The Unending Quest for Reform: An Intellectual Memoir—and conversation on the theme “From Election to Performance,” many had to sit up and prepare for another national news. Amongst these were our revered boss, Mr. Stephen Oronsaye, CFR, a highly-regarded elder, Otunba Oyewole Fasawe, the Asiwaju of Owoland, and Dr. Nasir Sani Gwarzo, serving permanent secretary. And Baba did not disappoint. In his opening statement, Chief Obasanjo drew on his military and democratic pedigrees to outline parallels between what his government achieved and what the new one can make possible, especially in terms of institutional and governance reforms. For a start, in 1999 he launched a weeklong reorientation workshop cum brainstorming series with senior members of the civil/public service echelon on matters of moving the Nigerian state forward through a realignment of the efficiency credentials of the public service in what culminated in the Kuru Declaration and social compact of February 2021.

When states reform their governance and institutional architecture, it is to the end of transforming their national productivity system, and that axiomatic point could not have been lost on someone of Obasanjo’s caliber who supervised a reform project when Nigeria commenced her democratic experiment in 1999. And this was precisely the point of his lamentation—precisely that after sixty-three years of nation-building and developmental efforts, Nigeria is still way too short in terms of administrative competences and governance insights that could make the lives of Nigerians better. The starting point, OBJ insisted, is the urgency of mending Nigeria’s divisive fences through a two-pronged process of “national moral re-armament and national reconciliation” that restructures Nigeria from the point of values and national belonging. This must then be followed by the urgency of an out-of-the-box pragmatic framework of development financing, and building a capability ready public service institution to instigate the emergence of a developmental state in Nigeria.

These three ideas encapsulate the solution frameworks that the former president, in his best judgement, presented to the Tinubu administration indirectly through the Nextier event. They outlined firmly the context and urgency for further discourse on good governance and institutional and governance reforms in ways that will provide the frameworks that benchmark reform and governance possibilities for the new administration to harvest and harness for the sake of achieving its goal of making Nigeria better than it met it. Clarity about Nigeria’s future cannot be achieved outside of a solid and concertedly calibrated ideological framework that will serve as the context within which elite nationalism can become truly transformational. It is just so unfortunate that the elite configuration in Nigeria harnesses Nigeria’s diversity as a divisive mechanism that threatens the future of a country where this same elite struggle for political power. This is not a paradox because capturing political power—for more than six decades—has ended up, more often than not, being about primitive accumulation, rather than making Nigeria a better country for Nigerians.

At the Nextier event, the keynote speaker, Prof. Francis Egbokhare, deployed a story to make a critical point: a woman consulted the oracle about whether her husband who traveled to Lagos will return. The oracle said the husband will return. However, the husband died, and his corpse was brought back. The woman was angry and concluded the chief priest and the oracle had deceived her. The babalawo told the woman she only asked if her husband will return, and not how he will return; “the oracle only answers the questions it is asked.” This provides a reflective template on how the new administration ought to go about the urgent need for governance and institutional reforms. One fundamental question the new administration cannot take for granted—one that most administrations perhaps did–going by Nigeria’s administrative history—is: can the public service reform itself? This question has a significant place in my memoir, and my entire reform philosophy.

The twenty-first century workplace is one that is modeled on an optimal system that is capability ready to deliver services efficiently. This speaks to the need for public sector productivity, hinged to a reform of the business model for doing government work. In other words, the bureaucratic workplace must be one that is agile and flexible; one that is not dragged down because of a carrying capacity powered by a Beatle car when a Jet engine is imperative. The new administration must urgently see the need why public service organizational IQ trumps all other consideration when the issue of performance and productivity is concerned. The point is not to staff the system with all sorts. On the contrary, it is to change the game through a recruitment mechanism that transform the senior executive service as the brain of the public service and galvanized by a national and not just a public sector performance management system.

It is the basis of my advocating the engagement between the public and the private in terms of collaborative enrichment. And my cogent example remains Margaret Thatcher’s deployment of Lord Derek Rayner, Chair and CEO of Marks & Spenser, to lead the reform of the British public service at a point when it was becoming grossly inefficient and resistant to deep-seated changes. It has become axiomatic now that no public service will make an efficient and effective developmental progress on which the performance of a functional democratic governance is assessed if it still operates within the traditional Weberian context (and its ‘I-am-directed’ protocols) rather than on the flexible and performance-oriented mechanism deployed by the managerial revolution.

In other words, and given the value-adding imperative of the public service within democratic good governance frame, teasing performance and productivity out of the public service—beyond what the Nigerian public service presently stands for—demands more. The British example is one model for reducing the bloated-ness of the system (an issue that generated considerable debate on what it means for a service to be over-sized), and erasing the cost of governance deficit. With the Japanese and the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), we have another sound example of how strategic intelligence and ideological background can transform the policymaking process into a solid infrastructural development underpinned by systemic cum structural changes of a transformational proportion. The two lessons that the new administration must learn from the Japan reform experiment are: (a) the prioritization of good policies and national productivity paradigm-induced changes that grounds economic growth, and (b) the ideological location of the policymaking framework within an institution that, like the MITI, can consciously screen global interventions and meddling that would short-circuit the design-and-implementation trajectory of a good policy the citizens need.

I have, for instance, signaled lately why it is not wise to deal with the petroleum subsidy regime in a way that further entrench Nigeria’s fixation with the Washington Consensus. And this is because it has lots of implications not only for Nigeria’s capacity to diversify her economy away from the stranglehold of crude oil, but also for the management of her sovereign wealth fund. With the Japan example, we see clearly how a meritocratic bureaucracy—with a pilot agency like MITI or South Korea’s Economic Planning Board—can serve as the basis not only for the emergence of a developmental state, but also critically a state-industry integrated reengineering of national productivity through the mechanism of, among others, the total quality management framework. TQM involves employee involvement, teamwork, decision-making, problem-solving, high level involvement, adopting a work culture aimed at growth and quality of product and services. The public service can therefore arrive at this point through the active participation of the private sector. Here, we also immediately see fundamental urgency of also reinventing the policy-research nexus not only between the state and industry but also the need to network the town and the gown into a firm and functional engagement. This was one of the crucial secrets of the Adebo era of administrative excellence. The relationship between consulting firms and policy experts makes possible a functional integration that enables a capability review of and implementation planning for the MDAs. The new administration must vigorously undermine the anti-intellectualism that derives from the public service arrogantly protecting its turf from what it considers encroachment. It is only a short stop between such a turf-protection and a silos mentality that deprive the system of transformative innovativeness.

The MDAs therefore must run on a mechanism of professionalized strategic communication, anchored by Public Service 2.0 new administrative technologies, that connect one sector to another in a dynamic network of productive interaction. While transforming the performance metric of the MDAs through opening up its operational dynamics to pubic scrutiny, the public service must equally develop accountability frameworks that hold MDAs up to performance contract and audits. This means that MDAs must take their productivity cues from the national productivity policy and the targets it sets for the public service.

The incoming Tinubu administration has a lot to learn and to achieve. How that administration engages with public service reform will determine the difference between the evolution of its legacy and entrapment in what has been called “legacy thinking”—a mental imposition that derives from being circumscribed by external requirements that undermine innovation. Between the existing framework of political patronage and its demand for instant gratification, and Nigeria’s seeming fixation on external ideological paradigms, the new administration must decide on the direction within which it wants to build a legacy of good government; a direction determined by what will transform the lives of Nigerians.


Prof. Tunji Olaopa

Retired Federal Permanent Secretary

& Professor of Public Administration

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