Memo To President Obasanjo

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Memo To President Obasanjo
 

By

 

Okey Ikechukwu

 

 

culled from GUARDIAN, March 19, 2006

 

It is with a sense of responsibility that I invite Your Excellency's attention to some matters of urgent national concern, which can be attended to in the short term. In couching this submission as a memo, I have taken the liberty of following the "bad" example of the editors of Thisday newspapers, who recently unleashed an avalanche of memos on the National Assembly. Let me begin by boring Your Excellency with the story of a memorable encounter with Chief Onyema Ugochukwu, Senior Special Assistant to the President on Public Communications, in 1998. He came to my office at Rutam House, headquarters of The Guardian Newspapers, and asked for support in his resolve to campaign for you as President. He was frank, very frank.

 

He spoke about Your Excellency's far above average patriotism, capacity for hard work and concern that the glory of our country be restored. He referred to the prison experience and the fact that dying for the country would not make you shrink from speaking up for what is right. Ugochukwu said: "Look, Okey, I know this man. Please, trust me, I know this man", etc etc. Chief Ugochukwu is not a desperado and is highly respected in the media. He is neither flippant nor a man of many words. His blunt and unapologetic avowals on Your Excellency's behalf could not be taken lightly. He spent the better half of the 70 minutes in my office arguing that you would make a good President and he did not at any point mention money or any material benefits that would accrue to anyone who supported his candidate. That made him more believable. He was just marketing what he believed was good for Nigeria. In the end we struck a compromise, or something that looked like one.

 

I told Chief Ugochukwu that we had suffered for too long under bad leadership, but that because of his confidence and his counter claim that he knew Your Excellency at close quarters, amid the fears of some people, some of us would give limited support. We would also fuel such doubts as would make his candidate eager to prove some people wrong when he entered Aso Rock. Astonished but not offended, Chief Ugochukwu left and we maintained contact, even when some of the proceedings in the media must have brought him some irritation.

 

I have gone to this length because I believe Mr. President may wish to reappraise the general trajectory of the nation and the Federal Government, against the background of the thoughts and hopes that made Your Excellency accept to be President in 1999. The Federal Government initiated a comprehensive reform programme in order to make institutions of state efficient, effective and procedurally relevant in today's world. This step became inevitable when Your Excellency realised that: (1) The nation had been bled for too long and was wobbling on its foundations; (2) Nigeria cannot make progress unless the government and the people stop violating civilized rules of engagement in all aspects of our national life; (3) The cheerful slide of Nigeria to decay and death should not be allowed to continue; (4) The decay can be slowed down, stopped and turned to progress and development; and (5) the first step to national rebirth in this regard is to find out what went wrong, work out a remedial strategy and come design specific, remedial actions and a clear sequence and time frame for such remedial actions.

 

Even at that, the bulk of "government people" did not, and still do not, really understand the reforms. Many of those who do are not enthusiastic about it, because its core objectives are doing violence to the many abuses and unearned advantages they had become accustomed to. The NEEDS document has many merits, but it is not a particularly entertaining write up. Very few government functionaries and media critics have bothered to wade through it. That document delineates a formula by which Nigeria can be made a modern state. Every modern state "works" by developing its human resources and creating the right dialectical equilibrium between human and material resources. Because the human being is the primary resource of any nation, we needed a holistic policy revolution that would make our institutions, administrative tools and processes deliver to the optimum, using Best Global Practices as bench mark. In June 2003, Your Excellency observed: "Nigerians have for too long been short-changed by the quality of public service... We shall ensure they get what is better".

 

In the last months of the same year, the Federal Government commissioned a report to (a) review service delivery in Nigeria; (b) analyse the institutional environment for service delivery; (c) collect citizens' views and experiences on public sector services; and (d) draw a roadmap for a service delivery programme. The report that came out in February, 2004, was damning. A Presidential retreat was organized in March and SERVICOM, headed by one of the few people who can look Mr. President in the face and tell the truth, Mr. Obe, was born. With SERVICOM in place, government was presumed to have dedicated itself, through its Ministers and agents, to ensuring that the basic services to which citizens are entitled are provided in a timely, honest, effective, transparent fair and cost effective manner. All Ministries, Parastatals, Government Departments and Agencies prepared and published their service charters not later than July 1, 2004. The charters included: (a) clear information on the services provided by each Agency of Government; (b) the entitlements of citizens; (c) correct official costs, if any, for such services; (d) realistic time frames for service delivery; (e) details of persons and agencies to whom dissatisfied "Customers" could channel complaints; and (f) periodically conduct and publish research/surveys to determine levels of "Customer" satisfaction. The SERVICOM office in the Presidency co-ordinates and manages the foregoing; but that has hardly solved any problem.

 

As the agencies of government published their Service Charters, they raised public expectations of better service. But they were, and most probably still are, unable to institute the necessary radical improvement of the capacity of their organizations to deliver the services. Therefore most people do not see any change and they cannot understand why. Even within government circles, not enough people appreciate the fact that training and retraining of staff, change of work processes and tools and the various policy reforms are needed for us to realise the aspirations of SERVICOM. Meanwhile government functionaries content themselves with reckless affirmations of records of government expenditure and the provisions of the Charter; with a cheerful disregard for the impact on citizen welfare and the hard work that would lead to this desirable goal.

 

Your Excellency had course to say in the past that Charters in themselves do not change anything. They do not give new skills or empower employees to make the attitudinal, structural or procedural changes required to create a new service culture. That is why charters can sometimes annoy both service providers and customers; because of the hopes they raise and the realities they sometimes appear to mask. It is this scenario that can further lower the credibility of a government, or an organisation, by creating a cynical public that cannot appreciate the determined efforts at improved customer service. I fear, Mr. President, that the Nigerian "customer" is in that state at the moment.

