In Defence of Public Service: A Review of The Accidental Public Servant, By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu

Chidi Odinkalu
Chidi Odinkalu

Government in Nigeria is a dark art into which only a select few ever get initiated.

Passage through the rites and rituals of initiation impose obligations. One such obligation is a deliberate loss of memory, which induces a silence not much unlike the Mafia’s Omerta. Fidelity to these obligations attracts benefits. The doors of government revolve and the benefits of fidelity to its unspoken rituals are a conservationist’s delight: it is run on the principle of recycling. Its grammar is conducted in past continuous tense.

The consequence, rather ironically, is government by dis-continuity, a future uninformed by memory and a present rather disembodied from context. Few of the initiated in the dark arts of government have the courage to break with this deliberate loss of memory. The most notable contributions to this genre have come mostly from tenured or career public officers.

Former Chief Justice, Atanda Fatayi Williams, titled his own autobiography published in 1983, Faces, Cases and Places. Our Unforgettable Years was the title of excellent recall by Chief Simeon Adebo, pioneer lawyer and public administrator, in his autobiographical account of the building of the peerless civil service in the old Western Region published in 1984.

The 1995 autobiography by Chief Jerome Udoji, another lawyer who achieved distinction in the public service, was issued under the title, Under Three Masters.

These titles were the reminiscences of public servants looking back with mixed feelings at the end of long and distinguished public service careers. It is rather unusual for mid-career or active public servants to issue memoirs in Nigeria. Similarly unusual are memoirs by political office holders or politicians. The reasons are in plain sight: such a memoir could also be a political suicide note or worse. In a country in which the primary purpose of political office is subsistence and accumulation, a faithful memoir that is worth its name even minimally would invariably break all the unwritten rules that accompany initiation into government in Nigeria.

It would be a fatal opt out from the benefits of political recycling.

In The Accidental Public Servant, Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai sets out to do more than merely break the unwritten rules of ex-political office holders in Nigeria; he utterly annihilates them. For a vocal politician with somewhat activist credentials who only turned 50 in 2010, the motives of his narrative will be the subject of speculation for some time to come irrespective of whatever he says or believes are his own reasons for putting this out. By this book, this author says in effect that Nigeria is bigger than any one person and he cares more about Nigeria than any temporary benefits from partisan politics.

In setting out this tale, El-Rufai manages to serve up a memoir whose principal characters hark back to Udoji’s title; whose narrative evokes Fatayi Williams; and whose title could also easily have been Adebo’s.

The book has three organizing themes that indeed resolve into one. It is a story about how, in Nigeria, “governance outcomes really depend on a series of accidents rather than any meritocratic or rigorous process.” This is the origin of its title. There is a bigger theme, however, which the author goes back to repeatedly in the book: in Nigeria, “we are pretty much the same everywhere.” Indeed, it is possible to read the title as only an illustration – for good or ill – of this larger Nigerian condition.

In terms of  its message, The Accidental Public Servant is also a passionate advocacy for firm, equal and non-discriminatory application of rules to everyone irrespective of status or other irrelevancies. It makes a solid case for the normalization of processes in governance.

Although the author makes his entry into public service appear like an accident, in reality, it was anything but. This was a case of opportunity meeting preparation. His guardian, Mallam Yahaya Hamza, who insisted on sending the author to “the elite” Barewa College for his Secondary education, knew why he did so. Our author honestly admits that his “four and a half years in Barewa remain the most significant in shaping” his “future life, friendship, and person.”

Barewa has produced at least three Nigerian Heads of State, countless Ministers and heads of extra-ministerial departments. The author is just one in this production line.

In Tweet-bite The Accidental Public Servant is the story of a bright young man who graduated in Quantity Surveying at the top of his class, made early money and got called into public service where, under three different masters/principals, his brief The Accidental Public Servant, was successively to help transfer power from soldiers to civilians; undertake the sale of government assets (privatization); and then, administer the allocation and sale of arguably the priciest real estate in Africa (Abuja). The book is an account of the people whom he met along the way, mostly in the inner sanctums of Nigerian power, how they bonded, fell out, suffered betrayals and what they learnt about one another, before he would be hounded, first into exile and then into opposition politics.

This summary does not nearly enough do credit to the audacity of the story or the sweep of its narrative. The book has multiple identities, unfurled in multiple trinities, each like a little diamond – with a pointed and racy beginning; a somewhat portly, sometimes didactic middle section; with an equally breathless and pointed ending.

