Book Title: Transforming the African Public Service
Author: Dr. Tunji Olaopa
Reviewer: Prof. Toyin Falola
Published by: Pan African Press
Earlier in 2017, at a forum with civil servants, Nigeria’s Vice President, His Excellency, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, described Nigeria’s civil service as “not only the greatest in Africa but also the most educated” on the entire continent.
Critics of Professor Osinbajo, who juxtaposed his comment with volumes of theses that have been produced on the shortcomings of the civil service in Nigeria, would likely be bemused. The hyperbolism of his statement and the subtle attempt to abdicate reality for mere rhetorical flourish so as to boost the morale of public servants, in fact, point to the culture of mediocrity and inefficiency that have always haunted Africa’s civil service.
Civil service in Nigeria (as in the rest of Africa) is in dire need of a major reorganising effort to re-build its floundering structures and to position the administrative force to facilitate meaningful development in Africa. That is why I consider this book, Transforming the African Public Service, by Dr. Tunji Olaopa, a much-needed and timely intervention in the plethora of possible initiatives that are vital for development in Africa.
In this book, Dr. Olaopa offers the reader several constructive pathways to dissect the problems of development, as well as more organic means for sustaining improvement in the civil service beyond clichéd, recycled ideas and nostrums.
I have known Dr. Olaopa for a number of years in his capacity as a political theorist-cum-scientist, serious intellectual, career civil servant and consultant, and a passionate Nigerian who is entirely committed to the production of the knowledge and insights that can galvanize growth and progress in Africa. A perceptive thinker, writer, and a regular op-ed contributor in the Nigeria and international media fora, Dr. Olaopa’s devotion to the project of building a modern Africa shines through every page of this book.
In this collection, Dr. Olaopa profoundly interrogates the imperative of African development from an angle that tends to be overlooked when policy makers and pundits debate the optimistic facts and figures that serve as indices for gauging the future of the continent, namely, the civil service.
The need for reform in public administration has been on the front burner for successive Nigerian governments, and yet it never proceeds substantially.
Problems of public service in Africa have included a poor ethical orientation in the civil service, poor communication through the various operational channels of governments, bloated staff, poor planning, unstable polity, lack of institutional integrity, archaic infrastructures, lack of an efficient capacity and readiness, erosion of public confidence in government, and the all-too-pervasive problem of endemic bureaucratic corruption.
It is no exaggeration to argue that the bureaucracy in Africa has contributed to the retardation of modernity in Africa; it is almost axiomatic that a nation cannot pursue development efforts and the attainment of democratic goals and objectives without an efficient public service. The civil service typically functions as the hub in which governmental power and civic initiatives have been dispensed to the people. By implication, a clog in their systems means that the complex bureaucratic administrative activities that diffuse from their mission station could paralyze the entire nation. The central role they play in development thus necessitates a constant need for productive and clear-headed analyses of their achievements and challenges. Intellectual engagement as a mode of empowerment for confronting these issues is thus vital for Africans who long to create a bureaucratic culture that is organized, competent, and systematically processes governmental enterprises from the initial stages of idea initiation to the final ones where they are implemented with provisions made for their sustenance, through regular monitoring and evaluation.
Without a transformed civil service, African public administrations cannot effectually deliver on democratic goals of transparency and accountability of public servants and leaders, citizen enlightenment and empowerment, social justice, social services and infrastructures, openness and transparency throughout the various echelons of government, and equally importantly, a judicious coordination of citizens’ energies and sentiments.
In this collection of essays strung together with the central theme of a revitalized civil service towards the ultimate goal of social transformation, Dr. Olaopa argues that an improved public service is prerequisite to actual development in Africa. The complex brew of activities the government needs to undertake can only percolate through all segments of the society if there exists a functional administrative machinery that works through the contradictions of its own existence.
Through a methodical and systematic analysis of extant issues on the continent, Dr. Olaopa engages the roles the civil service has to play in the reformation of Africa along with the steps necessary to achieve them. His approach is that of bottom-up engagement and participant observation that abjures the antiseptic detachment of an outsider trying to force a solution onto complex problems.
