I Saw Many Tribulations in Public Service… But God Pulled Me Through
•Why We’re Creating Ibadan Business School
Former Head of Service of the federation, Prof. Oladapo Afolabi, is one of the promoters of the proposed Ibadan Business School. In an interview with Western Post, he talks about the rationale behind the initiative. He also speaks on other sundry issues…
How will you describe your life after retirement from the federal civil service?
It’s been challenging. The first thing I thought of when I retired was to rest and then think of what to do. Of course, I know that I have a few potentials that can fit into what the socio-economic environment in Nigeria requires but after resting for just a few weeks not even a month, I became restless and I thought that I just have to keep going, so I have been fully engaged after retirement. I have been busy. I run a management consultancy outfit now.
How come it is difficult for private sector operators to make a significant difference whenever they have the opportunity to serve in the public sector?
I don’t know if that assessment is correct but let me say this. The private sector and the public sector are complimentary to each other but they are designed to meet different objectives. In the private sector, what drives you most of the time is profit or the interest of who the service is being provided for. What drives you in the public sector is what you can do to make life better for the people because that is what the public sector is all about. It is making life better for the people, so the public sector is designed to provide for the people; to make life better for the people and to improve the livelihood of the people. There was a programme we tried to initiate when we saw this kind of perception between the private and public sectors. Usually, the private sector is usually critical of the public sector. The former has the conception that the latter have been doing nothing. So, we chose some people from the public sector (we started with 15, assistant directors and above) and asked them to go to the private sector and see what they do there that makes them so critical of the public sector and then, we invited the private sector, 15 of them in the management level to come and spend a year with us in the public service.
In order not to make things difficult for them, we say wherever these people were coming from; we would pay the exact salary they were earning in their respective places of work. Also, in order not to tempt those going from the public sector, we also said they would be paid what they earned in the public sector while they were there.
Six months later when we did a review, the private sector official understood clearly that the variables that we play with and contend with in the public sector are more complex than those of the private sector, at least in some aspects if not in all. And he quickly also realised that yes, there are issues in the public sector, but you have to consider very many more variables and be sure they are tested before they become policies because of the impacts they will have.
For example, if I say because government, today has problem which has to do with optimum quality education, therefore we have assessed and evaluated the system and conclude that anybody that will access quality university education will pay about N5 million because we feel we are uncomfortable with the amount we are spending on university education. Do you know how many people will be deprived any form of education and if you don’t educate your people just know that you have mortgaged your own country into slavery because others that are well educated will come and enslave you with ideas, with their inventions and with the way they manage things. Whereas, in the private sector, it is so easy. We can easily say, this line is not making money and we are going to shut it down and let’s do something else. Who will suffer? Maybe your investment in that line and then you make your money in another line because before you reach that conclusion, you must have seen other ways where you can make money. Only a very few people will be affected, those who are addicted to that line, maybe, but they will find alternatives elsewhere. You don’t have alternatives to public sector in this country. It’s the only engine room to drive governance. This is why it appears we are a little slower in the public sector. It is not so, it’s that we take into consideration the impacts on the society. So when you notice this kind of inertia, from those people who otherwise have been very efficient, very outspoken in the private sector and when they get to the public sector where they are faced with the reality, they will say wait a minute, there are more variables.
Is the process you just outlined the same thing as bureaucracy in the public service?
No. That’s not bureaucracy. The issue in public service is orderliness, understanding what to do, when to do and where to do it. If there is no sequence, if there is no order, if there is no level of authority, who will be responsible? It’s accountability. You know who to hold for anything, For example today, we say they stole money somewhere. Under a bureaucratic system, you will identify who stole the money but if there is no order, you don’t know who has the level of authority, you don’t know who is giving approval clearly, and they will arrest all of them. Bureaucracy is not synonymous with inefficiency.
But don’t you think there is need to review some of these rules from time to time in line with the realities on ground?
We have been undergoing reforms and it is not static. What I say maybe we have not responded to sufficiently and which forms the basis for the impatience of the society is our failure to imbibe information communications technology to the extent that we can leverage on its efficiency. If today, we have e-government, it’s likely to improve our delivery time, and also improve transparency and efficiency. These are maybe some of the things we have not taken advantage of but it’s coming.
I can tell you that when you compare the Nigerian civil service with what is obtained elsewhere in Africa, you will see the quality of people that run our civil service, and you will give kudos to Nigeria. It’s just that Nigeria is a complex country. The society is extremely complex. The society we work for is very critical and sometimes, becomes extremely insensitive to even those who are working for them.
What is the correlation between the poor quality of education in the country and the current performance of the Nigerian civil servants?
In all seriousness, the quality of education in Nigeria is affecting our total capacity. If you have been watching review of capacity, it appears we are losing almost $12 billion annually to others who have appropriate capacities, to outsourcing, to recruitment from elsewhere other than Nigeria and why is this so? It is because people don’t get the kind of the quality of education that people are looking for. Our educational system is not as responsive and this comes from, seriously, inadequate funding and over the years, inadequate rewards, remuneration for lecturers and uncomfortable environment for students because if students are treated as kings, they are will come out like kings, but they are treated like rogues, they will certainly come out as rogues.
