• Thursday, June 20, 2024
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Allison Ayida and the golden years of Nigerian public administration

Allison Ayida

Quintessential civil servant and technocrat Allison Ayida passed away quietly in a Lagos hospital on Friday 12 October, age 88. One of the privileges one had as a young researcher at the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru, in the eighties was that it availed one opportunity to meet some of the greatest Nigerians across different walks of life. Allison Ayida was one of them. A brilliant mind and highly accomplished civil servant, he was often invited to the National Institute to give a lecture or to participate in one policy workshop or the other. He was an oracle of economics and a walking encyclopaedia of development policy management.

What I remember about him the most was his gentle and soft-spoken mien. He spoke in measured tones as if words should be carefully counted like money.

Allison Akene Ayida was born on 16 June 1930 in Gbelebu-Siliko in present-day Edo State, although both parents hailed from Ugbege in Delta State. He was the first and only son of his parents. His father, Jones Allison, was a schoolteacher who became a prosperous timber merchant, although the business later fell on hard times.

He attended local schools before moving to the prestigious Kings College Lagos from 1946 to 1952.  He was evidently a bright pupil, having achieved the rare feat of being given a double promotion to class III in 1947. He caught up with the likes of Philip Asiodu who was to become a colleague and life-long friend. The principal of Kings at the time, according to my senior friend, J. K. Randle, was an Englishman by the name of J. R. Bunting. It was the latter who arranged for both Asiodu and Ayida to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) at his own alma mater of Queen’s College Oxford on full scholarship from 1953 to 1956. He subsequently did post-graduate work at the London School of Economics and Political Science during 1956-1957.

Allison Ayida was among the first crop of civil servants recruited into the British Colonial Administration in the years leading up to independence. Among those pioneers were the likes of Philip Asiodu, Pius Okigbo and Solomon Akenzua, who was to become Omon’Oba n’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo Erediauwa I of  Benin Kingdom.

He was appointed a federal permanent secretary at the uncommon age of 33. He acquitted himself with distinction. He was that type of rare civil servant who was at home in an academic seminar room as he was in council chambers and the corporate boardroom. As one of the principal architects of Nigeria’s first three economic development plans, he worked closely with colleagues at the University of Ibadan and at the Nigerian Institute for Social and Economic Research (NISER).  He was later promoted to the exalted position of Secretary to the Federal Government and Head of the Civil Service (the office was to be split into 2 separate positions in later years). He took over from Abdulazeez Attah, another eminent Oxford PPE graduate, who had passed on suddenly, following a cardiac arrest. Ayida held the position from 1975 to 1977 before retiring from the civil service.

Allison Ayida was no doubt one of the architects of modern Nigeria. He served during the decades when our civil service was acclaimed to be among the best in the Commonwealth of Nations. I speak on the authority of none other than Wolfgang Stolper, the eminent American economist who served as adviser to the Federal Government on the design of our First Economic Development Plan 1959-1968.  In his posthumous memoirs, Stolper waxed lyrical about some of the great Nigerians he met: Simeon Adebo, Hezekiah Oluwasanmi, Ojetunji Aboyade, Pius Okigbo, Ali Akilu, Philip Asiodu and Allison Ayida;  royal princes who could hold their own in any court or chancellery in the world.

When young Yakubu Gowon, age 31, was addressing his first cabinet meeting, he referred to Abdulazeez Attah as “my secretary”. Whether it was a slip of tongue or a deliberate put-down, we would probably never know. Suffice it to say that the Okene prince firmly corrected the Head of State: “No, I’m not your secretary; I’m the Secretary to the Federal Government of Nigeria.” Gone are the days!

Unlike us Lilliputians, they were bereft of ethnic or religious bigotry. His friend and colleague Ahmed Joda once wrote: “On my way to the Kaduna airport to fly to Lagos to take over as Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Information, on 12 July 1967….Ali Akilu, Secretary to the Military Government of Northern Nigeria…drew me aside and advised me to as soon as possible after arriving in Lagos…call on two men – Allison Ayida and Philip Asiodu, both Permanent Secretaries….He advised that I should work closely with both men. They, he said, were good and loyal Nigerians and very intelligent.”

Ayida belonged to a generation that were wrongly referred to by journalists and even academics as “super permanent-secretaries”. They included the likes of Philip Asiodu, Allison Ayida, Ahmed Joda, Ime Ebong and Ibrahim Damchida. They were so-called because they exercised an influence in government that was far beyond what was expected of any civil servant in rich and poor countries alike. But it was not their fault. They were gifted young men with the best education anyone could hope for, then as now. They were trained by the British, with their exacting standards and patrician self-confidence. Many of their political masters – civilian and military – were not in their league, if truth be told. But what stood them out was their sense of national mission and destiny. They were patriots to the core.

Following the revenge coup by Northern officers in July 1967, Yakubu Gowon gave a national broadcast in which he declared that there was no longer a basis for the continued existence of the Nigerian federation. Many northern civil servants and officers were getting ready to evacuate Lagos. It was Super-Permanent Secretaries like Asiodu who risked their lives by braving it into Dodan Barracks to prevail on Gowon to retract his disastrous announcement.

