By Sheyi Oriade
Rarely ever in our systems of government, be they military autocracies or civilian democracies, do Secretaries to the Federal Government (SGF) make news headlines. Nor is it customary to pay close attention to what they say or do. This is not because the office or its holders lack importance or relevance. Quite the contrary. For of all the constitutionally recognised non-elective positions in the executive branch of government, that of the SGF is perhaps the most influential. Seeing as it is a crucial administrative hub, into which different ministerial spokes fit, to ensure the seamless coordination of government business. Thus, SGFs enjoy access to all areas across the executive branch of government.
But despite the importance and influence of SGFs, they are more often seen than heard from. In fact, one would be hard pressed to recall anything memorable said by most holders of this office. There are of course exceptions to this, and in this regard, three previous SGFs come to mind. The late Alhaji Shehu Musa, SGF under President Shehu Shagari, is readily remembered for his astute observation on corruption in government circles. When he declared ‘that the problem with Nigeria was not that its officials were corrupt, but that corruption was official in Nigeria’. Chief Olu Falae, SGF under General Ibrahim Babangida, is remembered for his support and defence of the controversial IMF sanctioned Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP). While Alhaji Baba Kingibe, SGF under President Umaru Yar’adua, is remembered for his schooling of Dr Henry Kissinger about matters to do with Africa at a This Day organised ‘Nigeria Meets the World’ forum in New York in 2007.
However, to this exclusive list must be added the name of the current SGF, Mr. Boss Mustapha. Due to a recent revelatory statement ascribed to him. Prior to becoming SGF, not much was known about him nationally. Even though he had been active in political circles for a while. But since assuming his front-line role he has become better known and more noticeable. For one, he is quite tall. In fact, he is as tall as one of his predecessors, bar one, was rotund. He also stands out because of his unusual, but interesting, forename ‘Boss’. Quite an apt forename to bear in politics. And one which his subordinates must love, as it allows them to engage with him on a first name basis, without fear of being queried or reprimanded for insubordination.
As leader of the COVID-19 Presidential Task force, the SGF is reputed to have expressed amazement at how bad the state of the entire public healthcare infrastructure is in Nigeria. Not surprisingly, it made headlines. And predictably, the reflex reaction of many Nigerians to it has been to condemn him in unambiguous terms. This is understandable, given the persistent poor performance of past and present governments in providing proper infrastructure for the people. But one would counsel against such a condemnatory approach, without first considering possible factors that may have influenced his obliviousness to the abysmal state of the public healthcare system.
- He may be blessed with robust health and has not had to seek medical assistance or treatment in our public hospitals.
- Or if he has had to seek medical assistance or treatment he has chosen to do so privately within Nigeria or abroad.
- He genuinely had no idea of how bad things are because he does not hold the ministerial portfolio for Health in the government.
- That matters to do with the terrible state of the national public healthcare system have not been on the agenda of the Federal Executive Council (FEC) during his tenure as SGF.
- Or that the Minister of Health has always assured the FEC that the public healthcare system is fit for purpose.
- That he is unaware that the poor state of the healthcare system has been a major grouse of the Nigerian Medical Association for a long time.
- Or that in his liaisons with the Minister of Health this issue has never arisen for discussion.
- Matters pertaining to the public healthcare system were beyond his purview until quite recently, so he had no knowledge of the real state of affairs.
The extent to which any of the above factors exonerate the SGF or not, is a matter for debate. One is however inclined to be a bit charitable towards him on the basis of his candour. Something that seems to have eluded those with direct responsibility for the healthcare sector. Had he said that he wasn’t surprised at how bad things were within the healthcare system. Then he would have come across as callous and seen as being derelict in duty, and rightly deserving of condemnation.
But the SGF’s candour does raise a wider question about how in touch top government functionaries are with the realities that confront ordinary Nigerians. Some of the responses to the present COVID-19 crisis across the nation show that many of them are completely disconnected from their supposed constituents.
Whilst the SGF’s forthrightness has made him a target for condemnation, however, proper condemnation should be reserved, for this, and every other, administration going back to at least 1999, and even beyond. It should also apply to the periods in which the political wing of the Nigerian Armed forces monopolised power in Nigeria. Special contempt should be reserved for the administrations that misappropriated rich revenue receipts from oil exports, when crude oil sold for near enough to $100 a barrel. Yet, they neglected to develop, maintain, or renew critical infrastructure across Nigeria. And now, even if our governments, federal and state, were minded to begin investing in critical sectors like healthcare and education, our national finances are in such a parlous state, as to make it unfeasible.
While the SGF may be condemned or commended for his candour, his forthrightness is nonetheless an indictment of the government in which he serves, and of those in which he did not. For as long as senior political functionaries continue to seek medical treatment abroad, rather than invest in our own healthcare system to raise it to comparable standards of competence and expertise, nothing will improve. Things will continue to worsen, no matter how many expressions of amazement are uttered by political functionaries in high places.
So, Boss please tell your boss that things need to change for the better in Nigeria as a matter of urgency.