Private Sector Etiquette Brings Success In Public Service- Chief Ajayi

Private Sector Etiquette Brings Success In Public Service- Chief Ajayi
Managing Director, Nigerian Ports Authority ( NPA) Ms Hadiza Bala Usman ( 4th from right) and other senior officials of the agency celebrating in Lagos, the out-going General Manager, Public Affairs, Chief Michael Kayode Ajayi (4th from left) who just retired from NPA after clocking the 60 years mandatory retirement age

HighChief Michael Kayode Ajayi  until last week used to be the General Manger, Public Affairs at the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA).  In this interview with MMS Plus, he recalls his highpoints and regrets at NPA, his relationship with several Managing Directors and his business nous in public service. He also explains his journey into NPA and the secrets to his success in public relations. He recommends panacea to the forex crisis, advising that state governors should be paid in dollars by the Federal Government. This interview was conducted less than one week to his exit from NPA.


How would you describe your service at the Nigerian Ports Authority?

I have served for about 23 years at NPA and it has been an exciting and rewarding experience.

What were your times of regrets during these years?

There are some regrets I have. One was that I was reposted and unable to complete the transformation I planned for the Western ports such as the reconstruction of the Wharf road which I started.

Secondly, I was unable to clear Abuja; opposite Tin-can. I had a robust plan to make use of that place to solve the traffic grid lock on that axis. I planned to get the place cleared and organized to make it serve as an alternate truck holding bay to the one being constructed by Federal Ministry of Works because theirs was not ready. The plan would have prevented criminals from using the place and it would have been an opportunity for NPA to generate revenue while eliminating the traffic gridlock. This was part of my master plan which I had discussed with the pervious Managing Director but I couldn’t actualize it because of my posting.

Another regret is that when I was General Manager, Human Resource in 2007.  In the course of my career I had studied the system so well to have found solutions to some of the Human Resources problem  the Authority had gone through. Some of my colleagues and I developed an autonomous appraisal system that  should have solved problems at NPA. We started with an enlightenment of the appraisal system to the entire workers but unfortunately it was not allowed to see the light of day.

I believe that an external consultant does not know the problem like a group  in  NPA. This plan would have solved problem of indiscipline, promotion problems, posting, training, etc. to guarantee fairness in the system.

Do they have somebody working on this at the moment? Why not suggest this to the NPA management?

I just want to resign and rest. I believe somebody is working on it at the moment and the current Managing Director also has an appraisal agenda.

You told me about the role you played on the new salary scheme at NPA. Please explain it?

When I became General Manager in 2007; I came from the financial sector and I recall that when asked what I  was  bringing in from my field, I said that NPA salary was poor because since 2003, salaries in the civil service  sector had been poor. At that time we had lost about 9,000 workers and morale of the workers was at the lowest ebb. They were also devastated psychologically because nobody knew who was going to be sacked next following the port reforms.

So, we had to set up a committee to work on salary review and within a month the report was done and the executive management approved it. The journey to Abuja to get the ministerial approval was done by me. I was in Abuja for a long time defending every component of that report at various stages before it was eventually passed and not one kobo was cut out. It was approved just as we prepared it. This improved the living standards of all the employees and I am grateful to God for the privilege to carry out that task.

I learnt that even NIMASA came to seek your services for a new salary scheme?

Yes, that was a long time ago. I was  in a plane with the late Stella Obasanjo’s brother, the late Henry Abebe  in a business class. He was with  NIMASA then. He came to me, saying, “Chief, I learnt that you championed the new salary scheme at NPA. Can you do the same for NIMASA?” I told him that they would have to pay for consultancy but I gave him some ideas which they also used to upgrade their salaries too.

You journeyed into Corporate Affairs from a background that never had Public Relations (PR). How were you able to fix it? What was the experience like?

It was an entirely new terrain for me. My experience in MAMSER was really helpful. At MAMSER, in 1990,  I was the Head of Political Education in Kwara State. I had to reach out to the public and the media. That experience helped me a lot when I ventured into Public Relations.

When I was brought into the Public Affairs Department of NPA, we were having a bad image in the press. I drew up a reform program and restructured the Public Relations unit to fit my vision.

My successor, Capt. Iheanacho Ebubeogu also inherited my restructured Public Relations department when he came onboard. I am still using the same structure today.

The relationship with the media is different from the academic knowledge. If you are trained as a media practitioner in school, it is just to give you a theoretical exposure. It is different from the practical aspect of public relations. The practical side of PR includes your personality as an individual. You must be able to relate with various kinds of people without being tribalistic. The moment you’re tribalistic as a PR practitioner you have failed.

My background also aided my performance in PR. I was born in the East, Oji -River in Enugu State. Igbo was my first language. My father worked in the Energy Commission of Nigeria (ECN). It was the death of my mother that pulled us out of the East to the North where I grew up. I schooled in many places in the North such as Maiduguri, Kaduna and later migrated to Kogi State. I can relate with the  Igbo, Yorubas, Hausa and every other tribe because of my rich experience in various parts of the country. I’m from Kogi State but I have visited almost every state in the North.

