Vanguard (Lagos)

16 November 2012

Nigeria: Of Honour and Award - the Dilemma of a Reformer

opinion

I bring the felicitations of the good people, the Government of Nigeria and its public service to this most esteemed gathering. Stepping onto this platform today raises a whole new emotion that I have never felt before in spite of the fact that the very act of mounting platforms has incidentally characterised my many years in the public service.

This particular act undoubtedly, marks a watershed in my career as a civil servant.

I am overwhelmed by the fact that I am counted worthy to share this hallowed space with many far more distinguished and accomplished statesmen, and mentors who have passed before me. As this Award is for me a dimension of grace, I am therefore most grateful to the Almighty God without whom my life itself is impossible.

Getting to this point in my career owes a lot to the conviviality of the community of experts, colleagues and friends who provided the institutional space which enabled me to apply field validation to my various ideas about reforms and institutional renewal, especially in Nigeria.

It is with a mix of pride and humility therefore, that I recall our remarkable strides as a member of various African Expert Working Groups and our specific interventions in conflict ridden countries like Liberia, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Sudan etc. I also recall our work in Namibia, South Africa, Kenya, Addis Ababa, Algeria etc, in the tireless pursuit of a strong and enabling African Public Service Charter.

This also had involved our effort with the UN-ECA geared towards a systematic documentation of good, smart and best practices in Africa that would ensure that African countries are able to learn and share in institutional practice that would facilitate their development and expand the "pockets of effectiveness" in public service performance in Africa. My conviction has remained unshaken in the imperative of this approach rather than the usual methodology of leveraging mainly innovations from the OECD.

Let me also recognise the immense contributions of our professional associations and networks including the Centre Africaine de Formation et de Recheriche Administrative Pour le Development (CAFRAD), the African and Commonwealth Associations for Public Administration and Management (A(C)APAM), Institute of Administrative Science (IIAS), Public Administration Experts Panel of the African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF), UK Institute of management Consultants etc. for the ever-ready platforms they made available for disseminating the ideas that I had in turn pulled together over the years into my many publications.

My foray would not have been possible however, if I had not been given the opportunity by my country, the Federal Republic of Nigeria and her Federal Civil Service, not only to serve but also by deploying my growing reform expertise to various desks where I got involved in the policy reviews that attended the implementation of the 1988 reform before 1995 and in the implementation of the Ayida reform up to 1999.

This experience gave me an incredible entry into the Federal Ministry of Education as the Coordinator of the Education Strategy and Change Team between 1999 and 2002. I also served as the Technical Head of the Strategic Planning Team at the Management Service Office (MSO) that developed the 2003 National Public Service Reform Strategy that gave birth to the Bureau of Public Service Reforms (BPSR) that has now been scaled up into what has become the National Strategy for Public Service Reform (NSPSR), a veritable blueprint for public service reform in Nigeria.

It was at this point of my involvement with reform change process in the BPSR that I was appointed as a Permanent Secretary.My intellectual restlessness and optimistic fervour for Nigeria as an evolving concept ensures that my technical interventions in the reform trajectory of the civil service in Nigeria would set me wandering, searching, learning and absorbing various dimensions and possibilities for change in dozens of public services around the globe. And like Archimedes, I continue to crave for suitable places to stand to deploy our growing expertise to make a difference.

That tells me one important thing: It is too early for me to begin to expect honour in any form. This is because reform is not easy and reformers shouldn't usually count on honour for two reasons. First, most people accept the necessities of reform, yet reformers remain among the most unpopular of all change agents.

They are almost tragic heroes who had to swim, sometime all alone, against the tide of habituated systemic tradition. The music of reform often assails the ears with a clanging insistence that grows irritating but promises more. Such a reform agent is often suspected as wanting to lay claim, presumptuously in his or her personality, to the perfection s/he expects in the system.

