Federal reform in Nigeria: My Thoughts…

Filed under: Democracy & Governance |

As i stated in one of my interviews, federal reform in Nigeria presents a lot of challenges.  Federal reform in Nigeria is undoubtedly a political process that must be taken seriously and not as a disinfected notion of management, governance or administration.  Experience has shown that institutional reproduction and replication (so-called “administrative mimesis”) has seldom succeeded. Rather it has often had the disastrous consequences of disintegrating existing institutions without replacing them with new and better structures.  If reforms are mainly the brainchild of some overseas development agency with local decision-makers going along solely to avoid denying their country aid money, reforms are likely to fail.  If reform initiatives espoused by this project are not well founded on proper political, financial and capacity analysis, problems with wider political and financial parameters might be misconstrued as technical issues that can be resolved by a sequence of almost critical interventions.  A strictly technocratic approach might not succeed.

Organically conceived, clearly defined, and realistically planned reform initiatives are more likely to succeed in Nigeria. It is imperative that such reform initiatives be based on proper political, financial and capacity analysis; rather than blueprints or examples from other countries. This also implies that this project may have to settle for less than ideal reforms; a proposition that may not be obvious as DFID and the government might not be likely or willing to accept second rank solutions. Experience has shown that it is usually in countries, such as Nigeria, where the need for change is greatest that one has to be most restrained and unambitious.

In my opinion, the greatest challenge that a federal reform effort in Nigeria will face will be transforming what I term the Nigerian “Civil Service Culture”.  Even after four decades of independence, most Nigerian civil servants still see the government as “foreign – an entity in which they are not vested”.  This mind set has over the years nurtured and perfected a civil service culture aimed at systematically disabling any apparatuses or processes of effectiveness and efficiency.  As irrational as this may sound, this culture affords the typical professional civil servant opportunities to exert their influence and to benefit personally.  Unfortunately, this generally accepted culture of ineffectiveness and inefficiency, which invariably encourages and nurtures corruption, also benefits the political and business classes who tend to be solely dependent on the government.  Potential and real opposition and resistance to this project should be anticipated and properly taken into account through the duration of this project. Resistance will emerge because vested interests (political, bureaucratic or private) would undoubtedly be at stake. To the civil servants, the reward for reform initiatives to themselves will be very uncertain, while failure may have a disastrous impact on someone’s career.  Political will and effective leadership are absolutely essential to any federal reform in Nigeria to succeed. Without these features reform will be a mere formalistic exercise in window-dressing.

Most experts will argue that reforms are most successful if implemented in a consistent and incremental way, rather than a revolutionary shock therapy. Given the degree to which the Civil Service Culture is entrenched in and controls governance and administrative processes in Nigeria’s public sector, a revolutionary shock therapy could arguably be the appropriate prescription. Verbal expressions of commitment and buy in by the various stakeholders alone may not suffice unless backed by measurable changes in actions and attitude.  If buy in, at all levels of government, is not readily achieved — which of course will be an up hill battle — an incremental approach to federal reform in Nigeria may systematically be sabotaged by the civil service culture.  On the other hand a revolutionary shock therapy approach if unsuccessful may destroyed an, albeit ineffective and inefficient, organization without a viable replacement.  Therefore, a compromise approach may be a delicate balance between a consistent and incremental approach and a revolutionary shock therapy approach.

It is important to have a consensual, comprehensive vision or purpose for the reforms; however, in terms of implementation an organic approach might be more suitable. The differences between the various ministries, and between the various states, are significant enough to require an approach that combines a unity of principles with a diversity of implementation methods. In other words the operational aspects need to be based on raw empiricism and practical knowledge, rather than a set of guidelines. Reform initiatives must take into account Nigeria’s civil service culture, local routines, tacit beliefs and informally organized interactions.