I am greatly delighted and honored to be asked to present the keynote lecture on the occasion of the pre-investiture colloquium of the 33rd President of the Nigerian Society of Engineers (NSE). I am more delighted because the incoming president of, probably, the most reputable professional association in Nigeria, the NSE, is a personal friend, someone who as a senior engineer at the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) was exemplary in the kind of competence and character that should characterise the engineering professional and embody the regulatory craft. All of us who worked with Engr. Tasiu Wudil attest to his uncommon commitment to precision, clarity, and thoroughness. NERC achieved many of its mandates under my leadership largely because we had an Engr. Wudil who was painstaking and unrelenting in seeking solutions to problems. Once again, congratulations to Engr. Wudil for the honor to lead the NSE and congrats to the NSE for the good fortune of having an extremely competent and virtuous engineer at its helms at this critical stage of national development.
I deliberately chose the theme of professionalism in nation building as the focus of my lecture to underline the moral direction of nation building in the runup to and post 2023. In this lecture, I will relate professionalism to the engineering craft and use these metaphors to reflect on the crisis of nationhood and how we can find our ways out of what looks like an incubus. I will be reflective and discursive but as much as possible remain practical and pragmatic, especially in providing solutions or recommendations on the general approach in finding solutions to the crisis of nationhood and development in Nigeria. My main focus is how we can ‘engineer’ a better Nigeria.
What is Professionalism and How Does it Matter?
The modern age is an age of specialisation. This means we have many professions and professionals. Almost all aspects of human life are now professionalised. It is difficult to engage meaningfully in any activity today without running into one professional barrier or the others. These professional barriers are erected by custodians of the profession to control entry and practice in the sphere of activity. So, we are in the age of the profession. How do we define a profession and professionalism? Of course, we know the professions. Everyone knows that engineering is a profession; that lawyering is a profession; and the medical practice is a profession, to mention just the most notable. But what are the features of a profession to distinguish it from a non-profession?
The first thing to note is that professions are composed of professionals. Professionals are roughly defined as persons who have marketable skills which they trade, and which achieve some public ends. Professionals usually possess two critical virtues or qualities which stand them out: knowledge and expertise. When these professionals organise themselves into an association to promote the effective and profitable use of their knowledge and expertise, it becomes a profession. This is a market-place definition of professions. But scholars have tried to refine this definition. In that process, we have different perspectives on professions. We have the taxonomy approach, the functionalist and the neo-Weberian approach. Each approach focuses on one critical aspect of the professional life. Whereas the functionalists focus mostly on knowledge and expertise, the Neo-Weberians focus on power and control. The professions do not just exercise expertise and knowledge. They are also devices to promote dominant and particularistic socio-economic and political interests.
The Australian Council of Professions in 2013 defines a profession as “as a disciplined group of individuals who adhere to ethical standards and who hold themselves out as, and are accepted by the public, as possessing special knowledge and skills in a widely recognised body of learning derived from research and learning at a high level, and who are prepared to apply this knowledge and exercise these skills in the interest of others”. We will use this as our working definition. It provides all the elements of the profession: knowledge and expertise and application of knowledge for public good. Again, it is a ‘disciplined group’ that ‘holds itself out’ as special and ‘are accepted by the public as possessing special knowledge and skills’.
From this definition, there is an exclusivity about professions and professionals. First, members of a profession have a high-level knowledge that is derived from excessive training and research such that the public acknowledges them as special people. This acknowledgment takes the form of certification and licensing. This grants the professional an ‘excusive legal right’ to practise the profession. Again, they employ their expertise and knowledge in the service that is vital to society. Because members of professions are highly skilled, they have autonomy in exercising their skills. Ultimately, their practice is regulated so as to make them a ‘disciplined’ group.
The defining ethical marks of a profession are summed up as ‘professionalism’. The Australian Council of Professions goes further to state that “It is inherent in the definition of a profession that a code of ethics governs the activities of each profession. Such code requires behaviour and practice beyond the personal moral obligations of an individual. They define and demand high standards of behaviour in respect of the services provided to public and in dealing with professional colleagues. Often, these codes are enforced by the profession and accepted by the community”. This definition echoes Eliot Freidson in page 12 of his book, Professionalism, The Third Logic, that “Professionalism may be said to exist when an organised occupation gains the power to determine who is qualified to perform a defined set of tasks, to prevent all others from performing that work, and to control the criteria by which to evaluate performance”. This definition relates more to the regulatory function of professionalism. Professionalism is a functional device to define and control the practice of a body of knowledge.
But I am more interested in professionalism as virtues in the exercise of knowledge. Here, I go with George Beaton. In his views, “Professionalism is not only a skill set in a given occupation. It is an ineffable something that a person exudes in manners, dress, speech and standards of practice that is palpably powerful; standards like honesty, due diligence, perseverance, willingness to listen and learn, creative thinking within framework of training and other qualities most people would be hard put to describe but which they expect in the professionals with whom they engage. Another word for these standards is ‘virtues’ and the hard-to-describe something exuded is ‘trustworthiness’, the sum total of these virtues”.
This is a comprehensive anthology of professionalism as the software of the professions. We can state confidently that where a profession does not inculcate these virtues or impose and define professional excellence by these virtues, then the profession has lost or is about losing its profession-ness. It is no longer fit to be called a profession. It should be thrown away as a fakery.
