“The first and the greatest victory is to conquer yourself”—Plato
I arrived in public office as a public critic. Most Nigerians are critics of the system in various ways. We rail and rant to our families and friends, and with the advent of social media, on our timelines. I had the honour of being a member of the commentariat quite early and for so long. I started writing a column on the back-page of This Day in 1999, was an editorial page editor for a few years, and a member of the paper’s editorial board for some time. I did more than my share of x-raying the system and its operators, and railing against them. At a point, I was called “the angry young man” in some circles. It was a derisive label that I came to like. My abandoned collection of essays in the early 2000s was to be titled: “The Anatomy of Anger.” So, being in public office posed a dual challenge to me: when given the opportunity, can this critic get the job done and can he walk his talk?
For five breathless years, I served as the Executive Secretary of the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI). I drove myself and the team hard to ensure that we had concrete achievements to point to during and by the end of my non-renewable tenure. How we fared on that score is better adjudged by others. But I am proud of the little we were able to achieve, even with all the unadvertised constraints. However, I am prouder of my ability to remain myself, my refusal to get sucked into the grandeur and permissiveness that we weave around public office in Nigeria, the conscious decision to uphold, largely through myself, the values I hold dear. Ordinarily, most of the things I did in this wise should not warrant a drop of ink. But that is exactly the point: they are so basic as to be taken for granted elsewhere, but mostly notable by their near absence in our country.
For a start, we continue to have a problematic relationship with public office. With our mostly monarchical heritage possibly playing a part, we elevate public office holders to the pedestal of royalty, ply them with perks and protections that have little to do with their tasks. We expect them to use public resources to take care of themselves, their families, friends and communities as long as they are kind enough to bend the rules for us here and there. This is a well-studied pathology. Scholars from Max Weber to Francis Fukuyama spoke about patrimonialism. Richard Joseph implicates prebendalism in the fall of our Second Republic. And in his seminal essay, the late Peter Ekeh gave insights into our amoral relations with the civic realm. In my short stint in public office, I encountered various manifestations of this well-theorised malaise.
I will touch on a few areas, some of them quite mundane but highlighted because they serve as windows to larger issues. The first is that I resisted the attempt by those who would rather treat me as a “big man” or the temptation to treat myself as one just because I was merely lucky to be appointed the head of a government agency. I remain convinced that the ostentation, obsequiousness, and idolatry that we have inserted into public service are not only unnecessary but also obscene and open to abuse. In a society where what is public can easily be privatised and where existing checks can easily be compromised, such permissiveness can easily feed into the megalomania, insecurities and greed of duty bearers and invariably lead to further immiseration of the collective.
A year into my tenure, I ran into two friends at the airport in Abuja. I was travelling alone and was doing what normal people with the benefit of two hands do: drawing my two bags myself. Jokingly, one of the friends wondered if I was really working in government. A few minutes before we met, they had encountered another head of a federal agency surrounded by gun-toting security-men. This person held a position that did not warrant any such protection. As the head of an agency beaming the searchlight on the still dominant oil sector and always talking about unremitted or unpaid billions of dollars, I could make a better claim for state protection than that my colleague. But I never asked for one because I actually did not need one. Beyond having unnecessary security detail mostly for egoistic reasons and denying the public of badly-needed security, it is not unusual for some public officials to drive in convoys, push other road-users out of the way, terrorise their neighbours with sirens. While some public officials may need such, my conclusion is that most do not.
I have always been a simple person. Public office didn’t change that. We lived in our semi-detached three-bedroom bungalow on the outskirt of Abuja for almost two years of my time at NEITI before we moved to a rented house closer to town. I drove in my 2011 Passat to and from work for most of my tenure. I used the official vehicle strictly for official duties. And that did not include taking our then six-year-old to school on my way to work or going out for lunch in the afternoon or going for Jummat prayers. For this, I drew inspiration from the late Lateef Jakande, an outstanding public administrator, who, as the governor of Lagos State, lived in his own house in Ilupeju and drove in his own car. I had a clear line about what is private and what is official. For instance, school-run was a private activity, and our child did not have a place in an official vehicle—so I had to take her in my car. But it is not unusual for most public servants to use public property for clearly private purposes, including unofficial travels and errands for their spouses. To be honest, I also chose to drive in my car most of the time for practical purposes: to not tie myself to the desperation to keep the job, to be able to move freely and stay grounded, or to be able to eat my lunch in peace in a restaurant without being besieged by potential contractors or job seekers.