I did my O’ level in Ilorin at Kwara Polytechnic and I also attended the University of Ibadan and this made me relate with the Yorubas. With these experiences, I have been able to see myself as a true Nigerian and I see everybody as a Nigerian. I used this experience to relate to people during my stint in PR. I never related with the media as General Manager or from a tribalistic perspective; I see everybody as Nigerians and as friends. They visit me in my house, I know their wives and I speak with their children on phone. So, it is like we have become a family. They can confide in me and I can confide in them. P.R should go beyond the desk of a PR officer if one hopes to succeed.

How have you been able to successfully manage your bosses?

Your boss is your boss. You must first admit that before you begin to know that your boss is your friend, a brother or a sister. The next step is to be honest and transparent in your relationship with them so that they can have some confidence in you. You must not gossip about their affairs. I don’t gossip about my Managing Directors and they all relate very well with me. I had a good relationship with Mallam Mohammed Abdusalam, Mallam Habib Abdullahi, Alhaji Ado-Bayero, and even my current Managing Director, Hadiza Bala-Usman. I see her as a sister, a friend and a boss. She is someone that you can learn a lot from and she is a great leader.

You must learn to respect their personalities and office. Don’t go to them with gossips but talk about how they can succeed and work towards achieving that. If you can do this; your boss would have to like you. You must also be hard working, intelligent and humble.

I never went to any of my Managing Directors to gossip but to discuss issues and ideas to develop the Authority. I also advocate for my colleagues especially if the person is being cheated. The person may not even know about it before I discuss the issue with the Managing Director.

You have been able to generate money for NPA with magazines which has become a standard. Other agencies want to do what you have done. How did you achieve this?

Ever since I was a student, I always criticized public officers for operating with public service unproductive attitude to work and I am against that. I believe that a public servant would succeed if he applies private sector etiquette in managing his office.

I rose to the position of branch manager at the Kwara Industrial Trust Fund which is a finance company which enabled me to discuss finance with businessmen and this broadened my scope on finance.

The trust fund is owned by three states; Kwara, Kogi, and Niger. I was Deputy Manager, Corporate Development and later became Branch Manager of Kogi State. This was where I learnt the tricks of financial management. When I was creating the NPA magazine, I was not creating it with the view that NPA would run it. It was supposed to be an international bi-lingual magazine. I discussed it with Mallam Abdusalam when I came on board. The day we launched this magazine we had N11million worth of advert on it. During my tenure, we didn’t collect money from NPA for the magazine, it sponsored itself and we spread it to the ports abroad in Europe and America. Foreigners got to learn about Nigeria from the magazine. People paid for the front page, back page, etc. We always had advert and we had a lot of money. When I left the department we had N 20.6 million which I handled over to my successor but we don’t have such money in that account anymore. That is my approach to public service. I also used the same etiquette for the NPA truck sticker exercise which fetched money for NPA, although, the idea was safety and sanity of the roads and not just to generate revenue.

In Calabar, we had a terrible swimming pool there, but when I looked at it I was looking at the money. So, I refurbished it and we were generating money to build a snooker hall and a tennis court. We also put a satellite dish, television and reorganized the place. All these we were able to achieve with revenue from the abandoned swimming pool. Everywhere I served I established proper accounting system that is not personified. I had an auditor and accountant. I was never the only signatory to the accounts. I have tested and proved that if you used private etiquettes in running your public office you can generate a lot of money. Give me a dead public institution and I would resurrect it.

How did you start your career? Were you influenced by your parents or environment?

My parents only told me to work hard. I started as a teacher before I became an Education Officer in Kwara State. I later became a WAEC Invigilator, taking question papers to schools which fetched me a Certificate of Honesty. I went for Master’s degree while in service, and then I joined MAMSER and rose to the position of Head of Political Education in MAMSER.

From MAMSER, I moved to Kwara Industrial Trust Fund and I moved to NPA from the Trust Fund. My joining NPA was more of destiny; I never planned or dreamt of it.

Talking about family, how were you able to combine your work in all the places with the responsibility of family?

I have four kids; two boys and two girls, and one wife. It’s when you have too many children it becomes a challenge. We are just six in my family. I also combined this with sports because I am a sports person. I was a footballer in school. I was a goalkeeper at one time but I played more as a defender. However, after some time I couldn’t cope with the physical nature of football and I couldn’t run away from it so I joined the referees. I did my Grade 1 examinations and passed in Calabar. Unfortunately, the nature of my job did not allow me to participate fully as a referee. At times when I had matches to officiate I would also have an official function and the office duty has to come first because the referee task was for leisure. I retired as a Grade 1 referee and I am currently the Chief Patron of Lagos State Referees. I can’t leave football because it is part of me. I belong to the Badagry Referee Council and I also have a football pitch in my house.

You are leaving NPA very young and vibrant. What are your future plans?

