Philosophical Reflection on Public Administration Reform In Nigeria, By Tunji Olaopa

According to Isaiah Berlin, the British philosopher, “The goal of philosophy is always the same, to assist men to understand themselves and thus operate in the open, and not wildly, in the dark.” Philosophers from age to age are concerned about interrogating the hidden assumptions behind social ideas, theories, formations and dynamics. Philosophy is even especially significant because it serves as the critical force that orients the organisation of the human society and how various elements work together to make humans live together in peace and harmony.

I must apologise for the abstract nature of this article. Indeed, democracy operates at the border of theory and practice which are meant to orient the policies that government makes to service the social contract between the governed and the government. Policies succeed or fail to the extent that they carry the weight of government’s philosophical assumptions, which in some sense could be the Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy in the Constitution and a reasonable understanding about the society, the people and the responsibilities that the government owe to them. In other words, when governments deliberate on policies, they do it from an understanding of what governments are supposed to do to empower their citizens. Policies thus become the extension of government’s concern with governing.

In this equation, public administration serves as the institutional apparatuses which the government deploys towards the organisation of the human society. When a particular policy fails to work and reform becomes imperative, we ultimately look towards the philosophical assumptions behind the policy, as well as the reform philosophy which is meant to bring the public service up to date with cutting edge administrative dynamics, processes, ideas, models and paradigms that enable it to deal with new circumstances and conditions in the implementation of government policies. A reform philosophy, for instance, has to decide whether institutional engineering will be a radical and comprehensive engagement with the apparatuses of public administration or a piecemeal and gradual process that confronts administrative dysfunction and deals with them one at a time. Nigerian governments have consistently launched reform programme since 1988 with the rhetoric of radicalism, but only at the point of their announcement. They never managed to develop sufficient readiness of mind, competence and instruments to track reform implementation based on what go on in the trenches which are usually dominated by politics and buccaneering tendencies. Even when they find political agents to supervise the process with a fair chance of overcoming execution trap, the dynamics in Nigeria never succeeded in overcoming two confounding traps: conception-reality gap and passion without knowledge.

Public administration itself was founded on three distinct philosophical dichotomies—politics/administration, public/private, and state/society—that are meant to critically outline the parameters and operational logic of the public administrators, vis-à-vis the politicians. Take the politics-administration dichotomy for instance. This is the founding distinction that demands that politics and administration must both have different briefs that ensure that their professional boundaries are kept separate and pure. In this regard, it is the duty of politicians to articulate and facilitate the conception of policies; and it is the responsibility of public servants to advice on policy formulation, while also taking care of the implementation of the policies. The public-private distinction is crucial because it places public service and its philosophy strictly in the public sphere as a mechanism for aggregating public aspirations and fulfilling them. Public administration is different from the private precisely in its concern with the citizens outside of profit considerations. Lastly, the state-society dichotomy gestures to the relationship that ought to exist between the state and the society which is the end user of the state’s policies.

The most fundamental issue in outlining an administrative philosophy derives from what development philosophy Nigeria has outlined to guide government’s thinking about what policies can be made to do for Nigerians. Nigeria’s development profile has been caught in a terrible vice resulting from her immersion in the global economic hegemony.

These three dichotomies are critical because they complement the underlying philosophical assumptions of a democratic society about its citizens and how they ought to be empowered. The important issue, however, is not the relationship between democracy and public administration as such, but how both meander through the defining political environment that conditions their operations. Nigeria is a critical postcolonial context, and that means a lot for how we conceive of democratic governance, public administration and the reform of the administrative institutions. As an ex-colony, Nigeria inherited the administrative apparatus and logic bequeathed by the British. While the colonial public administration facilitated the exploitation of the colonies, the same administrative structure was expected to serve as the fulcrum for jumpstarting development planning in post-independence Nigeria. But it should not come as a huge surprise that the over eight development planning Nigerian embarked upon since independence have met with mixed fortunes essentially because the underlying philosophy has not been subjected to rigorous deconstruction.

In the first instance, there has not been any serious deconstruction of the institutional rationale and values undergirding the inherited colonial public administration. On the contrary, there was an organisation fixation with these structures that made it difficult for Nigeria to grow her own administrative institutional paradigm to service postcolonial development. We now have in Nigeria a bureaucratic public service that has congealed into a non-performing structure without the capacity to sustain service delivery in a democratic context. In the second instance, the reform exercise in the Nigerian civil service system, since independence, has been mere attempts at damage control, rather than constituting a bold initiative to innovate and transform the public service in line with local challenges and global benchmarks. Since independence, Nigeria has been in search of a world class public service institution that is capacity ready to deliver democratic dividends to Nigerians.

