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The core of South-west success story under Chief Obafemi Awolowo

Continued from last week

It brought together people with common underlying ideologies about how society should be organized to achieve the common good.

Besides, AG possessed a vision and a mission that was matched to an ideology defined around the empowerment of the people. The Action Group, unlike many political parties in Nigeria today, is classic: it possesses a vision and a mission that was matched to an ideology defined around the empowerment of the people. Awolowo’s political agenda was defined by a policy dynamics in core policy areas of education, health, employment, agriculture, infrastructural development and a functional and efficient public service. The free primary education scheme and the universal fee health programme were the two elements of his governance project that meant to produce an enlightened and healthy citizenry.

The Awolowo political leadership was not only farsighted but also realistic. A realistic leadership works according to the implications and consequences derived from a well-researched development agenda that is balanced between policy expectations matched by the cost implications of the intended programmes with a funding strategy. Awolowo’s people-oriented leadership was formed along this line. Awolowo was aware, for instance, that the real burden of a universal, free and compulsory education came from the challenge of funding it. In 1952, the government projected a total of 170’000 pupils to be enrolled in the primary schools. By 1954 (a year before the launch of the programme), 394’000 pupils had already registered! But then the government realized that a free education scheme cannot really be “free”. Economic realism led to the introduction of a capitation levy which was later abandoned for an increment in the existing tax regime. The success of the universal basic education scheme derived essentially from the fact that the Awolowo government did its homework, and was ready for the eventualities of policy execution that would have fazed any other government unprepared for the consequences of a complex implementation dynamics.

We must not forget the singular role that the organization of agricultural and mineral resources played in the governance breakthrough of Chief Awolowo. Agriculture, for him, must be benchmarked against global knowledge bank. The Israeli Kibbutz system of agricultural collective was a good idea to adapt. On the one hand, the Action Group successfully organized farmers into functional cooperative movements, especially around the cocoa farmers marketing cooperative. The development of the Ewekoro Cement Factory was also very significant in boosting the socioeconomic fortune of the Western Region.

Chief Obafemi Awolowo was the singular arrowhead of the Southwest governance success story. With him, power was not an end in itself; it was a dynamic of responsibility that was entrusted into his hand as a governance issue to be used on behalf of the people. This is one democratic point that contemporary Nigerian leadership need to take to heart. The core insight here is that it is possible for the Nigerian context to throw up a competent leadership that is able to harness a core of likeminded democratic competences for a good development performance. Awolowo’s transformational leadership demonstrably transformed the Southwest into an infrastructural paradise that resonated even till now. It is just unfortunate that those who have prided themselves as the political heirs of Awolowo and the Awo ideology have failed to carry on the governance baton that would have extended Awolowo’s legacy to the six Southwestern states of Oyo, Ogun, Ondo, Ekiti, Lagos and Osun, including Kwara, states.

In the hands of these new leaders, leadership has become essentially transactional. Politics is now defined by the need for self-aggrandizement rather than unfolding the core responsibility of democratic governance. Chief Obafemi Awolowo saw beyond politics to what the people need to make their lives meaningful. And what was brilliant in his understanding of transformational leadership is his deep understanding that a leader needs a network of partnership and institutional support to succeed. It was not just enough to establish a classic political party with all the visions and mission statement in impeccable conditions. It became immediately clear to Chief Awolowo that the success of such a political party must derive from a concerted effort from a network of collaborators and partners to get power to serve the people. This is the genesis of the administrative and managerial acumen of Obafemi Awolowo. In his autobiography, Awo, Chief Awolowo was very proud of his executive team: “My team of ministers was unexcelled. It was a team which any head of government anywhere in the world would be proud of.” What he could not have said, for modesty sake, is that it takes a strategic leadership to know who has the requisite skills, competence and capacities to build the kind of esprit de corps that gets the work of governance done. It was a function of Awolowo’s transformational leadership style to immediately recognize that government is a collaborative teamwork made up of knowledgeable governance partners. If I am asked, I will argue that the most important governance development decision Awolowo made goes beyond his policy architecture, made up of the core governance items from education to infrastructure. While these are very significant in defining “good development performance,” Awolowo’s genius lies in the inauguration of a functional and efficient public service system that will facilitate the execution of the development agenda that will empower the citizens of the Southwest. The first significant decision in that regard was the appointment of Chief Simeon Adebo as the administrative head of service. Chief Adebo was one critical institutional factor within Awolowo’s strategy of collaborations and partnerships that boost a strategic change management dynamics. There was heavy investment in capacity development. The Institute of Administration was established in the then University of Ife to train top public managers. It provided platform for seminal interaction between policy makers and administrators.

Fundamental to this change management is a policy-research nexus that was the basic framework for grounding the ideology of people first. Thus, the policy roll out were constrained by the clear demands of good governance and what would definitely impact the lives of the Southwest people. And what better way to ground policy in action research than to associate development sectors to cognate disciplinary fields?

What better way to make the synergy work than to bring together scholars and practitioners—Aluko in economics, Onabamiro in science, Oluwasanmi and Aribisala in agriculture and Mabogunje in rural and regional planning? With this change management strategy, Awolowo’s unique understanding of politics was ready to deliver the dividends of good governance to the people. But change management requires an active, capacitated and professional public service. 

