Olusegun Adekunle, former Permanent Secretary, General Services Office- (GSO), officially bowed out of the Federal Civil Service of Nigeria after 36 years of service.
His educational and professional background span several fields namely; Law, Public Administration, Intellectual Property Rights Management, Project Management, Multilateral Trade Negotiations and Humanities.
Adekunle, who served as the linkage between the multi-sectoral Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 pandemic and the bureaucratic structure of government, sub-national governments and other entities, retired formally in September 2019 after clocking 35 years in service. However, President Muhammadu Buhari gave him a year extension on account of his wealth of experience and strategic position. The one year extension expired on September 30th, 2020.
In this interview, he spoke about his journey through 11 ministries where he was saddled with diverse responsibilities, serving in international bodies, including OPEC and African Petroleum Producers Association, his growing up years, his passion for rehabilitating drug addicts as well as what he will be doing in retirement among others, which includes building the capacity of middle to top level civil servants to fill skills gaps through his Foundation.
What have been the pros and cons of your 36 years of service in the federal civil service?
Going into the public service is something that requires focus, dedication, commitment. You have to know what you want to do. Do you want to remain in the public sector, or be moving up and down the private sector? I have always maintained that Nigeria is a successful enterprise, to the extent that people are able to piece together the success story in the sense that I attended public schools, from primary to university as well as post graduate and professional levels.
I have never schooled outside Nigeria. The system gave me the same type of quality education available anywhere in the world. It also added the spirit of service to country and to humanity.
The public and the private sectors have different advantages. One sharpens your business acumen and you make money and other things, the other broadens your intellect, understanding, perception of issues and the way you approach them. I am not discounting anything. I know that grace and luck can play a lot of roles in your journey in the public service, it has played a lot of roles in my journey of over 30 years.
I joined the service in September 1984 as an Administrative Officer Grade VIII, which allowed mobility across different sectors and MDAs every three years, as part of the training and service.
First, I recognize that all the sectors I have worked in, apart from two or three months in the Office of the Head of Service of the Federation and my Service as a Permanent Secretary in the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, have been in the economic sector. From agriculture to aviation, finance, commerce, petroleum back to finance, from where I branched into intellectual property rights management under the Nigerian Copy Rights Commission for four years (on secondment). From there, the movement took me to aviation at the directorate level.
From aviation, I was posted to the Office of the Head of Service of the Federation for three months and back to aviation. I also had a stint in the Federal ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment for a second tour, as Director Commercial Law and Registrar Trade Marks, Patent and Designs. This allowed me to oversee a component of the implementation of on-line registration system in collaboration with the World Intellectual Property Organisation.
From there, I was posted to the ministry of petroleum as director, planning, research and statistics, which preceded my appointment as permanent secretary in August 2015.
In the petroleum sector, you find that you are exposed to a lot of things, you are moving from local to global affairs because energy drives the world. I was the National Representative on the Economic Commission Board of OPEC, I was also Alternate National Representative on the Committee of Experts of the African Petroleum Producers Association. Let’s look at it, the occupants of the position of OPEC-ECB have by some coincidence moved on to higher positions which underscores the significance of the Office and how it prepares them. For example, Mohammed Barkindo was National Rep and later became the GMD of NNPC. He is now the OPEC Secretary General. I served as the National Rep and moved on to become a Permanent Secretary. The current GMD NNPC, Mele Kyari, succeeded me as the National Rep before becoming the GMD.
From Grade Level 8 I was exposed to what many very senior officers were not exposed to in the service. A typical example, I think in 1984, General (as he then was) Muhammadu Buhari, the Head of State introduced the monitoring of the level of implementation of Council Conclusions. It gave me a huge opportunity and access to the Memos and Conclusions. I was able to extract, read and understand how the government took decisions and it added a big boost to my level of thinking.
At different times, I worked with different Permanent Secretaries directly, about five or six of them. I also worked directly with Ministers, so I have been exposed to how decisions are taken and the thought process that went into such decisions.
So, that is the journey of 36 years and so when I got to the OSGF, I literally knew where to look for solutions and seek help through collaboration and networking for effective coordination.
What were the challenges you faced in the cause of doing your job?
There must have been challenges but I hardly see challenges, I see opportunities for development. I can look at it and say okay so what’s the solution? Why did I go to school? To think in a three dimensional way. When I am looking at an obstacle I am thinking of how to navigate it, I have never seen challenges. The job of a bureaucrat is to solve problems.
I will give you an example. In all my career, I have only missed my promotion once and it was a psychological setback in a way. I just needed to understand what happened but I didn’t see it as a challenge but an opportunity to learn a lesson and strengthen myself. So what did I do? I didn’t dwell on the fact that I missed that promotion, I worked on the fact that I needed to cross the obstacle at the next opportunity. So, I started reading immediately the results were released, a year before to prepare for the exams. As you see me I love exams. I go into the exam hall and have fun based on the philosophy of ‘it’s better to work hard than to go into an exam hall with the intention of cheating’. A times, I will write and write and then I will say, look I think I have given enough to this examiner so whatever he wants to do, it’s left for him. That is the spirit.
