Allison Ayida and the other super permanent secretaries turned their well-honed professional capacity and patriotic fervor came to the rescue.
The administrative history of the Nigerian public service will definitely not be complete without the mention of Mr. Allison Ayida. Indeed, just a mention will be a serious disservice to the historic role that this astute administrator played in the attempt to reconfigure the public service system, as well as put the Nigerian project right back on track administratively. Like the legendary Simeon Adebo and Jerome Udoji, Ayida belonged in what we affectionately, and with a bit of nostalgia, refer to as the golden years of public administration in Nigeria. And even more so, he was one of the “notorious” super permanent secretaries whose roles in the prosecution of the Nigerian Civil War have been the subject of positive and negative analyses. Together with Ahmed Joda, Ime Ebong, Ahmed Joda, S. O. Wey, Phillip Asiodu, and so on, Allison Ayida played a significant and crucial administrative part that had a lot to do with their vision of the Nigerian project, as well as the professional credentials they had acquired as public administrators.
READ ALSO: The Allison Ayida story
Allison Ayida had just left us for the beyond. He was 88 years old. This is not a lamentable fact because he not only lived to a good age, and lived well also, but he played his part in the Nigerian national drama. He was a patriot, by all accounts of that term. He was there right at the beginning, and in the very engine room of the Nigerian state as one of the British-trained bureaucrats who had the unenviable task of steering the Nigerian state through the murky waters of the postcolonial realities which the British colonialists themselves had engineered. Paradoxically, Allison Ayida, like Simeon Adebo, Jerome Udoji and the rest of the first-generation pioneers, was invested the best that the British administrative training could muster. The crop of first-generation administrators were the best. They were professionals who were properly inducted into the ethos and values of what it means to be public servants.
Unlike Adebo and Udoji who came to the public service, largely self-educated with English and law degrees respectively, Ayida was very prepared intellectually. In the early 1950s after a stint at the King’s College, Lagos, he proceeded to the equally prestigious Queen’s College, Oxford where he got a Bachelor’s degree in the most prestigious Politics, Philosophy and Economic (PPE). A quick word about this course. The PPE was established specifically as a multidisciplinary course that was targeted at preparing students for the public service. And this explains why the course turned out to be a very great hit for those with the objectives of making a mark with their country’s administrative machinery. Over the years, the PPE has had such notable figures like the late former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, three former prime ministers of Britain (Harold Wilson, David Cameron and Edward Heath), three former prime ministers of Australia, and so many others from around the world. An incredible combination of a sound intellectual background as well as a solid practical professional orientation produced Allison Ayida as who he turned out to be. And those were the days of brimming patriotism on behalf of a country that was fought for with an immense arsenal of hope and optimism that defeated the colonialists’ reluctance.
By the time he returned to Nigeria, after his father’s death which cut short his search for another degree at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Nigeria was already well into the postcolonial trajectory that was to shoot him into the very centre of the unfolding drama. He made the tight list of permanent secretaries that General Aguiyi Ironsi collected as part of the Federal Executive Council. He was in charge of a very critical ministry—Economic Development. That was exactly where the focus of post-independence development was. It was the ministry where the military had to receive the best education about how to take Nigeria forward. And Ayida had the benefit not only of a reputable background, but also of a crop of colleagues—Alhaji Musa Daggash, Phillip Asiodu, Abdul Aziz Attah, S. O. Williams, Sule Katagum, M. A. Tokunbo, H. A. Ejeyuitchie, and so many more— who had a grasp of their various posts and departments, and who were equally dedicated to the service of putting Nigeria on a sound postcolonial administrative footing.
Working for Ironsi already means that optimism had been eclipsed for Nigeria. The hope of a smooth transition was already endangered. But not for these technocrats. They saw beyond the military to a Nigeria that could still realize her objectives as a nation. Then, as if the sudden desperation enabled by the 1966 coup was not enough, Allison Ayida and the rest of the bureaucrats watched with mounting horror as the country was thrown into the tension of an approaching war. While Gowon and Ojukwu sparred and traded words and political altercations, Ayida and the rest of the technocratic teams calculated the costs of impending war on a nascent state that had barely got its administrative credentials and development planning together. The war eventually happened, and Ayida found himself in the cabinet of General Gowon right from the commencement of hostilities. There were a lot to be done administratively, first, to prevent the war from being fought; and second, to reconstruct the Nigerian state after the war ended.
Becoming a super permanent secretary was a necessity. Allison Ayida and the other super permanent secretaries were circumscribed by enormous historical conditions defined, on the one hand, by military dictatorship and its monolithic command structure. On the other hand, they were pressed on every side to restore a nation that had fought a civil war and required rehabilitation and reconstruction on a large scale. They became “super” because they lived in an interesting but unpalatable time which tasked their patriotic sensibilities and their professional capabilities to the limit. Nigeria was about to go to war and these public servants were confronted with the unenviable task of fashioning a policy framework for war time and post-war Nigeria. For instance, there was a pending issue of drafting the second national development plan which was ongoing with the crucial assistance of the renowned economist, Prof. Ojetunji Aboyade. The impending civil war therefore provided a severe cloud of limitation around which these professionals needed to work.
But like the gold that becomes refined when taken through the furnace, Allison Ayida and the other super permanent secretaries turned their well-honed professional capacity and patriotic fervor came to the rescue. And there was no dithering. Several political commentaries have been written about the supposedly notorious roles played by Ayida and his colleagues in advising Gowon about the war. There is, I think, a simple explanation for whatever course of action they advised Gowon to take. Ayida and his other technocrats had a vision of one Nigeria whose unity must be preserved. Their professionalism as public servants demanded it. Ayida must certainly have debated nation building, development dynamics and postcolonial realities with his tutors at Queen’s College and at the London School of Economics.