The trinities in The Accidental Public Servant are many. It is an account of public service mostly undertaken under three institutional acronyms: the PIMCO (Programme Implementation and Monitoring Committee); BPE (Bureau of Public Enterprises); and FCT (Federal Capital Territory (a.ka., Abuja). Our author unfolds in three persons – an activist professional/technocrat, a politician, and a family man. The story is a tale of service with three successive principals and Heads of State: a serving General, Abdulsalami Abubakar; a former General, Olusegun Obasanjo; the brother of a dead General, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. There are some other significant characters, none more so, perhaps, than Atiku Abubakar, President Obasanjo’s Vice, whose Teflon qualities are evident in the account.

The dysfunctional chemistry – or lack of it –between the author, Atiku and Obasanjo is indeed another of the book’s trinities. It also produced perhaps its memorable line when President Obasanjo tells the author: “my short friend, I have a duty to train you… to make sure you learn to work with everyone, not just people you like.”

The book is also a story of bonds formed, betrayed and in various stages of re-constitution in the racy cauldron of Nigeria’s messy politics. And it is a story of the three options confronted by Nigeria in the transition after President Obasanjo’s Third Term debacle. At the personal level, the narrative fulsomely acknowledges the support of the author’s three spouses in the making of an outstandingly readable tale and career.

The story of The Accidental Public Servant is told in 17 chapters over 627 pages, including 38 pages of source notes; 90 pages of appendices and 490 pages of the author’s own narrative. There are another 60 pages of prefatory, introductory material, including a captivating insider account of the drama of President Obasanjo’s Third Term project as a prologue.

The Accidental Public Servant is both a bold story and a spirited defence of a tenure in Nigerian public life, sometimes perceived as controversial. Perhaps a little over half of the book is dedicated to the author’s tenures, first as the Director-General of the BPE and then as the Minister for the FCT. Six of the seventeen chapters are dedicated to various aspects of the latter and the various controversies that were to arise during that tenure.

The story has many sharp edges and the author does not leave the reader guessing about his positions on most issues. For instance, he thinks that Obasanjo is consistent “in putting his personal interest before that of the nation”, complains that Atiku Abubakar “actively undermined me and accused me of inappropriate behavior simply to get contracts for his friends”,  and found the manner of the fund-raising for the Obasanjo Presidential Library simply “disgusting”. It is a tale told with committed clarity.

It provides ample information as to not just decisions taken but also the reasons behind them. The reader does not have to agree with the conclusions. The author marshals ample material in support of his story and, in all fairness, provides evidence to support his occasional use of adjectives.

The Accidental Public Servant offers a forceful defence of the policies and decisions that the author took as Minister responsible for Abuja. Notable gaps, however, exist in the narrative; several aspects of this narrative could be argued; and some unevenness in cadence invite close attention. Among the omissions, three are notable. First, the author narrates that he quit the ruling Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) in 2010 and rather laconically mentions elsewhere in the book that “as Ministers, we were given overnight party membership cards”, without providing details as to time, place or rationales.

If Ministers could be appointed without party affiliation, why could they not serve out their terms without party affiliation and what were the reasons for their being whipped into a party? Did this affect their subsequent performance? Second, the author recalls that in the run up to the 2007 general elections, he was “doing more or less whatever the President usually assigned the Vice-President to oversee, like serving as a liaison with the electoral commission….”

Given the appalling perversions committed by the electoral commission in 2007, the narrative could have provided greater information to explain what happened or enable the reader to exculpate him from or inculpate him in the crimes of electoral mis-management that characterized those elections. Thirdly, with ample space devoted in the book to the defence of the idea of Abuja, the author missed an opportunity to interrogate the Abuja project or examine whether any aspects of it could have been open to re-think. For instance, how proper is it to make the governance of such a limited resource as land (in Abuja) subject to the Ministerial caprice through the political economy of “allocation”? Should a political appointee such as a Minister have monopoly of decision making on such allocations? If not, how do you eliminate such an inherent architecture of abuse? Should there be specific rules governing conflicts of interest of the administration of various aspects of the FCT?

Equally troubling is the story in the book of the meeting with the FCT judiciary led by a man fondly described by the author as “my Barewa senior”, “for their support” and the confession that following this meeting, “the FCT judiciary supported us strongly throughout my tenure.” In the absence of more details about what manner of support this was, readers may ask legitimate questions as to whether this crossed the line into compromising the independence of judicial decision making.

