Oronsaye at 70: Tribute to A Public Service Reformer

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By Joseph Coker

Bringing about reforms, whether in the religious space or secular world, is a grueling battle for anyone to win. All through history, reformers in various sectors – and across geographical locations – have been either hailed or scorned for the change(s) they sought (or seek) to bring about in their milieu.

Reading an article on personality traits penned by Jerry Davich in the Chicago Tribune of January 20, 2020, I was persuaded to read further about the nine personality traits captured by the Enneagram Institute in New York: the Reformer, the Helper, the Achiever, the Individualistic, the Investigator, the Loyalist, the Enthusiast, the Challenger and the Peacemaker. Going through the different personality traits, especially that of the Reformer, which emphasizes principles, purposefulness, self-control and perfection, one name that flashed across my mind was Stephen Osagiede Oronsaye, a Nigerian Accountant and former Chief Civil Servant of Nigeria between June 2009 and November 2010.

Stephen Oronsaye, who turned 70, yesterday, Monday, November 16, 2020, represents many things to different people. On such a momentous occasion, it is fitting to chronicle what one knows about this man who has shown, in words and action, that he is a reformer and a patriot.

Although his parents hailed from the present-day Edo State, Stephen Oronsaye was born in Lagos, ten years before Nigeria’s independence. The young Oronsaye attended the famous St. Gregory’s College, Lagos and obtained his accounting qualification in 1978 by training with the firm of Peat Marwick Cassleton Elliot & Co. between 1973 and 1978. He qualified as a Chartered Accountant in 1978 as an Audit Senior and became a Partner of the firm in 1989.

He has attended management courses and seminars at home and abroad. He also holds a Masters degree in Business Administration (MBA) from the University of Calabar.

History tells us that on joining the Federal Service in 1995, Oronsaye carried out assigned fiscal duties and reconciled the nation’s foreign reserve accounts. Some other highpoints of his career in the civil service were his participation as Chairman of the Committee established for the re-introduction of ASYCUDA in the Nigeria Customs service; participation in the bilateral reconciliation of Paris Club debts to arrive at actual national indebtedness; and being the pioneer Head, Budget Monitoring and Price Intelligence Unit (BMPIU), which is now the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP). He was equally the Country Chairman, Inter-Agency Committee on the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), whose activities paved way for the delisting of Nigeria from the NCCT (Non-Cooperating Countries and Territories) list at the time.

Oronsaye was appointed Principal Secretary to the President, Commander-in-Chief, of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, on November 17, 1999 and on April 9, 2001; he was appointed Permanent Secretary, State House. He held the two positions until he proceeded on posting to the Federal Ministry of Finance in August 2008. While at the State House, Oronsaye carried out reforms that are still being talked about today. I do know for a fact that prior to when he was the Accounting Officer of the State House, events at the Villa, as it is fondly called, were mainly held at the Abuja Hilton Hotel. All that changed with the construction of the State House Banquet Hall, where all Presidential activities are now held. In 2006, Oronsaye chaired the Committee on the Review of the Civil Service Rules and Financial Regulations. The revised documents were passed to the Bureau of Public Service Reforms (BPSR) for finalization. At various times, he also as Chairman of Ad hoc committees set up by the Federal Government.

Among these were the Presidential Committee on the Evaluation of the activities of the Niger-Delta Development Commission (NDDC) and the Committee on the Rationalization and Restructuring of Federal Government Parastatals, Commissions and Agencies, whose report is now famously known as The Oronsaye report. The Nigerian FATF Committee, which Mr. Oronsaye chaired, also championed the passage of the Anti-Money Laundering Bill and the Anti-Terrorism Bill by the National Assembly. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria and holds an honorary Doctorate (Honoris Causa) from the University of Benin in addition to the national honour of the Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic (CFR).

Until his appointment as Head of the Civil Service of the Federation on June 16, 2009, Mr. Stephen Oronsaye was the Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Finance; Governor- OPEC Fund for International Development (OFID); Alternate Governor- World Bank Group; Alternate Governor- International Monetary Fund (IMF); and Alternate Governor- African Development Bank (ADB). He was also Chairman, Technical Monitoring Committee of the ECOWAS Monetary Cooperation on Single Currency and the Technical Committee of the West African Monetary Zone (WAMZ).

Although his time as Nigeria’s Head of the Civil Service of the Federation was a brief one, Oronsaye etched his name in the annals of the Public Service through his effort aimed at instituting a Service where integrity, discipline and merit are entrenched. I remember at the time that the goal was to set in motion a process that will enable the Service renew itself and in the process, change the negative perception about the Federal Civil Service.

