Breaking the spirit of the public service: Yewande Sadiku and her traducers

Prof. Kalu Uka introduced me to Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables when I was English and Literary Studies major at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in the early 1980s. At that time, UNN was brimming with globally rated intellectuals and my Head of Department was Prof. Chinua Achebe. Prof Kalu Uka painted a larger-than-life image of Jean Valjean, the petty thief who escaped from prison and assumed other identities to evade the law. Having reformed himself and become a respectable member of society and a do-gooder, the dutiful and diligent public servant, Javert the policeman, who relentlessly pursued Valjean so that the law could take its course became the villain. At the point when Javert tracked Valjean down to put handcuffs on him, Javert, a man inexorably committed to due process and justice, became conflicted and committed suicide, so that the “good man” could escape. In his mind, that was the only way out.

I did not fully grasp the depth of this tragedy until my years in decision making capacity in the Federal Civil Service when I also carried the full weight of the burden of a public servant who must discharge his or her duty according to the law or succumb to the accepted codes of behaviour dictated by the political elites, a moral burden that Javert could not bear.

I really doubt whether Nigerians give thought to the heavy burden of the responsibility under which public officers labour as they must, to discharge their duties according to laid down laws, rules and procedures, while balancing the expectations and interests of their stakeholders.

The significance of Javert’s conundrum in Hugo’s Les Misérables has of recent preoccupied my mind, and it seems to be the inevitable fate of any Nigerian who takes up the mantle of public service and pledges allegiance to the law and accountability, rather than popularity and political expediency. The upright public servant is thus placed between a rock and a hard place. Resist and face an almost certain career suicide or succumb and commit a form of spiritual suicide, with the ubiquitous possibility of facing the full wrath of the law.

The case of Yewande Sadiku, who rounded up her tenure as Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Investment Promotion Commission on September 24, 2021, and how Nigerians rate her performance in public office should be of interest to those who yearn for improved governance, greater transparency and accountability in the Nigerian public sector. This is particularly because her tenure was held up for scrutiny, based on a flurry of petitions from stakeholders with whom she had locked horns for most of her tenure. Who are these stakeholders and what did they want from Yewande?

Read Also; NIPC: Yewande Sadiku takes a bow

At induction programmes for newly appointed Accounting Officers, the management of stakeholders is a permanent feature among the topics of discourse. In my book ‘On Merit’ (2020), I described my experience of managing the interests of stakeholders in a public sector setting thus:

“A Permanent Secretary’s life is akin to that of an errand boy or girl answering to the public, the principals, the National Assembly, contractors, suppliers, labour unions, family, community, traditional rulers, religious institutions and other compelling interests…Within the Nigerian context, our various publics will decide how well you discharged this duty based on how well you met their individual demands.”

The way we interpret public service has of recent become dangerously wrapped around how successful an Accounting Officer is in meeting the onerous demands of the immediate stakeholders and making them happy. In the public, as in the private sector, the most critical stakeholders that have the potential to enable a CEO to achieve corporate objectives but can conversely distract the CEO and make his or her life hell on earth are the Boards and the Unions.

Governing Boards are part of the statutory corporate governance structure of several public agencies. Their membership is defined by the enabling laws of each agency, but most would usually consist of ex-officio and non-governmental members. Ex-officio members are public officers who are statutory members representing government Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) with a vested interest in the mandate of the Agency in question.

However, non-governmental board members are usually appointed by the President from the general public, to provide an independent perspective on the operations of the MDA and ensure that the public’s views are reflected in the crafting of public policies. Consequently, they are usually politicians from the ruling party and are not required to possess any expertise or in-depth public sector knowledge or experience. The remuneration of Board members is stipulated by extant law or policy circulars, and they serve on an ad hoc basis. The Public Service Rules separate the functions of a Governing Board from the duties of the management of an agency.

The way we interpret public service has recently become dangerously wrapped around how successful an Accounting Officer is in meeting the onerous demands of the immediate stakeholders and making them happy.

