Sitting at meetings with former President Olusegun Obasanjo is almost akin to attending an advanced class in government and politics and if you pay attention, you are going to learn a lot. That has been my experience in the past three years on the Advisory Board of the African Initiative for Governance (AIG) being promoted by Mr Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede. Last Friday, at the meeting which preceded the Saturday and Sunday sessions for the selection of the next cohort of Oxford University scholarship candidates, we spent time reviewing the initiative and the prospects for meeting set objectives.

At the session, Obasanjo shared several anecdotes but the most striking is the one involving a prominent retired federal permanent secretary. According to the story, following his appointment as a minister during the Second Republic in 1979, a particular politician called his permanent secretary to read the riot acts, as they say. “I have heard stories of how you civil servants were manipulating the military so in this ministry, I want to see everything before decisions are taken. Let me make myself very clear: Before I take any decision, I want all information pertaining to those issues.”

By the time the said minister arrived at work the next morning, he met dozens of files that took his entire table and the adjoining conference table with cross references that he needed to check. Not only did he not have time to attend to anybody or anything else that day, the minister had to close very late to be able to clear his table. But by the time he returned to office the next morning, the minister met a bigger number of files and higher volumes of cross references.

According to Obasanjo, by the second week, the exasperated minister had to call in his permanent secretary to ask, “Why are you doing this to me?” to which the response came sharply: “Sir, you said you want to see everything…” To this, the minister responded, “What I mean is that I want to see the essentials.” Apparently prepared for this response, the permanent secretary then said: “In that case, Honourable Minister, you have to put it in writing that henceforth you want to see only the essentials.”

With the memo that followed from the minister, power had effectively changed hands in the ministry because, as the permanent secretary reportedly told Obasanjo, only one man could determine what was ‘essential’ in the ministry. And that man happened to be the permanent secretary!

That Nigeria is not working is a fact that only those who deceive themselves would dispute. Yet, there is nothing that one can accuse the political class of for which the civil service can be exonerated. As the main organ through which the policies and programmes of government are implemented, it stands to reason that the civil service is also culpable in the rot that now defines our society. Indeed, according to a research paper published by the United Nations University titled ‘Civil Service Reform: A Review’ credited to Sarah Repucci, “The civil service is the backbone of the state, and can either support or undermine a country’s entire system of governance.”

What that suggests is that there is no way this system can work effectively and deliver on public good until we have a professional civil service with the requisite character to look beyond its own interests. In his piece on Tuesday, www.thisdaylive.com/index.php/2018/11/13/aig-imoukhuede-and-the-initiative-for-public-governance, the soon-to-be ‘His Excellency, the deputy governor of Ogun State’, Dr Reuben Abati, dealt with some of those issues by explaining the rationale behind the establishment of AIG by Aig-Imoukhuede, aside raising salient questions about the nature of our civil service.

Before I deal with the substantive issue, let me, for the benefit of those who have asked me questions about how AIG comes up with the list of successful candidates for the Oxford scholarships, borrow from the process just completed to explain. Of the 14,106 applications received this year, only 7,381 (6,694 from Nigeria and 687 from Ghana) completed the process. Out of this number, 5,474 were shortlisted as having successfully met predefined criteria with 4,395 from Nigeria and 539 from Ghana. From that number, 1,907 candidates were eventually disqualified either for age reasons or for lacking the requisite qualifications.

While invitations were sent to these candidates for the aptitude tests which held on 13th October, only 2,957 turned up; with 2,623 of them from Nigeria and the remaining 334 from Ghana. After the consulting firms engaged for the exercise, had completed their vetting process, 200 candidates were asked to submit their CV along with five short essays.149 Nigerians and nine Ghanaians completed this process. The team of consultants, using the Scoring Rubric developed by AIG with insights from Oxford on preferred candidates, further pruned the list to 25. Those were the candidates we spent last Saturday and Sunday engaging in round-robin interviews and informal chat sessions to shortlist ten candidates from which Oxford University will eventually pick their best five.

If there is anything I took away from the entire exercise, it is that our country is not a lost cause. Not only do we have brilliant young men and women across all fields, many of these young people are also ready to make the requisite sacrifices to change the narratives of our country. For instance, it takes a measure of commitment for NNPC managers in strategic positions to volunteer to go away from their job for a year for capacity building or for those in well-paying jobs in the private sector to identify gaps in the civil service that they believe they can fill despite the low wages.

Seven persons were available last Saturday and Sunday for the selection process. Aside the founder and chairman, Aig-Imoukhuede and the AIG chief executive, Ms Chienye Ogwo, three of us from the Advisory Board (former Nigerian Bar Association president, Mr A.B. Mahmoud, Dean of the Lagos Business School, Dr Enase Okonedo and myself) were joined by the Access Bank Managing Director, Mr Herbert Wigwe and Dr Jeya Wilson, both of who sit on the AIG Board of Directors. Meanwhile, the young men and women each of us engaged separately were not people looking for something to do, majority of them are mid-career professionals who already have good jobs, mostly in the private sector. While that gave me encouragement about Nigeria, we must also deal with the character of our civil service.

