Prof Chidiebere Onyia: Celebrating the Unrepetant Technocrat with a Difference | CABLE REPORTERS

By Prince Ejeh Josh 

Writing in the popular British Financial Times on March 17, 2017, Tim Harford, in a piece he titled, “Somethings are best left to the technocrats”, drew a remarkable contrast between democracy and technocracy in considering how decisions that affect the general well-being of the society are made. These are broad questions affecting the economy, healthcare delivery, infrastructure, development, security, digital skills, education among other critical spectrums. 

Harford had argued that while voters are more interested in the politics of who lead them in the name of democracy and freedom of choice, they eventually fail to look beyond the colouration and aura of going to the polls to the aftermath of their decisions. Behind the fanfare of politics is the biggest elephant that must be contended with—policies—that will shape the wellness of the people. Policies are often an intentional course of action set out by the leadership of a country, state or organisation. Getting it right entails that any policy output must be validated by conscious, sound and critical reasoning among the competing alternatives. On this note, Harford shrugged that for any piece of policy, the typical voter does not understand what is at stake. 

He quite submitted that many democratically elected politicians and even voters themselves were not placed at a vintage point to attend to technical issues and where politics appears to falter, we turn our searchlight of redemption to technocracy, albeit, indirectly. Employability of technocracy is not the herd mentality of the general public but the elected leader who had recognised either himself being a technocrat, or the need for technocrats. In spite of the lengthy argument, the defeatist approach of the FT editor capped his submission: “Ultimately, democracy must trump technocracy, and it does”. 

This sheds light on the intrigues that played out during the election of Dr. Peter Mbah as governor of Enugu State. Events that accompanied the electioneering period are important to make inference to. Among the top contending issues being considered by the electorate and analysts deduced from opinion sampling or vox populi were the issues of professionalism, technocracy, sphere of influence, and sadly, clannishness. While it was also a consensus ad idem that Governor Mbah had the first three qualities against others that were feeding basically on politics, the issue of clannish interest crept in. This beclouded sound judgement and almost knocked out rationality on its face value. That’s democracy and freedom. However, it’s the weakest link of democracy or politics where the decay is noticeable. 

Raced up, technocracy knitted in democracy, like an enigma, triumphed. Governor Mbah, it would be recalled, had campaigned vigorously and unrepentantly about his disposition to disrupt the convention of political considerations in governance and administration. That should be the last forethought on the pyramid of decisions. People did not appreciate or were slow to understand what the message signposted until the complexity of his decision began to rip off the norm—the old order that had sunk the state into comatose. 

The governor started with the appointment of the Secretary to the State Government (SSG)—Professor Chidiebere Onyia. His announcement was a chill pill. “From where?,” was the question blistering the political atmosphere. For some of us with a quick tap on the google button, we simply gave a terse reply: “Onyia is from the development space working with different world bodies, and consulting with the most civilized or developed nations”. That was the genesis of technocrats dominating the administration of Governor Mbah. It takes not just a technocrat but a complex, versatile, multi-talented  and distinctive technocrat to discover and reach out to other technocrats. 

The governor often tagged a quote on his mission to making the state the best or the most outstanding in terms of security, investment, tourism, standard of living and eradication of poverty as being a leader who should take the people to where they ought to be rather than where they wanted to be. To achieve the above, there are far-arching implications. Taking the economy from a wobbling $4 billion to $30 billion; constructing a 10 thousand kilometers of road; eradicating poverty; training and upskilling thousands of youths on a yearly basis; making the state attractive to investors; getting the world to see Enugu as the next tourist attraction; digitisating the state’s services, etc, are not just a thing for political settlement, or as Harford called it, for democracy to determine, instead, they are core technocratic decisions. That informed the rational behind the governor assembling a world-class team to drive the mission. On the operational level, the SSG is now piloting it. A quick glance from the SSG’s quote: “Gentlemen, do not allow the His Excellency to descend from the Executive Level of decision-making to Operational Level. We must drive this together”. Indeed, the executive level is no cruise; it’s no envy; it’s no smile. Every day at that level entails making hard, demanding decisions just to advance towards the goals. 