The role of the judiciary, after all, is not to support anyone as such but to administer the law fairly and impartially. Many of the commendable enforcement actions initiated by the author through the courts in the FCT remained uncompleted at the time of publication, long after he had left office, calling into question the institutional wherewithal of the FCT High Court.

The most obvious differences in cadence are in the treatment of four characters in the book that, by reason of death, are no longer around to speak for themselves.

These are:

  • Waziri Mohammed, late former Chairman of the Nigerian Railway Corporation and alleged arrow-head of President Obasanjo’s Third Term bid, who was tragically killed in an air crash;
  • Chief J.U. Igweh, proprietor of Bolingo Hotels in Abuja, who, was killed in the same air crash with Waziri;
  • Justice Bashir Sambo, former Chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal;
  • and President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, also the author’s senior at Barewa.

To these four, the author applies three different narrative standards. He introduces Waziri into the narrative on Third Term namelessly merely as “an Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) alumnus and friend who chaired the board of a federal parastatal and was very close to Obasanjo.” Most readers would struggle to identify who this is about. With respect to Chief Igweh, the author limits himself to a narration of the official interaction.

Similarly, with Justice Bashir Sambo, the author acknowledges that following his death in April 2007, he (the author) “remained silent because the man could no longer defend himself”,12 and tastefully limits himself to disclosure of the official correspondence in the matter. Although it is possible to deduce possible reasons from the text, the author offers no explicit explanation, however, as to why he fails to extend this standard of restraint to the parts of the narrative relating to President Yar’Adua, whose High School nickname, the author discloses, was “Bad Man.”

In hind sight, he may consider that this could have been essential to a better understanding of this part of his story.

In recalling the public statement issued on 2 December 2010 by the collective initially known as G-55 which later became G-57 asking President Yar’Adua to vacate office, the author narrates that this was followed by “initial set back, when, under pressure from the NSA, Abdullahi Sarki Mukhtar, some of the people dissociated themselves from the statement claiming that ‘they did not sign’ any statement.”

This contains a factual inaccuracy.

This Reviewer is one of the people that “dissociated” themselves from the statement. No one called me about this and, surely, no one put any pressure on me to do so. The fact is I thought it was plainly poor organizing and utter bad manners for anyone to associate me with a document – no matter how well intentioned – whose contents no one had made any prior effort to inform me about. I still think so.

The production of The Accidental Public Servant is professionally done. The book is not marred by habitual editorial slippages that often mar a lot of our books, although a few slippages nevertheless intrude. Anoraks may wish that the Indexing at the end of the book could have been a little more comprehensive and the appendices were better clustered. The quality of the product nevertheless is excellent.

On the whole, this is a book by a brother who must make many of us feel proud to be Nigerian and which must restore our faith in the project of nation building. Anyone considering public service in Nigeria would do well to consult this book, or, if you have access to him, its author. You do not have to agree with everything in it but it is a compelling read with jaw-dropping disclosures on every other page and compelling lessons dripping from most of its paragraphs. The disclosures in this book will surely inform and possibly affect the landscape of Nigerian politics.

Even if they don’t, this book is likely to inspire spirited conversations that should enrich citizenship and political participation in Nigeria.

For this and more, Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai deserves our gratitude for memorializing his record of public service and for courageously inviting public scrutiny of that record. Many more who preceded him in public life and all who do so after him should do well to accept his invitation to “document their experiences and tell their sides of the story.”

TITLE: THE ACCIDENTAL PUBLIC SERVANT

AUTHOR: NASIR AHMAD EL-RUFAI

PUBLISHER: SAFARI BOOKS LTD IBADAN

YEAR: 2013

PAGES: 627 PAGES

PRICE: UNSTATED

  • nandi

    After reading this review, now I really think I already have read the book. I must get it.

  • manny ikpebe

    Bravo. To say the review is brilliant is to say the least. Coming from the master, I love the elaborate analysis of the book. Now I have to read the book. Kudos sir.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joekoil Jonathan Ekperusi

    Excellent review for an acclaimed excellent work. I have always admired El-Rufai. His PhD did not stop him from using ‘Mallam’, in a country where many illiterates struggle to use ‘Dr’. Thanks for inviting more attention to the book, Uncle Odinkalu. It is deservedly so.

  • Ogwazu C. Nnamdi

    Just excellent. We would expect Mallam El-rufai to fill the identified gaps in the case of 2007 election as a liaison person. But i must admit the youngman has an uncommon courage.