Why I Write on Governance, Reform


Tunji Olaopa

From the moment I commenced my work as a public servant in the late 1980s, it already dawned on me the kind of challenge that will confront my intellectual temperament. I see myself as a writer, a commentator and an administrator, and therefore knew from the very beginning that I could not be the typical civil servant who must only be seen but never heard; someone who works from behind the scene and holds his or her critical political and development opinions in check, but only within the ambit that public service rules permit. This picture of the public servant is meant to service one of the famous dichotomies of public administration, the politics-administration distinction. This dichotomy differentiates the politician’s function from that of the administrator. In other words, while it is up to the politicians to outline policies and programmes that define what governments do, it is the duty and responsibility of the public servants to only advise about the policies, and eventually implement them.

But I was coming to the public service from a lifetime aspiration to become a university scholar with the intellectual capacity to dissect realities for understanding. I was coming from a background of terrible political experience which already opened up series of critical questions about Nigeria itself and its governance dynamics. How then could I be right in the middle of the policy architecture of governance, and not be heard but only seen? In what ways then would I be able to facilitate the optimal functioning of the policy architecture if I could not offer critical interrogation of its flaws and fault lines? How could I as an expert-insider not be able to apply the insider perspective to the reform of an institution that is meant to deliver the gains of democracy to Nigerians?

All these were not questions I formed antecedent to my entry into the public service. They were questions that were forced into my consciousness as I gradually confronted the dysfunction of the institutional dynamics within which the Nigerian public service system operates. But the question of why I write about reform now has an added poignancy now because of two fundamental feedbacks from my readers and those around me accentuated by comments of a number of revered elder statesmen lately. The first set of “commentators” wonder why I keep writing when it seems no one really appreciate the deep insights that my advocacy and public education bring to the governance equation in Nigeria. “If those who constitute the primary target audience which could fruitfully engage with the ideas and recommendations you push are more concerned with maintaining and sustaining their power base through networks of patronage, why take the enormous trouble to push reform ideas?” This is a valid response, more so when those in government seem not to care evidently, about fresh and innovative ideas and strategies that could radically challenge orthodox practice. The other group of “commentators” has actually asked when I would roll out my political ambition! It would seem to these sincere readers that the whole essence of engaging the public at this fundamental level of reform thinking is to facilitate political support.

I am definitely not a politician. And I do not write because of some instrumental reason, like securing a political base from which to launch a future political aspiration. However, I cannot run away from the necessity of getting my expert knowledge into the right heads and those that matter. Since it is public education and advocacy on matters that concern Nigerians themselves, other discerning readers have challenged me on the technical level of the information I pass to the public. The challenge therefore is: If there is a crucial problem of a lack of a critical reading public, what do I stand to benefit if my writings fail to get across to the leadership and the people? And, it has been suggested from various corners, why don’t you deploy other approaches that leverage development and strategic communication, for example?

These are all critical issues that go to the very heart of why anyone writes and especially why anyone will want to write in a place like Nigeria. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the committed anticolonial Kenyan writer, gives us a sense of what is involved in this hazardous endeavour: “Write and risk damnation. Avoid damnation and cease to be a writer. That is the lot of the writer in a neo-colonial state.” Nigeria is not only a difficult place from which to write, it is even more difficult to write about transforming Nigeria. The Nigerian condition is defined by a serious lack of institutional framework that could be used to make development serve Nigerians. As it stands now, Nigeria is not working, and this is sufficient disincentive for anyone with any modicum of patriotic sentiment.

I consider myself a patriot. But patriotism is a serious matter. I remember the agony I went through on first encountering the dysfunction of the Nigerian bureaucracy. The agony became compounded with the series of commentaries and anxieties expressed by those who fear that the civil service is not a place to commence a good career. In 2003, a New Zealand public service expert and senior colleague observing me in the forefront of reform management asked me to prepare for war! According to him, thinking one might be a change agent or reformer in a conservative bureaucracy, especially the one in a third world state like Nigeria must be tough luck. It did not take me too long to realize how apt he was. Bureaucratic politics is a significant part of the condition that has crippled the institutional stability and dynamics that democracy requires. It eventually dawned on me that such dysfunctionality hides the key to Nigeria’s greatness. And this is not only the reason I eventually decided to stay on, but also to commence writing for public education when I became a permanent secretary, through a rigorous process of public education and advocacy about reform and its complexity and benefits.

I took my inspiration to write, despite the enormous difficulty involved in writing as a bureaucrat in Nigeria, from three significant sources—Plato’s Republic, Thomas Moore’s Utopia and Martin Luther’s “95 Theses.” These three sources introduced me to the urgent need to undermine the status quo and reconstruct its institutional foundations in order to achieve a difference, of favourable circumstances, that could serve good governance and development. These three writers were united in their concern with social change and empowerment, both politically and spiritually. I encountered Plato first, and as a secondary school student with a curious mind always searching for answers. Reading the Republic gave me my first sense of the urgency of reform, and the troubles involved in challenging the status quo.