For those that have been following the trend in Nigeria and Enugu State in particular, Prof. Onyia has not had it so rosy. He often admits that the space where he formely played sharply contrasts with the present political space where members of the public, used to politics, defined everything from the lens of politics and politicking—this could be the murky waters of politics that has become a toga in the lexicon of our socio-political sphere.  Regardless, the journey to take the people to where they ought to be must continue. That determination is no apology. Enugu State must get it right this time, and time, being the ultimate verdict of human affairs, is ticking against odds in favour of a new dawn in the State. 

One thing cannot be wished away; Governor Mbah started on a wise and, arguably, the best note. His operational team, often brandished by him, has been on the ground driving the core policies and programmes. In the past 8 months, transformation in the state has taken a new shift; a new definition most acceptable from all indicators of development. We’ve got the SSG passionate about the mission and vision, frontally and vigorously pursuing the course. It is not surprising.

When the state cancelled the illegal sit-at-home orders by some faceless non-actors which had badly hurt the economy and people of the state, it took a strong willed people, including the SSG to stand firm and weather the storm of blackmail, threats, fake news and false campaign sponsored by the enemies of the state to reassert the primary responsibility of the government—to protect life and property of the citizens. It was even baffling that most of these victims of sit-at-home orders and the accompanying consequences of diferring such orders did not appreciate that the government was fighting to protect them from the scourge of the bloodthirsty hoodlums. I guess they are now seeing reasons to appreciate the government for sticking to its gaunlets. 

Although not attached or close to Prof Onyia because of the different spaces at which we play, I have had the opportunity, in recent times, of working with him. My role has increasingly tilted me to his space for directives and meetings. Having worked with him and understood his orientation, drive, passion and traits, I could submit of him that a vista of hope, reinvigoaration and narration in the state are only possible because of people like him. 

Prof Onyia has never shied away about his staunch discipleship of Governor Mbah’s school of thought and governance philosophy. He preaches it and tries to make disciples of us in the system. He warns against deviation from the governance philosophy and insists every of the governor’s pronucements in terms of projects to execute or what to achieve must be accelerated by field workers. It is a standing mandate since he believes, as the governor also does, that everyone that made it into his cabinet and team was selected out of competence, competitiveness in capacity and informed technocracy. This places a burden of expectation on every member of the team to work as a family with superior intellectual and practical capabilities. 

Should I also be surprised? No. Prof. Onyia has proved, even beyond any shadow of doubt, that his technocratic prowess is tested and proven in different spheres. It was no politics that his choice of appointment was made. Heading sectoral clusters in the development space is no Pavlovian response by the critical bodies that had always engaged him. His operational excellence transcends his professorial fields in education, sciences to development and capacity building. He should as well be called a Professor of Development and Human Capacity Building! 

I’ve been fascinated by the restlessness of the Professor to achieve those things set out by the governor in his Social Contract with the people. Every day counts in the calender of the government. Every day measures individual’s outputs and every day is significant in the journey to achieving a modern Enugu State. This caps the mission of Governor Mbah Administration. 

Even as we were at today’s weekly Strategic Meeting, a reiteration reminding us of our Key Performance Indicators (KPI) by the SSG were the following words: “Gentlemen, His Excellency, Governor Peter Mbah, is in a hurry to deliver, and we must also be in a hurry to ensure all he promised are delivered before time”. If the principal is in a hurry delivering, keeping sleepless nights in the office, inspecting already executed and other ongoing projects, querying contractors on job specifications, what less is expected from the field workers! Courage! 

I will leave with these few words; meritocracy of idea, team spirit, respect, evaluation, traceability, transparency, discipline, accountability, optimal performance and disruptive innovation, are all the  governing philosophy hanging like an almanac on the wall of our office and bedroom, reminding us like Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mitress”, “But at my back I always hear time’s wing├Ęd chariot hurrying near”. Glad the administration has achieved in areas of water, security, infrastructure, education, empowerment, poverty eradication, youth training, technology, healthcare delivery, agriculture, sanitation, tourism and others. It is possible because the right people were involved. 

In love and in respect, I am more than glad; superlatively glad that a day like this where some of us could celebrate an epitome of technocracy knitted with workaholism is afforded. Dear Professor Onyia, even though you’re too serious, bullish and unapologetic about delivery, you remain a good man. Your heart is full of compassion and love. More strength. Congratulations! Happy Birthday

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