Ayida: The Rise and Demise of Nigeria’s Super Permanent Secretary

Allison Ayida

Few illustrious government officials gave Nigeria’s civil service their all, the late Allison Ayida was regarded as one of the few good men that ever walked corridors of power, writes Bayo Akinloye

You would be forgiven if you claimed you did not know Allison Ayida. Yet, it would be a great disservice to integrity, honesty and commitment if you did not take time to find who Ayida was. He was born in 1930 and reportedly died on October 11, 2018 at the age of 88 years at St. Nicholas Hospital in Lagos.

For those who knew him, Ayida was a former super permanent secretary and the Secretary to the Government of the Federation during the military regime of Olusegun Obasanjo – not much of him is known by Nigerians about “this exemplary retired civil servant because of his quiet disposition”.

Chief Sunday Awoniyi, Chief P. C. Asiodu and Ayida were known to be technocrats of calm temperament but effective in their work as public servants – and appropriately referred to as “super permanent secretaries”. The trio were reputed to have crafted most of the policies and programmes of the military administrations of that time. They were also regarded as the “silent voices behind the military programmes and policies of the time” running a system of civil service almost devoid of corruption.

It is little wonder President Muhammadu Buhari Friday could urge younger Nigerians and public servants to imitate the uncommon patriotism of former secretary to the Government of the Federation, who was buried on Friday.

“Nigeria will surely miss his wide experience in public and private services. We need people like him and his colleagues, the celebrated super permanent secretaries, who exhibited remarkable commitment to the progress and unity of the country,” Buhari said.

Another prominent Nigerian, who also paid tributes to Ayida, the presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Atiku Abubakar, described his death, as a big national loss and special breed Nigerian and civil servant extraordinaire.

“Ayida was a celebrated, outstanding and revered son of Warri Kingdom, a nationalist, an enigma, and a profile of what Nigeria was and should have been. He was a disciplined, transparent and detribalised public servant who was highly respected by his peers and his subordinates for his sound knowledge of the Public Service and establishment matters.

“Ayida was a man with a well nurtured, perceptive and resolute mind. He was always clear in his mind on what to do at any given time, and the choices he made set him apart from the pack. They (Ayida and the other ‘super permanent secretaries’) were determined to pursue the national project and eventual glory of the Nigerian state by restoring a nation that had fought a civil war and required rehabilitation,” Atiku said. The politics of boundary dispute and ceding of some oil wells between Delta and Ondo states were some of the issues that thoroughly tested his acumen and problem solving ability.
Atiku added: “His calmness, humility and forthrightness played out in waving through the tumultuous water of ethnic and communal politics involved as he operated with the sensibility of a patriot.”

According to a policy expert and public commentator, Tunji Olaopa, the administrative history of Nigeria’s public service will not be complete without the mention of Ayida. He further asserted that just a mention of Ayida’s name will be a serious disservice to the historic role that he played in the attempt to reconfigure the public service system, as well as put the Nigerian project right back on track administratively.

“Like the legendary Simeon Adebo and Jerome Udoji, Ayida belonged in what we affectionately, and with a bit of nostalgia, refer to as the golden years of public administration in Nigeria. And even more so, he was one of the “notorious” super permanent secretaries whose roles in the prosecution of the Nigerian Civil War have been the subject of positive and negative analyses. Together with Ahmed Joda, Ime Ebong, Ahmed Joda, S. O. Wey, Phillip Asiodu, and so on, Allison Ayida played a significant and crucial administrative part that had a lot to do with their vision of the Nigerian project, as well as the professional credentials they had acquired as public administrators,” Olaopa stated.

Ayida, like Adebo, Udoji and other exemplary civil servants of the first-generation pioneers, was invested the best that the British administrative training could muster – they were professionals who imbibed the ethos and values of what it means to be public servants.

In the early 1950s after a stint at the King’s College, Lagos, Ayida attended Queen’s College, Oxford, graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economic.

By the time he returned to Nigeria, the country was already well into the post-colonial trajectory that would allow him to show his class. He made the tight list of permanent secretaries that Gen. Aguiyi Ironsi collected as part of the Federal Executive Council – and was put in charge of the Economic Development Ministry.

It was a ministry regarded as where the military received the best education about how to take Nigeria forward. As if the sudden desperation enabled by the 1966 coup was not enough, Ayida and the rest of the bureaucrats watched with horror as the country was thrown into the tension of an approaching war, Olaopa recalled.

Yet, you might have wondered what made Ayida and his ilk super permanent secretaries?
“They became ‘super’ because they lived in an interesting but unpalatable time which tasked their patriotic sensibilities and their professional capabilities to the limit. Nigeria was about to go to war and these public servants were confronted with the unenviable task of fashioning a policy framework for war time and post-war Nigeria,” Olaopa pointed out.

“For instance, there was a pending issue of drafting the second national development plan which was ongoing with the crucial assistance of the renowned economist, Prof. Ojetunji Aboyade. The impending civil war therefore provided a severe cloud of limitation around which these professionals needed to work.

“But like the gold that becomes refined when taken through the furnace, Ayida and the other super permanent secretaries turned their well-honed professional capacity and patriotic fervour came to the rescue. And there was no dithering. Several political commentaries have been written about the supposedly notorious roles played by Ayida and his colleagues in advising Gowon about the war.” Olaopa asserted.