Tracking Imoukhuede’s Career as a Public Servant

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Tunji Olaopa
Tunji Olaopa

Tunji Olaopa

The trajectory of Chief Joseph Enaifoghe Imoukhuede’s life and career is a testament to the coincidence of historical, administrative and personal dynamics that makes Imoukhuede one of the most significant administrative figures in Nigeria. Let me make a confession at this point. Delivering this lecture brings me face to face with a huge absence in my reform and administrative scholarship. And that absence is constituted by the towering and redoubtable achievements of Pa Imoukhuede, especially within the ensemble of great pioneers that I have dedicated my intellectual energies to profiling for the rehabilitation of Nigeria’s institutional dynamics. And yet, Imoukhuede stands shoulder to shoulder with the best in that period that marked what has often been regarded as the golden era of the public service in Nigeria.

By the time Nigeria got close to independence, the fault-line of postcolonial national troubles was already becoming clear. This was especially around the politics of ethnic rivalry. This ethnic tension was most immediately felt in the recruitment into the newly emerging federal civil service that was most confronted with the task of nation-building and national rehabilitation. The challenge was that of how to get the best Nigerian personnel into the civil service on the basis of merit, without agitating the ethnic configuration of plural Nigeria. The compelling argument, eventually, was to allow representativeness prevail over merit in the characterization of the Nigerianisation Policy. The issue with the Nigerianisation Policy intersects that of federalism that was introduced by the Lyttleton 1954 Constitution.

What made the Era of the Imoukhuede’s so distinguished and what went wrong?
A host of factors really! First, there were a corps of pioneer civil servants schooled in the value-based administrative tradition instituted by the British, and who were eager to lay a foundation of a prestigious profession that was world-class. These pioneers belonged to a Nigerian society that had its time-honoured value foundation intact, an era when people attained positions of responsibility that were earned by dint of learning achievement, distinct professionalism, a deep sense of self-worth underpinned by honour, exemplary conduct and the noblest of character. Meritocracy was sacrosanct in staffing and appointments, even as quota system was already a guiding policy in diversity management.

The then Federal Public Service Commission was unqualifiedly incorruptible in the discharge of its work of professional gatekeeping which it guarded jealously and with utmost integrity. Policy work thrived under a seminal spirit that allowed the public service to take advantage of an institutionalized town and gown multidisciplinary cross-fertilization of knowledge and skills available in the academia, industry, the civil society, Donors technical assistance and the global community of service and practice; very much unlike the reigning anti-intellectualism in the policy space today, a tendency dominated by the attitude that dismisses every attempt to reinforce the policy process with research findings as theory and therefore not practicable. Motivation and condition of service were administered to preserve the prestige and professionalism of the service. So, what went wrong?

What ails the Nigerian public service can be interrogated from two perspectives namely, the systemic factors and the Nigerian factor. As per the systemic, aside from the very familiar causatives, the inherited ‘I am directed’ Weberian bureaucratic model of public administration was the global best practice up until the early 1970s. However, the variant of the bureaucratic model that the British activated in Nigeria, the Douglas McGregor “Theory X” version, was created not really to serve the people or to constitute the architectural platform of a developmental state; rather, it was oriented to help facilitate the extractive intents of colonialism. Besides, the one-model-fits-all service-wide standard operating system encoded in the General Order (GO) were oriented for regulatory control, maintenance of law and order, hence strong in managing the “input-process” side of a system or programme, but weak in managing the “output-outcome” results-framework and performance management.

This by extension applied to the rules of budgeting, accounting, personnel administration, planning, etc., that were designed not to ensure effective democratic accountability, but oriented to combat fraud and improper political influences. The greatest undoing for Nigeria was that she missed the global paradigm shifting commencement opportunity that the Udoji reform of 1974 offered, through the injection of strategic planning and programming via PPBS and MBO; merit and competency-based HRM, project management system underpinned by monitoring and evaluation system, etc. As most high-end achievements are secured through task force structures or project implementation units, there is no sufficient flexibility or change orientation and competences to mainstream these as smart cum good practices and innovations to improve MDAs internal operating systems.

There is also the erosion of competency-based HR practices and system’s poor sensitivity to reskilling to address capacity deficits in the dynamics of programmes and project implementation. Managers do not have the full latitude that CEOs have in corporate settings to manage embedded politically induced behaviours that limit performance effectiveness at the core of MDAs operations. This is due to the one-size-fit-all service-wide single standards and centralized governance controls

From Fulton to Udoji: Managerial Ferments in the Time of Imoukhuede
Imoukhuede’s public service credentials were honed at a time when there was a growing outcry about the public service and what it could achieve for the state of which it is a significant institutional apparatus. Simeon Adebo, Jerome Udoji, Alilu Akilu, Joseph Imoukhuede and many other pioneers of the golden era of the public service in Nigeria were all the professional products of the British tradition of administration. This is indeed a paradox of colonialism in Nigeria, as I have written in several pieces. What we now call the golden era of public administration in Nigeria was founded on the tight and constant reform of the British administrative machinery in ways that made the colonial administrative enterprise a success in the first place, and which also facilitated the emergence of Nigeria as an administrative entity.

