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Sam Afemikhe Jr: What next for the Nigerian ministerial team?

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Sam Afemikhe Jr: What next for the Nigerian ministerial team?

By Sam Afemikhe Jr

Introduction

Nigerians were caught up in almost rapt awe as we waited and waited (and waited some more) for the announcement and subsequent screening of Ministerial nominees. Social media followed. First there was #Ministeriallist and then came #Ministerialscreening and finally #Ministerialswearingin. It’s not the first time Nigeria has ever appointed Ministers, but never have the eyes of the nation been this fastened to their screens over that 3 week period. The saga climaxed there was the crescendo of their swearing in. The movie is over and we can now go back to normalcy.

Or can we? The fanfare of the selection process may have come and gone, but a new chapter begins. The inauguration of the new ministers only marked the end of Part 1 of the All Progressive Congress (APC) directed movie — Return of the General. With many plots, subplots and leading actors, Part 2 promises to be a blockbuster — from Oil and Gas, to Power. From Housing to the economy. From Budget and Planning to Housing Solid minerals.

In this piece I focus on how the Ministers can hit the ground running. We already have some indications of what plots will play out — with the Ministers of Communication, Finance and Power, Works and Housing — all recently showing their hands.

Though many say, and I agree, that it is not how well you start but how well you finish that matters, I believe a decent foundation can save money, time and effort — all of which are in desperately short supply at the moment. What must the new Ministers do to have a decent start? I share my thoughts:

Understand what you have been called to.

Timing — they say is everything. Wrong. Understanding, really, is everything. A Minister cannot be successful if he or she fails to understand what job she has been called to do. This is important because many many Nigerians have forgotten why they are called to public office. It is not to fulfil national character, it is not because it is your turn (the “It’s our time” disease). Nor is it because you are favoured or you are being rewarded for being loyal during The Wilderness Years (prequel to Return of the General). All those were circumstantial to the said Ministers getting the positions. Quite simply, and very fundamentally the Ministers are there to deliver the mandate given to Mr. President by the Nigeria electorate.

In the more mature democracies, the President or Party campaigned on the back of a set of policies or policy positions commonly referred to as “Campaign Promises”. If elected, these campaign promises are the mandate of the president or Prime Minister. Therefore Ministers are simply glorified managers responsible for harnessing resources to deliver the mandate of Mr President. The President for himself is accountable to the Nigerian people (via the Senate) but the Ministers are accountable directly to Mr. President. To effectively deliver, you need to understand what you have been called to do.

Understand the vision of Mr President for your purview

This next step is a natural output of understanding your purpose of being appointed. Once the foundation of your call to service is understood (to deliver Mr. President’s mandate), the next thing is to ask the question “What is Mr. President’s mandate for the area of Nigeria inside my purview”. This is where the Minister must begin to distil the vision of the President into clear measurable objectives. As these are mauled over and fine-tuned, they become clearer and relatable to the (previously general and high level) mandate. It is not the time to worry about challenges and difficulties — yet. A clear understanding of the mind of the President is needed to do your job.
Understand your unique and systemic environmental factors, stakeholders and others actors

In strategic analysis, carrying out an environmental review is the necessary precondition to formulating and executing an effective strategy or plan to deliver. It may sound technical, but it isn’t really. An environmental analysis — informal and formal — must be carried out by the incoming to understand what the kind of situation she is faced with. A formal situational review will involve making assessment of the internal structure, strategies, style, staffing, systems, skills, operational style, and shared values of your new portfolio. This is the time to begin to understand what your ministry’s strengths and weaknesses are (internal factors) and what the opportunities and threats (external factors) are in relation to your mission.

Furthermore, an assessment of your stakeholders — no matter how brief — is key. Your stakeholders will wield some degree of power depending on their influence and proximity to your ministry, its goals and operations. An obvious example is the Niger Delta — home of the country’s oil and gas reserves. The power and influence they exercise is high due to their proximity to the heart of the operations of the Ministry of Petroleum. Hence they must be closely managed (management speak).

Internal stakeholders should also be assessed and understood closely. Typically these are the civil servants. These mandarins have the power to execute or frustrate the Minister’s agenda irrespective of whether it is a noble one or not. The hit 80s BBC Comedy series Yes Minister depicted accurately (and humorously) the importance of the relationship between the Minister and his Permanent and Private Secretaries and the general civil service under him. An effective, equipped, well trained, professional and focused civil service will deliver for the Minister and ultimately for Mr. President. Overall, the Minister must understand the dynamics at work in his ministry and how s/he must use those dynamics to make an effective impact.

Set out YOUR agenda quickly and clearly.