 

It is perhaps against this background that the much-vaunted "hostility" of the media is to be understood. My friend, Eni B., the Managing Director of Thisday newspapers, even got caught up in this hostility thesis in his recent brilliant response to Chief Ugochukwu's remarks on 'the third term bogey'. Eni B, located the hostility of the media in the behaviour of government and its functionaries and protested that the culture of double speak had eroded trust. If Eni B.'s intervention was to bury a bogey, like he said, I believe he ended up digging up another one: the bogey of media hostility. I suggest, Your Excellency, that the Nigerian Media, as the Fourth Estate of the Realm, is not hostile to the Federal Government or to your person.

 

I suggest, further, sir, that there are individual journalists, media practitioners or media owners who are hostile and who feel no obligation to act contrariwise, because they are resolute detractors of Your Excellency. Some people are yet to recover from the inherited distrust of government and the wretched performance of the political opposition has constrained some media practitioners/houses to raise issues that should ordinarily be the business of an organized and intelligent opposition. In the process, the many flaws and dubious aspirations of some journalists are thrust on public consciousness.

Every media house has an Editorial Policy and is set up to protect certain interests, within the laws of the land. The protest about media hostility seems misplaced when it is couched in the form of the media's failure to "celebrate" the achievements of government. Your Excellency may wish to note that unremitting denigration of the government is not all we fight in the media and that the government has to tell its own story and fight responsibly for media space by conscious agenda setting. Government business is reported in the news pages but the management of the public communication relating to that business is rarely considered in government circles. That is why government information managers often find themselves reacting to the unintended mischief of government functionaries who make announcements before they realize that third party endorsement would have done the magic. Blind hostility will only undermine the credibility of the journalist and diminish his ability to give praise and blame in just measure. It will also quickly stigmatize him and his medium before the reading public.

 

The internet is open to every freelance grumbler and available evidence indicates that it is overrun by hostile commentators, who have no relations with our media. This is without prejudice to the determined mischief of some journalists. Your Excellency's is the only government in the last twenty years which appointed top media executives, without the latter being urged by their media colleagues to turn down the appointments. No past government, since independence, has had so many past Presidents of the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), or so many Members of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), in its team of respected and performing functionaries. No function of the NGE and the NUJ has taken place without heavy government presence in the last six years. Notwithstanding, several journalists have issues with some specific actions, policies, or inactions of government. These journalists do not, in my humble view, constitute the Nigerian media. Despite her occasional bruises from a few irreverent media men, I do not believe that my respected colleague and friend, Mrs. Remi Oyo, will gladly canvass the view that the Nigerian Media as an institution is hostile to the Federal Government. I concede that it can do better; and Your Excellency may wish to note, as an aside, that the Nigerian Press Council is not really as strong as it ought to be.

 

Chief Onyema Ugochukwu has been proven right in many things he said about Your Excellency in my Office, eight years ago. As Chairman of NDDC, he often found it necessary to rendezvous repeatedly with the media, to explain one thing or the other during some difficult moments of Your Excellency's tenure. On the matter of whether Your Excellency has a spine or not, Nigerians have come to realize that Your Excellency has nerves of steel (and most probably a spine made of reinforced alloy metal). There can be no debate today about whether Mr. President can take hard, unpopular, but necessary decisions. There is also the growing realization that the President means well. That is why I have taken the allegedly dangerous step of speaking "in public" and inflicting my thoughts on Your Excellency, concerning things I believe should be done now; and very quickly. My interest is in the limited matter of some aspects of the reform initiatives of the Federal Government, which need urgent attention.

 

I canvass the view, Your Excellency, that we are still remiss in the strengthening of institutions of state. The Bills that would give teeth to the reforms are yet to become part of our cocktail of statutes. Most of the seven Ministries and agencies that were marked out as Pilot, to test-run the civil service reforms and be professionalized are not anywhere near the stipulated time lines. The professionalisation of any Ministry cannot be contemplated for as long as the Service Wide Rules subsist in their present form and for as long as the Civil Service Commission is what it is by law. The Bureau of Public Service reforms was created for a specific purpose, but it is now open to argument whether the bureau exists at all. There is an objectionable disconnect between the reality in government Ministries and the documentation on the service reforms. The accounting and auditing system still looks like a clever box of numbered tricks and the integrated payroll system remains a mirage because of a dearth of skills and the failure to distinguish between infrastructure and skill.

 

The EFFCC is in the news today because we have a committed officer and some loyal lieutenants. We cannot afford to take that for granted, or work these patriotic Nigerians to death, as the enemies of the anti-corruption war are hoping to bring the roof down. There are indications that the organisation can be routed by the police high command, once it is not specially protected by the government. It can be severed from the police. Within the next six months, it can recruit more hands to augment the existing, overworked, staff and train them under the FBI, the Israeli intelligence corps and Scotland Yard (for Interpol savvy), and pay them so well that it would be easy to separate the needs of staff from the greed of a few bad eggs. But that will not address the question of the interface with the SSS, DMI, NIA, etc. The NDLEA was in the news when Gen. Musa Bamaiyi was the helmsman. Today, it is NAFDAC, Due Process, and one or two others. Reason? The individuals managing these organisations have changed.

 

It would be unpardonable disservice to have the brilliant initiatives of the last few years run to sand because the necessary pillars for this well designed building were not reinforced. The reluctant passengers aboard the reform train constitute an absolute majority and their misgivings are being strengthened by the many loose ends in the trajectory of state policy. I assure Mr. President of my deep respects and continued goodwill, as I maintain that the issues raised heretofore need urgent attention.

 

Dr, Ikechukwu, Chairman of Skylab Communications, lives in Abuja.

 

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