[OPINION]: Joseph E. Imoukhuede’s Quintessential Selflessness in Public Service – Tunji Olaopa

Being excerpt from the Inaugural Annual Joseph E. Imoukhuede Memorial Lecture delivered by Prof. Tunji Olaopa, retired Federal Permanent Secretary and Executive Vice-Chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy – ISGPP, in Benin City on Thursday, 25th of April, 2019. 

 Nigeria is a nation that is blessed with untapped legacies. This is both a statement of fact that ought to become a point of urgent national consideration. This consciousness of the role of legacies in national development is not just coming to me. But I was forcefully reminded of its deep import at the recent inaugural annual memorial lecture in celebration of the 30th memorial anniversary and 98th year posthumous birthday of Chief Joseph Enaifoghe Imoukhuede. There is something paradoxical about this name. On the one hand, it is a name that lacks any national presence. Indeed, it is very difficult to find many references to him or his professional achievements on the internet. Yet, on the other hand, this is one of those few diligent and extremely committed individuals that not only defined the essence of what the public service stands for, but also laid the solid foundation for the consolidation of the administrative root of the Nigerian public service when it emerged out of its colonial origin. This then must have been the reason why the family hit on the idea of anannual lecture to re-ingrain the many lessons of his personal and historical trajectories on the consciousness of Nigerians, particularly at a time when the public service is fast losing its significance as the core institution to service Nigeria’s experiment in democratic governance.

When the Nigerian Civil Service was inaugurated in 1954, it came alive from the background of a deep administrative tradition that took Max Weber’s bureaucratic philosophy very seriously. Weber advocated a kind of organisation which is impersonal, where authority is exercised by administrators only by virtue of the office they hold, and in accordance with clearly defined rules and regulations. Weber’s bureaucracy emerged as neutral, hierarchically organised, efficient and inevitable in contemporary society with features which make it technically the most efficient form of organisation. The traditional Weberian structure which required from civil servants the requisite of anonymity, neutrality and impartiality. Thus, a civil servant’s overall profile is therefore expected to be circumscribed by efficiency, effectiveness, integrity, accountability, responsiveness, representativeness, loyalty, equity, fairness, and so on.

These features of the civil service were fabricated through genuine and strenuous reform of the British civil service system, and this commenced in 1854 with two significant administrative moves by the British government. Between the Northcote-Trevelyan Report of 1854 and the Macaulay Report on the Indian Civil Service of the same year, the British civil service imbibed the Weberian traditional understanding of public administration as a system that emphasizes selection on the basis of merit—civil servants therefore become professionals with common recruitment conditions and prospects, as well as a “career” in an acceptable life-time employment under the government.
This was the efficient bureaucratic tradition that gave birth to the administrative genius of Simeon Adebo, Jerome Udoji, Sule Katagum, Samuel Manuwa, Joseph Imoukhuede, and so many others. While we can say that the great public servants like Adebo and Udoji stumbled into the public service before going on to become the exemplar of what service is all about, Joseph Imoukhuede’s path into the public service was already assured by Providence. Immediately after his secondary school education, he went straight into the federal civil service in 1938 as a lowly Third Class Clerk. But the British colonial administration was about to have one of its initial proofs that Africans were as human and administrative brilliant as any other public servants all across the world. And this proof came from Imoukhuede. His ascension to Chief Clerk, and then later to Executive Officer is a story in itself of commitment and extreme dedication. This is because the positions of Executive Officer (EO) and Higher Executive Officer (HEO) were solely reserved for British officers. Yet, the colonial administrative office was forced to waive the restriction in recognition of the Imoukhuede brilliance. The British did not just waive their administrative rules to accommodate Imoukhuede’s unique work ethic, the Queen had no choice but to confer the Order of the British Empire (OBE) on this public servant who beats the British in their own vocation!

