…Allison Akene Ayida was operating with the sensibility of a patriot. He wanted to contribute the best that his profession allowed him to add to the untangling of the complexities of nation building in Nigeria. He also had to suffer the indignities of those who stuck to integrity and professionalism as the most important credentials they could read into the priestly vocation of the public service.
The administrative history of the Nigerian public service will definitely not be complete without the mention of Mr. Allison Ayida. Indeed, just a mention will be a serious disservice to the historic role that this astute administrator played in the attempt to reconfigure the public service system, as well as put the Nigerian project right back on track administratively. Like the legendary Simeon Adebo and Jerome Udoji, Ayida belonged in what we affectionately, and with a bit of nostalgia, refer to as the golden years of public administration in Nigeria. And even more so, he was one of the “notorious” super permanent secretaries whose roles in the prosecution of the Nigerian Civil War have been the subject of positive and negative analyses.
Together with Ahmed Joda, Ime Ebong, S. O. Wey, Phillip Asiodu, and so on, Allison Ayida played a significant and crucial administrative part that had a lot to do with their vision of the Nigerian project, as well as the professional credentials they had acquired as public administrators.
Allison Ayida had just left us for the beyond. He was 88 years old. This is not a lamentable fact because he not only lived to a good age, and lived well also, but he played his part in the Nigerian national drama. He was a patriot, by all accounts of that term. He was there right at the beginning, and in the very engine room of the Nigerian state as one of the British-trained bureaucrats who had the unenviable task of steering the Nigerian state through the murky waters of the postcolonial realities which the British colonialists themselves had engineered. Paradoxically, Allison Ayida, like Simeon Adebo, Jerome Udoji and the rest of the first-generation pioneers, was invested with the best that the British administrative training could muster. The crop of first-generation administrators were the best. They were professionals who were properly inducted into the ethos and values of what it means to be public servants.
Unlike Adebo and Udoji, who came to the public service largely self-educated with English and law degrees respectively, Ayida was very prepared intellectually. In the early 1950s, after a stint at the King’s College, Lagos, he proceeded to the equally prestigious Queen’s College, Oxford, where he received a Bachelor’s degree in the most prestigious, Politics, Philosophy and Economic (PPE). A quick word about this course. The PPE was established specifically as a multidisciplinary course that was targeted at preparing students for the public service. And this explains why the course turned out to be a very great hit for those with the objectives of making a mark with their country’s administrative machinery. Over the years, the PPE has had such notable figures like the late former prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, three former prime ministers of Britain (Harold Wilson, David Cameron and Edward Heath), three former prime ministers of Australia, and so many others from around the world. An incredible combination of a sound intellectual background, as well as a solid practical professional orientation, produced Allison Ayida as who he turned out to be. And those were the days of brimming patriotism on behalf of a country that was fought for with an immense arsenal of hope and optimism that defeated the colonialists’ reluctance.
By the time he returned to Nigeria, after his father’s death which cut short his search for another degree at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Nigeria was already well into the postcolonial trajectory that was to shoot him into the very centre of the unfolding drama. He made the tight list of permanent secretaries that General Aguiyi Ironsi collected as part of the Federal Executive Council. He was in charge of a very critical ministry — Economic Development. That was exactly where the focus of post-independence development was. It was the ministry where the military had to receive the best education about how to take Nigeria forward. And Ayida had the benefit not only of a reputable background, but also of a crop of colleagues — Alhaji Musa Daggash, Phillip Asiodu, Abdul Aziz Attah, S. O. Williams, Sule Katagum, M. A. Tokunbo, H. A. Ejeyuitchie, and so many more — who had a grasp of their various posts and departments, and who were equally dedicated to the service of putting Nigeria on a sound postcolonial administrative footing.
Becoming a super permanent secretary was a necessity. Allison Ayida and the other super permanent secretaries were circumscribed by enormous historical conditions defined, on the one hand, by military dictatorship and its monolithic command structure. On the other hand, they were pressed on every side to restore a nation that had fought a civil war and required rehabilitation…
Working for Ironsi already meant that optimism had been eclipsed for Nigeria. The hope of a smooth transition was already endangered. But not for these technocrats. They saw beyond the military to a Nigeria that could still realise her objectives as a nation. Then, as if the sudden desperation enabled by the 1966 coup was not enough, Allison Ayida and the rest of the bureaucrats watched with mounting horror as the country was thrown into the tension of an approaching war. While Gowon and Ojukwu sparred and traded words and political altercations, Ayida and the rest of the technocratic teams calculated the costs of the impending war on a nascent state that had barely gotten its administrative credentials and development planning together. The war eventually happened, and Ayida found himself in the cabinet of General Gowon, right from the commencement of hostilities. There were a lot to be done administratively; first, to prevent the war from being fought; and second, to reconstruct the Nigerian state after the war ended.
Becoming a super permanent secretary was a necessity. Allison Ayida and the other super permanent secretaries were circumscribed by enormous historical conditions defined, on the one hand, by military dictatorship and its monolithic command structure. On the other hand, they were pressed on every side to restore a nation that had fought a civil war and required rehabilitation and reconstruction on a large scale. They became “super” because they lived in an interesting but unpalatable time which tasked their patriotic sensibilities and their professional capabilities to the limit. Nigeria was about to go to war and these public servants were confronted with the unenviable task of fashioning a policy framework for war time and post-war Nigeria. For instance, there was a pending issue of drafting the second national development plan, which was ongoing, with the crucial assistance of the renowned economist, Professor Ojetunji Aboyade. The impending civil war therefore provided a severe cloud of limitation around which these professionals needed to work.
