2 Jul 2015

The Challenge Of Change - by Pat Utomi

As I listen to lamentations on the speed of expected change, following the swearing in of a new government at the centre, in Nigeria, on May 29, I am reminded of Wisdom Whispers from antiquity that tell of the nature of the change process. Yet, I am fully respectful of the divergent expressions of both discontent, and understanding of the pace of change, in our extant political reality. What I had not reckoned enough with was my personal accountability in it all, until I was on a flight to Abuja not so long ago.

A partner in a leading accounting firm said to me as we stepped off the aircraft: Why are you people delaying our change? My reply was: Thank God you call it our change, not your change; so why did you say you people? His response was pointed and puzzling. Said he: People like you and Bismark Rewane said we needed change and because we take you lot seriously, we embraced the prospects of change. If it fails, you two face serious reputation risk.

For one moment, I thought about myself, that it was a little too much of a burden for someone whose name was not on the ballot; then I thought of Bismark, who I do not think belongs to a political party. Surely, as a card carrying member of the All Progressives Congress, I should be held partly accountable, but to put Bismark to account, I thought a little unfair. But that is the reality of expectations and the desire to find those responsible and hold them to account. On the good side, this is a major turning point in public life in Nigeria, a culture where the greater tendency is to delegate upwards and outsource problems to God. Still the expectations involve a certain limitation with understanding the nature of the change process, and the peculiarity of the current change context.

The trouble with all change efforts was made plain, long ago, by Niccolo Machiavelli, in The Prince. He stated, without equivocation, 500 years ago, that nothing was more difficult to bring about, than a new order of things, because those who profit from the old order will do everything to prevent a new order from coming about, and that those who could profit from the new order do not do enough to make it happen because man is incredulous in his nature, not wanting to try new things until he has witnessed an experience of it.

Making change happen is tough business, especially if the intent is sincere and the change sought is profound and designed to be enduring. Yet, from outside, it seems easy. We can see examples of this in the growth path of big business operations.

One way fortunes of business enterprises that find organic growth too slow, change, is through mergers and acquisitions. We know the batting average there, globally, and the troubles M and A run by the most gifted of corporate leaders, supported by an army of well-heeled consultants face. What resulted in the APC victory was partly the M and A vehicle that broadened the base enough to make victory possible. That partners from two different organisational cultures can be challenged, starting off, is supported by much experience.

Many years ago, I took off from Detroit, in the United States, shortly after the merger of Republic Airlines and Northwest Airlines. The following day, that same flight came down, killing many passengers and some in cars on the expressway just by the airport.

Investigation would later suggest that cooperation between staff from the legacy airlines was so scarce that the former Republic pilot and his Northwest counterpart had neglected to do something as basic to flying as breathing, extending the wing flaps on the way to the take-off run. In some ways, the troubles in the National Assembly are outcomes of merger. What matters is that game plans for ensuring such snafus in mergers of cultures are managed with more skill. In the current reality, ego and ambitions need to be reminded that what is at stake is the well-being of a generation. The fear of this challenged well-being can be well informed from the recent reports on the finance and economic challenges of Greece and the frightening lessons from how many subnationals and government agencies got to the amazing debt situations of today in Nigeria, and failure to pay salaries for months. If more disciplined economic communities like Puerto Rico and Greece are in such bad shape, the consequence for so many in so populous a country as Nigeria only needs to be imagined.

How peculiar is the context of extant crisis in Nigeria that calls for change? Imagine this: The ratio of debt to receipts from the Federation Account in recent history… clearly the Fiscal Responsibility Act has been lived in the breach. So, where have the state Houses of Assembly been? Why all the excitement blaming Southward travel of oil prices? How come the capacity situation did not allow for scenario budgets, the so-called repetitive budgeting in high uncertainty, something policy scholars, Naomi Caiden and Aaron Wildavsky, from my days in graduate school, in the late 1970s, proposed in a book on planning and budgeting in poor countries. But talk of looting leads to the more discomforting feeling that the state of economic distress may be less the result of incompetence and more a mindless affliction of impunity in abuse of the common- wealth. How can we avoid serious sanctions for grievous actions? Without the example of consequence management, cost to the future could be frightening. Choices to save Nigeria, therefore, have to be made carefully. Patience for the pace needs be seen as being in order.

Getting ready to deal with troubling matters of the magnitude we are in, suggests that change requires much more considerate engagement. It seems to me therefore that all, including people like me anxious for a “hurry–up offence” charge at the change hoop, and many who want to slow down, need to be patient with those who have all the information. Beyond basketball metaphors, patience is a mark of the times. Change process will not be a straight vertical line. Those who profited from the old order will fight back, against the will of the people. Temporary bumps like what happened in the National Assembly should therefore be seen for what they are. Leaders who have been unfairly pilloried and accused of power grab when their goal was to connect tradition and also to create an enabling environment to advance the will of the people in line with the change they voted for must know that history vindicates.

- Pat Utomi is a political economist and professor of entrepreneurship and is the founder of Centre for Values in Leadership

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