The Governing Board, headed by a Chairperson, is charged with providing policy guidelines and guidance, effective monitoring of policy implementation, budget processing and ensuring that government policy directives relating to the functions of an agency are effectively executed. The Chief Executive Officer of the government agency is the policy adviser, accounting officer and head of administration. Supported by the departmental heads, the CEO is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the agency.

The best practice in corporate governance is for Boards to operate within their specific functions, duties and responsibilities and engage with management in an atmosphere of mutual respect and transparency, but this is hardly the case. The major challenge in the relationship between technocrats and Governing Board Members is the inability of political appointees to understand and accept the extent of their limited roles in the corporate governance of parastatals and to restrict their activities within those roles.

Consequently, in parastatals where board and management relationship is strained, the scenario of corporate governance is akin to a minefield due to the divergent interpretation of their roles by such Governing Boards. At the induction of board members of some Federal MDAs in May 2021, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) expressed the concern of the Federal Government at the emergence of unwholesome developments, as the SGF had done at several such inductions before. One does not need to look further than the issues he pointed out, which I have reproduced below to identify the cause of the toxicity in the relationship between MDA Boards and Management: undue interference by board chairpersons in the day-to-day activities of the agencies blatant disregard for extant regulations guiding and restricting board meetings issuing directives to staff without recourse to the CEOs, thereby undermining authority and creating disharmony among personnel imposing disciplinary measures to CEOs without recourse to laid down procedures and approval from supervising authority; and using the labour unions as agents of distraction in the parastatals.

Despite making it clear to board members that their membership of the boards was part-time and considered a service to the nation and a privilege, board members regard their appointments as a reward for their services to the party. The extent of this reward and their interpretation of how it should evolve are quickly made known to the CEO of the agency, who is expected to find a way to accommodate their interests in order to enjoy a cordial relationship or the obverse will be the case.

Yewande Sadiku had a nightmare board, harbouring some aggressive grassroots politicians, who did not have any regard for the abundance of considered opinion of top Civil Servants representing diverse interests on that Board. All the emerging worrisome issues mentioned by the SGF became missiles and weapons of war thrown at the hapless Executive Secretary. The only aspect they could not achieve was removing Ms. Sadiku from office and not for lack of trying. The events that spilled into the public domain, be they petitions, union lockouts, and court cases emanated from that festering toxic relationship between management and non-government members of the board. It did not matter that Ms. Sadiku knew her job and was quietly but determinedly making enduring reforms in Nigerian Investment Promotion Commission.

Yewande Sadiku was appointed Executive Secretary of NIPC from the private sector, where she had a high-profile job as an Executive Director in Stanbic IBTC Bank. It is on record that she suffered a significant reduction in income when she took the public service position. Described variously by those who know her track record as a knowledgeable, respected, upright and accomplished investment banker, there was no doubt that she understood her assignment in NIPC which is charged with encouraging, promoting and coordinating investments in Nigeria. Ms. Sadiku had the qualification, experience, capacity, and ethical orientation to excel as the Executive Secretary of NIPC, but no sooner had she settled down to work than the problems started. She was battled by political appointees on the NIPC board, Union Leaders and staff members who failed promotion exams. She was locked out of her office twice (for 11 days the first time and 6 days the second time) and petitions masterminded by two members of the NIPC board saw her being interrogated by every conceivable investigative arm of the Government.

As at date, Yewande Sadiku has earned the unenviable title of one of the most investigated public officers in Nigeria. Nigeria’s highly rated investigative online newspaper Premium Times released a detailed and in-depth report, the outcome of months long investigations and found that the allegations against Ms. Sadiku for which the various agencies were contacted were unsubstantiated and no wrongdoing was established against her. According to the Premium Times Report:

“After reviewing tons of documents and interviewing persons familiar with Ms. Sadiku’s stewardship at the NIPC, this newspaper was able to determine that her troubles may have little to do with any wrongdoing. Rather, she appears to have been targeted for her principled stance on the running of the NIPC. Her traducers, we found, became angry with her because she insisted on due process and professionalism, sticking to rules in procurement, avoiding corruption, never cutting corners and never allowing anyone to do so.”

