Dr. Joe Abah studied Law at the University of Calabar and worked on many human rights cases in the era of military rule. He obtained an M.A. from the London Guildhall University, United Kingdom. He thereafter went into the Governance sector, first working on public sector reform programmes for the United Kingdom Prime Minister’s Office. He has spent more than 10 years managing governance programmes in Nigeria for the U.K. Department for International Development, including on the DAI-led State Partnership for Accountability Responsiveness and Capability project. From 2013 to 2017, Dr. Abah took a post with the Government of Nigeria as Head of the Bureau for Public Sector Reform. He is now Country Director for Nigeria at DAI, an international development consultancy focused on solving social and economic development problems caused by inefficient markets, ineffective governance and instability. His work is underpinned by a rigorous theoretical understanding of political economy. He has a PhD from Maastricht University focused on Governance. Dr. Joe Abah has been a Visiting Lecturer at the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance since 2012.
One of the issues I can think about is the fact that in the First Republic, immediately after Independence, we lost the opportunity to actually create a model nation. People were so sectarian in their thinking that the wonderful opportunity was lost. … what we have lacked is a leadership that can look at these things and redesign them. We got close to that with the National Conference of 2014; unfortunately it was done a year before the elections.
University – Sciences or Arts ?
I studied Law but I had no choice in the matter. It was what my dad wanted me to study. He pushed me quite hard and I got to like it. My dad was an engineer and he always believed you had to study one of the “professions”. By that, he meant Medicine, Law or Engineering. I was very weak in mathematics and I could not stand the sight of blood. So I could go for neither Engineering nor Medicine. Law was the only option left. I studied Law for my First Degree at the University of Calabar. I got my Master’s degree in Business Law from London Guildhall University. I bagged my PhD in Governance and Public Policy at the Maastricht University in the Netherlands.
Not many Nigerians go to the Netherlands to study. What led you there?
The Netherlands actually has one of the strongest educational systems. Most of the universities teach in English. A lot of people do not know that; they think you have to speak Dutch to study over there. I went there because my first two degrees were in Law but most of my work during my adult life had been in Governance. I wanted to get a theoretical backing for everything I knew about Governance and do my PhD in the field. Most universities wanted me to go back to get a Master’s degree in the social sciences. But the Netherlands was willing to accept me with my Law degree. I was given admission at Maastricht. Additionally, the programme allowed me to work full-time alongside my PhD. It was a very convenient arrangement.
What is the biggest lesson you took away from the University?
I went into the university at a very young age. I was not quite sixteen when I got in. It was difficult because I could not get a girlfriend in my first year. They all said, “You are very nice, but you are a small boy. Come back when you are older.” That was a bit of a struggle. But I guess the lesson I took away was actually the importance of pushing students really hard. Although I have advanced degrees, the education I got in Unical was the best from all the schools I have been to. I was classmates with people like Reuben Abati. We were all in the same age bracket. We graduated at the same time. We were pushed really hard. It was a combination of education in terms of academics, moral uprightness, self-confidence and ambition. It was very good training for all of us.
What was your first job and what were the main things you took away from it?
I think my very first job was as a lawyer during my youth service in Jos. I was very fortunate that the lawyer I went to work with did not draw a distinction between an NYSC lawyer and a post-NYSC lawyer. He treated us like proper lawyers, gave us flats and paid us normal salaries. I was actually very rich during my youth service. But then I realized most of the cases I was taking, I was taking pro bono because I wanted to fight for the cause of the underprivileged. I realized that if I kept doing that, I would not make any money. It took me a very long time to realize that a lot of people that take pro bono cases do it for the publicity and charge others a lot.
Who was the greater influence: mum or dad?
It is very difficult to say because I was fortunate enough to grow up with both my parents. My dad died just five years ago at the age of 85. They were both very influential to me but in different ways. My dad focused on my education and my career. My mum focused on my morality. The two complimented each other in very different ways.
How did you transition from working in a law firm to working in governance?
When I was working in a law firm, a friend of mine was run over by an SSS vehicle. I sued the SSS which was the right thing to do. But it was a dangerous mission to embark on as a 22-year-old during a military dictatorship. I had to find my way to the UK. That was when I learned that Government is more powerful than Law. I decided if I was going to make a difference in society, I had to focus on how to make government to work better. So, for the last 34 years of my life, I have been working on governance reform in various countries.
What is so peculiar about Nigeria compared to other countries in terms of institutional quality?
It is a very complex question. One of the issues I can think about is the fact that in the First Republic, immediately after Independence, we lost the opportunity to actually create a model nation. People were so sectarian in their thinking that the wonderful opportunity was lost. Then we had a really damaging Civil War that set us back farther than many people think. Then, we had many years of military rule which also did not help. And upon our return to democratic rule in 1999, we set up a system that I often say is designed to fail. Unfortunately, the only people that can bring out the redesign, which is the National Assembly, are the people benefitting from the dysfunction. We are trapped in that regard.