This golden era, in the 50s and the early 60s, was when the Nigerian state began its post-independence existence with a very strong and professional civil service, regarded as perhaps the strongest of the colonial legacies bequeathed to Africa. This civil service framework was one nurtured on the traditional Weberian structure which required from civil servants the requisite of anonymity, neutrality and impartiality. Thus, a civil servant’s overall profile is therefore expected to be circumscribed by efficiency, effectiveness, integrity, accountability, responsiveness, representativeness, loyalty, equity, fairness, and so on. These features of the civil service were fabricated through genuine and strenuous reform of the British civil service system, and this commenced in 1854 with two significant administrative moves by the British government. When the British administrative tradition was established, it was founded on two characteristic features—a career civil service and the accountability of the executive to the parliament in the conduct of government business. Both came as a result of the Reports of the Northcite-Trevelyan Report and the Macaulay Report.

Between the Northcote-Trevelyan Report of 1854 and the Macaulay Report on the Indian Civil Service of the same year, the British civil service imbibed the Weberian traditional understanding of public administration as a system that emphasizes selection on the basis of merit—civil servants therefore become professionals with common recruitment conditions and prospects, as well as a “career” in an acceptable life-time employment under the Government. Max Weber thus defines the bureaucracy in terms of its structural characteristics. He advocates a kind of organisation which is impersonal, where authority it exercised by administrators only by virtue of the office they hold, and in accordance with clearly defined rules and regulations. In other words, bureaucracy emerges as uniquely impersonal, neutral, passive, and instrumental. Its behavioural characteristics are objectivity, precision and consistency. Weber’s bureaucracy emerged as neutral, hierarchically organised, efficient and inevitable in contemporary society with features which make it technically the most efficient form of organisation. These include:

• A well-defined hierarchy of authority

• Division of labour based on functional specialisation.

• A system of rules covering the rights and duties of incumbents of various positions in the organisation.

• A system of procedures for dealing with work.

• Impersonality of interpersonal relationships.

• Selection for employment and promotion based on technical competence.

There is an apt testimony, provided by Dr Anthony Okpaise, one time head of service of Edo state, I heard about Chief Joseph Imoukhuede that bears this point about spirituality of service. The testimony is that Imoukhuede was very punctual, always impeccably dressed, fluent in the Queen’s English, was forthright and very disciplined, was highly reasonable in the sense that he would bow to superior arguments on any matter, and was a highly social person even though he would never discuss government business outside of the office. I was told of an instance of Imoukhuede’s disciplined approach to work and abhorrence of mediocrity. A file was missing and he asked for it. He got an administrative answer that the file was missing. But, argued Imoukhuede, why would a file go missing if it does not have legs or wings. He then demanded that the file be produced or all those involved would face dismissal. Thirty minutes later, the file surfaced.

Is there any wonder then that Joseph Enaifoghe Imoukhuede would be specifically honored by the Queen of England with the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for exemplary service not only as a fine speaker of the language but more significantly as an exemplary public servant?

The second dimension of the spirituality recognizes the relationship between service and the web of relationships that sustains it. Here, spirituality transcends religion to envelope other beings to form a spiritual collective whose energies can then be translated into a spiritual capital. Translated into organisational culture, spirituality becomes a key component that is required in the search for meaning and value that encapsulates a desire for interconnectedness with others in a manner that leads to a dedication to certain objectives. Such a spirituality would encompass other notions like (a) a call to integrity; (b) edifying relationship—the realization that people are connected to one another beyond any notion of instrumentality; (c) love in the workplace that treats others the way one wants to be treated; (d) a search for meaning within a bigger picture that drives one to seek for solutions to problems.

The second fundamental quality that distinguished the administrative pioneers was their perspicacious capacity to transform their Weberian administrative knowledge into the national context of Nigeria, and to modify it accordingly in line with global best practices. In other words, their professionalism was not a capacity that they got and swallowed. On the contrary, administrative professionalism enabled them to reflect on the reform potentials that the administrative system has. In the western region civil service, Adebo and Imoukhuede had the opportunity to translate their professional competences and skills into alleviating the practical administrative challenges confronting a newly independent region of the Nigerian state. Let me just identify about three of the unique institutional dynamics that enabled them to transform the public service into an efficient machinery that created the infrastructural wonders of the western region.