Our expectation of public office in Nigeria is a grossly distorted one. In other societies, citizens mostly approach public service in what can be simplified as either customer service or service to shareholders. In the first role, they expect to be well served; in the other, they expect their agents to adopt the most cost-effective means. Despite what most people say publicly, this is my sense of their expectations: government work is not meant to be exacting; public servants are expected to be mostly patronage-dispensing machines, and in the spirit of “where the goat is tethered is where it eats” it is not really seen as bad for public servants to take advantage of their positions for personal gains. These dispositions may appear harmless, but they spawn the vaulting sense of entitlement and status, the soughing lack of urgency and sense of duty, and the pervasive unfairness, waste and predation that contribute to the governance deficits in our society.
I chose to work with a different set of expectations. I consciously opted to always go beyond prescribed minimums and found ways to signal a business-unusual approach. But this did not discourage those who wanted business to be usual. For example, I received torrent of requests for processes to be bent to give contracts or employments. Some of these requests for manipulation came from people who are otherwise very decent, religious even, and they made the requests without any hint of dissonance, a confirmation of Ekeh’s thesis about how what we see as immoral in the primordial realm is not seen as immoral in the civic realm, our legendary bifurcation of morality. I insisted that procurements and the few recruitments must be done fairly, competitively, and transparently. In my first meeting with the procurement team, I told them on my own that no matter the pressure brought on me, I would never tell them to manipulate the process for anyone, and if I ever did, they should refuse and remind me of my pledge.
Steering clear of conflict of interests remains a big deal for me. I left a standing instruction that the office must never buy food or pastries from my wife who runs a bakery and a food business, and that if anyone did I would not approve the payment. I turned down allowances or perks that didn’t make sense or appeared wasteful to me and insisted that not everything that is allowed should be done; I asked that even token gifts like hampers be returned, and if not possible shared or donated, and I tried to institute a gift policy. Also, the job was never a sinecure for me. I actually threw myself into it, got to the office before most of the staff, closed after most, and did more than just hold meetings or treat files: I actually spent a considerable amount of time reading, editing, and writing reports.
To ensure prudence, I worked for most part from a very basic office (it is the people and not the football-pitch-sized and glitzy offices that get the work done), I insisted on travelling economy class even before there was a circular to that effect, and I travelled only when absolutely necessary and stayed for minimum days possible, retired advances given (even when shown that the rule didn’t stipulate that) and returned whatever amount due for return. This provided the moral authority to check the entitlement dispositions of others, an endeavour that didn’t win me plaudits. I have nothing against earned wealth and comfort, but my attitude is that we should spend public money more prudently than we spend private one, not the other way round.
This attitude was conditioned by a few things. One, public office is at its core a moral undertaking, as positions are held in trust, not at the expense of the collective. Two, there are existing rules, codes, regulations and even laws designed to tame the base human instinct to take undue advantage of positions, but they can be undermined easily by a permissive culture. Three, there is a lot those at the top can do, beyond delivering on their core mandate, to set the tone and shape behaviours of others. And indeed, it is important to acknowledge that there are more than a few public officials doing a lot in modelling a prudent and an ethical approach to public life in Nigeria, but my sense is that they are still in the minority.
On deep reflection, I have come to conclude on why this is so: though leading by example is necessary and has its personal and public utility, it has its limits. It goes back to the unsettled debate about individual agency and the operating environment/culture. In our case, the overarching norms and cultural narratives around state-society relations not only impose costs and reduce the incentive for the multiplication of this breed but also circumscribe the impact of personal example especially at such a limited level. We still run a system where those who try to be different are seen simply as outliers to be tolerated, and possibly labelled as naive or wicked; they are treated as curios to be admired, not replicated, and as temporary passers-by to be timed out if not undermined. While not discounting the power of individual agency, I will submit that the real arena for lasting change is the reform of the dysfunctional culture around public office. The individual cannot replace the environment.
*Adio, a visiting fellow at the African Studies Centre of the University of Oxford, is working on a book and some essays on his stint as the Executive Secretary of NEITI