Two and a half months since, with a stroke of the pen, Nigeria Prisons Service changed into Nigeria Correctional Service with the signing into law of the Nigeria Correctional Service Act 2019, the prisons are still congested. Most of the inmates are awaiting trial, not convicts. Many inmates have been there longer than the terms they would have spent if they had been convicted. The food they eat is appalling. There is a lot of rape and sodomy. Some prisoners have been on death row for a decade or more, and still have no date with the hangman. New Interior Minister Rauf Aregbesola has however promised that most of these appalling conditions will end within six months. Which set me thinking: how many institutions in Nigeria ever improved due to change of name?
It reminded me of the story the great Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o told in his book Detained. Ngugi, a lecturer in the University of Nairobi’s Department of Literature, changed his name in 1977 from James Ngugi to Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Some days later, Kenya’s cantankerous Attorney General Charles Mugane Njonjo spoke in Parliament during a debate on the university’s budget. Njonjo suddenly veered off the subject matter and said, “Concerning the Department of English [sic], I would like the Assistant Minister who is present here today to ensure that only people with the right qualification are appointed to teach in it. Some people who are teaching in this faculty [sic] think if you call yourself Kamau wa Njoroge, you are a very important person, or a lecturer with a lot of know how. You no longer call yourself James Kamau. You call yourself Kamau wa Njoroge…”
Concerning the Nigeria Correctional Services, I would like the Interior Minister, who owed many months of workers’ salaries when he governed Osun State, to ensure that only people with the right qualification are appointed to work in it. Some warders and prison controllers think if you change your name to Nigeria Correctional Service, you are a very important service, or a service with a lot of know how. You no longer call yourself Nigeria Prisons Service. You call yourself Nigeria Correctional Service…
Last year, when Acting President Yemi Osinbajo ordered the Police Inspector General to reorganize the Special Anti-Robbery Squad [SARS] due to public outcry, IG promptly changed its name to Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad, FSARS. Has the name change from SARS improved FSARS’ respect for human rights and citizen liberties? Its cells are still overflowing with detainees who live in appalling conditions. If name change alone will make a police agency more human rights-friendly, we should have seen the dividends when the Babangida regime changed National Security Organisation’s [NSO] name to State Security Service [SSS] in 1986. Later, SSS surreptitiously changed its name to Department of State Service but especially under its former DG, DSS was still accused of illegal detentions.
Other government agencies in this country changed their names over the years, but they did not become agencies with a lot of know how. Sometimes they went from bad to worse. In 1984, Major General Muhammadu Buhari took the old, plodding state-owned telephone monopoly Posts and Telegraph [P&T], spinned off NIPOST, then merged it with the younger, very vibrant Nigeria External Telecommunications [NET] to form NITEL, i.e. Nigeria Telecommunications. P&T managers ended up occupying the top 25 positions in NITEL. No wonder that P&T’s corporate culture prevailed in NITEL, leading to the firm going under when private telecom operators came on the scene seventeen years later.
In 1972, General Yakubu Gowon merged the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria [ECN] with the Niger Dams Authority [NDA] to form the National Electric Power Authority, NEPA. Under NEPA, electricity supply in Nigeria actually worsened, so government changed its name 40 years later to Power Holding Company of Nigeria, PHCN. Matters further worsened, so PHCN was disaggregated into Gencos, TCN and Discos. Power supply has hardly improved since then. Government should have learnt its lesson when it changed the Public Works Department’s [PWD] name in the 1960s to Ministry of Works. Potholes quickly took over Nigerian streets and I hear that government is shopping for a new name.
Up until 1975, the head of the Army in this country was called Chief of Staff, Army. Soon after General Murtala Mohammed took over that year, Supreme Headquarters announced that Lt General T.Y. Danjuma’s designation had changed to Chief of Army Staff. The same change applied to the heads of the Navy and Airforce. Maybe if Lt General Buratai’s title was still Chief of Staff, Army, soldiers will not be stopping Nigerians in the streets under Operation Positive Identification.
Up until the 1970s, the centre of federal administration in Lagos was called Cabinet Office. As soon as President Shehu Shagari was inaugurated in 1979, he announced that Cabinet Office’s name had changed to Executive Office of the President. General Babangida came along in 1985 and again changed the name to Presidency. Since then bureaucratic red tapism has increased, not reduced.
The top official in this office also underwent name changes. In the old Regions, the top officer in the Premier’s Office was called Secretary to the Premier or Sec Prem. After 1967, military rulers renamed the officer Secretary to the Military Government and Head of Service, SMG. At the federal level, the officer was called Secretary to the Federal Military Government and Head of the Federal Civil Service. When civilian rule returned in 1979, the officer was renamed Secretary to the Federal Government [SFG] while the state ones were called Secretary to the State Government, SSG. The former was later renamed Secretary to the Government of the Federation, SGF. Despite the head’s name changes, the public service is today a caricature of its former self.
When our national football team was known as the Green Eagles, they won the African Cup of Nations in 1980. The government then renamed them Super Eagles, which ensured that they were eliminated at the group stage during last year’s World Cup finals in Russia. Government did not learn any lesson because it is now proposing to revive Nigeria Airways and rename it Nigeria Air. Its logo could change from Flying Elephant to Flying Dinosaur.
Even private sector agencies in Nigeria that borrowed a leaf from government and serially changed their names hardly did better. The first-generation banks changed their names from Barclays Bank to Union Bank, Standard Bank to First Bank and IBWA to Afribank to Mainstreet Bank. They however watched askance as younger, fleet-footed banks swiftly overtook them with technological and product innovation. Even our money underwent a name change for the worse. In January 1973 the Central Bank of Nigeria withdrew pounds, shillings and pence as legal tender and renamed them Naira and Kobo. Since then our currency’s exchange rate has dipped from 20 kobo to the US dollar to 360 naira today, and counting.
Oil marketing companies also changed their names. The Obasanjo military regime nationalized Shell, Agip, Total and Texaco in 1977 because they failed to observe sanctions against apartheid South Africa. It renamed them National Oil and African Petroleum. Since then we have had acute fuel scarcities and petrol price has gone up from 20 kobo per litre to N145 today, and counting.
Many African countries also changed their names in the last 60 years, from Bechuanaland to Botswana, Basutoland to Lesotho, Malagasy to Madagascar, Tangayinka and Zanzibar to Tanzania, Nyasaland to Malawi, Northern Rhodesia to Zambia, Southern Rhodesia to Zimbabwe, Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, Gold Coast to Ghana, Dahomey to Benin Republic, Ivory Coast to Cote D’Ivoire, Congo to Zaire to DR Congo, and South West Africa to Namibia. Did it make them more efficient in poverty eradication? Even Organisation of African Unity [OAU] that changed its name to African Union [AU], did it make Africa more united?