My life as a Public Servant- Fola Arthur-Worrey

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Justice delayed is justice denied, so goes the famous maxim of justice administration. That Nigeria’s justice administration system is characterized, among other features; by delay in the conduct of cases is a known fact. But one man who, over the years, attempted to deploy various strategies and internal mechanisms – initially virtually solo in the years before the Tinubu/Osinbajo reform partnership, and then working with that partnership to confront some of the entrenched impediments to speedy dispensation of justice in Lagos State is Mr. Fola Arthur-Worrey.

Arthur-Worrey graduated from the University of Lagos with an LL.B (Hons) degree and was called to the Nigerian Bar after attending the Nigerian Law School. He immediately joined the public service as a State Counsel in the Lagos State Ministry of Justice, rising to the post of Director of Public Prosecutions in 1996 and appointed as state Solicitor-General and Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Justice, in which position he served from 1998 to 2006, the longest term on record. Fola Arthur-Worrey is undeniably one of the key reformers in Lagos State and without doubt, one of the hardest working DPPs the state has ever had. He believes that both at federal and state level the nation’s criminal justice system are yet to measure up to expectations in spite of the country’s democratic experience.

Although he retired from the public service 2007, he was recalled from retirement, first as Commissioner for Lands where he made tremendous marks and saw to it that the delay in the issuance of Certificates of Occupancy became a thing of the past. He was later appointed by Babatunde Fashola, SAN, for a special assignment, to manage the Lagos State Security Trust Fund, a first of its kind, a Public Private Partnership (PPP) vehicle set up by the state to support the police and other Federal security agencies in the discharge of their functions.

Arthur-Worrey with Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, former governor of Lagos State

Ordinarily, it would seem Arthur-Worrey was not cut out for civil service employment because of its perceived incompetence and traditional ways of doing things. He was too restless, a bit of a rebel (‘A rebel without a cause’ his father used to say, before he finally settled down) and was generally dissatisfied with convention. But against all expectations, that was where he spent most of his career. He had the zeal to try and make things work and was impatient when things didn’t work, which was often.

“Let me say that I would never have thought as I got to the end of my university studies that public service would be my life, indeed my passion. I had watched my father in the Federal Public Service, the long hours and total commitment with little appreciation or reward, at least so it appeared, and I said: ‘No, this is not for me.’ I felt it was too structured, too slow and too inefficient to suit my own kind of very restless personality”, he said.

However, as his career progressed, he came to see Public Service in another light. He became fascinated with the power of the service to make difference in the lives of the people. “Fundamentally, I have come to understand that public office is an opportunity; it can be an opportunity for purely self-gratification, or it can be an opportunity to, as much as possible, improve the lives of people and society. The third thing is the opportunity to influence policy and guide government, both at the top, the middle and the bottom, all of them equally as important. The thing is, if you don’t guide government, especially the political leadership on the law, nothing will work. That’s why a quality civil service is so vital”.  This became his mantra as climbed the ladder in Lagos State Civil Service.

He added: “I do subscribe to the view that government is God’s true agent on earth and that is why it must try to perform to His standards. In Nigeria we are always looking at power; who is leading, who is in charge, who can dispense patronage, whereas we should be looking at institutions. So it is a privilege to serve the public, it is an opportunity. The only way you can influence people’s lives on a global scale is through the institutions of government. And if you are a public servant and you truly have faith, then you should believe that if you watch the public’s back, God will watch yours”.

But why is he so restless and impatient with mediocrity? He answered thus: “My impatience, my dissatisfaction and sense of outrage at the way we sometimes conduct our public affairs is driven by my upbringing, early exposure by my parents to read things like Newsweek and Time magazines. These were my early windows into the way the world functions”.

On how Lagos State’s justice team was able to sell the kind of reforms it embarked on to the extent that everybody in Nigeria now sees Lagos State as model with the reforms being adopted in one form or another by many other states, he said:

Asiwaju Tinubu, Femi Pedro(former Deputy Gov, AG Yemi Osinbajo(now Vice President) and Arthur-Worrey

“As at the time the Tinubu/Osinbajo reform machine arrived at the gates in 1999, and we met, it was like the past and the future meeting because I brought with me the institutional knowledge and memory and they brought the freshness of new blood, great new ideas and a can-do spirit. And for the first time, there was a plan! The Governor and the Attorney-General had every right to have said, ‘No, we want totally fresh persons.’ After all, the office of State Solicitor-General and Permanent Secretary is an essentially political appointment. They could have said to me: Goodbye, thanks for your good works. But they probably felt that I might play some useful role with the knowledge I had. So we got down to work, and I did have my own ideas with regard to staff issues, IT and legislative reform, especially in criminal justice;

“We just began to drive the change: first of all we changed the conceptual framework of the role of the Ministry of Justice. What are we about? Traditionally, especially under the military, we were about supporting the regime in power. Just like our security models, regime security. That is why you still have these noisy and aggressive escorts; every important’ person wants to be escorted by armed policemen while we should be talking about public safety and general security. Conceptually the Ministry of Justice had to reconfigure to serve the citizen, to be an instrument of democratic aspirations rather than a burden to growth of that spirit;

So, the whole issue of structure, welfare, quality personnel, method, orientation, speed of process, alternatives and all manner of things were considered. So, we had the first summit to get input from other operators in the system. It was the first summit of its kind in Nigeria tagged “Summit on the Administration of Justice” and it brought together Federal and State Attorneys-General, lawyers, judges, system managers, corporate people and the consumers. It was from this diverse and very knowledgeable gathering that the original blueprint was fine-tuned and became the template for reform;

How did the public, which he and his co-travellers were so passionate to serve took this reforms? “When we started with the welfare of judges and magistrates, certain judges, including the then Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, were the first to say: ‘What are they doing in Lagos State? It’s politics.’ But at the end of the day they all adopted in one way or another, model established by Lagos State and I take pride in the fact that I was part of that process;

Yemi (Osinbajo) and I, working deep into the night, discussing methods, drafting memos and scenarios and funding models for Asiwaju’s approval. So it was a very good partnership in spite of a few differences of opinion, nearly eight years;

Because of his diligence Mr. Arthur-Worrey was moved out of his ‘home-zone’ to the Ministry of Lands as Commissioner and as usual, turned things around for the better within the short period of 13 months that he served there.