A series of educational nurturing including a Bachelors and Masters degrees of the Trinity College, Cambridge University, United Kingdom, and administrative trainings from 1939 to 1949 further honed the professional acumen of Imoukhuede such that when the wave of nationalists return to the continent commenced with figures like Nkrumah, Awolowo, Nyerere, Azikiwe, and so many other, Joseph Imoukhuede also thought about transferring his administrative knowledge and attitude to the postcolonial development of his fatherland. His administrative knowledge and perspicacity would become the difference between statehood and nationhood in Nigeria. However, he had no idea whatsoever how his administrative career would unfold. He was just certain that he wanted to work for Nigeria and advance her post-independence fortune with all he had learnt. He had acquired the administrative acumen and professionalism Nigeria would require at a significant moment in its national evolution. But he was not to know the path that Providence would direct his professionalism and dedication in the service of Nigeria. He spent only five years in the federal civil service before, in 1955, he was to receive a letter, personally signed by Chief Obafemi Awolowo himself, and possibly on the recommendation of Chief Simeon Adebo, as invitation that was too administratively juicy to reject. He accepted the invitation to transfer his service to the emerging Western region civil service. and it was there that his administrative reputation began to unravel and to flourish.

The years in the western region constitute what Simeon Adebo called “the unforgettable years”, the title of his autobiography. What made those years unforgettable in Adebo’s assessment? It was a simple thing: as a committed public servant, he had the opportunity to deploy the professional competence and behavior which was inculcated in him through the British Weberian tradition. He had in Chief Obafemi Awolowo a visionary politician who understands what policy intelligence and implementation logic means for establishing infrastructural development for the citizens. Awolowo needed the best that the Nigerian civil service system could provide at that critical time of post-independence and the Nigerianisation Policy. And he found in Adebo the very embodiment of public service professionalism that could administratively backstop his infrastructural policy plans. Awolowo told Adebo to face his administrative responsibilities and leave the politics of policy design and implementation to him.

To live up to Awolowo’s challenge, Adebo also needed other like-minded professional whose understanding of the public service goes beyond making ends meet to the logic of deferred gratification. Joseph Eniafoghe Imoukhuede was one of those who shone brightly. And his ethnic background had no role to play in his appointment. The Awolowo-Adebo collaboration had no time for trivial ethnic politics. And neither did Imoukhuede and his brimming professional enthusiasm. He was definitely familiar with Chief Simeon Adebo and his administrative credentials. And he certainly must have tracked Chief Awolowo’s progressive politics in the western region. Someone as perspicacious as Joseph Imoukhuede would have immediately seen how his administrative capacities and credentials could have been better served in a technically sound and administratively cohesive environment provided by the political overlordship of the Action Group. And his foresight paid off. The Western region was one of the most dynamic and fervent administrative environments in post-independence Nigeria. And it was this administrative environment that was to bring out the genius of a public servant that Joseph Enaifoghe Imoukhuede was.

From the initial responsibility as the agent general for the Western region in the United Kingdom in 1956 to becoming the first non-Yoruba to become a permanent secretary, Imoukhuede laid the basis of administrative excellence and professional reference that could serve the Nigerian public service system well especially at this time when the public service requires a re-professionalizing reform that will enable the system to achieve the capacity readiness to face the challenges of democratic governance in Nigeria. From a lowly third level clerk to a permanent secretary, Imoukhuede was to face the biggest challenge of his administrative career when in 1963, the Mid-west region was created, and he was asked to oversee the establishment of the new public service.

Unlike his administrative apprenticeship and record at the Western region where politics and administration took their accustomed sphere, in the Mid-West Region, Imoukhuede was to face the hostility of a political leadership which breached the politics-administration dichotomy and inserted itself into the efficient performance credentials of Imoukhuede.

There are three administrative credentials that stood these administrative pioneers out as the best example of public service that they are. The first is the very essence of the public service vocation itself—public spiritedness. This ethical quality ensured that they were willing to trade monetary and selfish considerations for a genuine dedication to serving the public selflessly. Public-spiritedness therefore places the responsibility of the professional within the context of a personal and public accountability that motivates the professional to personally hold him/herself responsible for the discharge of his/her duties to the public. The second quality was meritocratic professionalism—administrative foresight, entrepreneurship, excellence, result-orientation, moral rectitude. This is a concession to a well-trained workforce as well as a commitment to the value of neutral competence rather than a concern with survival and managerial control. And the third is a spirituality of service. The principle underlying spirituality is a deep sense of responsibility to a higher power (however the higher power is defined). In this case, spirituality derives from a deep relationship with God that goes beyond the acceptable circumference of organized religion. One immediate implication of this spirituality is that it becomes a key component that is required in the search for meaning and value that encapsulates a desire for interconnectedness with others in a manner that leads to a dedication to certain objectives.