We have a constitution that is anchored on consumption and sharing. It does not pay any attention to production. We have a system where the National Assembly can pay staff anything it likes and no one can challenge it. We have an Executive that continues to create agencies as it likes. We have a Judiciary that cannot facilitate easy access to justice or make Nigerians believe in the judicial system. We have a civil service that essentially does not contribute to the growth of the economy and is seen by politicians as an inconvenience but a necessary evil.
With all of these, what we have lacked is a leadership that can look at these things and redesign them. We got close to that with the National Conference of 2014; unfortunately it was done a year before the elections. Many did not trust the motives and those who came afterwards disregarded it. That is why we are here today.
Do you buy the argument that if we miss the opportunity in 2023 [that is, elect a new government that will attempt serious constitutional reform], it will be downhill from then on? What do you think are two or three factors of change that could alter the course of the country?
I am usually very reluctant to predict the future. But I do not believe anything significant in terms of change can happen in 2023 or even 2027. I say that because, if you study the way things are going, you have to see a particular trajectory towards development and I do not see that. We need to change our political system. We need to ensure that our politics is not just about sharing the spoils of office. You can see that the National Assembly is not talking about changing the constitution in any way except how it benefits them.
In terms of factors that might come together to facilitate change, I would say crisis is always an opportunity to do things differently. As someone says, never waste a good crisis. We have this COVID-19 situation now, which has decimated revenues. It could be an opportunity to take a critical look at how we do things. Or we could ignore it and keep borrowing more and more. You have two options: make the difficult decisions to reposition your country, or simply borrow more. It will be interesting to see which one we do. If you look at the downturn in oil prices from the COVID-19 crisis, it may come to a head where people start to demand a change in the way government is run.
Another possibility is the politics of 2023. As you know, Nigerian politics has politicians moving from one party to the other and back. If we have a credible new option in 2023, it may lead to a change in the way things are done. The President could also decide, before leaving office, to reset the button in certain areas by doing similar things to removing fuel subsidy, removing electricity tariffs etc. Those are my guesses.
What are the three most influential books you have ever read?
The Bible, the Quran and The Godfather by Mario Puzo. They all interrogate the core of your being as a person—what drives you? Why are you here? Is your relationship with your creator good? How do you retain a sense of internal discipline regardless of all the noise outside? What responsibilities do you have as a human being who has been created with the faculty of choice? The Godfather talks about the importance of family, loyalty, focus and discipline despite being a book dealing with crime and murder.
What are you currently reading?
I have developed a new interest in behavioral science. About three years ago, I got a Harvard certificate in behavioral science. I read a lot about why people behave in certain ways and make certain choices. The last one I read is called Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics by Richard Thaler.
What are the two top qualities you look out for when hiring?
I look out for two main things. The first is teachability—the person must demonstrate the ability and passion to learn. The second quality is that the person must be sufficiently angry about the system and want to change it. I have never recruited based on knowledge. I can teach you things, but I cannot teach you passion.
Favorite sport: football or boxing?
That is difficult. I was brought up on both. My dad used to wake me up as a 10-year-old to watch Rumble in the Jungle and Muhammad Ali’s other great fights. As I got older, it has become harder to process in my mind the fact that two people would just stand and start hitting each other. I am no longer as enamored. So, I choose football. I support Arsenal FC. I have a hypothesis that people who support Arsenal are better husbands and better wives because we go from extremes of joy to extremes of pain and we never give up. And that is what love is usually about.
What is your favorite place to vacation abroad and in Nigeria?
Believe it or not, in Nigeria, it is Lagos. I live in Abuja and it is can be quite sterile. We always go to Lagos during Christmas to get a bit of culture and a bit of noise. Abroad, my wife and I go to a new country to vacation every year for Valentine’s Day. Unfortunately, we could not go this year. I have been to many countries. The most I have enjoyed has probably been Greece. I have also been to Barbados, India, Egypt and China. I like China for the history and the industry. I find it motivating.
Tea or coffee?
Neither. I do not drink instant coffee. I think it is horrible. I am a fruit juice person, rather than a hot drinks person.
If you were to run into President Muhammadu Buhari and he tells you, “Dr. Joe Abah, I have heard so much about you, Nigeria’s foremost governance specialist. Tell me two things I can do to ensure a stellar legacy for myself.” What would you say?
I would tell him that Nigeria’s button needs to be reset. If he can do that, he will have a legacy that can last forever. Pressing that “reset” button means putting in motion a process for us to have a new constitution and a restructuring of state and local governments. If he is able to do those things, his legacy is very secure.