1. When did you come up with the idea of the Africa Initiative for Governance?

I began thinking about this initiative in 2012 whilst I was CEO of Access Bank; I was inspired by Lee Kuan Yew’s transformation of Singapore which was largely achieved by recruiting a critical mass of highly capable men and women into the public service who took responsibility for Singapore’s development from third-world to first-world. I’m confident that if we have the same high calibre talent in Nigeria’s public sector as we have in our private sector, Nigeria’s story will be totally different. I believe that this holds for several other African nations.  AIG is a platform by which we can build the needed critical mass of high quality leaders.

2. Was there any personal circumstance that made you conclude on the idea that the public sector is ill-governed?

Perhaps as a result of my growing up as a son of public servants and having been involved in many initiatives towards a better Nigeria – which I am very passionate about – and having collaborated with various governments across Africa, I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly sides of the public sector. In the 1960s and 70s, the public sector in Nigeria and many African countries had the best brains the continent could offer and the developmental impact was tremendous, to give you an example I was a beneficiary of such good leadership; a product of an educational and social system that developed men and women who could compete effectively with their peers anywhere in the world. But because of the precipitous decline in the quality of public sector leadership, we now produce unemployable graduates.


3. What do you think are the reasons for the poor governance of our sectors?

The root cause lies in our inability to attract and retain high quality talent in the public sector. There is a term in technology parlance ‘garbage in, garbage out’; without dedicated, hardworking public servants of the highest calibre in critical positions the rest of the system will not function efficiently. The inefficiency, excessive bureaucracy and corruption that characterises the public sectors of many African countries has resulted in very poor output.  Conversely whenever we have capable men and women in key positions great things happen.


4. Apart from this amazing initiative, the AIG, what else can be put in place to improve the governance of Africa’s public sector?

We have thousands of Africans today who can make a great impact in public governance, but they would rather opt for careers in the private sector. Corporate Africa has made great strides because shareholders make corporate leaders  accountable for their performance, therefore the private sector has no option other than to make sure that the best talent is put in the right positions to deliver value to stakeholders. Ultimately, democratic systems are meant to engineer a similar dynamic in public governance, however whilst several African countries have adopted democratic governance, most systems are weak and require significant strengthening to deliver the desired result. Presidents and Heads of State can learn from Lee Kuan Yew and institute reforms that will connect Africa’s talent with its public leadership requirements. Heads of State must understand the leverage they will have if they build a critical mass of high potential talent to serve the nation, they should also be able and courageous enough to let this talent run with accountability. 

There are a number of things that are unattractive about working in the public service – e.g. remuneration – the greater political context, which is a political system that is not merit-driven, and therefore will naturally frustrate a talented individual. You also have the issue of corruption. Then there is also the matter of policy inconsistency – ordinarily, if you see a great initiative in the private sector, you ensure that irrespective of where it came from, it is sustained, but in our political systems, once there is change of leadership, everything that the predecessor did is discontinued. That has to stop. There is a need to create the enabling environment for talent to stay in the public sector.

5. Tell me about a personal experience you encountered due to bad governance of the public sector?

I would not like to wash our dirty linen in public suffice it to say that my personal experiences span several African countries and are still continuing, I’m sure you have your fair share of experiences as well!

6. Can you give us an overview of the AIG scholarship and fellowship program and an estimate of how many people you aim to train in the long run?

The AIG has entered into a five-year partnership with the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government to provide intensive post-graduate world-class training in governance and public policy for 25 students over the next five years (2017-2021). The programme is targeted at graduates between the ages of 25 and 35, some of who may have work experience.
Starting in 2017, five scholarships will be awarded to candidates from Nigeria and Ghana – candidates who can demonstrate academic excellence, proven leadership and commitment to public service. Upon graduation, these AIG scholars will be expected to return home and apply their learning experience as change agents in their home country’s public sector.