But like the gold that becomes refined when taken through the furnace, Allison Ayida and the other super permanent secretaries turned their well-honed professional capacities and patriotic fervour to the rescue. And there was no dithering. Several political commentaries have been written about the supposedly notorious roles played by Ayida and his colleagues in advising Gowon about the war. There is, I think, a simple explanation for whatever course of action they advised Gowon to take. Ayida and his other technocrats had a vision of one Nigeria whose unity must be preserved. Their professionalism as public servants demanded it. Ayida must certainly have debated nation building, development dynamics and postcolonial realities with his tutors at Queen’s College and at the London School of Economics. With the war, he faced the stark realities of the discourse of his education and the most critical challenge any public administrator could ever face.
A fundamental question my reform-mindedness imposes upon me is: What was the state of the public service system during the war period? In other words, how did the public administration dynamics – up to the point of the commencement of the war – facilitate a capability readiness that enabled the super permanent secretaries like Ayida, to adequately prosecute the administrative dimensions of the civil war and the challenges of reconstruction that followed? An answer to this question requires deep historical reflections and serious empirical analysis. Yet, we can hazard an answer from historical trajectory. The public service system had been under protracted reconstruction ever since it was inaugurated in 1954. The reform dynamics picked up before independence and immediately after because the system had to be made ready for the postcolonial realities which the colonialists did not design the public service to engage. Indeed, we can even hypothesise that the public service system itself was complicit in the ensemble of events that led to the war. For instance, there is a relationship between failed development planning and the incapacity of the public service to implement development policies.
For Ayida, and the other true professionals of the lost era, serving the people is much more honourable than serving their pockets. We remember Allison Akene Ayida today for that singularity of purpose in pursuing the national project and the eventual glory of the Nigerian state.
Ayida, as an astute technocrat, could not have been blind to this internal dysfunction of the very system he had dedicated his life to. Not all technocrats or bureaucrats have the keen sensibility to detach themselves from a system in which they are insider, in order to be able to distinctly analyse its fault-line and shortcomings. Ayida’s professionalism and deep sense of service did not permit that. For instance, like Adebo, Udoji and the rest of the pioneers, he must have seen the encroaching and steady decline of the system. When the 1975 public service purge happened, a wrongheaded move to downsize the system, Ayida must have equally felt the urge to downsize his integrity credentials in order not to me rubbished by a system that threw so many into the unemployment market without any post-employment package to smoothen their retrenchment. However, these breeds of professionals were trained too well not to substitute their integrity and spirituality for filthy lucre or even the existential challenges of making ends meet.
Thus, after the war ended, and the Nigerian state resumed its engagement with the issue of development and other postcolonial challenges, it became obvious that the public service had not yet arrived at any optimal capacity that could anticipate and deal with any present and unforeseen challenges. What precisely were Ayida’s thoughts about the 1971 Adebo Commission recommendations and the 1974 Udoji Report? Now this is a very interesting seminal question because it pinpoints the crucial nexus between an objective intervention in the administrative dynamics of past reforms and a subjective analysis of their merits and demerits. The 1994 Ayida Review Panel probably furnishes us with an adroit combination of both. It seems logical that a technocrat, who was a core part of the glorious years of the public service in Nigeria, would recommend a wide-ranging reversal of the 1998 Dotun Phillips Report. But then, even a system that was optimally functional required constant reforms to bring it up to date with the challenges of democratic service delivery. Ayida and his panel failed the test of re-form or reinvention.
Rejecting the laudable recommendations of the 1988 reform, especially with regards to professionalism, efficiency and accountability, was like throwing away the baby with the bathwater. The failure of the 1988 reform does not mean the ethos its recommended were not crucial to the reinvention of lost glory, inspite of the conception-reality gap in its idea of professionalism and the politicisation of the office of the permanent secretary, which were of the mark. Indeed, I am still amazed when I engage senior colleagues who saw the glorious days of the civil service in Nigeria and the optimism they have that if only we could reinvent the bureaucratic model of the era, then that would be all Nigeria needs. That optimism goes against the grain of contemporary reality, public administration research and the immense complexities that underpin change management in the knowledge and information 21st century; as well as what the Adebo Second and Final Wages report of 1971 saw in the inadequacies of that bureaucratic model, even at the height of its success. Without the national values system that propelled the Adebos and his ilks and given what public administration demands in this new age, we cannot be so simplistic and presumptuous about the immense changes that the public service profession and management system have witnessed and the devils in the details of its reengineering. We need knowledge, creativity and continuous learning to get public service in Nigeria out of the woods.
Yet, Allison Akene Ayida was operating with the sensibility of a patriot. He wanted to contribute the best that his profession allowed him to add to the untangling of the complexities of nation building in Nigeria. He also had to suffer the indignities of those who stuck to integrity and professionalism as the most important credentials they could read into the priestly vocation of the public service. For Ayida, and the other true professionals of the lost era, serving the people is much more honourable than serving their pockets. We remember Allison Akene Ayida today for that singularity of purpose in pursuing the national project and the eventual glory of the Nigerian state.
‘Tunji Olaopa, a retired federal permanent secretary, is a professor of public administration at Lead City University, Ibadan; Email: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
This is excerpted from the keynote lecture delivered at the International Conference Organised by The Centre for Black