Will Nigeria ever implement the Oronsaye report? (1)

Two years after the Nigerian Civil War ended in 1972, former military Head of State Yakubu Gowon decided that Nigeria’s civil service needed to be repositioned to deal with the challenges of managing a nouveau riche country. Swimming in petrodollars at the peak of the oil boom in what was and is still by some distance Nigeria’s most successful ever decade, Gowon famously remarked that Nigeria’s problem was not how to make money, but how to spend it.

While that comment is often characterised as a mission statement for the spendthrift profligacy that would soon come to define Nigerian governance, what Gowon actually meant was that Nigeria was in a unique situation to achieve an unprecedented level of development for an African country due to its newfound petro wealth, and the challenge was how to direct that spending in such a way as to feed that development.

Gowon turned to Jerome Udoji, a distinguished career civil servant to lead a commission that would create and administer a new strategy to help the Nigerian civil service assume a new role at the center of Africa’s most promising economy in the 20th century.

6 years after he submitted his report and 5 years after Goodluck Jonathan left power, the report is once again getting attention after being approved for implementation by President Muhammadu Buhari

Jerome Udoji – The original Stephen Oronsaye

Set up in 1972, the Udoji Commission’s remit was wide and far-ranging including creating training systems and global peer observation for civil servants, creating an integrated administrative structure to better fit the centralised system of government hurriedly instituted 6 years earlier by Aguiyi Ironsi, eliminating inefficient departments and waste, and introducing a new civil service management doctrine that put objective and accomplishment over process and bureaucracy.

This all sounded great on paper and it would have been a watershed moment in Nigeria’s corporate history were it not for two subsequent details that changed everything.

The first is that the final objective of the Udoji Commission – upward review of civil service and armed forces remuneration – soon subsumed every other accomplishment of the commission. Instead of creating a new civil service that was repositioned and freshly incentivised to achieve maximum productivity, the posturing of the Gowon administration gave Nigerian public servants the idea that the good times were rolling and the government was here to give everyone a share of the “national cake.”

Indeed to this day, few people actually remember what the Udoji Commission was. It is only remembered now as the “Udoji Award,” which is how the (often exponential) salary increases infamously came to be known.

This high octane “roaring 70s” atmosphere fed by oil-fuelled expenditure and the subsequent rapid growth of middle-class consumptive capacity led by the civil service was even captured in the popular music of the time, encapsulated by Fela’s playful, high energy 1972 track ‘Eko Ile.’ Toward the end of the decade and for the rest of his career afterward, his music would take a decidedly darker and more militant turn, but for the moment, oil-boom Nigeria was an infectiously positive place.

Unfortunately, amidst all this government expenditure-fuelled merrymaking, Nigeria’s actual productive base to support a rapidly expanding population was not growing. An unprecedented number of Nigerians were accessing secondary and higher education and tens of thousands of new graduates were joining the workforce every year without a commensurate economy to support this growth.

Successive governments between the early and late 1970s then did what every Nigerian government does when it is flush with cash – they expanded the civil service. Udoji’s changes regarding efficiency and reduced waste were quietly undermined one after the other, leaving just one legacy from his commission unchanged by the time Murtala Mohammed seized power in 1975 – the Udoji Award.

Another set of reforms become necessary – Enter Oronsaye

The second event that completely defeated the purpose of the Udoji Commission was one of the signature policies that marked the chaotic 198 days that Mohammed spent in the office. Roughly 10,000 civil servants saw themselves suddenly tossed out of office – often without compensation or pensions – at the fiat order of Mohammed based on arbitrarily designated standards regarding age, health, competence, and alleged wrongdoing.

Overnight, from being the best-regarded and most desirable middle-class profession in Nigeria, the civil service degenerated into an everyday scramble for sustenance between desperate people in an unstable, insecure environment that was liable to change at a moment’s notice depending on what side of the bed the Head of State woke up on.

Mohammed lasted just 198 days in office before the violent 1976 coup by Lt. Col. Buka Suka Dimka brought in Olusegun Obasanjo, followed by Nigeria’s first postwar attempt at democratic rule under Shehu Shagari. Regardless of his short stint, this destructive legacy outlived him and survives to this day.

The combined effect of the Gowon and Mohammed regimes was that public service in Nigeria retained the negative pull of Gowon’s ‘Udoji Award’-style national cake distribution and combined this with the negative push factor of the grasping, desperate, ad hoc culture instituted by General Mohammed’s knee-jerk civil service and armed forces purge to create the toxic governance atmosphere we are all too familiar with nowadays.

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Nigerian politicians and senior civil servants learned to create vast amounts of wealth for themselves by exploiting the inherent efficiencies and leakages in creating layer upon layer of ad hoc institutions – often by military fiat – and using them as their oil rent-funded pork-barrel enterprises. In 2014, President Goodluck Jonathan – himself the beneficiary of a period of high commodity prices and a resultant economic boom period – turned to a career Accountant-turned civil servant to do what Jerome Udoji should have done 42 years before.

Stephen Oronsaye was a hardnosed public administrator who had earned his stripes under Olusegun Obasanjo and Umaru Yar’adua, fighting – and ultimately prevailing over – senior civil servants who resisted his attempts to introduce 8-year tenure limits for directors and permanent secretaries in the federal civil service.

He was given the remit to chair a committee that would create a comprehensive roadmap for rationalising and repositioning the central civil service to make it more productive and to eliminate 4 decades’ worth of military and civilian ‘national cake’ extraction enterprises disguised as government institutions. 6 years after he submitted his report and 5 years after Goodluck Jonathan left power, the report is once again getting attention after being approved for implementation by President Muhammadu Buhari. So what can we actually expect from this report?

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