A Quintessential Civil Servant’s Post-retirement Reflections

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Adams Abonu

“We must strive to consciously inculcate the ideals that make society greater even when we have left the scene; this is when we can truly say we have impacted on the development of society.” Sir Ahmadu Bello, Sardauna of Sokoto and Premier of the Northern Region, charging First Republic members of the Northern House of Assembly.

It is a mark of distinction for a public servant in contemporary Nigeria to display exemplary commitment to improving the quality of service delivery even after quitting the stage through retirement. The conventional manner of attitude is for those who have been at positions of power and authority turn a nonchalant-or at most, lukewarm towards issues of governance and how to improve the public sector. In a clime with this rather lackadaisical disposition, those who choose to make a difference through dint of hardwork and sheer commitment set a standard of service that makes them some sort of authority.

This brings to focus a new book from Tunji Olaopa’s nurtured mind , ‘Reforming the Reformable: Post-retirement Reflections on Nigeria’s Civil Service;’ an intellectual expose into the experience of the author in his quests for solutions through reforms in making public service conform to its purpose in Nigeria. Published by HEBN Publishers, this first-hand reflection is worth its own reflections which this piece aims to provide.

The seminal work comes in three dimensions- autobiographical, a narration of the history of civil service in Nigeria and reminisces of an integral administrator of the system. The author’s choice of language was lucid enough to encourage reading as he outlined the convictions and reform insights which he acquired within a period spanning 27 years and his noble bids to see the transformation of the civil service as a viable avenue to national development.

Dr. Olaopa led his teeming readers down the memory lane to his formative years in Aawe in present day Oyo State where the unfortunate incidence of the ‘burning man,’ a manifestation of the dysfunctional politics prevailing then provoked his nurturing mind to correcting the shortcomings of the system. It was this craving for knowledge, which got him high-school nicknames like “Advanced Level” and later “Professor-”that shaped his perceptions and triggered the desire to effect workable reforms. “I think it is from Plato’s Republic that I began to put together a preliminary understanding of what reform means. Indeed, I first picked the word reform when in the history class, Martin Luther and his reformation thesis on the Catholic Church of the time was taught..,” the author wrote in an introduction to the reflections. The philosophical musings of the author into how to effect reforms in a defected system was, agreeably, on a solid foundation of conviction.

Revealing further insights into his trajectory from the political science graduate of the prestigious University of Ibadan to a brief stint as part of the university system and subsequent joining of the Directorate of Mass Mobilisation, a social intervention initiative of (military) President Ibrahim Babangida to his appointment as Speech Writer and Policy Analyst at the twilight of the Babangida presidency, Olaopa said the place of a renowned Professor of Economics, Oyetunji Aboyade encouraged him to do put in his best in correcting the malaise he has seen in the civil service system and “be a change agent!”. The author’s admiration of the professor is phenomenal as the ‘Aboyade’ nomenclature permeates pages of the book.

The book reveals further the connect between his widening experience in the civil service, where he had been appointed as Deputy Secretary of the famous White Paper Panel on Ayoda’s Reforms in the Nigerian civil service, and his subsequent doctoral thesis titled, ‘Nigerian Civil Service: A Framework for Reform (2006)’, again from the UI.

“I came away from the doctoral experience with two critical insights, one negative and the other positive. The central thesis of my dissertation was simple but profoundly troubling. I discovered that in the Federal Civil Service, there are too many people doing nothing, too many doing too little, and too few people doing too much. This fact, which unfortunately is still the norm today, has some frightening consequences. First, it led inevitably to the breakdown of establishment control and O&M which, with federal character policy, distorted the service’s skills composition and manning level. Secondly, this created multiplier effects for the HR policy and led to the emergence of several operational gaps- performance, policy, process, capacity and resources. These consequent effects gradually enabled the system to ossify around a bureau-pathology characterised by blind conformism,” the author captured his understanding of the problem with the civil service and the fronts for his subsequent reforms interventions.

Through the pages of Tunji Olaopa’s inspiring reflections, the reader would observe the underlying commitment to reforming the Nigerian Civil Service to meet the challenges of the times: he expressed his “pain of retirement” in chapter one explaining that leaving the service at the time of “imminent change that President Buhari is methodically putting in place in all areas of Nigeria’s institutional life” was painful; in chapter two he described the various factors that motivated his reform-oriented civil service career as “Providence Plan;” narrated the history of the public sector in Nigeria in chapter three under “History Matters,” with subsequent chapters capturing the essence of his forays to the pinnacle of the Nigerian Civil Service.

A postscript which dwells on his ongoing reforms intervention through the conception of the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP), policy development institution designed to improve governance and whom the author said aspires to be “Africa’s Leading Policy Research Institution.” ISGPP is evidently Olaopa’s current preoccupation and government could find a development partner when it comes to formulating effective government policies.

The author’s literary and journalistic prowess was further brought to bear in the book. The brief but vivid capture of a life irredeemably committed to improving systems for the betterment of humanity is recommended for those who are concerned about making Nigeria work for Nigerians.