Thursday, 06 June 2013 00:00

Reforming the Unreformable Lessons from Nigeria: Book Review by Taiwo Adeogu

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It is a handy book that fits well into the genre of “How to Dos”, except for the fact that it belongs to the higher-level-academic/career niche, where only the best inhabit and saunter without much trouble.

But apart from its academic content, the book also dwells on the peculiarities and intricacies of the country called Nigeria. It is therefore a sort of handbook on the State Of The Nation, before, during and perhaps even after the authors arrival, performance and even departure from the scene. It highlights the nature of corruption and the complexity of corrupt practices among Nigerian officials both high and low, as well as the efforts to either fight or perpetuate it.

The description of corruption and corrupt practices in Nigeria by the author is so vivid and detailed that the reader likely to have the initial misconception that the book is rather about the subject matter, as opposed to its given title. But this misconception is, to a great relief, easily assuaged, as the book progresses and its content becomes clearer.

Through the course of reading the book though, two persistent impressions, having surreptitiously sneaked their ways into the consciousness of this writer, could not be dislodged even until the end of the book.

The first is the impression that Dr NOI is merely a technocrat – or just another technocrat if you wish. This may appear tautological, but there is good ground for its importance, which shall be thoroughly explained in the paragraphs to come.

The second impression is that Dr NOI is not a true Nigerian, or is she? This bit is sure humorous and bound to be controversial. But before the daggers are drawn, let me state that this is neither an attempt to question Dr NOI’s nationality, nor cast aspersions about her loyalty. Rather, it is purely an observation, made in the course of reading the book and, yet again, there is very good ground to explain its validity.

Together, the two impressions shall form the core of the review, which shall be attempt to take a peep at both the content of the book, as well as the persona behind the content, in order to give a more robust and incisive understanding of the work.

Dr NOI as a Technocrat

Throughout the book, there is no doubt that Dr NOI is a technocrat to the core. She is what Nigerians will describe as the “technocrat’s technocrat”, with her head securely screwed in the right places with regards to her chosen choice of profession.

This book is therefore, first and foremost, the work of one master technocrat to other technocrats, be they colleagues or sub-ordinates. It is a manual about the process of reform making, which climaxed chapter 7, appropriately title Reflections on Reforms and Lesson for Reformers. Box 7.1 on page 127, is carefully enclosed to highlight the important Ten Lessons for Successful Reform, based on the author’s experience. The 10 lessons are further explained in details in subsequent pages to the box.

Metaphorically speaking, the book is about a reformer sheep that is hired to salvage a patrimonial farm that has been ran almost-aground by a park of wolves. With the sheep expected carry out its reforms, even with the collaboration from other animals, chief among who are the wolves that caused the problems in the first place, as well as in one disguise or another, a large cross-section of the wolves’ representatives. The book then states clearly the pitfalls likely to be found; the traps to avoid; as well as a tested approach to navigate through the assignment.

But the pertinent question to be asked is perhaps, what such a sheep may be found doing among the wolves in the first place? What was it thinking to have accepted the contract? Why would a sheep accept to work in the den of wolves? Could it be due to naivety, greed or an overdose of patriotic zeal? For, if there were any problems faced by Dr NOI in carrying out her assignment, they all seem to take their root from the fact that she did not belong in the league she found herself.

Dr NOI noted the above observation herself when she wrote in page 124, that “it was clear from the outset of the reform process and the formation of the Economic Team that president Obasanjo saw the team as technocratic and wanted to keep it that way…” And she continued in the same paragraph by saying that “initially, we also clearly saw ourselves in this light. We would keep away from politics, since in any case most of the politicians left a lot to be desired. In conclusion, she wrote that “in fact, I could sense that the politicians felt our team did not appreciate them and regarded them with disdain. After this, she then went further to reveal some specific instances, where there were altercations with politicians, as well as how the team began to veer into the political terrain. All these revelations are all indeed some eye openers, but are they really?

Dr NOI as a Foreigner-Nigerian

Again all through the book, the tone is that of a technocrat describing yet another case, which in this instance only happen to be Nigeria. This is no doubt understandable, because of the manual nature of the book, which requires of it to be neutral as to be understandable by all and sundry.

But nevertheless, to call Dr NOI a foreigner to the Nigerian political, as well as cultural scene, cannot be too far out. After all, before her first appointment, the good lady had been out of the country for an upward of about 30 years - a journey that actually started when she was just in her teens. And in the periods she was outside of Nigeria, it is doubtful if her works were exclusively focused on the country. Neither is her family nor professional network.

As a matter of fact therefore, it would perhaps be more correct to describe the writer as an international citizen than a Nigerian. A description, that is not in any way derogatory, and the fruit of which Nigeria has indeed benefited immensely. This is clear from the description in the book about all the efforts that went into securing the debt relief for Nigeria, which she had championed.