Administrative Reform Lessons:
Adebo to Imoukhuede
The failure of administrative reforms in Nigeria left the space open for all forms of dysfunctions to cripple the efficiency capacity of the civil service system in Nigeria. Most significantly, the failure to interrogate the capacity readiness of the civil service in postcolonial Nigeria led to the emergence of crippling process, policy, capacity, performance and resource gaps which undermine the capacity of democratic governance to achieve efficient service delivery for Nigerians. After the 1974 Udoji Commission report was voided, the Obasanjo military regime facilitated a massive purge of the civil service in 1975 which undermined morale and critical values significant for defining public service as a vocation. Public servants then became “wiser” in their conception of what service entailed. In this negative transformation, the value of deferred gratification which defined the professionalism of Adebo, Udoji, Akilu and Imoukhuede went out the window. Public service now became a source of livelihood rather than a Levitical vocation.

It is however at the point of this breakdown of the public service system that we really need to revisit the critical roles that the administrative pioneers and forebears played in building up the system in the first place. In other words, with those who were there at the beginning who saw the immense possibilities that the institution of the public service held for building a truly united Nigeria, we have the opportunity of unraveling the administrative for those insights that might enable us rethink what has gone wrong and what could be done to rehabilitate the system. Learning from administrative history is all the more urgent at the moment because we have the task of making our democratic experiment work to empower Nigerians. Whether we accept it or not, the future of democratic governance in Nigeria rests on the institutional capacity of the public service. This is a fact that all governments recognize worldwide. This is a fact that Simeon Adebo, Jerome Udoji, Alilu Akilu, Joseph Imoukhuede and the many other professional public servants also recognized implicitly.

Indeed, the functionality of any development state anywhere in the world is grounded on the efficient performance of an optimally capable public service system. It is in this regard that the African Public Service Charter, adopted in 2001, became the most significant continental indication of the readiness of the African leadership to come to term with its administrative challenges in the twenty-first century. The Charter derives from the realization that the African continent needs a very strong and capable public service system in order to have a strong global presence that will invalidate the unpalatable impression years of underdevelopment have made. The most critical elements of the Charter that are expected to backstop the objective of evolving a developmental state include: commitment to citizen-centred public service; commitment to efficient and quality service delivery which highlights the availability, accessibility and quality of services; modernisation of the public service including promoting meritocracy versus patronage, and utilization of technology; behaviour and rules of conduct of public servants; professionalism, ethics and integrity, conflict of interest, declaration of interests; human resource management and development; and mechanism for implementation.

The Imperative of Professionalism and Re-professionalization
The Adebo-Udoji-Akilu-Imoukhuede administrative framework represents professionalism at its best. Imoukhuede’s OBE award is a testament to a global recognition of a professional exemplar par excellence! Professionalism, according to the United Nations, addresses “the sum of knowledge, skills, attitudes and ethical orientation that a carer official bring to his or her job to contribute to effective and efficient discharge of organizational responsibilities” (United Nations, 1998: 19). The real underlying defining character for the public service in the golden era of public administration in Nigeria was actually the nature and character of the public servant as a patriotic and professional person who understands what is required of him or her administratively, and who possessed the competence and skills to carry out the tasks.

Professionalism is a concession to a well-trained workforce as well as a commitment to the value of neutral competence rather than a concern with survival and managerial control. Professional attributes would include: Foresight and provision (strategic, pro-active orientation); Entrepreneurship (risk-taking, innovativeness); Excellence/merit (constant search for perfection); Impact or result-orientation (focus on performance and productivity); Moral rectitude (responsibility, political neutrality, public spirit, accountability, equity, transparency, subordination of private/personal interest to public good) (UN, 1998: 19). It is in this sense that Joseph Imoukhuede was the very essence of a public servant. It is also in this sense, quite unfortunately, cannot measure up to standard. And this is exactly what makes the task of re-professionalization more urgent and more daunting. Re-professionalizing the public service requires a strong gatekeeping structure in the sense of a formidable civil service commission that is incorruptible because it stands as the structural framework that gives birth to the emergence of a new breed of professionals.

Conclusion: Where Do We Go from Here?
In this conclusion, I will raise several reflective points that will sharply bring home the historical and experiential insights derivable from the Adebo-Udoji-Akilu-Imoukhuede administrative dispensation. These reflective think-points will further enable us to keep reflecting on the future imports of the Imoukhuede administrative dynamics for the rehabilitation of the Nigerian public service system. I will frame the think-points in terms of fundamental administrative questions that help us to move the public service forward through a glance at the past represented by Joseph Imoukhuede and others.

Question 1: How can we undermine the politicization of the public service through an operating dynamic oxygenated by political caprices and authoritarian willfulness?

Question 2: How can the political leadership be encouraged to commit the much-needed political will that is a defining factor in investing in the transformation of the public service?

Question 3: How do we ensure, through an adequate diversity management and waste reduction, that the Nigerian condition does not continue to undermine reform and restructuring possibilities?

Question 4: How does a state like Nigeria manage the politics-administration dichotomy?

Question 5: How do we reform the human resource function in ways that facilitate the emergence of new professionals enthusiastic to serve?

–––Olaopa is a professor of public administration and Executive Vice Chairman of the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy. Above is the abridged version of the paper he delivered at the inaugural edition of the J.E Imoukhuede Memorial Lecture series held in Benin City last week