The most fundamental issue in outlining an administrative philosophy derives from what development philosophy Nigeria has outlined to guide government’s thinking about what policies can be made to do for Nigerians. Nigeria’s development profile has been caught in a terrible vice resulting from her immersion in the global economic hegemony. For instance, the source of Nigeria’s economic operation has remained the Washington Consensus, despite the terrible havoc that that paradigm has perpetuated on Nigeria. Everyone remembers the horrific economic conditionalities of the structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) of the 80s, and the tough austerity experience they foisted on Nigerians. When funding of tertiary education through justifiable cost recovery came as one of the consequences of these economic conditionalities without policy makers thinking through the safety nets to mitigate equity considerations, Nigeria went into a human development collapse. The public services were also not spared the debilitation of institutional collapse which SAPs inflicted on Nigeria. It is therefore logical that the public administration dynamics in Nigeria will also be drawn into this lack of governance philosophy around which the public service could be energized to deliver democratic goods and services to Nigerians.

One major consequence of this is that the public service, since it was established in 1954, has failed to develop a developmental capability that must logically follow a development philosophy of the Nigerian state. Nigeria’s public service, as it is, cannot become the operational institutional arm of a developmental state in Nigeria. A developmental state, by itself, encapsulates a definite philosophy of governance. That philosophy insists that governance must be deployed to the empowerment of the citizens. A developmental state with a governance philosophy can only function when there is also in place a public administration philosophy, a definite tradition of public service, guided by the philosophical understanding of the public, professionalism and the ethics of service. When Max Weber enunciated the idea of the bureaucracy as a vocation, he intended that it would be a profession that would be the sole custodian of the government’s responsibility to the people. In its historical trajectory, public service was essentially seen as a calling similar to the priesthood.

If it is seen as a priestly calling, in spite of the defining strictures of institutional economists that partially enthroned private sector philosophical underpinnings in the public service through the new public management theory, then public administration must be integrated within ethical and political frameworks. On the one hand, joining the public service cannot be taken lightly as a bread-and-butter case. Becoming a public servant must be preceded by an ethical soul-searching: What is the soul of what I do as a public servant? What gives me strength when the stress of work becomes too much? Why am I here at all? What lies at the core of public service? Am I a good public servant? Am I contributing anything to the meaning evolution of the Service? Is my spirituality a plus in my workplace? On the other hand, the state must itself search for a viable collaborative model that will enable politics and bureaucracy work together to achieve efficiency and productivity. Relationship between a bureaucrat and a politician could either be antagonistic or cooperative. It becomes cooperative if both partners are motivated by a development and governance philosophy around which they can collaborate to enhance performance.

There is no way, in the reflection on the philosophical basis of public administration, that one will not be forced to confront the administrative successes of the Old Western Region. There was in place a governance philosophy premised on infrastructural development and productivity. The Awolowo government encapsulated this philosophy through the motto of “Life Abundantly.” And this was the philosophy that was sold to the public service under the leadership of Chief Simeon Adebo. It was this governance philosophy that instigated the solid professional capability, also captured by the motto of “Work Abundantly.” The Awolowo-Adebo model therefore signals a robust paradigm that defines the success of any developmental state. One of the most unfortunate moments in the trajectory of administration in Nigeria was defined by Simeon Adebo leaving the federal civil service in the early 60s for the Western region, precisely because of the lack of any coherent development or governance philosophy around which a tradition of public administration could have emerged in Nigeria.

In fact, there were already in place three significant conditions that could have facilitated a solid philosophical framework for governance in Nigeria: First, there were a set of individuals, like Simeon Adebo, Jerome Udoji, Ali Akilu, S. O. Wey, etc., schooled in the value-based institutional parameters of the retreating colonialists, who were eager to lay the foundation of an indigenous governance philosophy in Nigeria. Second, there was equally in existence a development-sensitive national dynamics rooted in a proper federal framework consisting of a centre and regional arrangement engaged in competitive learning and sharing. Third, there was also a development atmosphere around the twin imperatives of nation building and economic development, in spite of bitter high politics.

I will argue that to arrest the downward spiral of governance in Nigeria, and install a philosophy of governance, requires making a philosophical move. To become a developmental state, Nigeria needs a reform philosophy which must be founded on a template of administrative engineering that is either radical or gradualist. The beauty of a radical reform is that it pulls down the old order in order to build a new one on its ashes. But radical administrative reform is easier said than done. It comes with a lot of institutional displacements whose end one cannot predict. On the other hand, a gradualist reform can, and must indeed, commence from democratic governance to evolve a philosophy founded on the professional efficiency and measured performance of the public servants. The imperatives of nation building and economic growth still subsist within a federal framework that could be strengthened through a serious constitutional review. All that is needed, as a matter of urgency, is a new breed of public managers who have the capacity to instigate the emergence of a new governance philosophy that will transform Nigeria’s development profile.

About the Author: Tunji Olaopa is executive vice-chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP); Email:,

Source: Premium Time

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