The foremost expression of these virtues, this ineffable something that is called ‘trustworthiness’, is the duty of care. A professional owes to his or her clients and to the public who comes in contact with his or her work or services a duty to employ diligence to ensure that he or she does not do any harm in the pursuit of good. He or she guarantees to the client and the public that he or she has the requisite high skills to solve the problem and would employ all diligence and honesty to solve such problem or provide such relief. This translates to a duty of care and upmost good faith that is part of every profession’s code and a core ingredient in proving professional negligence.
The guarantee of competence and character implicit in the duty of care and arising from these virtues is so important that, at least in a formal sense, it constitutes the legal basis for decertifying and barring a person from practising a profession. Once these qualities are lacking in a professional, the person stands rejected by the profession and loses that acceptance by the public that he or she is a person of high expertise and character. This is the meaning of claiming professionalism. If a profession does not diligently police the practice of its members to guarantee that they exude such high competence, diligence and honesty comprised in the duty of care, it ceases to be a proper profession. Therefore, at the heart of professionalism is the unrelenting commitment to the honest and diligent application of knowledge and high expertise at the behest of clients and society.
It is reported that in the previous era, engineers who designed and constructed bridges were required to sleep under them for days to guarantee their solidity. If those bridges do not collapse after those many days, they are then commissioned, and the engineer is let off his responsibility to client and society. In this case, the engineer guaranteed his high competence with his blood. It is said that the engineer has ‘skin in the game’. The engineer has incentives to be diligence and honest in constructing the bridge knowing that he would be the first possible casualty of a sordid job.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the engineer turned futures trader and the Dean’s Professor in the Science of Uncertainties at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, laments, in his book, Antifragility; How to Live in a World We Don’t Understand (Allen Lane 2012), that those who impact on society today do not have their skins in the game. As he sees it, one of the problems of modern life is that people suffer nothing for outsourcing harm to others, whether as advisors, designers, planners, or executors of projects that impact on the lives of those who depend on them. If we can ensure that people who offer advisories or manage projects have the same level of commitment as the engineers of old, we will be able to guarantee a safe and habitable environment. We will not have the level of environmental hazards and criminal chaos we see in unlivable cities across the world. This chaos is a result of a loss of professionalism.
What is the value of professionalism? How relevant is professionalism today? First, the virtues of professionalism: competence, due diligence, honesty, and trustworthiness are the enduring fabrics of a good society. Society will not function well if these values and virtues are absent. It might be true that professions are no more focused on promoting the economic and social wellbeing of their members, but the rise of professions has something to do with the promotion of a virtuous society. If it is true that the first professions were medicine, law and divinity, then it shows the religious or ethical roots of professions. Professions in early life appeared as guilds. In the Guilds, apprentices are exposed to the complexities of the crafts and furnished with the ethical orientation that goes with mastery and exercise of intellectual authority in society. Oftentimes, these Guilds look like cults because of the ritualistic structure of knowledge. Knowledge is a moral undertaking. It requires a high degree of moral probity to proclaim a master able to handle the complexities of a craft. We see this ritualistic and moralistic nature of competence today when universities declare that someone is found worthy in learning and character to be authorised to claim expertise in the branch of knowledge.
Professionalism is important because it creates the degree of social capital that a society requires to function at the level of specialisation and differentiation it has today. Many aspects of our lives have been taken off our hands and handed to different professions. We cannot prescribe some local treatment for a common ailment if we are not doctors or certified medical personnel without fear of prosecution? In many parts of the world, you need to be a certified cosmetologist to plain your neighbour’s hair. In such a world where our lives are literally ruled by uncountable professionals, the barest guarantee for mental and social stability is that the certificates that these professionals carry are worth what the professions attest them to be. These professionals must be persons of high expertise and good character. They must be persons whose commitment to diligence, competence and honesty in conduct is fully guaranteed.
The major political and social crises paralysing public governance across the world today relates to depletion or absence of social trust, which economic sociologists call ‘social capital’. Social trust enables cooperation and coordination and has been demonstrated to be a critical ingredient of sustained economic development. Societies lacking such social trust lack a critical element of sustainable development. Professionalism helps to institutionalise social trust that leads to economic development and social stability.
Professionalism and the Engineering Craft:
Famous British demographer, Allexander M. Carr-Saunders in his magisterial The Professions, argues that the original ‘learned’ professions were divinity, law and medicine, the ‘trinity’ of profession. He listed five original general professions to be divinity, education, law, medicine, and law enforcement. Because original knowledge was theology or divinity, we can argue that education was an offshoot of divinity. Law enforcement came out of law. Thus, leaving us with the original trinity of law, medicine, and divinity.
But this categorisation was in the medieval era. In the modern era with the development in science and technology and the growth of the megacity, engineering has now taken an influential position as one leading profession. As we become a consumerist society, we will rely on the products and services from engineers. The modern city is a backyard for engineering of all sorts. We can say that engineering as a profession rather than as a craft may be a nineteenth century phenomenon. But, in spite of its late origin, it has consolidated as the most ubiquitous profession as we demand more and better roads, bridges and other infrastructure that engineers design and construct. We do not forget the growth of ICT and the rise of ICT engineering that has transformed social and commercial transactions.