As is evident from this book, getting the cellular details of civil administration right is critical because it is essential in determining the workability of the overall system and the viability of the apparatuses of governance to guarantee lasting structures.
In Transforming the African Public Service, Dr. Olaopa dissects the underlying structures, the ideological base, and the conceptual foundations on which the superstructure of the modern African project is being constructed in order to understand if the existing engine of government can support the dreams of Africa’s future or, in fact, impair them. He clarifies for the reader that modernizing the African public service requires, first, a critical investigation of the incrustations of its history. Sufficient knowledge of the historical and social composition of the civil service empowers us to re-order the patterns of social behavior and political routines that can impel the process and habits of sustainable development.
Dr. Olaopa shows that at several crucial junctures in Africa’s history, from pre-colonial to colonial to postcolonial, and through the different phases of modernity and globalization that our culture has witnessed, Africa did not adequately establish the conditions of its socio-political processes of transition. The lack of an agenda for reforming the administrative structure of the inherited government to make it relevant to our social and historical processes has, consequently, seen African governmental systems perennially saddled by an administrative workforce trapped in the limbo of an undefined temporality.
At the threshold of national independence, African bureaucrats were serially pumped into the civil service system to replace the colonial administrators and “Africanize” the system. While this nationalist move gave an indigenous character to public administration and created a new elite class which largely stepped into the role of the departed colonial administrators, the muted problems under colonialism have since been aggravated, resulting in stilted bureaucratic systems that have been a chokehold on developmental initiatives in Africa. Even worse, since then the numerical strength of the civil service has continually increased such that the sector has become an economic refugee camp, the ostensible welfare office for the mass of unemployed or unemployable Africans who need to survive. Bureaucracy in Africa is thus not only weighed down by the burden of colonial heritage; it must also muddle through other fallouts from globalization and the socio-political encumbrances it has precipitated. It has almost been impossible for the civil service in Africa to rise above the myriad of organisational and structural challenges and conflicts of interest that undermine its potentials.
As mediators of the gulf between those who govern and those who are governed, the civil servants who are supposed to carry out administrative activities that facilitate development and communication activities have, in fact, contributed to widening the chasm between the parties with deleterious effects on the polity. This gap is exacerbated by the general perception of the civil service as irredeemably corrupt and an oppressive force that perpetuates state injustice against the people. If democracy and its institutions will take root and flourish in Africa, a functional civil service is an imperative that can neither be overlooked nor downplayed. Through the various phases of political instability Africa has faced, the civil service has been the administrative arm of the execution of insidious agendas. This legacy, one notes, still resonates through post-military and emerging democracies in Africa. Redressing the persistent problems warrants a radical rethinking that conjoins a philosophical analysis of our social history with tested and practical knowledge. Dr. Olaopa successfully mobilizes both to confront the procedural logjam and administrative disconnect in African civil service and the ways they have impeded democratic and civic initiatives.
This work of critical intervention finds the inextricable and fundamental links between the activities of the civil service and the superstructure of Africa’s development. Dr. Olaopa skillfully marshals his scholarly interventions over the years, his professional experience, and his intellectual excellence to forge the new thinking and strategic approaches necessary to recreate the civil service in Africa. Transforming the African Public Service is, therefore, a treasure trove for Africans, Africanists, scholars, citizens, policymakers, reformists, and everyone else seeking an understanding of the foundational paths to activating and maintaining the course of institutional flourishing in Africa.
This book is a testimony to Dr. Olaopa’s shrewd perception, theoretical diagnostic skills, and perspicacious analysis of the challenges and the prospects of the civil service in Africa and the prospects of transformation.
Considering Dr. Olaopa’s educational and career trajectories, scholarly pursuits and devotion, and years of committed public service, I am convinced there is no one better positioned to take up this urgent task of fashioning the philosophical and intellectual enterprise crucial to the re-alignment of public service in Africa, which he superbly demonstrates throughout the pages of this book.
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