By Anote Ajeluorou
PERHAPS, no former civil servant has explained the complexities of the Nigerian Civil Service as succintly and elaborately as Dr. Bukar Usman, who retired as a Permanent Secretary in the Presidency. Unlike most of his former colleagues, he has taken time to document his years in the civil service in books. Also, he is the journalist and editor’s delight as subject for interviews on sundry subjects, particularly on issues about the civil service and cultural promotions, folklore and writing generally. His ever fertile mind is open to the public in terms of his informed views about how the civil service works as engine of government, how it has severally been undermined by political interference and issues of governance.
Usman gives a holistic view of the civil service as a colonial inheritance for which he was an early player, the many summersaults with successive governments, first from military to civilian, back to military and again civilian administrations and what undergirds each of them. These expansive thoughts of a man who has seen it all from the commanding heights of a Permanent Secretary position make for delightful reading in one of two new books about him, Conversations with Bukar Usman (Whetstone Publishers Ltd, Kano; 2022), compiled by Khalid Imam. The conversations are documented interviews he had with some of the top newspapers, radio and TV stations across the country. These conversations make up a 906-paged massive tome, a book that affords the reader opportunity to understand his pan-Nigerian, patriotic consciousness in his delivery of his duties as civil servant.
Having worked and travelled the length and breadth of Nigeria, Usman has a broad outlook that eludes most of his colleagues, as he looks at issues with the dispassion of a father-figure who must play fair and just to all. This is evident in his responses to questions and issues of public service, although he could also be diplomatic in his response to certain issues as well. His take on Structural Adjustment Policy (SAP) somewhat belies what most Nigerians saw as a failed policy whose reverberations still haunt the soul of the country. While admitting to its limitations, he argues that it was why Gen. Sani Abacha introduced Vision 2010 as response not necessarily to SAP’s failure but to fine-tune it to suit local experiences. But he does so not with the intent to defend it, but to explain the exigencies of the times.
Conversations with Bukar Usman is divided into Part One: Print Media Conversations and Part Two: Electronic Media Conversation and begins with an introduction tagged ‘The Art of Fielding Questions from the Press’, written by Duve Nakolisa of Klamidas Communications Ltd, and provides a theoretical framework for the bumper meal being served the reader. Both parts one and two of the book aim at one thing: an explication of the Bukar Usman persona. Both parts deal with his civil service years and his retirement and his latter pursuits as a writer and promoter of folklore and culture generally.
Thereafter, Shittu Obassa takes him on in New Nigeria Weekly of September 2003 titled ‘Reforms are Periods of Instability in the Civil Service’. This first interview takes the reader to the heart of Nigeria’s Civil Service, its intricacies, its ideals and the ruptures it has survived, personalities that drove those ideas and the reforms that caused the ruptures and how successive years yield what is obviously a degrading value for the civil service. Usman gives insight into the seeming hybrid parliamentary and presidential systems Nigeria is operating both as source of confusion and possible strength if well managed. He notes that the involvement of private participation in governance, though a wholesome development, can also present its own challenges, especially as policy decisions now tend to flow from top to bottom unlike in the past when it went the other way – bottom-up with related ministries and experts making input before such policies are presented to the cabinet for final considerations and approval.
And for those who keep blaming the British, Nigeria’s colonial masters, for the country’s failure and inability to rise up as a nation, Usman has these words for them: “To castigate the British colonial system (as if) everything is due to the colonial system doesn’t make sense. The colonialists left in 1960. For how long can we hold the colonialist system as being responsible for our own misfortunes? So we cannot just continue by saying, ‘Oh, because we inherited the British style of public service.” As at today, the British style of public service is still serving them well.” It’s a case of a poor workman blaming his tools.
Usman regards himself as an accidental writer, as he confesses to Imam who compiled this volume in chapter 18 titled ‘My Involvement in the World of Folktales’, adding that he never set out to be a writer. He, however, informs that “it was just something that came by. I like writing as a voluntary activity; the main thing I’m good at is civil service. I’m a civil servant who delved into the world of writing.” And for a man who did not set out to be a writer, it’s amazing that he has outpaced his some of his peers who lay claim to being professional writers with the sheer number of titles he has to his name in two major languages: English and Hausa! Indeed, it has been God’s grace that enabled him transition from civil service to service to humanity and his society, with his Dr. Bukar Usman Foundation being at the forefront of helping to put knowledge in the hands of many with valuable books on folktales from across Nigeria.
Security is an area Usman has made huge impact both in terms of contributing to developing policy at federal committee levels through presenting and publishing position papers and books. This is the subject that opens Part Two of Conversations with Bukar Usman in an interview he granted Yusuf Tatu of Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN) titled ‘Threats to National Security: Trends and Manifestations’ in his interventions in the electronic media. This preoccupation is not surprising for a man who became Permanent Secretary in the Presidency, an obvious hotbed of security issues and concerns. Usman lends his informed voice to the security issues plaguing the country and offers his modest but informed views on how to tackle them and how segments of society should be positively involved and not exacerbate the situation.
Chapter after chapter yields treasures of information that the reader will find useful, both as historical knowledge and a projection into and understanding of the future. Usman’s fertile mind makes it easy to grasp some otherwise complex governance terms. What makes Conversations with Bukar Usman unique is that most, if not all, all the subjects he lends his thoughts to are a further explication of what his own books have dwelt upon. This means that this book also provides context for further enquiry about the thoughts of Usman in his other books. Usman is desirous of filling vast information voids in countless areas where he has obvious expertise, and they are many – from public service, to security, folklore, Hausa language exposition to providing understanding of his native Biu in Borno.
Indeed, it’s instructive that an interview on his Biu homeland would end the incisive conversations in this book. Usman’s love for his hometown is legendary. Most of his folklores are based on sensibilities derived from Biu, where he grew up. His A History of Biu is a massive tome as well. So that when Borno State’s government’s team arrived his Abuja home to conduct a documentary interview on his thoughts on his native home, Usman was as forthcoming as always. What came out of that encounter is abiding love and passion for his Biu homeland, Borno State and Nigeria at large. Conversations with Bukar Usman makes for a worthy and extravagant read. A highly recommended book.