If we define engineering as “‘the creative application of scientific principles to design or develop structures, machines, apparatus, processes, or works utilising them singly or in combination; or to construct or operate the same with full cognizance of their design; or to forecast their behaviour under specific operating conditions; all as respects an intended function, economics of operation or safety to life and property”. Engineering therefore is about transforming science into useful products for human comfort. Engineering is something that engineers do, and what they do has profound effects on others. (See MergedFile (srecwarangal.ac.in)). We can see clearly that the engineering profession exemplifies professionalism. The object of engineering is human good.
If we look at the engineering profession as one that fosters creativity and a particular kind of mentality that is embedded in precision and accuracy, we begin to appreciate the dimensions of its utility as a profession that fosters nation-building. From a neo-weberian perspective, the professions foist a rational approach to solving process. Engineering, particularly, requires not just precision but creativity. To engineer a thing is to imagine possibilities. Great engineering, whether with respect to airplane or super conductor, requires a great imagination and high degree of precision thinking. Engineering is not just technical. It is also moral and social. Engineering is the pursuit of public good through the deployment of critical mental abilities that are guided by the ethical considerations of competence, due diligence, and honesty.
The Professions and the Problem with Nigeria:
The title of Chinua Achebe’s small but popular book is The Trouble with Nigeria. The moral philosopher, Schopenhauer, once said that it is easy to preach morality but difficult to find a basis for morality. In the same vein, it is easy to say that Nigeria is not working but difficult to point how and why Nigeria is not working. That Nigeria is not working is apparent. You don’t need to look far to see the signs of state failure. I am sure on your way to this event, you saw multiple signs of failure, starting from the fact that you may not have electricity from the grid, that the central water supply is non-existent in the city, and that the traffic lights in the city streets you drove through to this place are not working. This is at the mundane level. At a more consequential level, maybe you have relatives who are civil servants and have not been paid salaries for months. Or you are a pensioner who is sick and cannot call up any basic health insurance to treat yourself and even do not have access to statutorily guaranteed pension to mitigate your crisis. As a parent, your concern may be that your children who ought to be out of school and start fending for themselves are still trapped in the school system because of prolonged strike by university teachers. Or you may not be able to access medical treatment for the simplest illnesses either because you don’t have money to pay private hospitals, or you are scared that going to any government hospital is rushing to death. We don’t want to talk about the many households in northern Nigeria who cannot farm or go out or come in because their communities have been surrendered to bandits and Boko Haram terrorists. Or those in southern Nigeria who are daily terrified about being kidnapped or killed by assassins or caught in the firestorms of miliary crackdown on secessionists.
Anyhow you look at it, Nigeria is sorely distressed. Some would say that the country has failed or is at an advanced stage of failure. Even those who have responsibility to govern Nigeria admit the state of disrepair to the point of almost collapse. We know that nations are social constructions, as the sociologist, Bernard Anderson, argued in his classic, The Imagined Communities. If nations fail, it means that the quality of thought, values and good faith of their leading men and women were poor or ineffective. There is no fait accompli about the rise and fall of nations. But to solve the Nigerian problem we need to understand it. We cannot solve a problem we do not properly understand.
Many Nigerians have a distaste for what they call ‘too much grammar’. They seem to think that the problem with Nigeria is on the surface and therefore we do not need to brood too long to understand what to do. This is the cultural origin of the lack of rigour you see in the most important policy documents at the highest level of government in Nigeria. The professional virtues of deep research, clear and coherent thinking and rigorous and diligent application are missing in the formulation and implementation of policies to address the Nigerian problem. This explains the widespread failure we have encountered in all aspects of nation-building, whether in power sector, in education or healthcare.
We can categorise the ‘problem with Nigeria’ in three headings as (1) the nationality crisis, (2) the productivity crisis, and (3) the ethical crisis. These crises are self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating. They originate in an incoherent founding that reflects in our constitutional ordering. In this sense, it is a constructed problem. We constructed an incoherent social and political order that deprives the citizens of Nigeria the prospect of attaining the degree of nationalism required to create a consensus around development. Today, we have a country that is almost breaking up because of strong and ethnocentric centrifugal forces.
A thorough examination of our constitutional order and the state practices over the years shows that the Nigerian state was not constructed to engender and sustain nationalism, but rather, it was designed to nurture ethnic identity and ethnic competitive politics. This failure to design and practise a constitutional order that can generate strong nationalism led to the collapse of the First Republic and resulted in the civil war. Ever since, we have failed to construct a veritable constitutional order and institutional practices that can generate strong sense of democratic citizenship such that citizens will continue to see themselves as primarily and substantially Nigerians, with equal citizenship rights. This foundational failure is at the heart of the failure of the Nigerian project. Because of a foundational error and the inability or unwillingness to revise that foundational error the Nigerian nation has stumbled from one social disorder to another.
We have attempted all forms of band-aids save to get to the roots of the nationality crisis. The results are the ongoing violent herder-farmers clashes, perennial community warfare and endless eruptions of temper on state policy on religion. The religious crisis in Nigeria and the indigene-settlers’ crises are results of a constitutional ordering that is incoherent and neo-feudal. The inability of Nigerian elites (including its finest professionals) to band together to create a developmental state that can ensure we move from backwardness to forward on the development arc derives in significant measures from the incoherent constitutional order and ensuring state practices that undermine the formation of a national consciousness amongst the citizens. The implication of this singular failure diffuses across different domains of national life.