When I eventually got round to reading Martin Luther, I understood immediately what role leadership plays in directing and leading people either right and wrong; and what could be gained in fighting for institutional reform. Luther was a reformer, par excellence, and he suffered for it. Yet, he did not back down. His experience introduced me to the strong passion that stands behind the knowledge of reform. Thomas Moore defines for me the boundary of what is possible if one is ready to push reform to its limit.

However, my favourite of these three is Plato. And this is simply because his reform programme, outlined in the Republic, combined the radical institutional challenge of Martin Luther and the fresh breath of newness contained in Moore’s Utopia into a revolutionary reinvention of the state into a projection of what human will and institutional balance can transform the government into. Plato began from the declining situation of ancient Athens, and then moved on from there into what Athens could be transformed into. Ancient Athens and contemporary Nigeria are certainly and distinctively different. But they share significant institutional failure in the sense that the government was already disconnected from the aspirations of the citizens; and democracy was no longer empowering. It is worse for Nigeria because democracy needed to work in order to facilitate the transformation of the lives of Nigerians.

And how best can democracy become optimal outside of the institutions that are its nuts and bolts? This is the very juncture at which my public service credentials reinforce my philosophical temperament.
Writing must always serve a purpose, as far as I am concerned. And the purpose in my own case has to do with Nigeria’s complicated struggles with national integration, national development and democratic governance. For more than twenty five years, I have attempted to weave a reform philosophy around these three frameworks in a way that could serve the purpose of good governance.

I have written essays and journal articles; I have given lectures and talks; I have travelled across Africa and outside of it; I have written monographs and books. But in the final analysis, my greatest challenge has come from my advocacy and public education engagements. How best to communicate the challenge of institutional reform in Nigeria? How do I communicate with the public and even with those few who have been engaging my public commentaries on the complexities of public service reform in Nigeria? If development is about the Nigerian people, then a large chunk of them need to be made aware of the stakes involved in development, and the limiting factors. Nigerians, in order words, need to understand the dynamics of institutional reform, so that they can adequately participate in democratic governance.

When I began my public administration reform campaign particularly, I had a lot to fall back on in terms of intellectual and practical understanding of public administration, first from Adebayo Adedeji, Ladipo Adamolekun, A. D. Yahaya, M. J. Balogun, Alex Gboyega, and Humphrey Nwosu to Dele Olowu, Victor Ayeni. I thoroughly immersed myself in Simeon Adebo’s The Unforgettable Years that detailed his revolution of the Western Region Civil Service. I also ardently followed the career trajectory of Chief Jerome Udoji, Ali Akilu, Sule Katagum and those of the super-permanent secretaries – the Ayidas, Asiodus, Ebong, et al, as well as those in the forefront of policy work, the Okigbos, Aboyades, Claude Ake, Mabogunje, Elaigwu, etc. What is obvious to me, in my reform campaign, is that there is so much passion to reform the public service as the most germane institution of democracy in Nigeria. This alone is obvious from the historical analysis of administrative reform in Nigeria. At the administrative, technocratic and political levels, successive Nigerian governments, from independence till the dawn of the democratic dispensation in 1999 have attempted to transform the Nigerian public service into a world class institution delivering democratic services to Nigerians. However, passion is not enough to innovate and transform institutions.

The core of the problem is two-fold. On the one hand, the passion displayed by governments is undermined by a significant lack of reform knowledge that displays a glaring disconnection between what we need to do and how to carry it through the complex landmines, especially of reform execution. On the other hand, reform thinking is often carried out outside the purview of those for whom it is meant. When democratic governance is eventually optimized, is it not for the empowerment of Nigerians? Why then must they not be actively involved in the transformation of the institutions that will serve them? This is why making the public service technologically savvy constitutes one of the major plank of the reform dynamics. For reform to succeed there is the need to achieve reform ownership in a way that will enable both the government and the governed to buy in into the reform process in all its complexities. This is the very core of the reason why I have dedicated myself to public education and sensitization about the public service and why it must work.

I have been retired now for close to two years. While I may have lost my high ground as an expert-insider, I have equally gained perspective as an expert-outsider striving to facilitate reform through the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP). This is a think tank that was founded to raise the bar of reflection on how government can work better through research and executive education. While I speak through my public commentaries to varieties of Nigerians, ISGPP speaks institutionally to the core of the experts and government officials who need to know what reform involves and how it can be facilitated through the merging of passion and knowledge deployed to the execution of policies.

––Dr. Olaopa, Executive Vice Chairman Ibadan School of Government and PublicPolicy (tolaopa2003@gmail.com; tolaopa@isgpp.com.ng)