AFRICAN INITIATIVE FOR GOVERNANCE

TBY sat for an exclusive interview with Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede on his African Initiative for Governance, a project he has almost never before spoken about publicly.

Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari rides on the motorcade while inspecting the guard of honour at Eagle Square in Abuja. The country's governments have repeatedly failed to reform the national civil service. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotund



After independence, Nigeria had a widely respected civil service.

But today that is not the case.

Nigeria's civil service has suffered from decades of underinvestment, misappropriation of resources, and a resulting lack of capacity and expertise.

This has not gone unnoticed, and since 1999 there have been 37 attempted reforms of the civil service. All of them originated from within the government, and none of them achieved their ultimate goals.

Now there is a new effort to instigate major reforms in the service, but they originate in the private sector. The African Initiative for Governance (AIG) is an African NGO taking a unique route to encouraging reform in the civil service. It seeks to partner with government and importantly, it focuses on building capacity.

It is led by Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, a veteran entrepreneur in Nigeria's finance industry and a man whose presence in a room demands attention. His track record includes buying Access Bank and transforming it from a small lender into one of Nigeria's top banks within five years. He then turned his attention to private equity and has built a substantial portfolio under the umbrella of his firm Coronation Capital.

After years in the private sector, Aig-Imoukhuede has witnessed firsthand the barriers that an inefficient civil service creates. He has also seen what countries like Singapore and the UAE have done to reform their public sectors, and the immense economic gains that result. After spending years establishing a framework and a network through which AIG can operate, the organization is finally making its first moves.

It commissioned a top international consultant to perform an analysis of each of the 37 attempted reforms of the civil service since the end of military rule in 1999, and to create a clear and prioritized list of actions that would result in lasting change. The result is a concise list of 8 initiatives that focus on training, technology, performance, and human resource management.

What is remarkable about AIG's to do list is that is so closely resembles what is being done in other parts of the world that are in the midst of sweeping reforms of their public service sectors.

Saudi Arabia, for example, has hired dozens of experienced private sector operators to head agencies, has empowered them with authority and budgets but also established clear performance targets and KPIs that are regularly measured. It has also invested heavily in technology and systems to increase efficiency, and by doing so has realized gains that long eluded its clumsy state bureaucracy, which formerly existed primarily to employ certain groups within the population. AIG's proposals examine exactly the same areas.

The difference is that AIG is not the government. It is an NGO seeking to influence civil service policy and aid in implementing reforms.

This means it has to be careful to make friends within the civil service lest it offend the very people it's trying to help. According to Aig-Imoukhuede though, the organization's plans already have support at the highest level of government, and have been reviewed by the head of civil service.

One idea that it has already acted on is a trust fund paid into by private sector partners. It is administered for the purpose of headhunting private sector executives and managers for key positions within government.

The fund pays their salaries, since current federal pay is far too low to be competitive with the private sector. AIG claims to already have commitments from a variety of firms. AIG has also been sponsoring Nigerian students to attend internationally recognized schools of government but plans to start its own school locally in the next several years.

It is tempting to assume that all of this effort and expense will result, if successful, in incredible influence for AIG's founders and sponsors. While that could still be true, it's worth considering that the group's strict focus on human resources has little direct bearing on policy in the medium term.

The current state of Nigeria's civil service is also a reason in itself for the private sector to instigate for change regardless of direct influence. Even minimal gains in efficiency and professionalism would mean a significant shift in the ease of doing business in Africa's biggest economy.

While still in its infancy, this initiative is one to watch. It is unique for being indigenous, for being private-sector led, and for the scale of its ambition. While it doesn't promote itself, it is focused on one of the most important issues and insidious problems on the continent. If it succeeds, the effect could be substantial and sustained.

It if fails, it will simply be the 38th attempted reform since 1999.