This finding by Premium Times was corroborated by staff of NIPC who was interviewed and were quoted thus:

“Ms. Sadiku has consistently stuck by the rules making it difficult, if not impossible for anyone to illegitimately benefit from contracts, employment quotas and other illegal largesse to which appointees usually feels entitled”.

I cannot but totally agree with this assessment having myself represented a Ministry on that Board within the period in question and did not witness any of those spurious malfeasances leveled so maliciously against Ms. Sadiku. At every point in time the affairs of NIPC were under the supervisory oversight of the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment which sanctioned Ms. Sadiku’s actions in accordance with laid down provisions and procedures in extant laws and the regulations that guide public sector operations and administration. If Yewande Sadiku had not demonstrated competence or had committed misconduct on the job, she would not have lasted a day longer than the release of an indicting investigation report.

No doubt the indignity meted to her in the twilight of her tenure of office has started to draw the angst of Nigeria’s professionals in the private sector, and they have risen to defend her. I have read several articles analysing what went down between Ms. Sadiku and NIPC and one common denominator runs through them: the demonization of the Nigerian public sector for head-hunting first-rate talents from the private sector only to rubbish them. I am pained that Yewande Sadiku is now being held up as a metaphor for a broken public service. One of such articles went as far as describing the Nigerian public sector as “the professional’s graveyard”.

To say that the Nigerian public service does not have tolerance for Nigeria’s brightest and best professionals because the system is bogged down with bureaucracy, lacks innovation and is obsessed with a culture of gratification is simply begging the question. Yewande Sadiku’s experience in NIPC was a tale foretold, a well-written script straight out of the SGF’s list of worrisome antics deployed by disgruntled Board members to force their way on management. When Board members are appointed, they come with a list of expectations and a studied scope of the opportunities that could be exploited in the agency. After all, the appointment was given to them as a reward. However, they must contend with the CEO and, if it is Yewande Sadiku, then every action must line up with the laid down rules and procedures.

Yewande Sadiku acted with propriety, and it was because the non-government board members hit a brick wall in terms of their expectations that they engaged her in a battle of wits. What never fails to amaze me is why the Government hesitates to wield the big stick when appointed board members constitute a cog in the wheel of administration of government business. It is an aberration for a government-appointed board member to sue the same Government to court and continue to sit on the Board. There are laid down channels for grievance redress in the public sector and a conscientious objector who is not satisfied with the outcome must resign or be shown the way out. The tardiness in dissolving that board when a serving member appointed by Government sued the Government was what escalated the impunity and rascality exhibited by the dramatis personae.

The public sector is the repository of the largest number of Nigeria’s professionals. Thousands of professionals, some of whom graduated magna cum laude from the best institutions within and outside Nigeria, are making their careers in the public sector. Through tenacity, resilience and excellent hard work, some of us who joined the Federal Civil Service as impressionable young graduates made it to the peak of our careers. I belong to the last generation of fresh graduates selected through a competitive, merit-based, nationwide recruitment process and employed two months after National Youth Service in the mid-eighties. Within months of being employed, we were given car loans that bought brand new Volkswagen Beetle cars, and we were allocated furnished apartments in Federal Government-owned housing projects in choice residential areas of Lagos. A few years later, we could apply for Federal Government Housing loans which were sufficient for bungalows. The effect of all those safety nets was that civil servants of my era were more laid back in terms of our expectations from the system. We were not involved in active unionism.

However, that is not the case presently. With the advent of monetization policy, workers in the public sector have, since 2006, been left to fend for themselves with paychecks that could not catch up with inflation. This has given rise to a brand of aggressive in-house unionism practised in most MDAs which is typically meant to wrestle out of Management extra-regulatory and extra-budgetary welfare packages to supplement regular income. If a CEO is unlucky, the union leadership may exhibit such rent-seeking behaviour as to collaborate with Governing Council/Board members to sabotage Management and be used as pawns in a power play.

