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 s 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.
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Author: Uche Atuma