Yemi Kale, a dogged reformer who changed Nigeria’s data system
It wasn’t by sheer luck or mere coincidence that Yemi Kale, Nigeria’s immediate past Statistician General of the Federation and CEO, National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) emerged a serial winner of the prestigious BusinessDay’s Excellence in Public Service Awards.
In those three straight years that he got recognized, the reasons presented by the BusinessDay Awards Committee for his nominations and eventual wins were clear and consistent – excellence, commitment, professionalism, consistence, objectivity.
After a ten-year, two-term meritorious service, Kale bowed out last week Thursday as the Statistician General of the Federation and Chief Executive Officer at the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) and was replaced by Simon Harry, who until his appointment, was the Director, Corporate Planning and Technical Coordination Department at the data agency. He finally handed over to the new helmsman at quite an emotional event on Tuesday in Abuja.
While at the NBS, Kale, 46, did not just deliver visionary leadership but saw through prolific reforms. Those reforms restored confidence in the entire data process, and delivered brand value to the NBS as a producer of reliable, quality and timely statistics for both national and international use. The reforms also elevated the Office of the Statistician – General in a way that it is now highly admired and aspired by many.
The Statistics Act of 2007 gives NBS, the core responsibility of developing, managing and providing official statistics on a wide range of economic, social, population and environmental matters. The NBS also has a role to coordinate the statistical operations of official bodies and liaise with international organisations.
But up till 2011, the agency was unable to deliver expectations, particularly in terms of reliability, timeliness and believability of data/outcomes.
Assuming office at just age 36 as the head of that important data agency, Kale saw the huge work ahead and was clearly determined to tackle them. And he did deliver!
He introduced bold reforms in the country’s data system. Today, Nigeria has one of the most robust data systems at least in the region, a sharp contrast to pre-2011 when the country’s data process and output was thin and could not be trusted.
Today, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) is easily one of the most recognized and quoted data sources regarding Nigeria by local and international analysts, market operators, economists, journalists and development agencies including international bodies like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, Development Finance Institutions as well as public service officials.
With Kale on the saddle, Nigeria’s quality of data was significantly enhanced through the introduction of Computer Assisted Personal Interviewers (CAPI) – a modern technology for field data collection, gradually departing from the use of paper questionnaire. He also introduced a call center which also eased data collection.
Over the years, the NBS carried out a series of methodology reviews to boost data quality. Some of the methodology improvements include the rebasing of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Consumer Price Index (CPI) and the revision of the methodology for computing labour force and unemployment estimates, amongst others. The CPI rebasing in 2013, particularly showed how Nigerians’ consumption pattern had changed, moving slightly away from just food to things like luxury, education, health.
In the area of data dissemination, Kale successfully upgraded the NBS website and introduced several features like an App, the data portal and the data release calendar tool, both of which are the first for any African Statistical Office. For the first time, NBS data now has time-lines and users now know when to expect data. Official statistics is also now disseminated via social media to reach a wider audience and users, a sharp deviation from the past.
He also introduced the use of infographics to make data easily understandable by the users. The timeliness, quantity and quality of data was greatly enhanced and data credibility improved significantly.
Before now, critical statistics like the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Inflation and Unemployment, poverty rates, trade, Internally Generated Revenues, FAAC allocations were most times unavailable, stale, and unreliable. Where available, such data were often challenged, and contradicted by those from other ministries and agencies of government even on the same subjects.
Today, data produced by the NBS are eagerly anticipated, used, debated and appreciated.
The number of statistical reports produced and disseminated by NBS, a one -time poorly rated agency significantly jumped to an average of over 200 annually from hardly 32. The agency now records over 1.2 million downloads of reports annually as against just 100,000 in 2011. Visits to the website also increased substantially to 12million views from less that 1million previously. Ironically the feat was despite poor funding from government.
Kale saw through the tedious rebasing of Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2014, which confirmed Nigeria as the Africa’s largest economy. That exercise also saw Nigeria move closer to attaining its vision of becoming one of the twenty largest economy, popularly tagged “Vision 2020.”
The exercise exposed how critical sectors like telecommunications, banking, entertainment and others had grown without being captured, despite the huge potential they carry. It also showed the meagre contribution of oil and taxes to GDP, and how government could leverage on that to diversify the economy.
BusinessDay recalls that following surprises thrown up by the process, the BBC, like many others wondered why it took Nigeria some 24 years to rebase its economy. Their finding was simply that “Nigeria has a new Statistician-General, Yemi Kale, who seems to be very keen on beefing up the National Statistics.”
Kale-led NBS unveiled an Enhanced General Data Dissemination System (e-GDDS) of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which would help Nigeria attract the much needed Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs) into the country.
The e-GDDS is the data standards initiatives by the IMF which aims at enhancing member countries’ data transparency and promoting development of sound statistical systems The page particularly serves as a one-stop publication vehicle for essential macroeconomic data.
The IMF has repeatedly commended improvements in national statistics in its Article IV reports.
Kale’s tenure witnessed the highest ever rating for statistical achievement in Nigeria’s history as also measured by the World Bank.
Following progress in recent years, the NBS is now recognised and earned seats on various Presidential committees, Boards of International Statistical Bodies such as the Partnership for Statistics in the 21st Century (PARIS 21) as well as nominated as vice chair of the African Committee of Statistician Generals in 2014.
In recognition of the improvement in Nigerian statistics, Kale was invited to the prestigious Chatham House, London in 2014 to give a lecture. It was the first time in Nigeria’s history that an NBS CEO or any head of a government agency at such level would be invited to deliver a lecture at the Chatham House.
His profile, pedigree, and personal principles were evident drivers that made things happen.
