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Tolu Ogunlesi: How Do We Make Decisions In Nigeria?



The quality of government-level decision-making in Nigeria deserves scrutiny. How does a president or governor or minister come to make up his mind on critical national issues? How much of it is idiosyncratic, and how much formally structured?

We’re still suffering the effects of the military era, when military authority infiltrated everything, and it was natural to make decisions unilaterally, and with assumed immediacy of effect. Gen. Sani Abacha may have consulted widely before creating states, but he didn’t need to. Gen. Ibrahim Babangida’s first press secretary, Major Debo Bashorun (retd.), says that the decision to style himself “President” instead of the traditional “Head of State” was made by Babangida in the car on the way to his inaugural broadcast to the nation, after the August 1985 coup. Such randomness!

I have heard that the burden of the Presidency on an ailing President Umaru Yar’Adua forced his inner circle to start summarising all memos meant for his attention. George W. Bush was also a “summaries” sort of President, but not for health reasons. Of his style, journalist Wayne Slater said: “He surrounds himself with a very small group of people he trusts, whose instincts he regards well, whose ideas he’ll consider. And rather than read big long memos, he wants one page. Rather than hear 15 minutes of recommendations, he wants to hear a minute. And he wants to hear from a series of people, “What do you think? What do we do about this issue? And he distills from those ideas what his decision is. And he makes a decision and moves on.”

Bush friend Clay Johnson said: “He’s … not one to engage people in long philosophical discussions about key issues… He’s not one to review a 200- or 300-page document on some key issue. That’s not the best use of the president’s time.”

While Bush was more a gut-feel kind of guy, Barack Obama brings a studious, professorial air to his decision-making. He has been quoted as saying he “got rid of all the clothes I have except for gray suits and blue suits, so I don’t even have to think about what I put on.” The idea has been to sacrifice the opportunity to make a lot of his mundane personal-life decisions – so that he can focus his time and energy on making the really important ones: Presidential decisions.

No one style is necessarily better than the other (perhaps, that’s open to debate), but what’s most important at least is a clear self-awareness; knowing that the task of a President is to make decisions that will affect the lives of tens of millions of people, and shape and reshape the future, and even the past. By a political leader’s actions and inactions, lives are very easily built and destroyed on a large scale.

That awareness ought to bring with it a sense of responsibility, and a desire to give decision-making one’s full commitment.

It would be interesting to get a sense of how President Goodluck Jonathan makes decisions. Every President usually has a kitchen cabinet, a group of people to whom he’s closest. In a country like Nigeria where sycophancy and rumour milling are thriving industries, how does a president or governor or minister sift through confusing and contradictory strands of information, and wild whispering campaigns?

Let’s take the fuel subsidy removal in 2012 as an example. How was the final decision arrived at? Was there anyone in the innermost presidential circle playing the Devil’s Advocate, trying to anticipate the pitfalls and landmines? Was the matter seriously discussed by the President? Did people make presentations to him, arguing for and against? Did these happen formally?

And, perhaps, it’s evidence of the poorness of our decision-making practices that we see supposedly important decisions released into the public like orphans. No one wants to be identified with a stupid decision. Till date, we have no idea who exactly signed off on the document (if one exists) announcing the removal of fuel subsidy in 2012. Was it the President? The Minister of Petroleum Resources? The news appeared to have simply filtered into the media, as a Petroleum Products Pricing and Regulatory Agency directive. That was how the June 12, 1993 annulment too happened; an unsigned letter faxed from the office of the then Vice-President, who might not have been aware of the decision.

Last year, the Federal Government announced an automotive policy that significantly raised duties on imported vehicles. It’s now six months after the policy was announced, but as far as I know, there’s no publicly availably copy of that policy. It seems like an off-the-top-of-my-head idea that quickly became binding simply because it had the all-powerful seal of the government on it.

As though we learnt nothing from it, the Federal Government has recently fiddled with the import duties on educational and scientific books, in apparent defiance of a 60-year-old United Nations agreement, to which Nigeria is a signatory, that precludes that a category of books from import duties and all forms of protectionist policymaking. Who did the government consult before making this policy? How was the decision made?

Still on the matter of decisions, I’m also interested in how we convert statistics into stories, to better inform the decisions we make. Perhaps, the problem with economists (and other government policymakers) is that they deal too much in numbers and not in stories.

This inordinate focus on statistics at the expense of stories is evident all around us. Boko Haram murders 43 children in a school in Yobe State and all we see in the papers the next day are the numbers. No names, no lives, no stories. We have a policy of devaluation in place – devaluing victims and tragedies by not giving them a face and a context.

Granted that we’re doing much better with numbers today than ever before. A resurgent National Bureau of Statistics, combined with a number of better-run government bodies, has helped provide us numbers that were not available a decade ago. So now we’ve been told that there are 19 million small and medium businesses in Nigeria, 99 per cent of which are actually micro-businesses, employing less than 10 persons. The Federal Ministry of Agriculture tells us it has got a database of 10.5 million farmers across the country, who today receive seeds and fertilisers through their mobile phones. We have a mobile phone database that holds in excess of one hundred million names.

But we need to also get behind the numbers, and focus on the stories, especially of those who are not the upper and middle class. Who are they, what are their stories? Where are our own versions of “Joe the Plumber”?

Earlier this year, in Abuja, I met a taxi driver who had written an economics textbook. We got into an interesting conversation about the economy and the suspended CBN governor, Lamido Sanusi. He has a degree in economics but is forced to drive a taxi to make ends meet. He wants to write more books. Nigeria is full of people like him, PhD holders applying for Dangote truck drivers’ jobs, Degree holders working as low-level security guards. They are not mere statistics to be played with and adjusted by policymakers; they are people too.

If we don’t know what the lives of the people are like, how do we make decisions and policies that will benefit them?

Article originally published by PUNCH Newspaper
Follow Tolu Ogunlesi on Twitter @toluogunlesi


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