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Ahmed Joda: Super perm sec and elder statesman

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Ahmed Joda

Ahmed Joda — husband, father, friend, journalist, super permanent secretary, patriot, and statesman—has just transited to the great beyond.

At 91, we can consider him to be old enough to go the ways of the elders. But Ahmed Joda was not just another Nigerian. And not just another civil servant of the glorious era of public service in Nigeria. And this is the more reason why his sudden transition generates deep grief that goes beyond losing a father and a mentor. Ahmed Joda was an embodiment of all that being a public servant entails.

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And this lesson is all the more needed at this time when those who are the exemplars of the best in Nigerian public service system are unrelentingly transiting: Mr. Allison Ayida, Alhaji Sule Katagum, Mrs. Francesca Emanuel, Chief Theophilus Akinyele, Alhaji Abdulahi Ma’aji, Alhaji M. Lele Muhtar, Chief A. O. Okafor, Mr. S. B. Ajulo, Alhaji Moibi Shitu, and the much younger, Mr. Tunde Lawal, and so on. All these were old bosses, friends and colleagues, and the leading lights of the public service profession in Nigeria. I am honored to have delivered a lecture at Mrs. Francesca Emanuel 80th birthday, and her last public event. And significantly, I was also the guest lecturer at the colloquium organized by the Oyo State government in honor of Pa Akinyele.

Joda lived a life of patriotic service to Nigeria. This in itself speaks volumes about the kind of public servant he was. This was a distinguished personality of whom we can say, like all the others in that even more distinguished cadre, that he was a dedicated public servant all his life.

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Again, like Adebo, Udoji, Asiodu, Mrs. Ighodalo, Aziz Attah, Erediauwa, and others, he came to the civil service from journalism. I like to recall one insight from one of our many seminal engagements on the unfinished business of civil service reform. He went back memory lane to recount his formative years in Qur’anic school. He then described how Islamic instructions, the rigor, and associated discipline, prepared and helped him to excel when he transited to formal western education and, much later, in his career as a bureaucrat. The lesson there for me was one of how wrong people could be when they will equate speaking English with literacy when, indeed, English language is not the only medium of education. And when he eventually got into the civil service vocation, he embraced it while rising from the rank and file, and learning all that he could about what the “public” and the “service” in public service entailed. It was as if he was getting prepared for the most critical assignment that will later involve the administrative destiny of the Nigerian state.

And then, when the Nigerian civil war happened, Ahmed Joda and others like him, patriots all, were ready. And they did not fail. Though he retired from active service in 1978, a true public servant never retires since the love of the public and its wellbeing is a lifelong calling. In 1999, he was the head of the committee to advise the Presidency on poverty alleviation. In 2015, he became the head of Muhammadu Buhari presidential transition committee. In-between, he will provide leadership in crystallizing the Nigerian Economic Summit Group (NESG) that is standing hugely tall today as a foremost nation’s think tank. And he never stopped attempting to intervene critically and functionally on behalf of the Nigerian state and its reform trajectory.

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One of his final attempts included a partnership with the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library that commenced a technical process involving a team of technical experts and reform specialists that worked to unravel the missing pieces in Nigeria’s administrative reform efforts. This is to the end that the conclusion of the technical process could serve as the basis by which he will add value to the Buhari administration’s “Next Level” change agenda so it could be taken truly to the next level. I was humbled when he invited me to be technical lead to the team.

With the unfortunate demise of Ahmed Joda, and in the spirit of the reform technical process that he initiated, I consider it appropriate to, a tribute to the great administrative icon, ventilate about the fundamental essence of his life and service, for the sake of the institutional reform mission that his time as a public servant encapsulates. What are the significant issues about reforming the public service that Joda’s exemplary service point at? In this piece, my tribute to this great public servant and patriot is to see how we can go from thoughts about his term as a super permanent secretary to insights about the role of the permanent secretary about the institutional reform of the public service system in Nigeria.

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The generation of Ahmed Joda was a very lucky one. And the luck derives from the fact that the set of public servants that laid the foundation of the Nigerian civil service system—from Adebo through to Joda—got the best in the professional grounding facilitated by the legacy of Victorian values-based administrative tradition left by the British after colonialism. The British civil service had gone through series of reform that was meant to transform the British bureaucracy from a great rock in the tideline into an efficient administrative system. From the Northcote-Trevelyan Report of 1854 to the Fulton Report of 1968, the British system nailed the significance of the public service as a vocation. This was a lesson well learned by the pioneering corps of Nigerian public servants. And this is a lesson that stands at the core of the institutional reform of the civil service system in Nigeria. It is one insight that the demise of Joda brings to mind with absolute cogency.

Being a public servant is being public-spirited. The virtue of being pubic spirited brings home the values of the “public” and of “service” in ways that go beyond being a careerist. It makes of public servants modern-day priests of the Levitical order who owe a patriotic loyalty to the state.

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The collective body of the super permanent secretaries, of which Ahmed Joda was a prominent and functional member, was called upon to administratively rehabilitate the Nigerian state in the throes of a civil war. And within the context of anarchy and a framework of scarce resources made
scarcer by war, these patriotic administrators were tasked to keep the Nigerian state within a boundary made sane for developmental progress. However, fifty-one years after the end of the civil war, the Nigerian state is not just struggling to achieve just the basics in the status of a developmental state but has regressed to become a failing and seemingly failed state. And all its pioneer and public-spirited public servants are all almost demised. How then, out of the legion of systemic and structural changes that are urgent, do we recreate the office of the permanent secretary in their image?

To be continued tomorrow

Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary & Professor of Public Administration, National Institute For Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, Jos.
(tolaopa2003@gmail.com)

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