The second root of the Nigerian problem is the productivity crisis. The productivity crisis is partly generated by the nationality crisis. Because our constitutional order is not rooted in the ideals of democratic citizenship, but rather centred on privilege and prerogatives, the overriding fundamental objective of state policy and its directing principle is consumption, not production. The fact that the Nigerian economy, deriving its normative guidance from its constitutional order, is focused on consumption results in acute productivity crisis. Nigeria is a very poor country in spite of the pretensions of its leading elites and citizens enthralled by the perfidious waste. Today, Nigeria’s public debt is making it difficult for the country to service its obligations to citizens as articulated under the economic and social rights provisions of Chapter 2 of the constitution. The notable failure of the Nigerian economy to provide physical and social infrastructure to its citizens is compounded by its public debt entrapment. On the whole, the Nigerian economy is doomed except it can find a new lease of productivity to increase revenue and thereby reduce the fiscal crisis and the revenue crunch.
I had given considerable thought to the issue of public debt and the prospect of social and economic wellbeing of Nigerian citizens. My conclusion was that we are leaving in very terrible times because of Nigeria’s public debt crisis. I believe that the situation has worsened rather than improved. Let me quote myself extensively on this issue. In the November 2021 edition of the Nigerian Financial Magazine, I wrote as follows:
“As of June 2021, Nigeria’s total public debt (both domestic and foreign) was $86,571,80billion, comprising of $33,468.92billion (36.68%) of foreign debt. Nigeria’s Debt-to-GDP ratio is about 25%. Considering that the World Bank recommends 50% as the threshold for Debt-to-GDP ratio, there is a veneer of sustainability to Nigeria’s public debt. But this is nothing but a veneer. The truth is that Nigeria’s debt is not sustainable if we go beyond Debt-to-GDP and consider the Debt-to-Revenue and Debt-to-Expenditure ratios. These indicators are more important in debt sustainability than Debt-to-GDP considering Nigeria’s poverty level and the need for investment in social and physical infrastructure.
Based on Debt-to-GDP, the Minister of Finance has assured that Nigeria’ public debt is sustainable, and the country should continue to borrow for infrastructure development. This is false to the extent that it overlooks the implication of rising debt profile and increasing fiscal crisis. Nigeria debt is not sustainable because it costs Nigeria so much to service its debt. The danger of debt is when average rate of interest is more than rate of increase of debt.
In May 2021, Nigeria’s debt servicing to revenue was 98% as against international prudential benchmark of 22.5%. This translates to Nigeria spending 98% of its revenue on servicing debts alone. So, for every N100 the country makes, largely from oil receipts, it spends N98 to service its debt and only N2 for critical public expenditures. Nothing is more unsustainable than this. Nigeria revenue is shrinking, and its fiscal deficit is growing at geometrical proportion. This means that we are getting to where the entire national revenue will be inadequate to service debts. Nigeria will plunge more into debt to just keep up with its debt servicing obligation. Debt service to revenue is expected to rise to 395% in 2022.
To understand the precarity of Nigeria’s public debt profile compare it with those of comparable African countries. South Africa has a higher Debt-to GDP ratio than Nigeria (32% to Nigeria’s 35%), a lower Debt Servicing-to-Revenue ratio of 13.7% (Nigeria is 98%) and a higher Debt-to-Revenue ratio of 291, compared to Nigeria’s 7. Kenya is in far better position than Nigeria. Its Debt-to-GDP is 55.6%, Debt Servicing-to-Revenue of 34.8% and Debt-to-Revenue of 198. (Note that some of the data are 2017 data).
The Minister of Finance recognised that Nigeria is poor compared with other African countries in the indicators that determine the wellbeing of the people and the stability of its federation. But Nigeria is constrained by growing fiscal deficit to borrow more and more.
The eminent economist, Dudley Seer, advises us to always ask ‘What has been happening to poverty? What has been happening to unemployment? What has been happening to inequality?’ With over 100million poor citizens and one of the highest inequalities in the world (Gini-coefficient of 40% by 2017), Nigeria needs to spend more and more in capital projects and in cash transfers. With a revenue to debt profile of 7 (2017), the country faces a huge crisis of stimulating economic growth and human development.”
The point is simple and uncontestable. Nigeria has a productivity crisis, which the Minister of Finance calls a revenue problem. We are simply not productive; and that is why our revenue base is very low. Even before the pandemic and the constraint in global supply chain, we were producing little for export, apart from oil. Now, the truth our leaders do not realize is that the reason we are not productive is tied to our constitutional and institutional design. We are a nation that defines access to resources based on prerogatives and privileges, not tied to efforts and merits. Our constitution is pseudo aristocratic. It is not yet based on democratic citizenship. We have entrenched in the constitution a culture and practice of sharing, of entitlement, rather than a culture and practice of producing. The logic of our politics is to share, and not to produce. Even the sharing is not based on how much a man or woman contributes, but on social, religious and ethnicity identities and other irrelevant social considerations.