Awolowo gave Adebo the marching order to ensure that the policies initiated by the AG work. Chief Adebo has this to say:

When I served under Chief Awolowo in the West, he used to say that I should tell my colleagues that he could deal with the politics of the issues. What he wanted were detailed analysis of their implications. With the facts at his disposal, he felt that he would be in a better position to decide on what to do. This sums up my own view too about the relationship that should exist between ministers and civil servants.

The rest, as we say, is history! But then in this case, history goes beyond just mere narratives. Success in the Southwest region came as a result of critical administrative institutions and apparatuses that delivered on the challenge of good governance. Chief Adebo did not only effectively decode what Awolowo wanted in the governance dynamics, he understood what was needed to deliver on the vision of “Life Abundant” which the Action Group chose as its slogan. Chief Simeon Adebo was a properly trained public service professional who understood what “public service” entails. The civil service was not just an employment; it was a spiritual endeavour. Spirituality in service in this sense refers to a search for meaning and value that encapsulates a desire for interconnectedness with others in a manner that leads to a dedication to certain objectives. Such a spirituality would encompass other notions like (a) a call to integrity; (b) relationship—the realisation that people are connected to one another; (c) love in the workplace that treats others the way one wants to be treated; (d) a search for meaning within a bigger picture that drives one to seek for solutions to problems.

With this understanding of public service as involving integrity and spirituality, Adebo put in place an efficient and effective administrative parameter that could have rivaled any public service system in the world. I will outline three cogent institutional reform dynamics which were at the heart of Adebo’s administrative genius as the other half of the Awolowo-Adebo model Nigeria needs to transform its governance framework if democratic governance must work to undermine our post-independence predicament.

Adebo saw immediately that if the public service must function optimally, then there must be way to not only attract the brightest and the best minds, but also to facilitate an efficient performance culture that will sustain the “good development performance” expected to sustain the good governance Awolowo wanted to initiate in the Southwest region. Adebo therefore put in place a personnel management framework that combined a Public Service Commission with a critical apparatus of Establishment and Control. While the PSC was meant to actively the safeguard of the values of the civil service, especially with regard to recruitment, promotion, training and discipline, the department for Establishment and Control also became a critical safeguard for manpower development that no administrator could ever joke with. The public service was therefore conceived as a school of management meant for a critical mass of people trained in the art of managing the public services. The establishment of a training branch in the Treasure with the task of keeping a constant watch on the recruitment and training of this critical mass of civil servants that will ensure the productivity and performance of the engine of Government.

The second administrative element that distinguished the Western Region Civil Service under Simeon Adebo was a town-gown synergy that facilitated the strengthening of its economic analysis capacity through a unique collaboration that brought together civil servants and academics in a town-gown relationship that infused civil service administration with debated and brainstormed ideas and innovation to function at optimal performance. This synergy had three pivotal strands. The first was a solid Regional Economic Planning Advisory Committee which took advantage of the proximity of the University of Ibadan to draw on intellectual insights that could motivate the progress of the civil service. The third pivot was the establishment of the “Administrative Research Group,” an ad hoc committee attached to the head of service, made up of administratively experienced officers whose sole responsibility is to dedicate time to analytic thinking and reflection on critical issues agitating the civil service at any given time. The third piotal leg of the town-gown relationship was the establishment of a public service forum which drew on intellectual, administrative and political insights from the intellectual and professional interaction between a guest speaker and several categories of administrative officers who came together in a sub-group meeting after a guest speaker must have opened the general meeting with a general perception of the issue under discussion.

The third administrative element in Adebo’s revolutionary public service was a brilliant understanding of the dynamics of industrial relations as a critical ingredient in public service performance and productivity profile. Chief Simeon Adebo wisely took all threats of strikes serious. In this, he benefitted from his secretaryship of the Nigerian Union of Railwaymen. There was in existence a situation of mutual trust that came from an understanding of what is required from the government and from the union. For instance, Adebo remarked that on several occasions, there would be an independent recommendation from government to introduce certain improvements in the condition of service. But such recommendations would not be finalized until the unions are also brought into the known. This then made it possible for the unions and the government to not only work together in collaboration, but to also take credit for such recommendations. 

It took the political and bureaucratic leaderships to facilitate the good development performance that defined the good governance profile the Southwest region was under Awolowo and Adebo. It is precisely that development performance that is missing in Nigeria’s governance dynamics. I have spent sufficient time as an expert-insider in the Nigerian civil service system to know that it is still a long way from achieving the capacity that will backstop the success of democratic governance in Nigeria. And the politics of contemporary Nigeria has become too political to achieve the kind of collaboration required to produce a commendable policy architecture that an efficient administrative machine can transform into good governance. We therefore still have a lot to learn from history. And one basic insight to learn from the historical narrative surrounding the Awolowo-Adebo model is the significance of translating political vision and agenda into governance reality through the cultivation of an efficient public service machinery and many significant collaborations and partnerships.   



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June 2018
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