By Bell Ihua, PhD, mni
Upon completing my PhD studies over a decade ago, I decided not to undertake any training course that would span over one week. One to five days’ course? Okay! Anything more? Count me out.
This was because I was mentally drained! The academic rigour, mental intensity and lonely journey of the PhD had left me brain-fagged. Luckily, I bagged a faculty position almost immediately and delved straight into the academia.
I was happy to carry on with teaching, researching, publishing, conference attendance and community service; but to attend capacity building sessions scheduled to last more than 5 days, at a time? Definitely not for me! Fast-forward to February 2022, when by the sheer grace of God and providence of the Presidency, I got nominated to attend the Senior Executive Course 44, 2022 at the prestigious National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS) Kuru, outskirt of Jos the capital of Plateau state.
The news came with great excitement, but with slight trepidation of how I would cope through a 10-month programme. Somehow, I managed to console myself that as an academic it would be an easy ride; besides as the name implied – “Senior Executive Course” – it would be a relaxing, stress-free, halcyon-days course, in a serene environment.
A sort of working vacation, if you like! But I was in for a rude shock. In fairness, the environment was no doubt clement and serene enough to stimulate intellectual acuity, but the volume of the academic work was definitely more than many bargained.
It was a grueling 10 months of learning, unlearning, relearning, reflecting, brainstorming and more. In this piece, I have taken some time to document a few thoughts and reflections from my journey to NIPSS from February to December 2022.
- Think Nigeria First: One of the major highlights of the Senior Executive Course for me was the conscious focus of the entire institutional mandate, course content and structure, and even choice of facilitators, all hammering on the need to always put Nigeria first. It was more like a sing-song or cliché of sort, that in whatever we do going forward, we must consciously put Nigeria’s best interest at the heart of life’s work and impact. Participants were charged to think, speak, act, work, and if you like dress, in the best interest of Nigeria. This is a trend I have also observed from other senior MNIs, that there’s an unflinching sense of national pride, loyalty and patriotism that attending NIPSS instills.
- Leadership of Self first, before others: It is often said that, ‘to be a leader, you must first lead yourself’. This statement comes alive at NIPSS. As you resume on the Course, you’re instantly struck by a quasi-regimentation that seeks to shape everyone into size, irrespective of whatever position of influence you occupied before reporting. Discipline, punctuality, moral uprightness and rectitude are some of the values harped on. Punctuality is considered an essential part of assessment, as we were made to rise early, come out for the daily morning drills at 6am, and be seated at plenary at least 15 minutes before lectures commence. We had to adhere to the dress code, which required that if I had to put on a native attire, it had to be with the full compliments of a matching hat, and if I chose to go western, then it had to be in proper suit and tie.
- Policymaking, not a walk in the park: Policymaking is tasking, arduous and time consuming. It isn’t something that’s done in a hurry or some quick fixes put together to address an issue. You must engage in rigorous research, gather all the available data and facts on the matter, distill what the core issues really are, inquire into how the issue has been addressed in other climes, then engage in deep critical analysis and reflection; before coming up with policy options, with their respective implications. For SEC44, our theme focused on strengthening local governance in Nigeria, vis-à-vis the challenges, options and opportunities. As a course, we visited seven strategic national institutions, 14 States, six African countries and six countries outside Africa. I was privileged to be part of study group two, which visited the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and undertook study tours to Katsina and Oyo States, as well as India and Ethiopia. We didn’t go there to merely visit the Taj Mahal or indulge in tales of Queen Sheba’s love affair with King Solomon; but to interact with public officials and stakeholders in a bid to address our theme. Imagine spending long hours interacting with stakeholders, conducting focus groups and gathering data during the day; then conducting data analysis and group reflections after dinner.
- Think Homegrown Solutions: There’s a great emphasis on homegrown solutions at NIPSS. In other words, solutions and recommendations proffered have to be rooted in: understanding our common historical past as a nation; seeking to harness existing local opportunities; and taking cognizance of our cultural values and heritage. It was clearly highlighted that a good policy that works well in one country may not work in Nigeria, even if we shared common sociodemographic configuration. Let me digress a little. With the benefit of hindsight, I often remember the arguments made for and against the introduction of mobile money in Nigeria a little over a decade ago, as part of CBN’s financial inclusion strategy. I recall attending an event at the time, where I listened to someone giving a talk on how mobile money will be the next big thing in Nigeria, citing our population size and the successes achieved by MPesa in Kenya. However, the subsequent years proved the speaker wrong, as Nigeria’s mobile money policy did not really take root as it was initially designed. In my opinion, two reasons were mainly responsible for this poor uptake. The first was that technology evolved so quickly, such that Nigeria transitioned from physical banking to online and mobile banking. The implication of this technological leap was that if you had a smart phone, you could simply download the bank app, and become your own mobile money agent. Secondly, (and again this is my personal view) the policy did not clearly delineate roles for commercial banks versus telcos. As such we found ourselves in a situation where everyone wanted a slice of the pie, with almost all banks and mobile telecoms companies setting up their own mobile money platforms, and in the process, ready to frustrate other platforms who stood in their way of success. Therefore, CBN had to return to the drawing board to redesign the policy to suit our context and complexities. This illustration highlights my point on why we need to develop homegrown solutions or properly adapt imported solutions to suit our local context.
- Managing diversity as a critical leadership skill in policymaking: NIPSS is a microcosm of the larger Nigerian macrocosm. It is perhaps one of the few places in Nigeria with the kind of diversity comparable to that of the National Assembly. It’s a melting pot of people from different backgrounds, spheres of the society, faiths, ethnic considerations and all. You name it. We even had a self-acclaimed traditionalist! With this sort of assortment behooves a greater responsibility for being able to manage diversity. This is essentially how the real world of policymaking looks. You would have to work with people of varying and intersecting interests, inclinations and perspectives; and it’s your responsibility as a leader to manage these intersections intricately and amicably to achieve your policymaking goal. We must learn to respect what others hold dear, no matter how mundane they may seem; and practice emotional intelligence at its peak.