The third foundation of the Nigerian problem is the value crisis or the crisis of ethics. Nigeria is ethically challenged. This is the reason we are trapped at the bottom of global transparency and accountability index. We are a very corrupt country. The measure of corruption indexed by transparency watchdogs like the Transparency International does not register the magnitude of decay in the Nigerian body polity. The virus of lack of ethics is deeper in the Nigerian society than can be captured by any perception index. Take as an example, fraudulent certification. I can estimate that not less than 10 percent of Nigerian politicians and public officers are in the position they occupy today with fraudulent certificates. We have read from conventional media stories of fake doctors and lawyers who practised for years with forged certificates. Fakey is a cottage industry in Nigeria. All certificates can be easily faked in Nigeria. Sometimes, Nigerian regulatory institutions are accomplices to these high frauds. It is a shame that since 1999, many leading Nigerian politicians who still occupy high offices do not have the certificates they claim. Many of them did not attend the schools they claim, but they are still holding sway in high offices.
I will mention some high-profile cases of fraud to illustrate how much of an ethical crisis we have as a country. Early in 1999, the head of a legislative house in Nigeria was booted out of office for fraudulently increasing his age and claiming to have graduated from a foreign university when he did not even enroll in the university. The revelation was as a result of investigation by a Nigerian news media. Another head of a national legislative chambers was also impeached because of misstatement on age. At the same period, a governor of a Nigerian state was accused of fraud in stating in his INEC fillings that he attended schools he never attended and misstating many biographical facts about himself. It was alleged with substantial evidence that he did not even attend any of the primary and secondary schools he filled in his forms to qualify to stand for election as governor. Most of the legislators in the National Assembly are burdened with the same level of fraud. A former Senator and retired Assistant Inspector General of Police was so baffled that he shared legislative duties with criminals he jailed while a police officer that he broke protocols and called his colleagues criminals. Alex Perry, Time Magazine correspondent hit it on the head when he described Nigeria in these damning terms: “Nigeria’s rulers have often been indistinguishable from its criminals. In Nigeria corruption doesn’t just pollute the system, it is the system” That is how bad Nigeria is in ethics.
Nigeria’s crisis of ethics is very deep. It derives from the crisis of nationality and productivity and reinforces them. Our problem of low productivity is largely caused by the prevailing values in the country. The values that determine our individual and social transactions derive their legitimacy and efficacy from the foundations of our constitutional order and the institutional substantiation of this order. By this ordering we are not oriented for productivity. These values constitute social and cultural capital. These capitals are the resources for economic and social transformation. And where they are not amenable to economic productivity, the country will struggle to become a strong economy.
These values also determine the quality and integrity of governance and the efficiency of the public service. Corruption is a major menace to good governance in Nigeria. Fighting corruption without focusing on its cultural roots may be a mistake. Scholar of good governance and anticorruption like Alina Mungiu-Pippidi argues in her book, The Quest for Good Governance (Oxford, 2015, pages 61-2), that we cannot get to a society without pervasive corruption except we attain a social order of ethical universalism. In her view, the concept of corruption is strange in a society where the differentiation between the public and the private spheres is not clear, a society that is still neo-feudal in character, like the Nigerian state, a society where those in power and authority are treated like royalties. So, our pervasive corruption is tied also to the insufficient democratisation of the Nigerian state in the formal sense. Or we can argue that it is tied to the insufficient institutionalisation of ethical universalism. A constitutional and social order built on ethical universalism will be one that creates a natural environment for transparency and accountability. It will be one where citizens are morally encouraged to hold leaders accountable, where the legal structure will provide strong incentives for those in authority to make themselves accountable. We do not have such institutions and incentive structures, hence corruption and fraudulent behaviour at the highest places of authority have become attractive and even compelling.
The problem with Nigeria’s ruling elites is that they do not diagnose Nigeria’s problems from a deeper analytical lens. They superficially focus on the symptoms rather than on the underlying causes of the social pathology. To cure this endemic failure, we recommend a diagnostical approach which, though originating in medical practice, is influential in the engineering craft. It is called ‘differential diagnosis.’ This is a clinical practice that Columbia University economist, Jeffrey Sachs, after the failure of his reform policies in Eastern Europe leant from his physician wife. In his book, The End of Poverty: How We Can Make It Happen in Our Lifetime (Penguin Book 2006), Sachs argues that in differential diagnosis you painstakingly rule out all possible underlying causes of an ailment before zeroing on the real cause and prescribing a cure. Looking back on the rash of reform policies administered in Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War, Sachs realised that the policies failed largely because they did not come out of proper diagnosis of the actual crisis of development in those regions, rather they were figments of an ideological mindset.
Jeffrey Sachs claimed to have learnt five lessons from medicine that he thinks should be applied to economic reform in the form of ‘clinical economics’. First, he learnt that the human body is a complex system. “The complexity of human system has many implications beyond the mere fact that a lot of things can go wrong. Most important, one failure can lead to a cascade of additional failures”. We can say the same of the social system.
Second lesson is that complexity requires a differential analysis. “Epidemiologists also reminds us that a patient may be suffering from more than one condition at a time, and that these diseases may be interrelated”. This applies as well to social system and calls for co-evolution of institutions.
Again, he learnt that all medicine is family medicine. “In order to treat the child’s disease successfully, it is important to understand the social setting. Are the parents capable of providing treatment? Is the mother herself free from disease, or extreme poverty, abuse or other condition that would prevent her from following on a recommended course of treatment for her child”.