Recognising the need to have accomplished public servants who will act as a resource for developing transformational initiatives on public sector leadership and governance, the AIG is making available Fellowships tenable at the Blavatnik School of Government beginning in 2017. We have recently announced Professor Attahiru Muhammadu Jega as our first Visiting Fellow. Prof. Jega is the past Chairman of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC); the transparency and success of the 2015 general elections are attributed to him. The AIG Visiting Fellowship is open to candidates (senior officials or practitioners working in or with government and who are resident in West Africa) who can demonstrate an outstanding contribution to public policy that has yielded meaningful impact on the public good, and commitment to public service in their country, region and globally.


7. Will the number of scholarships awarded be increased in the long run?

There is a limited number that can be admitted into the Blavatnik School of Government for a Masters programme – the school only admits 120 of the best – but we also have a plan to deliver, through e-learning platforms, training for public servants across Africa that have shown significant talent and high potential. This will also include visitations by professors to supplement the online experience. In the long run we intend to establish a world class school of public governance in Nigeria modelled on the Lee Kuan Yew Institute in Singapore.


8. Isn’t it an act of dangerous generalization to equate the inability of Africa to reach its true potential to poor governance of the public sector?

Yes it’s a generalisation but certainly not dangerous as this is the reality of things today. My view is shared by several stakeholders; Africans, foreigners, institutions and individuals ‘high’ and ‘low’, for instance McKinsey’s recently published Report ‘Lions On The Move II: Realizing The Potential of Africa’s Economies’ acknowledges that transforming public leadership and governance is an overarching priority for Africa to achieve a step change.


9. Will the AIG scholarship program extend to other countries in Africa, apart from Ghana and Nigeria?

The AIG Scholarships will have an initial focus on candidates from Nigeria and Ghana, and then each following year, other West African nations. Also, if there are insufficient applications from Nigeria and Ghana in academic years 2017-18 to 2019-20, the scholarships will expand to other countries within West Africa.


10. What do you aim to achieve with the AIG Award? Do you think there are people credible enough for this award in our public sector?

The objective of this initiative is to accord value for excellence in the public sector and bring together proven private sector innovation, leadership and funding into a private-public partnership to attract, inspire and support future leaders of Africa’s public sector. The AIG believes that the high-calibre individuals trained at the Blavatnik School will drive best practice standards of governance across Africa, ensuring sustainable economic growth and social justice. To encourage best public sector practice, there will be a coveted AIG Public Sector Award given to high performers for meritorious service in the public sector.  The nomination and selection process for this award will be made public in 2017.  These awards are going to be similar to the (Mo) Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership which are awarded at continent-level but ours will be at a country-level for one individual, annually. We will launch them in Nigeria, Ghana and in other African countries as we understand and establish more. We have designed it this way so it can be dignified; we don’t want to dilute the awards significance with many winners. We may expand it with time, but for now it is just one award for one person, chosen through a very transparent process. 

11. How did you start a partnership with the Blavatnik school of Government?

We went around and looked at world class universities and the one that kept standing out for me was the Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford. The Dean is a fascinating woman – what I admire most about her is her ability to work with talented people and make them realize their full potential and go back to their countries to do great things. You have people who go back to Asia and Africa and are achieving great things. We spoke, exchanged views and agreed to go into a partnership whereby we identify great raw materials - that is; people aged between 25 and 35, Africans who have the characteristics and talents to gain admission into the school whom the AIG will then give scholarships. During that year that they are in the Blavatnik School of Government, they will be trained beyond the typical school curriculum. We will also infuse them with visits from notable Africans; we will try to even get them to complete a dissertation on things that could impact their country and Africa in general.

12. In the next 10 years, what do you think the public-private sector relationship would be like with the influence of AIG?

In 10 to 15 years, we will have over 100 scholars and then maybe we have another 2000 people serving in government who have benefited from this process through the online programme, you begin to visualise the game changing impact, and the possibilities excite me. In fact, I’m looking really beyond ten, twenty years. We want to see Nigeria, Ghana, and other Sub-Saharan African countries change as a result of this Initiative.


Publication: Ventures Africa – A Pan-African business magazine and news service
Interviewer: Felicia Omari Ochelle (Online Editor)
Interviewee: Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede; Founder, Africa Initiative for Governance