Babatunde Fashola and Kemi Adeosun are leading the way in this regard. 3 weeks into their inauguration, a few key policy statements are already being made giving citizens and investors an indication of the new directions of their respective ministries. It reminds me of an invaluable exam technique I learnt during my A levels years. For a 3 hour exam (180 minutes) we were taught to use a 10–12 minute window to plan. We were first to read and understand all the questions. Second we would highlight those questions that we felt we were strongest or had done most revision. Then for each selected question, we made a very quick outline — a kind of agenda or general outline for the answer. Only then did we attempt to finally answer each question. This obviously meant writing like your life depended on it within the remaining 170 odd minutes.

It is no different with the Minister. But critically, she must set out her agenda quickly. The agenda is important because it captures how the Minister intends to deliver Mr. President’s mandate to the people. The agenda also serves as a means by which the Minister and his team can be held accountable to the President. Subsequently whenever he is meeting or speaking with Mr. President, he (president) can pull out the agenda that he (Minister) submitted. He can then be fairly assessed based on this agenda. Setting out a well thought out agenda for your ministry sends out a strong signal of intent and commitment to service and delivery. An unacceptable delay (not all delays are bad) they say is dangerous. It sends signals of lack of focus, control or direction.

On twitter the other day, someone quipped that no Federal Executive Council (FEC) meetings had been held since inauguration of the cabinet. I thought that conclusion was ill-advised given that the Ministers need some time to settle in and set the necessary tone and direction. This is especially true after the structural changes made to the various ministries (newly amalgamated Power, Works and Housing and the hiving off of the Budget and Planning from the ministry of Finance). Such changes only serve to double the planning efforts of the new Ministers because not only must they plan, they must first assess and understand the new structure vis-à-vis the new vision of Mr. President. The Ministers should present an agenda to the people of Nigeria so that they can hold them to account.

Selecting and aligning your team around your mandate

Selecting a strong and capable team to help you in your day-to-day work as a Minister is the next thing to do. It is noteworthy to take a cerebral pause here to remember that Mr. President deliberately took his time to select each Minister. Likewise, the Minister must be careful to identify people that not only can deliver, but also fit the ‘federal character’ bill. The President’s body language (I couldn’t resist) is indicative of stricter more circumspect atmosphere hence, your team members must be whiter than white and cleaner than clean — and must be able to stay that way for their tenure.

In terms of actual selection, I must submit that this is tricky due to various factors at play as a Minister in Nigeria. There are political godfathers, loyal supporters, governors, senators and so on that will want to wield influence on your appointments…even before one talks of qualifications and experience. But alas that is Nigeria. The question is does the Minister feel strongly enough about his / her mandate to get the best people for the job. If you are able to overcome the burgeoning challenge of these political whirlwinds, there is also the temptation to work with people you know or are comfortable with. Again this is not a problem, but a critical question the Minister must ask (amongst many critical questions) is “Is this person the right man or woman for the job? Will he / she even accept it?” At this junction of Nigeria’s history, square pegs must be put into square holes. The quality of your question will assist in assessing the suitableness of person x or y as a member of your team. Also do not be afraid to consult your circles or relevant professional networks for suitable people.

Execution mode — a rescue mission.

Simple and plain, these Ministers are on a rescue mission. The stats are not very encouraging. Government revenues have fallen on the back of the massive drop in oil revenues. Literacy rates are dangerously low with Nigeria having a 59% literacy rate vs. 94% in South Africa, 99.75% in the EU and 99% in the US). 61% Nigerians live on or less than $1 a day and life expectancy is shy of 52 years when the US it is 78 and the EU it is 80. Culturally we are no better as most bureaucrats and business people consider graft, bribery and corruption as the ‘norm’ in doing business. Hence an intelligent approach to the country’s challenges is needed. Strategy, they say, is not what you say it is what you do.

After the politicking, gesticulating and preparations, actions now need to be taken to deliver the goods. Eventually the Minister must stop all the planning and preparations and say to his team — Oya let’s go! At the execution phase, a number of factors must be considered by the able Ministers.

First is that their initial agenda will not be the final one. Clay Christensen in his classic, How will you measure your life, makes the distinction between the determinant strategy and the emergent strategy. In life we begin with the determinant strategy then find out more. More about the problems, the issues, the factors etc then we adjust accordingly. Our original (determinant) strategy plus our adjustments create our emergent strategy — that strategy that is a better fit to the objectives and challenges of the day.