I remember that during my undergraduate days, you could not swear on anybody, if you did that, you would be rusticated, today; students slap one another and get away with it. There are many things wrong but you have really hit the nail on its head by saying there is a direct correlation between the state of our educational system and the quality of workforce.
With a background in pure science, how were you able to cope in the public service?
I started as a university lecturer in Chemistry, Applied Chemistry, and Environmental Sciences. The basic requirement is the ability to understand the fundamental, process it and use it. It is the same skill- you acquired in information technology, develop a skill and then you use it. So, it was not really difficult for me to transit within these two institutions but they are two different institutions. In the university or as a researcher, you control those things that cannot even talk – your equipment including your computers-. So these are the things you consider and the students who are in most cases a one-way thing. You just tell them what you want, if they are bold enough they ask you questions and if they are not, they leave you but in government, you are managing people, you are managing resources. You are managing people below you and you are managing people above you. So it requires a skill that enables you to understand people and just like what is obtained in the university, you must do all things with the fear of God. You must have a strong conscience. Your ethics and your values. What I also found out is if you are using God to guide your way it is that God that will also protect you during tribulations. I saw a lot of tribulations but God Himself was there for me all the time.
Did it ever occur to you that you would climb the ladder of service when you joined the federal civil service?
Not at all. I was in the service not because I wanted any position at all. I saw an opportunity when I was the head of department of Pure and Applied Chemistry at Ladoke Akintola University and one of the areas we have to specialise on was Environmental Chemistry. At that time, the only place that we knew was the Federal Environmental Protection Agency and one of the requirements for graduation of our students was that they must have industrial training. We felt the only place we can take them to where they will guide them appropriately was FEPA. This was why I went to FEPA to know how they operate there, to open door for our students.
When I got there, I saw more opportunities especially, trying to provide for 12 states at a time through the environmental laboratory, which the World Bank was sponsoring and as an applied chemist, they said I should wait behind. My ambition was to provide these services but along the line, an opportunity came and I became a director. I became a permanent secretary, and by the grace of God, I became head of service of the federation. So I will say it happened accidentally.
What’s your take on the use of unskilled manpower in both public and private sectors and how has it affected the pace of development in Nigeria?
I have said it earlier that our educational system is not responsive enough to the needs of the market. If you look back to some of our kids sent to UK and United States, maybe such students studied Microbiology and goes to the UK, the best job she could get as a bachelor degree holder is an assistant technologist in a laboratory. That is in a recent time and this guy is over-trained for that and someone who believes that kind of job is not appropriate will retrain for the opening in the market. By the time there was opening in information technology, many of them retrained and became computer experts.
During our time, although the market was not very flooded but there was a lot of opportunity in the financial sector, many of my colleagues did science, chemistry, agriculture etc., many of them went into accounting and they are fellows of the accounting profession today. These opportunities are still there but the system is not responding to the question on why we are still engaging people from abroad. We are still hiring masons, plumbers, electricians, among others from the neighbouring countries. Although, we are still training people but we are not training them to the level that the society that should engage them will appreciate. When you use unskilled labour or refused to train people, it is a waste of resources.
Why has it been difficult for the handful of business schools in the country to bridge the gap in human capital development?
The Lagos Business School is doing very well and you can see that most of their graduates, if not 100 per cent are very successful. They are engaged and they have jobs. They are servicing the society. This is why we think rather than clog up that very brilliant initiative that is doing well, we can have other institutions, so this is why we are creating a niche in Ibadan to have Ibadan Business School.
In terms of concentration of businesses and population, do you think Ibadan has what it takes to have a business school?
When you see the design of Ibadan Business School, you will find out that it is based on the assumption that once upon a time, Ibadan was the intellectual capital of Nigeria and that is not a wrong assumption and effort should be made to reclaim that position. Having an Ibadan Business School is good and the catchment area in my opinion, even on a face-to-face, which is about 25 per cent of our design of lecture delivery, is solid.
The University of Ibadan is there and it is for the whole country. That is one. The other is we are leveraging on Information and Communications Technology.
So we have a large percentage of this that will use e-learning, they will be using the internet and the beauty of this is that you can use your laptop, your desktop, you can also use your telephone or ipads to receive lectures and interact with professors and other lecturers. It means the whole world is our catchment area.
Apart from bringing people from other parts of the world to come and deliver lectures, we have access to these people on their locations wherever they are in the world and they give lectures to people in Lagos, UK and anywhere as long as you enroll with us.
Will your resource persons be drawn from Nigeria alone or are you contemplating on bringing expatriate lecturers?
Well, the boundary of the world has dissolved. This is a global institution for both students and lecturers. The school is for global citizenship.
It is not localised and I will not advise that such institution should be localised. Our institutions should be global and globally competitive because we cannot close our gates anymore against anybody so everybody is free to come and go and so we too should be able to go and come in.