The fourth lesson is that monitoring and evaluation are critical to successful treatment. “Good clinicians therefore hold each diagnosis not as sacrosanct, but as the best maintained hypothesis of the moment. This hypothesis might well be confirmed, but the doctor is prepared to shift ground if the evidence calls for a new approach. The final lesson is that medicine is a profession. A profession requires ‘strong norms, ethics, and codes of conduct”. We will say more about the fifth lesson later.
The problem that Jeffery Sachs raised in his book about the failure of policy reform in Eastern Europe is one that also applies to Nigeria. The resort to ‘differential diagnosis’ as a critical perspective to developing policy options that have higher chance of success raises the importance of a professional mindset in understanding and solving socio-economic challenges of development. Such a mindset is also one of the features of the engineering craft. I would like to explore this mindset a little bit more.
At the heart of engineering craft are virtues of critical thinking, systems thinking, simplification, precision, and accuracy. The craft requires a mindset of problem-solving. The engineer as a creator works around problems. To work around problems requires a strategic approach. You cannot do strategy without a good diagnosis. You must have a good sense of the problem. A good diagnosis is both a science and an art. It requires high technical expertise as well as a good dose of common sense enabled by good observation. If we do not pay attention to the little things that matter, to differing context, we can never get to an accurate diagnosis. And without a good diagnosis you cannot have a successful intervention.
At the heart of diagnosis is the ability to acknowledge complexity and analyse and simplify it. According to the renowned professor of strategy and management, Richard Rumelt, a good diagnosis “defines or explains the nature of the challenge. A good diagnosis simplifies the often overwhelming complexity of reality by identifying certain aspects of the situation as critical”. (See Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters (Profile Books, 2013). If we misdiagnose the problems of development, we will select ineffective policies. The end result of the failure of intelligence will be failure of reform. This is where we can benefit from the critical and rational mindset of the engineering profession. We have to be painstaking in analysing complexities and not designing and deploying project on incompletely theorised solutions. The professional mindsets require differential diagnosis that will lead to an effective intervention.
The engineering mindset is not just about technocratic skills. it is also about leadership skills. Engineers are not just executors. They are also visionaries and creative geniuses. They are also planners. They are reformers as well. Their training and orientation equip them to play roles as visionaries and executors. They ordinarily should understand complexities and the need for differential diagnosis. Because they are persons attested to have high expertise and character, we can easily presume that they will intuitively understand the need for rigour and due diligence in designing and deploying solutions. Some would argue that lately Nigerian policymakers and project managers have not applied this professional mindset to the challenges of nation-building. We will come to this point later in the discourse. For now, let me illustrate the problem of lack of rigour and due diligence with respect to the electricity sector.
Illustrating the Nigerian crisis and the Professional Approach with the Electricity Sector Crisis:
The Nigerian electricity sector is in deep crisis. We have now implemented the reform programme for more than 15 years. The National Electric Power Policy (NEPP) was announced in 2001 and the Electric Sector Reform Act was enacted in 2005. In 2006, the regulator was established and in 2013 the distribution and generation companies were privatised. Today, we are not any closer to stable electricity, contrary to the claims and expectations of the power sector reformers. What went wrong? I used to teach energy law and policy and often I asked my graduate students to determine whether the failure of the Nigerian electricity reform is a modelling or a project management problem. Where did we go wrong? Did we fail in modelling or on project management or on both?
Professor Jeffrey Sachs observes that reforms in liberalising the economy in East Europe failed largely because of diagnostic errors. The errors occurred because the diagnosis was simplistic, not rigorous as required. The rigorous diagnosis he called ‘differential diagnosis.’ Anyone who carefully reads through both the NEPP and the EPSR Act will discover that the reform prescribed policy options that were not justified by good diagnosis. The failure of the electricity industry was ideologically presented as mostly or even solely about public ownership. With such poor diagnosis, the reform quickly settled on privatisation as the cure. Although the NEPP mentioned commercialisation and corporatisation, the Presidential Roadmap and other policy instruments rushed to privatisation as the medicine that would revive the ailing industry.
This ideologically driven diagnosis and policy recommendation overlooked some of the complexities of the electricity industry in Nigeria. Like the shock therapists in Eastern Europe, reformers in Nigeria did not consider the complexities of the local electricity industry before choosing the right policies. That is a modelling error that could have been cured by a mindset of differential diagnosis. Arguably, the outcome of the reform could have been different if we were less ideological and invested more effort in strengthening commercialisation and corporatisation before undertaking privatisation. Getting government out of the electricity market is not a bad economic decision. But it is one that should be made pragmatically not doctrinairely. It should be preceded by deep reform in the public sector and the strengthening of the regulatory regime. A proper contextual reading of privatisation in the UK and Chile would have revealed to the reformers that what makes privatised electricity sector work is not the fact of private capital, but the quality of governance rules in the electricity market. They would have realised, as Nobel Laureate economist, Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University, observed many years ago in his book, Globalization and its Discontent (W.W. Norton and Co, 2002), that privatisation is difficult to get right. And to get it right, you need to contextualise the principles of efficient market. We did not do enough of contextualisation and phasing. The shock therapy approach of selling off unreformed utilities is one that did not benefit from the rigour of professionalism.
