Nze Sylva’s Corner: Attitudinal Change and Efforts to Improve the Business Environment

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It is public knowledge that Nigeria’s economic growth potential is being held back by a weak business environment and this is also slowing down the pace of our development. The rather parlous ranking of Nigeria on the World Bank’s global index as one of the most unfriendly places to do business has been a source of embarrassment to the Country for many years. Successive Governments have not managed to successfully deal with this poor reputation. The establishment of the Enabling Business Environment Council by the Buhari Administration to address concerns raised by investors and to also advise on ways to improve Nigeria’s poor ranking on the global ease of doing business index is thus, quite a commendable step in the right direction.

The job of this Council led by Dr. Jumoke Oduwole is clearly cut out and involves reforming the entire system to, as the Key Performance Indicator the Council has set for itself says, move the country 20 places up in the index. According to the Council, its areas of focus include; Entry and Exit of Goods, Entry and Exit of Persons, and Transparency of Government with expanded focus in issues such as trading across borders, starting a business, getting credit, dealing with construction permits, paying taxes and registering property.

In order to successfully carry out such reforms, a lot of process issues need to be fixed, duplications that need to be harmonised and processes that need to be automated. And we are seeing the council address some of these things. The half way mark report (based on the 60 days target the council set for itself) has shown some impressive changes in line with the above, especially as regards harmonising processes for registering business.

However, it must be noted that the enhanced processes and the automation will still eventually be handled by human beings. There is a serious need for every reform to be people-oriented, with the human component incorporated into the reform process. Otherwise, we will simply be marking time or at best, enjoy a short-lived improvement and in a few months or years time, we will relapse back to ‘square one.’

Rarely can you find a reform document that does not refer to the need for capacity building. It is equally rare however that the capacity constraints are well defined in those documents. What capacities are we talking about? In this case I will say the attitude of public servants and those who are charged with the responsibility of service delivery especially in the business value chain, is a key priority for the reform to succeed. But this does not appear to be among the immediate focus of the Enabling Business Environment Council. It ought to be.

There is a popular Winston Churchill quote on how “some civil servants are neither civil nor servants.” That’s the case with Nigeria. That our civil service leaves much to be desired is no news. There seems to be a learned aversion to efficiency and a celebrated tendency to be unpleasant and rude. Generally, you are not expected to have things easy when you seek any service from a government establishment. You have to sweat to get it and the staff actually take pride in how much trouble they make people go through when they need their service.

We will not make any progress if officials of agencies and departments of government involved in service delivery as regards doing business (this will include the Customs, immigrations, Corporate Affairs Commission, FIRS, Nigeria Investment promotion Council, Federal airports authority Airport officials, Staff of our embassies etc) do not have a change in attitude and begin to see themselves in the mold of customer service agents whose ultimate success is leaving a customer with a satisfied smile.

If the customs agent at the port sees the importer as a customer, not someone he needs to make things hard for, and understands that the time spent until that customer’s goods are cleared has an impact on the economy as a whole, his attitude should be different. How about a warm handshake and a smile? How about clear communications on what needs to be done and prompt explanations and apologies when there are delays? All of these simple courtesies go a long way. There is no reason why law abiding people should dread any encounter with customs or immigration staff. All of these has to do with an attitudinal change.

How do we go about it? As always the “tone from the top” is critical. I am not sure the refusal of the Comptroller General of Customs to obey the Senate of the federal republic is a good example for more junior officers to respect the laws of the land. But that is a discussion for another day. When engaging in any transformational project that has to do with human behaviour, the right examples must come from the top. Good behaviour cannot be legislated, but can be learnt and practiced. If the top sets the tone that henceforth this is the level of service delivery excellence required of staff in line with the drive of the government to change the business environment and follows it up with examples, all others are likely to fall in line.

I know of the existence of SERVICOM, the unit in the Federal Civil Service in charge of service delivery. One is not sure how effective they have been. Perhaps the current effort of the government to improve the ease of doing business is a good opportunity to review SERVICOM and reposition it for excellence. For as I had highlighted earlier, we can fix all the processes as much as we like, but if the human beings running it remain the same, we’ve just wasted everybody’s time…and this wouldn’t be the first time we are doing this in Nigeria.


Fiction writer, op-ed columnist, social commentator. Sylva lives in Lagos Nigeria

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