Thus, s/he is usually resisted and more often despised as a mere troublemaker to be monitored, subdued and grounded. Second, the result and consequences of reforms don't often come early to garland the reformer with honour. There are reforms that outlast the reformer, or confound our expectation.

A reformer therefore needs to confront the dilemma of recognising a good and workable idea and innovation, the obstinacy of the society or the administrative framework to accept such ideas, and the fear of being perceived as arrogant for pushing these ideas all the same.

Is it not acceptable orthodoxy that civil servants ought to be seen only and not heard? Did Warren Bennis, the American educationist, not declare that "Lots of people in organizations may have vision, but there's absolutely zero meaning to what they're doing. They've actually forgotten why they are there, which is why bureaucracies become stodgy and obsolete and filled with inertia."

And, Ayo Olukotun in Punch of November 2, 2012 also observed that "Changes and reform, let it be noted, do not come to institutions by routine or from those who are following laid down procedures but by men and women who have the courage of their convictions and are willing to stand up for them". even as we would rather pursue change nonetheless, within the framework of laid down rules and procedure.

So, what then becomes of honour?

My career life did not begin with thoughts of receiving accolades for my deeds. Indeed, the public service had always presented a challenging prospect for me! Yet, there were dynamics that drew me insistently to nothing else, but the public service, and here I am. And my fundamental motivation for wading into the administrative dysfunction has always been to ensure that knowledge and expertise find their relevant niche in situ to support genuine passion to build institutions with value and harness every opportunity provided to prove that public service and governance space in Nigeria and Africa can be redeemed.

Africa, and Nigeria specifically, has been regarded as the most difficult administrative context in the world. While this may be stating the obvious, it falls short of an assessment of what is possible given administrative determination and political will. The public service institutions in Nigeria have suffered immensely from acts of omission and commission that have debilitated their value dynamics. What is required is concerted effort to restore and rehabilitate these institutions for functional effectiveness and efficiency. Reform is a veritable fulcrum for such a restoration.

And anyone, civil servants or otherwise, who must make a mark, must have to make it through the rigour and danger and the tantalising possibilities of success that reform promises. As Lawrence Lowell, the American political scientist comments, "Anyone who sees in his own occupation merely a means of earning money degrades it; but he that sees in it a service to mankind ennobles both his labor and himself".

It was said of Augustus that he found Rome brick and he left it marble. Let my own honour also be that I found the civil service this way and I contributed my quota in turning it another way, for the better. For me, a life of service is its own honour. And that honour is what I will wear as a badge of my patriotism to a fatherland that gave me the opportunity to be relevant, that allowed my administrative expertise to flower and be put to use at the topmost level of my calling.

Indeed, I had no hand in choosing Nigeria as my nationality; yet, there is no other country I would rather have served with my expertise. Joining in the fray of nurturing Nigeria to greatness, for me, is the best vocation a public servant can ever hope for.

Permit at this juncture, to sound a clarion call: Nigeria is on the rise! Nigeria constitutes a very significant piece in the African renaissance framework. The pan-African spirit that Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah pushed his whole life is still evolving through NEPAD, APRM, as well as the collective desires in the hearts of all to take Africa to the height of governance.

It is a great privilege to have Nkrumah as a forerunner in the rebuilding of Africa. I am only grateful that I could be counted worthy to serve humanity through its African template.

I thank this august occasion for recognising that service, and the push through this Award for me to do more.

Long live our dear continent of Africa. Long Live the Federal Republic of Nigeria. And Long live the Republic of Ghana and the spirit of Pan Africanism and Long live the African heroic spirit that we celebrate today in the living memeory of Osagyefo (Dr.) Kwame Nkrumah.

Dr. Tunji Olaopa, Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Labour and Productivity, Abuja, Nigeria, gave the above as acceptance speech as awardee of the 2012 Kwame Nkrumah Africa Distinguished Public Service Order of Merit Award at a ceremony organized by the International Centre for Peace and Charity, Ghana which held on Saturday, 10th of November, 2012 in Accra, Ghana.

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