How have you been able to manage all sorts of people you worked with?
Part of the training is understanding who you work with, especially your principals. One thing to do in order to be able to work with your principal is to work very hard, extremely hard. Stay ahead, listen, observe, and take corrections. You manage vertical, lateral and downwards relationships. In all I have learnt, I try to apply the situational principle of leadership. Every encounter, requires innovative and suitable response especially when you are expected to lead. One thing I try to do is to make sure my conscience is clear in anything I do. Like I said earlier, I don’t see obstacles, I see solutions.
The impression of Nigerians about the civil service is not very good, in fact civil servants are referred to as evil servants…
(Cuts in) Because, they don’t know.
Recently I gave an example to someone, I said when you get to your house even if it is for six hours in a day, there might be challenges but you expect to enjoy electricity supply. It is somebody in the public service that is making sure that that supply gets to you. I used to drive into petrol stations to buy fuel without knowing the logistics of getting the products there. In the course of my career, I served as the Chairman of the Governing Board of Petroleum Equalization Fund (PEF), and that position made me understand what it takes to make sure that products reach all nooks and crannies of the country. Behind the logistics of delivery, you will find the public servant. In both instances I just cited, Nigerians encounter good and sacrificial work of the public servant.
So, it’s uncharitable to describe civil servants as evil servants. Because, in your home you turn on the tap to have your bath and the water is flowing, there is a water board managing that process. Coordinating the process of the education system and even the national security are typical examples of the silent contributions of the public servants and we should applaud them. It is not good to use such words to describe them because, in one way or the other, our lives are managed or improved or made a bit comfortable by this same set of people.
As a bureaucratic bridge for the Presidential Task Force on coronavirus pandemic, how does it make you feel when some Nigerians doubt the existence of the virus?
What I know is that we should all pray not to contract the virus. We all have to be careful about it. The virus is unseen and there is the tendency to be skeptical. Even Thomas in the bible looked for the spot of the wound after Jesus resurrected, before he could believe.
The virus is real, dangerous and harmful. We must take responsibility and that begins from the family and household levels through to the community level. We must test and test and test before we detect. I urge Nigerians to look at the numbers and play their part.
How was growing up like, did your parents influence your choice of career?
Growing up was very interesting. I grew up in an environment that allowed for healthy competition and ambition amongst peers. We always wanted to be the best, to pass common entrance exams very well, to pass concessional exams into choice public universities, to excel in class, to always strive to lead. In all, we maintained very healthy competitive environment. We had several parents because all parents looked after all the children. The fear of God was and still, the beginning of wisdom for us. That was how we grew up.
My parents influenced a number of things like making me focused, prioritizing education as a key to better life, the importance of a good name and character, learning how to provide leadership and imbibing the spirit of contentment.
It is not as if you can teach someone contentment, it has to come from within but you have to see it in action especially from your parents at home before you can imbibe it. If I have something and it’s not as big as yours, that is your luck, I won’t worry myself. Because that is not the way to view life, you have to constantly remain contented with what God has given you. Those are some of the things I learnt from my parents. I also learnt to be patient and to be cultured.
How were you able to juggle work and family as well as find time to relax?
It is a very delicate balancing act. You have different needs to cater for. Your wife, children, extended family members etc. You must learn how to divide your time and prioritise your actions. In all situations, pay attention to the family. When all of this is over, you go back home to your family. Always find time to reach out and be present when it mattered most. Show appreciation for their sacrifices and understanding when they feel neglected. Resolve all issues candidly.
What will you be doing in retirement after PTF assignment; will you be going into politics?
Maybe, maybe not but for now I just want to live a quiet life, I have done my bit.
How long will you live the quiet life, till 2023?
I just want to live a quiet life and do my own thing. Again, live a contented life but live a life of service. I did mention to you earlier, part of the things I developed interest in, is rehabilitation of drug addicts. A group of like minds came together and established a center in Ogbomso. It’s a help center initiative in conjunction with NDLEA for counseling and treatment of drug addicts. It’s called Behavioural Anonymous Center.
It is a fully equipped center open to all that recognize they have drug problems. It is one area I have gone into to help rehabilitate those who have gone into mind-bending activities. It is almost free but you must pay for your test kits. Each goes for between N3000 and N5,000, all we need is your urine to tell us the level and type of drugs in your system.
As a way of giving back, I will also be actively involved in the Olusegun Adeyemi Adekunle Foundation (OAAF). It is a non-profit training institute, established for the training of civil servants from middle to upper echelon for better service delivery to the nation. It will involve other distinguished retired civil servants who are willing to give back to the Service through mentoring and training.
For relaxation, I play golf and watch football. I also love short adventurous trips.