I have served NPA but I want to serve the nation in a higher capacity. I can’t hide the fact that I am interested in politics. I have always been an activist. As a student, I was an activist even as Prefect before I joined the Student Union executives during my years in Kwara Polytechnic. It is this activism that I am bringing into politics to see how to improve the policies of Nigeria. I also want to use my experience to develop Nigeria. I am interested in politics because this is the right time for me to make impact in Nigeria and not just be a social critic.

I am also interested in how the economy of the nation is being managed. I believe we can improve the forex system that we operate. The demand and supply is not working because the forex scarcity is artificial. I recommend that the naira should be changed. The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) does not know the amount of naira in circulation so they can’t embark on the primary role of monetary regulation. Changing the colour of the naira would ensure that we can regulate the money in circulation and the excess naira chasing the dollar would seize. Prior to Presdent Buhari’s first stint as military Head of State, the nation’s economy was in comatose. President Shagari had to go to the National Assembly to declare a state of emergency for Nigeria’s economy which was anchored on the devaluation of the naira. Obafemi Awolowo issued a press release at that time condemning the devaluation.

The objective of devaluation is to decrease the level of imports and increase the level of exports. To achieve this you must have an expansive export base so that when you export you gain a lot of forex but we don’t have such export base. The only product we can export is crude oil and we are operating within the confines of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The principles of devaluation are very clear and it doesn’t apply to Nigeria because we don’t have a massive production/ export base.

The ban on rice importation, ban importation of used vehicles, restriction of forex for 41 items, etc., are all fallacies. We are just chasing shadows. If you go to America, you can find over 50 different types of rice imported from various nations of the world. Does it destroy America’s economy? No!

An Idian can eat Indian rice in America, a Malaysian can eat Malaysian rice and a Nigerian can eat the Ofada rice in America because they import all these types of rice. This shows that the problem is not the importation of rice rather the importation of rice creates jobs for people from the clearing, transportation, wholesaler, retailers and even the ‘mama-put’.

The problem of Nigeria is simple; it is corruption. Despite all the bans and restrictions, the naira continues its downward slide. This is because we see millions of dollars found in people’s houses, wardrobes, hidden in saves in Nigeria; these monies aren’t even in the banks. These are the people who continue to buy dollar at any amount and the naira continues to lose value.

The Buhari government was able to solve this in 1983 and 1984 when they changed the naira. Those who stole monies couldn’t change it so the naira gained value and that was when $1 became equal to N1. That was the magic.

Within a short period of time the President as a military Head of State was able to put the economy on a sustainable course of development. I would also suggest the same procedure now because the quantum of money stolen between 1999 to date is so huge. Except you sulk in this money, no matter what you do the naira is going to reach N1000 to $1.

Ifeanyi Uba, one individual went on air to say that if the naira wasn’t brought to an appreciable level he was going to disrupt the system and the following week naira appreciated; this tells you that the forex problem is artificial. There is an unpatriotic cartel controlling it and they are trying to make a mess of the present administration. We must restructure the CBN to put the nation’s economy back on the right track to make it reflect the change agenda that we are professing. We must sulk in the naira underground, in wardrobes and private saves. The emergence of Bank Verification Number (BVN) and searching eyes of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has made the thieves to realize that it was no longer safe to keep these large sums of stolen monies in the bank.

My advice is that the President changes the currency to sulk these stolen monies in otherwise in the 2019 elections; these politicians would go all the way using these monies to fight the man who has restricted them from spending their stolen money. Once you sulk in the naira, the naira outside loses value while those with dollar would bring it out to change and the dollar would lose its value. This is the solution to the forex challenges. America is sulking in the black and white dollar at the moment and we can do the same.

Another problem is the payment of Governors in naira, there is no law saying that you must pay the Governor’s in naira. If the earning are in dollars, pay him in dollars so that he go to the bank manager and collect his dollars and he should be able to negotiate the exchange rate for himself. The CBN shouldn’t fix the rate but allow the governors decide and get a good bargain. They could change for N400 and the dollars would be in the bank. SMEs that need the dollar can now get it from the banks and do their businesses. Each time the CBN pays the governors in naira, they go back to buy dollar from the black-market and sweep the dollars away. Each time you pay the governors with naira from CBN, you are throwing more naira into the system that they end up using to buy dollars and devalue the naira but if you pay them in dollars and they go to bank to change it into naira then they are getting the naira already in the banks.

What would you tell the stakeholders about the port reform programme?

The port reform is about 10 years old. I won’t say so much because my Managing Director has her reform programme to transform the nation’s economy. The country is now moving to deep seaports and the Managing Director has said that her programme is to encourage these deep seaports especially the ones that would be functional. She is also reviewing the concession agreement and I would encourage that. Some of the factors that led to the throughput projections are no longer there. As at the time they bidded and gave throughput projections certain items were not banned but some of these items have been banned so the ability to reach their projection is low and we have to review it to make it realistic. This is my advice to the NPA management so that we can work together for the sake of Nigeria.

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