- A Nigeria of People and Systems: NIPSS is reputed for the calibre of its facilitators drawn from the crème de la crème of the different sectors of the country. From the in-house experts and directing staff to the guest faculty and visiting lecturers, SEC participants were toasted to some of the brightest and most lucid minds in Nigeria’s public service, military, foreign service, private sector, civil society and academia amongst others. I particularly enjoyed the Diplomacy and International Relations Series, facilitated by the likes of Ambassadors Joe Keshi and Sola Enikanolaye; as well as the series on the economy, human rights and society led by Professors Pat Utomi, Joy Ezeilo, Jibrin Ibrahim and Abdu Hussaini. I also enjoyed the defence and public policy series facilitated by General Leo Irabor and Professors Tunji Olaopa, Fatai Aremu, OJ Para-Mallam and Dung Pam Sha. This was my single most important reason for seeking to attend NIPSS. I really wanted to learn how Nigeria’s policy landscape worked and how to develop good strong public policies for our nation. I was glad I did!
- Don’t just tell us what to do, tell us how, who and when to do it: At NIPSS you don’t just proffer solutions or recommendations to the government or policy makers and walk away; you must go two steps further to provide implementation strategies. In other words, you must state specifically what needs to be done, identify who should be responsible for taking action and when action should be taken. We don’t make statements like “Government should create an enabling environment”; a statement which has become ubiquitous amongst some academics. It isn’t enough to simply say the Federal Government should do this or that; you must tell us what practical action steps can be taken to achieve that recommendation; tell us the public official or institution who should be held responsible for taking action and give us a timeline for the implementation. I found this approach really interesting.
- Bonds beyond blood: This is perhaps why membership of the prestigious National Institute is viewed somewhat as a “cult”. What would you gain from keeping 90 adults together for 10 months? You would gain a lifetime sorority built by chords of mutual understanding, trust, commitment and loyalty towards one another, irrespective of tribe, tongue, faith or vocation. Bonds fastened through pressure gained from long hours of group work and sleepless nights, rapid fire, crisis game, study tours within and outside Nigeria. We brainstormed, argued, raised our voices at each other, often almost at the point of fisticuffs, but settling afterwards, all with good intentions – to deliver better reports and presentations. Eventually, we learnt to tolerate one another’s weaknesses, and leverage each other’s strengths to succeed. How would you explain studying together from 8pm to 4am, with tea, coffee, biscuits and kolanuts on the sidelines? How will I ever forget Baba Rector, who had so much wisdom nuggets and practical lifehacks to share; Bultubul, who had a queer way of spicing up conversations; Dr. Kay, who seamlessly assumed responsibility as mother of our study group; Group Captain Garba, the extremely dedicated and reticent hardworker; Dr. Ladi, who wanted all our deliverables to be prim and proper; Dr Obi, the group’s baby-boy and archetypal civil servant, who understands civil service rules like the back of his palm; the wriggling Cinderella, Dr. Elsie, nicknamed PhD Dagger for her multiple doctorates; and Akinze, the Otelemuyen personified, who had a unique way of signaling when he’d had enough and needed to go catch some rest. Not forgetting our star boy, the officer and gentleman, CP Frank; the fierce advocate of attitudinal change, Col Bello; the baritoned and ever-vocal Comptroller Dera; and our Chair for life, Col CY. For any of these folks, and others within the larger SEC44 circle, I would break an arm and a leg; and I have no doubt they’ll do the same for me if the need arises.
- Becoming a voice for a better and brighter Nigeria: Before being nominated to attend the Senior Executive Course at NIPSS, it is expected that participants ought to have attained certain heights and leadership capacity in their respective careers and institutions. However, coming to NIPSS further amplifies that capacity to lead, especially around designing and managing public policy reforms. It also comes with the added responsibility of becoming a voice that speaks consciously for a better and brighter Nigeria. We take no prisoners on people talking down on Nigeria, we face them fair and square!
- A lifetime commitment to national service: Once you attend NIPSS, you’ve signed up for a lifetime commitment of service to our dear county, Nigeria. This unparalleled 10-months immersive senior executive policy leadership course equips you with the framework to understand the concept and nation called Nigeria, its myriad of developmental challenges, and how to be part of the solution. Ultimately, the National institute has placed on our shoulders the huge burden to ensure by all means that Nigeria works for every citizen, as articulated in its motto – Towards a better society.
In conclusion, I’m pleased that I went, I saw, I learnt, I made new friends and I successfully earned the prestigious “mni” insignia to my name; but that’s not all. What’s most important is that I left NIPSS with a renewed commitment to service and reinvigorated patriotism towards making Nigeria a much better place for our children and those yet unborn.
It was former President Goodluck Jonathan who, I believe, said if only 20 per cent of the policy recommendations from NIPSS were to be implemented by government, Nigeria would be much better than it is today.
However, I doubt if NIPSS is well funded enough to deliver on its mandate. As the nation’s foremost thinktank, more attention and funding need to be channeled towards NIPSS to enable the Institution take its rightful place in our nation, and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other institutions of its ilk, such as Chatham House, Wilson Center and Center for Global Development amongst others.
Professor Bell Ihua, mni, is Executive Director at Africa Polling Institute and professor of practice in opinion research at Coal City University, Enugu. He can be contacted via email: [email protected]
This article is very insightful and interesting to read, Thank you Prof. Bell Ihua for sharing your reflections.