But beyond modelling failure, the crisis of the electricity industry today owes a lot to project management failure. We built an unworkable model. But we also managed it inefficiently. The project management failure shows in the fact that some of the projects that would have mitigated the crisis of electricity supply in Nigeria have failed. Think about the Nigerian Integrated Power Project (NIPP). The logic of quick ramp-up of generation through public sector procurement is a good one. Government did well to invest excess crude money in building 10 power plants that could generate 5000mw. The two phases of the project ought to have been completed before 2015 and added about 10000mw extra capacity to the grid. Today,15 years after, we are not even sure of a reliable 4,000mw from the entire NIPPs. Some of the plants are not completed 15 years after. Those completed do not have adequate supply of gas. This is a notable example of project failure arising from failure of professional intelligence in planning, designing, and executing critical projects. We can say the same about failure to build critical gas infrastructure in sync with construction of gas-fired power plants. If we had effectively managed these projects, we would have succeeded in harvesting these megawatts from the NIPPs and generally improved supply to households and businesses and eased transition to competitive electricity market.
Fixing Nigeria and the Responsibility of the Professional Elites:
Well, this is not a lecture to bemoan and lament the crisis of governance in Nigeria. This is a lecture to diagnose and find solutions to this crisis of governance. This is a lecture to argue that a more professional and technocratic approach to governance would help Nigeria get out of the woods as quickly as possible. And because the governing metaphor of this lecture is engineering solutions to the Nigerian crises, we will be more strategic in discussing Nigeria’s past, present and future.
Nigeria is a failing state. If the country ultimately fails, it is a huge indictment against Nigerian professionals and the country’s dominant professions. This may appear as a wild and unjustified indictment. But it is true. Professionals and the professions are the elites of a society. Our doctors, engineers, lawyers, and other professionals are the light and underwriters of the civilisation we uphold in modern society. It is true that modern society is now mostly egalitarian and democratic such that we reckon that all citizens have equal stakes in the benefits and responsibilities of the state. But in reality, there are plenty asymmetries in modern society. As folk musician, Oliver De Coque, once put it in igbo lyrics, ‘Ana enwe Obodo enwe”. Some people own the city. The asymmetry may be in respect of the degree of enlightenment of some citizens or how much access to finance and other resources they have as against fellow citizens.
So, although we are a democratic society that prides itself as non-aristocratic, there is always a collection of elites who have more stakes (or should we say, more skin) in the game and therefore ought to invest more, at least in a formal sense, in the promotion of the values and wellbeing of a society. This collection may be defined by aristocratic or meritocratic pedigree. They may be aristocrats of wealth or parentage or aristocrats of knowledge. Today, we deal more with the aristocracy of knowledge in the form of the professional class. The governing elites in any society are likely to be members of such aristocracy of talent and training.
The asymmetry of knowledge and expertise has created a new social differentiation that determines the direction of a modern state. With the triumph of market economy globally, these collections of elites have become a form of transnational class. Their membership cuts across national boundaries. Some critics argue that these professionals are united by a certain philosophical ideology, more like a new religion. This religion can be called ‘neoliberal orthodoxy’. It is defined by a central commitment to a market economy where individualism and customer sovereignty hold sway. In this global orthodoxy, the policy elites are ascendant. Some would say that amongst professions and professionals, economics and economists are at the pecking order of this new global hierarchy. But, as true as it is, we see that engineering and engineers are not far from the place of influence. The theories of economics may have influenced the orthodoxy, it is the practice of engineering that determines the construction of its institutions and physical structures.
The global transnational coalition of professionals that underwrites the neoliberal orthodoxy has been dismissively labeled ‘Transnational Capitalist Class (TCC). This elite class is transnational because its membership extends beyond the borders of a state. Leslie Sklair has broken TCC into four categories which include “(1) Those who own and control the major transnational corporations (TNCs) and their local affiliates (corporate fraction); 2. Globalising politicians and bureaucrats (political fraction); 3. Globalising professionals (technical fraction); 4. Merchants and media (consumerist fraction)”. He argues that together these groups “constitute a global power elite, ruling class or inner circle in the sense that these terms have been used to characterise the class structures of specific countries.”
This elite class can a pose challenge to the quality of democratic governance in many societies today. Social researchers and philosophers are worried at what Harvard political philosopher, Michael Sandel calls ‘the tyranny of merit’, in a book by the same title. The triumph of technocracy in the sense of the rise of elitist politics, buoyed by the cult of meritocracy, poses a challenge to democracy. In Sandle’s views, “… the technocratic approach to governance treated many public questions as matter of technical expertise beyond the reach of ordinary citizens. This narrowed the scope of democratic arguments, hallowed out the terms of public discourse, and produced a growing sense of disempowerment”.
This is one way of looking at the influence of the elite class in the political culture of a society. Another perspective is to see members of the professional class as a custodian of public morality and intellect required to solve the common problems of society. This is the concept of virtuous elitism. Technocratic elites are possessors of the advanced techniques and skills to solve the problems of economic and social decay, problems that require extraordinary application of knowledge and competence. From this perspective, members of the technocratic elites have a special responsibility to understand how their society is not working and how to make it work.
How much of our problems as a nation can be solved if we have more professionals like engineers in government, in places of policymaking and execution? Do we need to have our cabinet members to be engineers, economists, accountants, and lawyers to begin to run a coherent and intelligent governance? As we look forward to 2023, do we need to profile our candidates and ensure they have the requisite expertise and character expected of professionals who will understand socio-economic challenges and have the capacity to select most viable solutions? There has been argument that we need to have a cabinet of engineers like Taiwan to have the kind of technological and economic success that Taiwan has recorded in a short time.