Kale is highly rated for his fierce refusal to tamper with data outcomes even when they did not suit expectations of political actors, despite political pressures and poor funding.
In August 2016, he released figures indicating that Nigeria’s economy had jumped into a recession, the first in 25 years.
Despite wide accolades, his stance on objectivity, quite often, earned him disaffection from local authorities.
Reuben Abati, media aide to the past President Jonathan confirmed this in a recent interview. According to him, “Kale helped to reform the process of recording data in Nigeria, and he was very independent, very honest, and infact quite confident about how he went went about his chores.”
“ I worked in the Nigerian Presidency as Special Adviser to the President on media. Sometimes, some of those documents come to me first and I recall one year when he brought this report about the state of Statistics in the different sectors of the economy and he was very critical of the government.
“That report was literarily putting government down and after reviewing it, I went to the president and said, sir, you have to sack this man. He is your appointee, why is he so negative about this administration? But President Jonathan said no, leave him alone, he’s doing his job, let’s rather look at the data and see what we can do with it.
Abati believes that “it was same kind of integrity, independent-mindedness that got him reappointed in 2016 by Present Buhari.
“Yemi Kale was very consistent, and it is good that he has had a very good run,” he noted.
Kale holds a B.Sc. in Economics (First class honours) from Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia, as well as M.Sc. (with distinction) and Ph.D. in Economics from the London School of Economics and Political Science. An alumnus of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Kale worked as an equity analyst at Goldman Sachs and, for several years, as a quantitative analyst at Merrill Lynch Financial Services.
After that, he became Group Head, Research and Investment Strategy at Investment Banking and Trust Company Plc. (now Stanbic IBTC Bank plc) where he was credited for developing and deepening investment research in Nigeria, earning him the 2009 African Investor award for African Research Analyst of the year.
Later, he became a Special Adviser to then Minister of Finance Shamsudeen Usman and later his Technical Adviser as the Minister of National Planning.
In 2011, Kale was appointed the SG/CEO National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) and, in 2016, became the first NBS chief executive to be reappointed for a second term by President Buhari.
Kale was awarded the National Productivity Order of Merit for “outstanding performance, professionalism and diligence” in February 2017 by President Buhari.
In a chat with BusinessDay, Kale said balancing professionalism and integrity with political pressure was key for him. Commitment to his oath of office, and adopting the mission and vision of the NBS as his personal goals were key drivers of his successful tenure.
“The public perception of Nigeria’s official statistics has greatly improved. This has not come easy, as you know, Nigerians are very critical and readily suspicious of government pronouncements,” Kale told BusinessDay.
“In my mind, Trust is the most important currency for a statistical office. It wouldn’t matter the variety and number of data releases if the users don’t trust what is being produced.
“Fortunately, NBS has been able to earn and retain public trust. We must never take this for granted, and must continually justify why the public should continue to trust our data products,” he adds.
Kale hopes that the new SG/CEO will be able to build on the systems and procedures already built in the past decade.
A serial award winner, Kale has received incredible accolades since the announcement of his exit from office.
Abati thinks “he really deserves congratulations, and in fact, a presidential letter of commendation in terms of how he conducted himself in that office.”
Bismark Rewane, CEO of Financial Derivatives, admitted that Kale’s appointment, in 2011 was greeted with high level of skepticism but that he had succeeded in transforming the “laggard” agency into a “cutting edge and reliable data source”.
For Obadiah Mailafia, Kale’s biggest achievement was that he institutionalized the consistent release of data from NBS.
Tope Kolade Fasua, a renowned economist, and CEO of Global Analytics Consulting Limited said Kale gave his job “a good shot.”
“Because of what he did, Nigerians take statistics more serious now. He was able to get the NBS to a good place.”
Social media users have also commended Kale for what they see as a “job well done”
In a voice note, one Obiesike who said he has never met or spoken with Kale, stated: “I just wanted to say congratulations on your tenure, on the reform, getting everything you did, done. Really I don’t think we actually met, but I’ve been a fan just watching the way you’ve managed public life and focused on getting the job done. I wish you the best in the future, hope that all you plans come to fruition and congratulations on escaping public life with your reputation intact which I think is almost impossible in Nigeria in 2021, and that’s really something special. Well done!
Another Twitter user- @ChubaEzeks wrote “Nigerians owe so much gratitude to @sgyemikale for the brilliant work he did at @nigerianstat. In a low trust society (especially around data and the government), he transformed the brand of the NBS and made the institution trustworthy. Impressive stuff.
Toyan Adeniyi-Adele who also commented through his Twitter handle @adetoyan wrote: “Yemi Kale is moving on. Great job so far.
“For years, Yemi Kale @nigerianstat provided a fresh of breath of air in this pungent admin by producing reliable data for use by many analysts. He was uncompromising, methodical and will be missed, ´ Nkasi Wodu through his Twitter handle stated.
Also commenting, @ilsaAida noted: “Dr Yemi Kale did excellently well as Statistician General. He was a great steward. Wishing him all the very best in his endeavors.
Another commentator, BSA (Gen. Aibinuori BSA) wrote: “Dear Dr @sgyemikale, thank you so much for your service to our Nation. You were there, made the needed changes and left the Agency in a much better shape. Nigerians can’t thank you enough.
Kale obviously left big shoes for his successor, and the task ahead is even daunting.
Mailafia sees the need for the NBS to expand the volumes of data.
“There is no data on the level of I nsecurity in Nigeria for instance. This is not good enough.”
He also encouraged the new NBS leadership to pursue partnerships with international donor agencies, the CBN to source funding for good statistics.
According to him, “The new man should also improve staff welfare, and learn to develop big data which is the future.”