For me, the major episode that imprinted Oronsaye in the memory of many civil servants – and indeed policy watchers – at the time and perhaps long after, was the bold move made in concert with the then Chairman of the Federal Civil Service Commission, Ambassador Ahmed Al-Gazali, to institute policy limiting the tenure of Permanent Secretaries and Directors in the Nigerian civil service to a maximum of eight years. This obviously did not go down well with some persons who disinformed their support base and the public about the intent of the policy, which was meant to address the succession crises that had arisen in the Federal Civil Service as well as the issue of stagnation. For those who remember, while some persons fiercely resisted and pushed to give the policy a coloration of ethnic and religious bias, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, of blessed memory, saw the merit in the policy and reportedly instructed the duo of Oronsaye and Al-Gazali to go ahead with the tenure policy, which boosted the moral of majority of civil servants. Truth be said, many officers at the time had stagnated on one rank due to no fault of theirs. Anyway, the debate of the tenure policy is an issue for another day.

Another issue chroniclers of the Nigerian Public Service will point out about the Oronsaye era is the knack of the team captain at the time had for making the service more responsive and competent in the delivery of quality service and driving the policies of government. I remember full well that part of decisions reached at the maiden Forum of Serving and Retired Permanent Secretaries held sometime in July 2009, was the need to institute a competency-based Human Resource Management framework to address the problems of perceived inequity and injustice in recruitment, transfer and promotions in the Service. The discussions centered around restoring the morale of officers and unlocking the creative potential of committed staff. As a close watcher, one easily recalls some names such as Dr. Habiba Lawal, Dr. Shehu Misau, Dr. Francisca Odeka and Dr. Gabriel Gundu as some of the champions in developing modules for the trainings held at the Public Service Institute of Nigeria (PSIN) to improve the capacity of the Civil Service.

I am sure many civil servants, particularly those on junior cadres, found it difficult to forgive Oronsaye when he came up with the policy of withdrawing television sets from Government offices. His argument was that Government offices at that time placed undue emphasis on the acquisition of television set, while majority of officers spent working hours viewing cable stations, thereby wasting manhours. Another policy that made some vilify Oronsaye was the move to standardize travel rates and save cost in nine pilot ministries through the establishment of the electronic travel desk that was domiciled in the Office of the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation.

Oronsaye will also be remembered for implementing reforms in the Pension Scheme of the Federal Civil Service, which led to prompt payment of benefits to pensioners, some of whom, prior to that time, had never been paid. Similarly, a Service-Wide biometric identity card project for all Federal Civil Servants commenced in October 2010 as a complement to the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS). The simple objective was to enable the Office of the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation, acquire biometric data of all Federal Civil Servants and obtain an accurate census which will help to institute a performance-based career management.

Ask Oronsaye to list what the Civil Service achieved under his watch and the man will choose a zip over a megaphone but history is not blind. Those who elect not to forget will tell you that the man was key to obtainin the approval of the Federal Executive Council to centralize group life assurance for all categories of public servants. Posterity will also remind us that the Federal Government Staff Housing Loans Board (FGSHLB), one of the parastatals under the OHCSF, headed at the time by Dr. (Mrs.) Hannatu Adamu-Fika, was established during this period to provide low interest rate loans to public servants. Perhaps not many remember that he was the one that spear-headed the move, in collaboration with Labour Unions, for improved remuneration that must be matched with productivity. That move culminated in a negotiated salary relativity of Civil Servants approved by the then President in 2010, which no doubt helped to boost the morale of civil servants at the time.

Oronsaye will no doubt also be remembered as the chairman of the Presidential committee on the Rationalisation and Restructuring of Federal Government Parastatals, Commissions and Agencies, which, in 2012, recommended the reduction of federal government agencies from about 541 to less than 200. The committee, while noting that the average cost of governance in Nigeria was ranked among the highest in the world, argued that all three arms of government must make genuine effort at reducing their running costs as well as restructuring and rationalizing the agencies under them, if ever the cost of governance in Nigeria is to be reduced.

Oronsaye is not a saint. Like every reformer, he has had his own share of fair and largely unfair criticism for pursuing a path he believed best for the advancement of the system. However, those who know him closely will attest to the fact that the man has no bone of conceit in his body. His close friends cut across different tribes, tongue, social class and creed. One thing no one can deny is the fact that Oronsaye truly loves this country.

Despite incidents of vilification from different quarters, the man’s patriotism has not shaken.

Oronsaye, for me, represents an era in the recent history of the public service that has to be revisited for the Civil Service to find answers to the current challenges, which are not exactly new.

This writer has only scratched the surface in the foregoing paragraphs about the man Stephen Oronsaye and what he stands for. There are those who know him much closer than the observer’s view presented here. Those chroniclers (including he) owe it a duty to posterity to tell the true story about a man greatly misunderstood for his selfless actions for the better good of our institutions.

Happy 70th birthday Mr. Stephen Osagiede Oronsaye. It is my sincere prayer that your sincere labour for our fatherland, like those of our heroes and heroines past, shall never be in vain.

• Coker is based in Abuja.