When considering problems, I like to pretend the problem is a collapsing building or a disorderly local market—something concrete. Because I am located within it, I can see the inevitable result of the failings in my abstract, the bodies under the rubble and the screams as it were. I mentally levitate to gain a bird’s eye view and the higher I rise, the more clearly I see how the pillars of the building and the layout of the market drag each other down towards the tragedy seen on the ground. Despite the abusive and one-sidedly heartbreaking relationship I have with my country, I love Nigeria. Just as I cannot un-see the reality its dysfunctions, and of its dysfunctions feeding dysfunctions. So, I play my mental game even if fixing Nigeria’s wahala is generally way above my paygrade.
In the last weeks, I have talked about strategic communications failures in Nigeria’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, with Ministers Faruq and Ohanire being my favourite cases in point. At the street-level where I live, no one takes anything the Minister of Health says seriously. When Minister Ohanire said he did not know where the Chinese doctors who came in to help the corona effort were, regardless of how his words were mis-framed, he was not even brought up for the usual Nigerian yabis. What he got was a collective shrug—ehen, and so what; did we expect anything from this one? Super-minister Faruq is regarded as thoroughly insincere in her running the “palliatives” programme and the quickly propped-up “school feeding initiative” during the pandemic. How is it that in dealing with a threat of this sort, the two most important public officials in Nigeria are the ones seemingly most unfit for their roles? Blunt truth: Public confidence in public officials has eroded to near zero. The reality, though, is different. Ministers Faruq and Ohanire are not particularly special. Their sloppiness is not personal. It is only representative of deeper, underlying issues.
Primarily, while the threat profile of Nigeria was growing more complex with the challenge of transnational crime and the Boko Haram insurgency, the government of Nigeria was also growing larger with new agencies being created to oversee integral aspects of problem-solving. What did not happen is this: Government of Nigeria did not grow to match the level of complexity of its threat profile, it merely grew bigger. Transnational crime, for example, such as human trafficking, is in the remit of the Ministry of Interior. No official in that ministry has a list of all our citizens illegally trafficked to Europe and elsewhere, including those who have died. Yet, in the last twenty years, the Ministry of Interior—comprising the Nigerian Police, the Civil Defence, Immigration Service, Prisons Service and Federal Fire Service—has routinely increased personnel and still wants more. A fully operationalized Ministry of Interior ought to coalesce all interior-related agencies into a strategy implementation umbrella under which all agencies know how they fit in. Every single MDA officer within this flexible behemoth must, beyond specific agency mission, know how to achieve it and be responsible for how their deliverables affect overall national strategy implementation. Where traffickers use satellite navigation and employ a cell-like structure, bumbling along blindfolded or working in silos of varying levels of activity, if not quality of output, as our internal affairs and security systems do, is exactly what has eroded Nigerians confidence in the government.
Addressing system problems in a way that guarantees the long-term centrality and measurability of the implementation of strategic objectives is crucial in a set-up like ours that routinely sees a high turnover of political officers such as Ministers and, to a large extent, permanent secretaries. The current system is one that simply cannot work because the civil servants in their ministries have spent ten, twenty years there in the certainty of “Minister come, Minister go, Secretariat remains” and will only do the very minimum needed to keep their jobs. I have seen the sheer, overwhelming inertia of the Nigerian Civil Service firsthand and from the inside. A situation where a minister of some ability cannot move his staff around to fit his vision, cannot sanction incompetence and where, in fact, his top directors do not belong to his ministry is the egg yolk in which the virus of public sector incompetence has been richly cultured. Coronavirus is still a kid compared to this virus, in terms of, well, virality, and definitely in terms of host mortality. Nigeria is dying because of its civil service so-called.
But there is also the larger problem of the managers of the system, of the line ministries and the crucial MDAs that feed them, as the case of Ministers Faruq and Ohanire amply demonstrates. When a leader has no background running a large, complex organization, such a person is not going to suddenly learn how to do so the minute they are made Minister of something or the other. The SGF’s little training session for cadet-Ministers simply does not cut it as against familiarity with the strategy management or, even better, hands-on experience. Where a minister delegates such an essential function, only the very best remain invested after that. A ministry with an un-invested Minister, whose handicap is clear to subordinates, which further grounds their own inert tendency, which is aided by their not being in the roles they are best suited for, which, in reality, does not affect their work so-called, is called a perfect storm of nothing-can-happen.
The effect of all this is that such lower cadre officers concentrate on their primary functions, which they do to stay within the rules. What creates their role, the government’s larger strategic framework, is excluded from consideration because executive officers are not administratively or personally invested in achieving its outcomes. There is no risk of punishment, there is no responsibility for failure. This issue of leadership is difficult to address. The Nigerian elite used to be recruited from amongst the very best. I remember a period where the postnominal “MNI” guaranteed the possessor had a high-level of administrative ability. One did not get selected for high office “just like that”. Elite incapacity, stemming from the way our elite is recruited, is a huge problem. It is the elephant in the room.
Now, putting it all together.
In submitting on the Nigerian problem, the solution must be one that addresses the current structure moving it away from a system where powers are dispersed in a way that makes cooperation tenuous or impossible. While I think the Oronsaye Report is a good starting point, I fear that it does not go far enough, nor does it factor in the fecundity of MDA creation since it was written. Worse, the collective mindset that created the report did not imagine new threats such as radicalization or Covid-19 and this is of great import. Yet, without the matching of the complexity of our threat profile, including pandemics, to our reforms, we are just wasting our time. Bureaucracy does not need to be large, but it does need to be fine-tooled for complex challenges that have broken the window panes and are smashing things in the building already. There is also the problem of elite recruitment and the failure of the current system. There is the reality that if we continue on this path, it will not be a question of Boko Haram or other separatist groups “winning” but a question of Nigeria “losing” its fight for stability and state continuity.
I pay homage to our new Chief of Staff, the celebrated Professor Ibrahim Gambari, in whose honour this piece is named. Nigeria is faced with extreme peril. While it is usual to say that “at no time have we faced such a formidable threat profile”, I say this honestly and add that at no time have we been so unprepared and in need to drastic, fundamental change. If we are to shore up pubic confidence it is not enough for the President to give strategic directions once in a while and expect his various cadre of high-level executive officers to achieve same. They often do not have the competence to do so and usually do not have the civil service to deliver on these goals, as we’ve seen time and time again.
What is called for is a new long-term strategy management team that will be thoroughly professional. It must neither be from the civil service nor be in the public service. It must have the authority to manage Nigeria’s strategy at the Federal level and cooperate and coordinate with the state governments. It must be a body with broad powers over the civil service and the political leadership in the specific, specialist area of strategy management. This body will be the Guardian of our federation—the one that scares everyone, keeps things on track and measures deviance in strategy delivery all-of-government wide. This team has to be in place yesterday. With this, I say congratulations to the professor. I look forward to watching you run the President’s disparate, unwieldy staff.
Richard Ali was called to the Nigerian Bar in 2010 and has worked in private legal practice, consulted in a policy-shaping role at the Ministry of Interior (2015 to 2017) and has run a preventing and countering violent extremism (PCVE) programme. His expertise is in soft approaches to PCVE. He is an alumnus of the US National Defence University’s Africa Centre for Strategic Studies (ACSS) and of the State Department’s International Visitor’s Leadership Programme (IVLP). He is also a novelist and a poet. He can be reached at [email protected]