A laggard civil service and our enduring bureaucratic challenge

Ayo Olukotun

“Within the Civil Service, it becomes quite the norm that there are too many people doing nothing, too many doing little and too few people doing too much”

— Tunji Olaopa, Retired Federal Permanent Secretary and Professor of Public Administration.

A country’s organisational texture; its capacity to cohere, make things happen, innovate and adopt new technologies and ideas are crucial determinants of its capability to develop, lift itself out of ruts and invite itself, if no one invites it, to the charmed circle of the world’s most developed nations. Look around the globe, especially the East Asian growth miracle countries, and you will see the validity of this statement. Indeed, countries which have undisciplined, corrupt, slothful and non-managerial civil services and institutions take far longer time to develop, tending to go round in circles, not the least because their civil services lack the discipline and purpose to move their societies forward.

In recent weeks, our civil service has come under renewed focus because of the outcry and protests of federal pensioners over delayed entitlements as well as the arrest by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission of the Accountant-General of the Federation, Ahmed Idris, over allegations of fiddling dangerously with close to N80 billion of national funds. Considering that one of the functions of the civil service is to keep and husband a state’s finances, this allegation of gargantuan misappropriation can be likened to a gatekeeper who in the course of theft virtually makes away with the gate itself leaving the house wide open for serial looting.

To put the matter in perspective, we may paraphrase the famed writer Chinua Achebe’s coinage by saying, There was a Civil Service. Recall civil service stars that once held sway in this country such as C. O. Lawson, Allison Ayida and Simeon Adebo among others, well known both at home and abroad, and you will see how rapidly down the slope the current civil service has travelled. There are too few names these days that one can associate with elan, fresh ideas, transparency and innovative capacity. On the contrary and sadly, the national memory is tormented by the escapades of such civil servants as Abdulrasheed Maina, Chairman of the defunct Pension Reform Task Team who was sentenced to jail over N2 billion fraud and Mrs Winifred Ekanem Oyo-Ita, who left the service in controversial circumstances relating to a contract involving N3 billion.

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This is not to say that there are no worthy civil servants in the category identified by Olaopa in the opening quote as the “too few people doing too much;” nonetheless, they are regrettably few overshadowed by the majority categorised by Olaopa as “too many people doing nothing.” It is not even clear whether they are doing nothing or they are doing things which can put Nigeria in harm’s way in the shape of the haemorrhaging of its resources.

Why is this important? Partly because in the architecture of governance the civil service is an institution with enormous leeway and importance. Some of its mandates include the formulation and implementation of policies, serving as advisers to the political class, ensuring the continuity of , constituting the storehouse of l information as well as safeguarding the resources of and keeping records of how those resources are employed.

To my mind, this is almost the full span of governance if we exempt the political functions allocated constitutionally to the members of the political class. To put it bluntly, next year, whoever becomes Nigeria’s President, may take the oath of office, only to find that he has, apart from ministers, official companions in civil servants who are dispirited, laggard, waiting only to make fast bucks at the borders of new policies and, generally, the sort of personnel who do not care much about the developmental race. This is to say that unless the civil service is re-energised, re-tooled and re-imagined, all the talk about climbing the developmental ladder in a hurry will not amount to much.

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Britain may not be a civil service paradise. Its critics talk about red tape, a toxic work environment bureaucratic in-fighting among other ills. That, notwithstanding, its civil service and other l institutions have passed a threshold of competence from which Nigeria can take away some lessons. An anecdote may make the point clearer. Some years ago, a colleague of mine who had just returned from the United Kingdom, where he undertook studies in Psychiatric Medicine and doubled as a lecturer, rushed to my office in an enthusiastic mood. He barely greeted me before dropping on my table a letter from the British Tax Office authorising to be sent to him a refund of taxes he paid in excess of the stipulated amount. The money, the letter read, was going to be paid to him in a couple of days from the receipt of that letter. Hearing such an elevating report, I rose to the occasion and the two of us took dance steps to celebrate the good news. The money which was sent to him subsequently was enough, when changed to naira, to buy him a car which he wasted no time in purchasing.

The takeaway for a Nigerian, obviously, is: Will Nigeria ever grow at the rate it is growing to a stature that tax authorities can refund excess payment of tax to anyone, much less to someone living outside our shores? That incident ought to pinpoint the gulf between countries with civil services that work efficiently and those where the bosses and several of their minions are almost perpetually “not on seat.” Needless to say that there is a connection between the work culture of the political class and that of the civil service. Mr Allison Ayida, federal Permanent Secretary to Chief Obafemi Awolowo (at the time Minister of Finance), it was who revealed that Awolowo impacted the work ethic because while most other ministers (they were called commissioners at the time) came late to the office and required their permanent secretaries to do the bulk of the work and pass files to the minister for approval, Awolowo came early to the office, did most of the work on the table and passed the files to the permanent secretary. In other words, he gave guidance, leadership and vision to the civil service of his time.

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One doesn’t know what goes on these days but it may well be that several ministers are leaving strategic work to their permanent secretaries, who may either gainfully employ the opportunity or pass it up in indolence or nonchalance. The point to make, however, is that if an administration leaves the civil service rudderless and leaderless or if it falls short of commitment to efficient governance, it has no right to expect more than dithering from the civil service.

Overall, however, and given the strategic role of the civil service; it is important in case anyone is listening to do an overhaul of the civil service with a view to returning it to the glory days. This would entail less politicisation, more merit-based norms, checking corruption at source (and not when the horse has already bolted from the stable) as well as revamping the work ethics. Until and unless these are done, 2023 may be a mere mirage in improved governance terms.

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