These administrators that Nigeria has produced have a lot to teach us that we are not even learning just yet. With the combination of these professional public servants, the western region became a developmental region. And this tells us something that Awolowo, Adebo and Imoukhuede knew a long time ago before the argument became popular: that a developmental state requires a professional public service. But both need a new administrative philosophy to adequately function. This is the first lesson Nigeria needs to learn. Such a new philosophy would have to emerge from our collective interrogation of the traditional Weberian system which has defined the public service since 1954. Side by side with this, and this is the second lesson, must be the urgent re-professionalization of the system which has been battered by crippling process, policy, capacity, performance and resource gaps which undermine the capacity of democratic governance to achieve efficient service delivery for Nigerians. Re-professionalization requires not only a gatekeeping dynamics but also a code of public ethics that will guide the recruitment into the rebranded public service. The final lesson to learn is the need for the government to facilitate a politics-administration that will make each side of the dichotomy alive to its responsibility. That dichotomy was conceived for a reason: to achieve a complementarity that will make politicians and public servants function together in optimal collaboration for the sake of democratic governance and quality service delivery to Nigerians.

But these recommendations will be simply technicist and theoretical without the complimentary governance reforms and constitutional order. The capacity of public institutions to generate exceptional returns at the level of performance as demonstrated in the golden age of service and the Awolowo-Adebo-Imoukhuede’s governance model is dependent on several factors. Three are particularly significant: i) the kind of politics that a nation plays and the type of institutions that emerge in the cauldron of that game; ii) the decision-making and service delivery quotient deployed by the political and bureaucratic leadership on their problem-solving responsibility as well as the concession they make to get the public service as its engine room capability ready to enable seamless move from vision to execution and to outcome; and iii) Government’s capacity to attract, retain and develop the right workforce. So the problem that ails Nigeria is fundamentally a lack of sufficient leadership sophistication, political will and sincerity of purpose, to create a viable political climate for shared understandings among the people, given their diversity, on the goals of society and consequently, the failure to get the disparate society to submerge their local loyalties into feelings of loyalty and support for Nigeria as the larger unit. Consequently, the sense of Nigeria-ness in terms of which the Nigerian identity can be defined is weak and tenuous.

This explains leadership incapacity to build a capable and developmental state that can promote active citizenship – the kind of citizenship that encourages every Nigerian irrespective of ethnic or religious persuasion to work beyond their personal interests in deliberation and action, an orientation which alone is capable of making Nigerians to take their civic responsibility seriously. Indeed, the bane of public administration in Nigeria has to do with the failure of leadership to match rhetoric with action in developing and promoting an overriding national philosophy that can serve as touchstone for defining national goals and for developing a strong national consciousness which will in turn drive the process of national integration. Indeed, the sort of country that Nigeria aspires to be has neither been clearly articulated in spirit and in truth, nor the Nigerian commitment to its own progress sufficiently demonstrated by the political leadership. The problem of lack of a firm direction contrived in the dubious behavior of a political class that repeats the same old game of playing needless games with the destiny of the Nigerian nation merely compounds the country’s failure to build, develop and nurture viable, capable, developmental and values-based institutions

We are celebrating Chief Joseph Enaifoghe Imoukhuede’s excellence today because he gave not only his professional excellence but also his patriotic fervor to the Nigerian state. An annual lecture is not sufficient to mine the deep lessons that are not too late to learn from his public spiritedness. Imoukhuede is not the only one Nigeria is blessed to learn from. He is just the most recent and damning example that we are not yet learning.

Prof. Tunji Olaopa
Executive Vice Chairman
Ibadan School of Government and Public
Policy (ISGPP), Ibadan

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