And following the Aburi Accord of August 1967 in which Gowon had literally acquiesced to Ojukwu’s demand for confederation, it was again the Super-Permanent Secretaries, aided by British Petroleum and Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who dissuaded him from that misguided course. Prince Solomon Akenzua, who had accompanied Gowon to the conference, did not sleep upon return to Lagos. He spent the entire night writing a memo to persuade the Head of State to renege on an agreement that could have destroyed our federation. Those who blame Gowon for reneging on Aburi are ignorant of international law which prescribes that treaties could only be binding after ratification by the parties concerned. Aburi was never ratified and so could never be regarded as a legally binding agreement under international law.

In his long years in retirement Ayida spent his time in charitable works and in supporting cultural groups such as his beloved Itsekiri people. He was a strong believer in the principle of self-determination for ethnic minorities throughout the Nigerian federation. He would have approved of our current commitment to restructuring for more effective nation building.

Unlike many of our plutocrats, he was more financially successful in private life than he was in government. He had wide ranging business interests from finance to oil and gas and real estate. He chaired the boards of several companies, among them Security, Printing and Minting Company Ltd, CFAO, Centre-Point Securities Ltd, Credit Lyonnais, and Berger Paints. He was awarded an honorary LLD by the University of Benin and another LLD by Bayero University, Kano.

Like many of his generation of Nigeria’s golden years, he was saddened by the turn of events. At a Convocation Lecture at the University of Jos in January 1987, he lamented: “I stand before this audience as a sad Nigerian. I feel sad because of the sense of doom around the shadow of doubt hanging over us. There is too much human misery around”. This was as far back as 1987. It is no surprise that he took his exit in the dark night of a monstrous regime that has superintended such mindless killings and our descent into the status of the world capital of poverty.

The so-called super permanent-secretaries no doubt wielded considerable power well out of proportion with their mandate as civil servants. They came under severe criticism as usurpers who misled their military political masters on several occasion. For example, my big egbon and pre-eminent public administration scholar Professor Ladipo Adamolekun had a running battle with the super permanent-secretaries whom he accused in one of his books of having misled General Yakubu Gowon to postpone return to civil rule. It was a catastrophic decision that was to lead to the military coup that overthrew him in 1975. Some of them were also accused of enriching themselves from oil deals and from the Indigenisation Decrees that compelled foreign investors to sell off many of their assets to the Federal Government.

These accusations turned out to have been without foundation. With the benefit of hindsight, those were the golden years of Nigerian public administration. The civil servants of those days were people of distinction who could have served in the civil service of any advanced industrial democracy. What stood them out was that they were patriots. They appeared larger than life because they filled a vacuum where their political masters were often second-rate people. They also provided continuity and institutional memory in a context of sudden and often violent changes in regimes that wrenched the collective psyche of state and society.

Of course, they made their own mistakes. The so-called “cement scandals” of the early seventies whereby an armada of ships turned up at our ports with cement that would ordinarily have taken several years to off-load. Most had to be turned back while others were diverted to neighbouring countries. The Udoji salary bonanza was clearly an exercise in folly from a public finance viewpoint. So was the cultural jamboree that was known as “FESTAC 77”. They ought to have advised the government better on how to lay a solid foundation for Nigeria’s industrial and technological take-off.

Be that as it may, they represented, without a shadow of debt, the best that Nigeria had to offer. The public service of those days had giants that dwarf those of today. Men such as Simeon Adebo, Jerome Udoji, Taslim Olawale Elias, Leslie Harriman and others were men of supreme accomplishment that have left an illustrious heritage that we of today can only marvel at. The public service of today’s Nigeria is a morass of incompetence, grand larceny, intellectual laziness and abysmal standard. We are told, for example, that the majority of the permanent secretaries that were appointed by the current APC-led administration are dominated by former Directors of Finance of the Ministries, Departments and Agencies of government. The reason is not far-fetched: They were apparently the people who could afford to buy those prebends of high office. Our civil service of today has fallen out of grace. Nepotism and favouritism is the watchword. Graft is the norm. There is no esprit de corps to speak of. There are secret recruitments going on, in which merit has been thrown to the dogs. What counts is your connection and whether you are the son of an emir, chief, senator or some other powerful individual. This explains why children of peasants with first class honours are wandering the streets while children of the rich have cushy jobs in CBN, NCC, NNPC, Customs, Foreign Affairs and other well-paid government establishments.

The only way to redeem the situation is to set up a national commission to review the entire civil service with a view to restructuring it and ensuring it meets the imperatives of the twenty-first century. We must create a merit-based civil service headed by an elite administrative service as obtains in countries such as China, Japan, India, South Korea and Singapore. I am unashamedly an elitist. I believe with the Italian economist and sociologist Vilfredo Pareto that the world is governed by elites. But they must be elites of talent, not nepotism. We need a merit-based civil service in which the entry point and promotion are based on rigorous examinations. The Chinese have had such a tradition for centuries. This explains why its rulers are always people of the highest quality and intellect. No nation can prosper if it is ruled by inferior minds.


Obadiah Mailafia