Has the Civil Service Really Reformed Since 1974?

Winifred Oyo-Ita

‘Tunji Olaopa

The fundamental question I want to address in this essay is simple: Has the Nigerian civil service system significantly reformed since 1974? Any administrative scholar and professional will immediately see why this is a very difficult question to answer either way. This is because it is not just that easy to present an unqualified affirmative or negative answer to a nation’s entire administrative system. There is no nation that will ever remain the same if it does not pay any attention, no matter how minute the reform attention is, to the health of its public service. This is because it is the public service that serves as the fulcrum on which any government will ever make the state run efficiently. And this is even all the more so for any state that aims toward democratic governance and development. Indeed, the notion of a developmental state that is cogent for third world developing countries is founded on the idea of a functional and constantly reforming public service.

Nigeria falls squarely into this category. The Nigerian civil service system has been in the reform business since 1954 when it was inaugurated before Nigeria got her independence. This is because the founding fathers were immediately confronted with the challenge of making the Nigerian state meaningful for the teeming populace who were motivated to join the fight for independence on the premise that it will signal the beginning of a good life for them. The story of Nigeria’s existence since independence has belied that promise. From a terribly managed civilian rule to the long night of military rule, Nigeria has gone from one bad governance programme to another which has given Nigerians a very bad deal with regard to the kind of governance that would empower and transform their existence. Yet the civil service system has been injected with some of the best reform ideas and paradigm that could ever be infused into any administrative system anywhere in the world.

In Nigeria’s administrative history, the pre-1954 and pre-independence reform efforts are cogent because they constitute the proper foundational refection on how the civil service system could be made relevant for a newly independent developing countries that is already challenged by the reason of its plural nature as a multiethnic, multicultural, multireligious and multilinguistic society. Within this context, it became immediately obvious what role the public service was constituted to play in ameliorating the expected fractional conflicts that would no doubt engulf the emerging nation. From 1934 to 1954, seven commissions were put in place: Hunt Committee (1934), the Bridges Committee (1942), the Tudor-Davies Commission (1945), the Harragin Commission (1946), the Smaller Commission (1946), the Foot Commission (1948), and the Phillipson-Adebo Commission (1953). As is to be expected, these commissions were burdened with the administrative issues that any colonial and soon-to-be-postcolonial civil service system would face—cadre, promotion, compensation and remuneration, as well as the fundamental issue of the nature of the civil service. Between 1954 and 1960, there were altogether four reform commissions: Lidbury Commission (1954), the Gorsuch Commission (1955), the Mbanefo Commission (1959), and the Newns Commission (1959). Cadre and remuneration still remained major issues for the emerging civil service to contend with. However, one significant issue that spilled into independence was the “generalists” and “professionals” distinction that remained the bane of the public service efficiency unfortunately up until today.

However, it is one thing to inject a system with fundamental reforming ideas, but an entirely different thing to follow up on the optimal implementation of these ideas and insights in a way that transform the system into a democratic service delivering mechanism. Nigeria has had the best of reform commissions and committees but their recommendations and their possible effectiveness have been swallowed up within the political context that pays lip service to reform but lacks the ultimate will to see it through. The administrative system has thus been progressing in fits and starts, but it has not achieved the reform optimality that would have made the Nigerian civil service a transformed professionalized institution with the capacity readiness for democratic service delivery to Nigerians.

1974 is a fundamental administrative year in the history of the Nigerian civil service. It was the year that Nigeria got its first major opportunity to fundamentally rethink the civil service system and lay its foundation on groundwork of productivity and optimal performance. The Udoji Commission came into existence as a result of the recommendations of the 1971 Adebo Commission that was set up basically to iron out the thorny wage and salary issue that kept recurring since 1954. However, this Commission got caught up in the deeper managerial challenges raised by the 1968 Fulton Report set up in the UK to reassess the efficiency problem of the British Civil Service. The Fulton Report is regarded as the “high watermark of managerialism”, as well as the theoretical foundation for the New Public Management (NPM) revolution. The Report was set up to reflect on the possibilities of the Weberian administrative system within the context of the imperatives market system. The Adebo Commission was therefore compelled to confront the issues of an appropriate organisation and structure that would energize the efficiency profile of the civil service in Nigeria. In other words, wage and salary are just symptoms of a deeper administrative malady Nigeria needed to engage with. However, because it had its specific objective, the Commission recommended the establishment of another commission to focus on organisational and structural matters.