Secondly during execution, the Ministers must be willing and able to be dogged and yet flexible — all at once. Nigeria is a tough place and can force one to concur with mediocrity. That’s why we are where we are today. This is where having a stubborn streak about you is needed. Imagine if Dr Ezekwesili decided to cower to voices doubting the sincerity of the abduction of the Chibok girls, or Mr. President finally throwing in the towel after so many years of failing to clinch the victory at the polls. What got them through the difficult times? A doggedness and stubbornness to not give up. This is what the new Ministers must be armed with it. However, this needs to be balanced by the ability to be flexible. Flexibility will allow the Ministers respond quickly and accurately in order to achieve their set targets. The Minister and his band of merry men and woman must be on the ball for this. They need to have and access information quickly and also have the right information and presence of mind to make those judgement calls and adjustments needed

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

We live in the Information Age. Open government is a major indicator of a progressive country. The people expect it, hence you must deliver it…and talk about it. Communicate your agenda, communicate how you intend to achieve them, communicate what time frame you hope things will take, what the benefits are and also most importantly what the costs are. Communication means that you are managing expectations. Those who manage expectation well often receive less heat because stakeholders are not taken by surprise. Provided your policy or agenda does not exactly relate to issues of national security, your communication must be regular, relevant, succinct, clear and precise.

A great example of managing expectations through effective communication (and effective engagement) is the recent approach of the Kaduna State government in engaging its people about its proposed 2016 budget. The Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission — NERC has also demonstrated some degree of initiative in having regular stakeholder forums on issues relating to electricity generation and distribution in the last 3 years (though there’s room for improvement). The Nigerian Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI) has also been exemplary in holding frequent town halls and stakeholder sessions to review its findings and recommendations. All these are examples of best practice our Ministers must imbibe if they are to be assessed as effectively communicating with their stakeholders.

Never expect 100% support or recognition

It’s simple, the Ministers cannot deliver their mandates without upsetting a few people. The fact is that Nigeria is in dire need of drastic action. Nigeria needs to be wrested from cabals, looters, miscreants, Luddites, terrorists, fanatics, godfathers, bureaucrats, vandals, corrupt officials, the unlearned and basically everyone. Thus, a few toes will not look pretty after a ‘half-decent’ job has been done. How else will impunity get a taste of its own medicine? Anywhere in the world, successful Public service without stepping on toes and offending certain factions or groups of people is as easy as passing the proverbial eye of the camel through the eye of a needle. The UK political greats such as Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and most recently David Cameron — have all had to push through difficult policies that were not 100% popular.

Sometimes the offended few (be careful not to tick off the majority, otherwise you will be booted out rather quickly) were even members of their party or core support group. Death, taxes and this fact is certain — that we will upset quite a few on our road to freedom.

Review your performance regularly.

I’m pretty sure there’s no device that can cook a meal to perfection without being checked or tasted. The point here is that what gets measured gets done. Once the Minister has earmarked something to be measured I can guarantee you that the person responsible will see to it that she gets it done or will at least significantly progress the task. Why? Because she knows that in the midst of many, she will be asked, “Mrs. H, you were asked to do this last month, how far with this madam?” The fear of God and the sack or punishment will inspire her to move mountains to achieve her objective. Management professionals, such as yours truly, say our goals should be SMART i.e. Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound. SMART goals are easy to measure and are achievable.

Be ready to make drastic changes if only to stay on course to achieve your objectives

I heard a saying that sums up the importance of this point recently and it was that you’re only as strong as your weakest link. For the Minister, we can imply that he is only as competent and effective as the weakest member of your team. This is why knowing the various strengths and weaknesses of your team is so crucial. To run your ministry effectively, you need to be putting your square pegs in square holes. In the name of national character, being loyal, taking care of the community etc, Nigeria is littered with real life instances of triangular pegs being put in square or circular holes. I digress. The point is in the (hopefully unlikely) event of finding a weak link in your team, first try and see if the person can be upskilled to perform better. Failing that, please do the needful. Replace the person. Do not for sentimental reasons damage the nation’s objective and dent your legacy. Be ready to make drastic changes if only to stay on course to achieve your objective. Don’t sell the nation for a morsel of bread.

Finally be positive

There’s something magical about hope. President Barack Obama calls it the Audacity of Hope. I guess this is why Nigeria has made significant strides all these years. Its people are infinitely hopefully for better. Better government, better health, better environment, better working and living conditions and better quality of life. It has been our greatest asset and greatest weakness too because hope is not a strategy. Hope is a necessary ingredient to the list of steps mentioned above. With it, you can inspire millions and actually change the lives of people who for decades have been denied their basic rights to a better life.

In concluding, it is highly unlikely that most of the Ministers are not already some way to putting a few of the above steps into practice. These are some of the brightest and sharpest minds in the country. Nonetheless, it is important to lay these practical steps out at least so that all Nigerians can understand the level of excellence to expect from their Ministers.

I leave you with this quote from one of the greatest change agents history has ever known — Franklin D. Roosevelt-
The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.

Here’s wishing all the Ministers the very best as the Return of the General Part 2 continues to unfold.

  • Sam Afemikhe Jr (ACA) is a Chartered Accountant, Senior Business Analyst and speaker. He also advises on various aspects of business, financial and political strategy.

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