We may not be like Taiwan to have a cabinet of engineers. But we can strive to have public leadership defined by the degree of high expertise and character that proper professionals possess. The problem is that many of the bungling public officials in Nigeria are certificated as professionals without the display of high expertise and character that define professionalism. The many collapsed buildings and failed projects in Nigeria calls for scrutiny of professional regulation in Nigeria.
In the legal profession, we are seeing a bewildering degree of unprofessional behaviour by incompetent lawyers whose lack of diligence in legal advisory is costing the public billions of dollars. We may need to have regulations that punish any public lawyer who fails to prevent avoidable corruption or financial loss, due to lack of due diligence. The same applies to engineers and other professionals who come short of the degree of due diligence and competence required in their professions. Such incompetent professionals should be required to suffer losses for the harms they cause the public. As the philosopher of servant leadership, Robert Greenleaf, observes, it is a moral failure not to take action to avoid an avoidable problem. Such moral failure is a failure of professionalism. More professionalism will help control the incidences of intelligence and moral failures that impose huge costs on the public. If we are able to mainstream professionalism into the public leadership, we will reduce the propensity of policy and project failure and help to recreate the Nigerian nation.
Engineering a Better Nigeria: A Managerial Art?
We can re-engineer a new Nigeria. We can create a country with a common citizenship, a country that provides security and welfare for its citizens, a country that can protect lives and property in its borders. This requires a problem-solving leadership. Such leadership is both inspirational and managerial. We need to have leaders who can inspire all of us to greater nationalism, but also able to manage human and material resources in a manner that guarantees sustainable development. Managerial leadership entails the two competencies that professionalism bestows: expertise and character. Managerial leadership entails the ability to craft an ennobling vision, a vision that is both grand and compelling, a vision that generates consensus and extracts commitment from the people. Professor James MacGregor Burns puts it this way in his Transforming Leadership (Grove Press, 2003): “Leadership is leader acting – as well as caring, inspiring and persuading others to act for certain shared goals that represent the values – the wants and needs, the aspirations and expectations – of themselves and the people they represent. And the genius of leadership lies in the manner in which leaders care about, visualise and act on their own and their followers’ values and motivations”.
Leaders visualise. But leaders also execute. To effectively execute, leaders must be pragmatic. They must take the world as it is. They must pay attention to the underlying conditions of their society and not construct the future from an imaginary society. Managerial leadership also requires creativity. We have to create prosperity from poverty, beauty from ugliness and harmony from disorder. Managerial leadership requires quality coordination, attentiveness, and firm execution. All these are components of the expertise that professionalism breeds.
To engineer the future Nigeria of our dream, we need the ethical dimensions of competence which is a component of the engineering craft. That is ethical leadership. Visionary leadership requires ethical leaders whose words are trustworthy, whose pedigree is inspiring and whose truthfulness draws the nation to them. Without ethical leadership, Nigeria cannot cure the ethical crisis at the heart of its productivity crisis. We need credible leadership based on trustworthiness. That cannot be possible with leaders whose basic educational qualifications and other curriculum vitae cannot be verified or trusted. Such leadership is not possible with leaders whose every record is laced with fraud.
To re-engineer Nigeria we need a new leadership cadre and culture characterised by technical and ethical competence. We need leaders with the managerial competence to envision change, build a leading team, construct a structure that enables transformation and executes firmly and effectively. We need leaders who are not only visionaries, but also technicians who understand the complexities of society and have the technical aptitude to design schemes and decide methods to perform tasks; allocate adequate resources towards those tasks; and deploy resources, skills, and techniques to perform the designed tasks. We may not be like Taiwan and have a cabinet full of engineers. But we should have leaders who have the managerial mindset, especially those nurtured in the engineering craft.
How do we conclude this long discourse? We can end by stating that creating a better Nigeria is possible. There is no fatalism about either the failure or the success of the Nigerian nation. Our past failure reflects the quality of intelligence we have applied to statecraft. Our success in the months and years ahead will reflect the quality of intelligence we are applying to identify and resolve the many crises of development in the country. We have not succeeded so far in dealing with the challenges of development for the simple reason that, like Albert Einstein puts it, the quality of thinking we are applying to the search for solution is far less than the quality of thinking that created the problems in the first place. The argument of the paper is that the professional mindset of engineering can help us overcome these challenges if we transpose its rigour and due diligence into legislative chambers and policy rooms. We can recreate Nigeria with a professional mindset as long as we are determined to apply regulatory fervor of our professions to public leadership. This requires reshaping the professions. We need the professional associations like the NSE to regain the expertise and character of their profession. We need to improve the regulation of the training and practice of engineering, law, medicine, accountancy, and other important professions that define the 21st century administrative state. We need professional associations that will mandate professional education that can impact the managerial mindset of excellence.
I have no doubt that the Nigerian Society of Engineers (NSE) under Engineer Tasiu Wudil will be such a professional association that effectively regulates to infuse in its members the technical expertise and character to re-engineer a better Nigeria.
•A text of a keynote lecture by Dr. Sam Amadi, former Chairman and Chief Executive of Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission and now Director of Abuja School of Social and Political Though and Chair of The Leadership Center (TLC) on January 21, 2022, at the Pre-Investiture Colloquium of the Nigerian Society of Engineers at the International Conference Centre, Abuja