The Udoji Commission tackled its terms of reference head on. As at the time it was set up, the Fulton Report was already six years old, and thus Chief Jerome Udoji had the full complement of the debates and discourses as well as the administrative responses to the Fulton Report. The Udoji Commission saw the fundamental problem of the civil service in Nigeria as that of an administrative inflexibility that finds it hard to respond to positive changes. Its Main Report therefore advocated the need for a total reassessment of the Nigerian Civil Service and its capacity to internalise and adapt global best practices. The Commission was also bold enough to tackle the generalist-professional issue when it recommended a new style public service infused with “new blood” working under a result-oriented management system operated by professionals and specialists in particular fields. There was also the need, according to the Report, for standardization of conditions of service, increase in public sector wages, a unified and integrated administrative structure, the elimination of waste and the removal of deadwood/inefficient departments, but with the caveat, that the wage component, in terms of phasing, should follow the managerial and systemic changes recommended.

Like the Fulton Report before it, these cogent recommendations never saw the light of the day! Any time I write about the Udoji Commission and the ill that befell it, I usually take a pause because I am always consumed by a deep sadness at the great opportunity for renewal and rebirth that Nigeria missed. We had an opportunity to transform a colonial heritage into a truly postcolonial administrative machinery that could have been sufficiently empowered to take on the development challenges of a developing Nigeria. The military administration that received it preferred and implemented the wage component of the Udoji Report rather than its deeper recommendations for managerial transformation of the system. The reform reputation that ought to have dignified Chief Udoji’s name was damaged by a superficial wage issue.

This administrative tragedy was compounded in 1975, the year of the infamous purge of the Nigerian civil service when the Murtala-Obasanjo administration retrenched thousands of public servants unceremoniously. Let us attempt to put this purge in perspective. The most damning issue with the purge was its political undercurrent and the caliber of highly revered administrative mentors that were affected. In another breath and as a result of the Nigerianisation Policy and the choice of representativeness over merit as the operating criterion of the system as well as state creation and its attendant institutional multiplication, there was a massive recruitment exercise that ultimately bloated the public sector and deprived it of an efficiency capacity. It therefore became possible to have too many people doing too little work. Efficiency went overboard, and development suffered. It is therefore sound administrative thinking to work within the demands of downsizing the system at the lower level if it ever hopes to retrieve an efficient optimality. However, downsizing is not cheap, as it requires a post-retirement package that should be factored into the downsizing process itself. This translates into giving those to be eased out a soft landing after they have left service. The military regime at the time was oblivious to all this administrative necessity.

Unfortunately, the ripple effects of the administrative insensitivity that attended the 1975 purge has remained with the civil service ethos since then. Those humiliated out of office took with them the true concept of selfless service and the culture of deferred gratification. And those left behind immediately became pragmatic in their understanding of the logic of the system—since the system does not reward honest service and productivity, it is better to reward oneself at the expense of the system itself. The culture of immediacy therefore became the central source of the dysfunction that crept into the public service post-1975 and by extension, took with it long-term thinking. The ghost of Udoji and his Report have come to haunt the Nigerian public service! And we have been trying since the return of democracy in 1999 to exorcise this ghost. All the other post-1974 reforms—Phillips (1988), Ayida (1995), Obasanjo (1999), Yar’Adua (2010) and Jonathan (2011)—have had to pay the price of not only the missed opportunity of reforming the productivity dynamics of the civil service system, but also of a system that keeps scrambling to reform itself.

It is clear to me that the system has still not got right the productivity/performance/output-driven framework within which most performing public service in the world now operates. And so, for the public service to pick up a reforming rhythm that is truly in sync with Nigeria’s democratic experiment, then the starting point would be to commence a reflection on the administrative ideology that undergirds the public service as is right now. All our administrative reforms have been carried out within the Weberian administrative structure. But then, the world has moved on to the neo-Weberian! It is time to get Nigeria’s reform right. Reform is not just about tweaking the system for optimality. On the contrary, it is more about reflecting on what the underlying ideological and administrative framework of the system ought to be and in what direction one wants its objectives to be directed. The Weberian administrative philosophy has served its purpose but is not yet exhausted. But contrary to expectations, the New Public Management has failed as a replacement. Neo-Weberianism is a testament to the creative association between the traditional system and managerialism. It is high time Nigeria enters into this era of administrative experimentation and creativity.

*Olaopa is a retired Federal Perm Secretary and Professor of Public Administration (tolaopa2003@gmail.com ; tolaopa@isgpp.com.ng)