“You will recall that it was from the Ministry of Justice, working with the Registrar of Titles and the PS that we began to design a reform package for Lands. So my going there was almost just a continuation of that. So, I got to Lands, which at the time did not have a very good reputation because it was perceived to be slow and non-responsive, working under the constraints of a bureau and perhaps because there was no commissioner. I think I was the first commissioner in over 20 years, so it didn’t have the direct executive power that it probably needed to function at the level expected;

“So when I got there armed with the delegation of the governor’s powers under the Land Use Act, I could take unilateral executive decisions which had been the exclusive function of the governor. When I got there, I was challenged by the slowness of the process and the fact that there were too many procedures. So I said this is not good. When I was taking office some people said to me: When you get there all you need to do is have all the officers replaced. But
I said, ‘No, that is not how I work. They have knowledge in their heads which I need, so I am going to work with them and they will work in the way I desire. I don’t think I should just sweep everybody out and start from scratch. I don’t have all that time.’

“It was a challenge, believe me. It was a new environment; I had been in Justice all my life. There were new faces, new methods but when I came in I still felt that I was coming from a place where I was not just dealing with law but also dealing with management, administration and allocation of resources. So I set targets for myself apart from the policy issues, and in setting those targets I had solved half the problem because this was an input/output system unlike other places where you really can’t measure output. In this place, I could measure progress by the number of files completed and issued. Because I felt the procedures were too many, I collapsed them and this saved a lot of time.

“The main challenge was in issuing certificates of occupancy for state land which prior to my appointment could only be signed by the governor. The average numbers of certificates signed per year, prior to my appointment, were about 350 to 400 because a governor has so many other things to do and you don’t just sign but check to see that all requirements have been complied with. But in my 13 months I signed over 3,300 because I was not distracted. As a member of cabinet there were many other things I had to do, though. I headed the gaming casino reform cabinet committee and our work facilitated Sun City to come into Federal Palace Hotel. I had so many other ad-hoc duties. I was Chairman of the State Tenders Board. But my main goal was to issue as many certificates of occupancy as I possibly could. I used to work till 2 a.m. and my people would come in the next morning and see piles of signed Cs of O. But I couldn’t have achieved this without the same people I had been urged to replace.”

Speaking about his current appointment as CEO, Lagos State Security Trust Fund and how he leverages on his experience as a prosecutor, he said: “For me, it was another chance to play a role and have an effect on society, and contrary to what many people think, the Trust Fund does not play a direct role in decision making on law enforcement and crime fighting. We are fund raisers and fund managers essentially and its role is to materially support decisions made at the State Security Council and consider requests from the different arms of the security architecture. But whoever is going to run the place must have ideas on how things work and you improve that knowledge with experience and interactions. Because even if decisions are made elsewhere and there is a request to the Fund, the Board, being independent, must still interrogate the request, so it is not automatic. We would have been out of business by now if we had acceded to all requests;

“Essentially, the insight that my years as prosecutor and Solicitor-General and my years of contact with the police and now my management of the Fund has given me is that, while conventional wisdom declares that the major challenge of the police in fighting crime is re-orientation, that may not be the true solution. I am not saying that some level of re-orientation is not desired; indeed all Nigerians could do with a dose of that.

I am saying that the main challenge is a lack of institutional support. The Trust Fund was not set up to take over the functions of the Police Ministry. Police is a Federal agency and its budget and operational issues and deployments are all exclusive Federal functions. So, the Trust Fund is a local solution to a local problem or a local solution to a national problem. What is the national problem? Under-funding, under-funding. You and I both know that virtually 70 per cent of police equipment is provided by way of donation by the states and the private sector.”

With the incumbent Lagos State AG, Adeniji Kazeem at another public function

But does Mr. Arthur-Worrey consider himself to be fulfilled as a lawyer?

“Let me say that I don’t think that I feel fulfilled or satisfied because there is still so much I think could be done,” he stated. “Let me just say that I feel privileged to have done the things I have been able to do. It is not the usual expectation that a lawyer who has risen to the level of Solicitor-General goes ‘back’ to run a security trust fund. This is a country of labels I think. I have been asked so many times when I am going to become a judge or Senior Advocate and I smile and say, “If God wills it.” We are a country where, perhaps too often, a person’s worth is measured by his title or label. For me, public service is my passion. I just don’t believe that any other set-up, especially in the Third World, can make as much impact as the institutions of public service if they are well led and funded. Certainly private institutions, philanthropists and activist lawyers like Gani can make huge impact but it will still need institutions of Government to tie everything together or implement the results of private enterprise.

“I can never be fulfilled unless there is perfection, and that, as we all know, is Utopia. Then it means I am condemned to a life of non-fulfillment. I am more imperfect than most myself, but we can strive for better.

“Am I content with my choices? Yes. I have had the privilege of making some impact for the better in my community and I am privileged to be able to point to specific instances where people have benefited from the fact that I decided to do something in a different way, or where my position has allowed me to mentor change. Have I screwed up sometimes? Yes, many times, but overall, yes, I am content with my choices.”

Culled from the book: For the love of their nation-Lawyers as agents of change by Mustapha ‘Kunle Ogunsakin

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