Given that such was the case with Yewande Sadiku, it should not be used to characterize the entire public sector or say that civil servants always lend themselves as instruments to frustrate and crush bright minds that come to serve in the public sector. However, the officers of NIPC who descended to such despicable lengths as to write false petitions and connive with Board members against Management have demonstrated disloyalty, lack of character and integrity. There should be consequences when career officers hide behind unionism to act maliciously in cahoots with outside forces, to bring management down. This ought to be dealt with by Management and the public service leadership as appropriate, to restore discipline in the system.

Recently, I have made the acquaintance of several high-performing Nigerian professionals in the diaspora. Every single one of them expresses the desire to do in Nigeria the same job for which they are appreciated and handsomely remunerated in the diaspora. However, they would usually express apprehension about the Nigerian work culture and the fear that what happened to Arunma Oteh, or even worse, would befall them in Nigeria’s public service.

It is about time this kind of narrative as the putative experience of bright professionals who are appointed to serve in Nigeria’s public sector is changed. That Yewande Sadiku made it clear she did not want a second term of office already speaks volumes of what she endured in the hands of her traducers these past five years.

What is it about us Nigerians that we say we want good governance, incorruptible leaders and an accountable and transparent public service, but we fail to support those who can deliver it, preferring instead those who know how to play the usual games? Yewande Sadiku belongs to the shrinking minority of Nigerian technocrats who are courageous and committed to fixing the system, but end up being harangued, harassed and scared out of public office.

Commenting on this matter under the title: “Troubled Tenures of Female Appointees”, Zainab Suleiman-Okino pointed out a worrisome trend in the experiences of female public officers:

“My concern is the way some public officials are harangued, taken to the cleaners and their reputation smeared because of the self-serving interests of a few, who are probably averse to change or are being remote controlled by higher authorities for the same selfish interest”.

Yewande Sadiku has a lot to be proud of. There is no doubt that she came to the public sector with the intent to serve differently and that she led by example, shunning personal enrichment and demanding the same of her board, management and staff. That requires courage and forthrightness. It is on record that she reformed the administrative procedure of the Pioneer Status Incentive, which as a result has increased transparency and efficiency in the process. She initiated a reform of Nigeria’s Investment Treaties to align it with the principle of attracting Responsible, Inclusive, Balanced and Sustainable Investments (RIBs). She is also credited with initiating a reform of the One-Stop Investment Centre (OSIC), a platform where investors can resolve their challenges with Government agencies. Yewande Sadiku midwifed the publication of a Book of States showcasing the key investment prospects of each of the 36 States and the FCT and where each has comparative advantages. She steered the NIPC to achieve its present rating of one of the most transparent public agencies in Nigeria.

Yewande Sadiku herself expressed satisfaction while summing up her performance thus:

“I am fulfilled that despite the distractions, I will be leaving the NIPC better than I met it”.

Although she has been bruised for trying to bring about change, just like those in the past who trod a similar path, she should not be deterred because there is a multitude of people, international agencies and multinationals watching. It is becoming an established trend for Nigerian public officers who breasted the tape without tripping to subsequently find themselves sitting pretty in the chilled offices of international agencies as globally relevant leaders.

For that reason, Ms. Sadiku should hold her head high that despite the trial of earth, wind and fire she endured, she left an impeccable and unblemished record of public service. When a public officer defies entrenched interests and prioritizes the public good while serving in an exemplary manner like Yewande Sadiku has done, Nigerians should celebrate, honour and hold such public officers up as role models, in a nation where heroes are scarce. Our failure to do so would be tantamount to encouraging public officers to undermine the very foundations upon which the public sector bureaucracy rest – the laws, rules and procedures.

Ehuriah-Arisa, (MON, NPOM) is a Retired Federal Permanent Secretary/Public Sector Management Specialist.

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