But still, the fact remains that Dr NOI was a foreigner-Nigerian-technocrat, brought in specifically to clean up a mess that other people made on behalf of Nigeria. And the fact that she accepted the job, without knowing much about what she was coming to face as challenges was not only evident throughout the book, but also revealing of the peculiar mindset of Dr NOI in particular and Nigerians in general.

To set the fact straight, the fact that an expatriate-Nigerian – a term being coined by some in online communities – is called upon and accepts to come and salvage her country is not in any way an ignoble thing. However, the mindset that is always quick to do this, and perhaps have come to rely on it, for its survival is what is curious in this particular issue.

A nation and its leadership with the mindset that is willing to offer a political position as high and crucial as the finance ministry to a foreigner-citizen, who is neither politically active nor inclined speaks volumes about the nature of the state in question. And the expatriate citizens that are willing to accepts such arduous challenges, and even sometimes lobby for them, without much qualm, again speaks volumes about a phenomenon that is peculiar to only a few less-developed countries of the world.

The interesting fact is that the above described is not just a happenstance, rather, it is the culmination of a deliberate albeit unplanned phenomenon. A trend, whereby a people export the best of their brains to far away countries and, thereby insulating and even alienating them, from the domestic political and sociological progressions of the home countries. The delusion is that at some later point in the future, these exported breeds would through a warped process termed as “reverse brain-drain”, return with superior knowledge, experience and ideas to help develop and salvage a moribund nation, as with the case of Nigeria.

Thus, it has become an unwritten convention that in order to break through and become somebody in Nigeria, one has to be educated abroad, usually at exorbitant costs, as well as work to acquire relevant international experience, before heading back to the shores of the country to perform magic. A process which of course fuel more corrupt practices among officials, as well as lead to capital flight and of course foreign exchange depletion from the country.

But the biggest irony of all these is the fact that, once the train had taken off, it is almost impossible to put it in the reverse direction. And like a carrousel with a powerful force of traction, more and more brains are pulled from the source countries in a process ad infinitum. This explains the reason why a country like Nigeria would lack crucial manpower, and operate an outdated system, as described in the book, whereas there are highly qualified Nigerians all around the world, while operating, as well as functioning under, some of the most modern systems.

That Dr NOI had almost lost touch with, or was not even aware of the realities of, the modern day Nigeria was evident in the tone of the book. But evident too is the fact that she was very enthusiastic as well as optimistic about the prospect of helping change the fortune of her fatherland. Perhaps compared to their home-based compatriots, foreigner-citizens tend by default to be more positive about their home countries, for they largely live in romantic-bubbles about such patrimonies. However, having lived through the everyday intricacies of the homeland, the home-based tend to be more sarcastic and dismissive of their countries, while sometimes even wishing its speedy disintegration.

Dr NOI was not altogether insulated from such weariness though, as she revealed in the book that she twice resigned, once before she even started and had to reconsider; and the other time more effectively, without an option of return. Eventually, she would write; “let me end on a personal note. Perseverance does pay off. Sticking to principles matters. And virtue can be its own reward. For me, the reforms were a tough road, but a rewarding one. I won and lost friends along the way, and created trust, but also suffered betrayal. In the final analysis, I learned about my country, and I have absolutely no regrets”. (Page 132)

But whether the reforms were worth the effort or not, the jury is still out. And whether Nigeria is reformable or unreformable, only the future will tell. As at the time of this write up, Nigeria s rumoured to be planning on embarking on a new lending spree. And an attempt at reforming the oil sector had almost recently brought down the country. Equally, a state of emergency is currently in place in the North East, due to the upsurge of terrorist attacks from that corner of the country.

One thing that however remains incontrovertible is the fact that Dr NOI has heard and answered the call of her fatherland in its time of need. Whether she had done this out of a deep – even if warped – sense of patriotism or, just simply as a matter of tackling another professional challenge is of little significance. What is most important though is that she has done her best under difficult situation and has survived to tell the story and pass on her experience to others. At a point like this, the words of the Nigerian national anthem, which prays that “the labour of our heroes past, shall never be in vain”, becomes apt.

As an addendum, the book offers subtle hints about certain events in the Nigerian political scene, such as the background to the fall out between president Obasanjo and his erstwhile vice president Atiku Abubakar. Could this have been due to the frustrated effort at reforming the Nigerian Customs Services?

Also revealed is the reason behind president Obasanjos junketing in those days, as well as the overwhelming influence – for good and bad – that some foreign governments together with their development agencies have on Nigeria internal affairs.

But all in all, the book offers a compelling read for all who have the technical need to understand how reforms are implemented in practice, as well as pundits of the Nigerian historical and political scenes.

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