On Tuesday, ‘Daily Trust’ reported how civil servants in Abuja are now playing full-time politics. According to the newspaper, Mr Idris Mamman Durkwa, a director at the federal ministry of agriculture, who lost out during the All Progressives Congress (APC) gubernatorial primaries in Borno State, has returned to his office “The constitution of the country is very clear about this. Only if you are contesting in a general election that you are mandated to resign from service 30 days to the general elections, that is all; and I can serve you with judgements upon judgements of the supreme court about this. Even the APC guidelines allow you to contest primaries and go back to your work,” Durkwa reportedly told the newspaper.

Similarly, Mr. Bitrus Bako Nabasu, the permanent secretary at the federal ministry of Science and Technology, had in 2015 returned to his position after losing the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) gubernatorial primaries in Plateau State while Ms Amanda Pam, recently resumed back to work at the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) after losing her bid for a senatorial ticket. What these civil servants are relying on to justify their self-serving action is a judgement of the supreme court which does not offer the comfort they claim.

The story started in 2002 when the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi, SAN, went to court on behalf of the then unregistered political parties, arguing that certain sections of the Electoral Act 2001 which barred civil servants from belonging to political parties were unconstitutional. He also asked the court to declare that INEC had no power to make guidelines on how an association could become a political party since section 222 of the 1999 Constitution had already made provisions for that.

In the concurrent judgment delivered by Justice Niki Tobi, the supreme court nullified INEC’s guideline No 5(b) which stated that “a person shall not be eligible to be registered as a member of political association seeking to be registered as a political party if he/she is in the civil service of the federation or a state because it offends the provisions of sections 40 and 222(b) of the 1999 Constitution” as argued by the late Fawehinmi.

However, in clarifying what the supreme court ruled as against what the media reported at the time, the then Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Senator Kanu Agabi, emphatically stated that civil servants cannot be members of political parties and that the apex court was quoted out of context. According to Agabi, “the Supreme Court did not declare that civil servants are at liberty to join political parties. It declared as unconstitutional guideline No.5 (b) issued by the INEC, which disqualified civil servants from being members of political associations, which seek to be registered as political parties. It also declared as unconstitutional section 79(2)(c) of the Electoral Act 2001 which provided that a person shall not be eligible to be registered as a member of a political party if he is a member of the public service or civil service of the federation, a state or local government, as defined by the constitution.”

After stating that the judgment of the apex court was “without doubt, correct and binding on all”, but that “its effects have been misconstrued by those who reported it”, Agabi went further to quote what the then Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Muhammadu Lawal Uwais, said in his concurrent judgement. These were the words of Uwais: “No officer shall, without express permission of the government, whether on duty or leave of absence: (a) hold any office, paid or unpaid, permanent or temporary, in any political organisation; (b) offer himself or nominate anyone else as a candidate for any elective office including membership of a local government council, state or national assembly; (c) engage in canvassing in support of political candidates. Nothing in this rule shall be deemed to prevent an officer from voting in an election…It is important to mention that the provisions of the civil (public) service rules have not been challenged in this case and therefore their validity is not in issue for determination by this court. Reference to the restriction had been made merely in passing by Defendant/Appellant in order to canvass the validity of section 79 subsection (2)(c) of the Electoral Act, 2001.”

What the foregoing means is that the civil (public) service rules do not make allowances for partisan gamblers who would leave their jobs, seek the nominations of political parties and return after they fail. Civil servants who enjoy security of tenure, because of the rules governing their appointments and termination, cannot eat their cakes and still have them. Besides, the moment we institutionalise such a practice, given our environment, we have unwittingly set in motion the process for the total destruction of the civil service in Nigeria.

What the current situation therefore signposts is that we must begin a conversation about the kind of civil service we want for our country. And, as I said last week, there can be no better time for that than now!

Book on ‘Irregular Migration’

While many African leaders attended the recent Paris Peace Forum, I wonder how many of them paid attention to what the United Nations Secretary General, Mr António Guterres, said about the challenge of demography and migration on our continent. “It took from the Big Bang until the year 1820 for the number of people on Earth to reach one billion. Today that number is approaching eight billion, and half of the growth in the global population will be in Africa…We must come to our senses. Without international cooperation, and if we retreat behind our national borders, we will sacrifice our collective values, and we will perpetuate the tragedy of migrants being exploited by the worst traffickers”, said Guterres.

Unfortunately, the time for action may be more of yesterday than tomorrow given the urgency of the matter. An Associated Press (AP) wire report, which I referenced in the statement I made when I visited Mr Innocent Chukwuma, the West African Director of Ford Foundation, when I visited his office in Lagos last week, has already revealed how thousands of migrants are getting lost without trace. “Barely counted in life, these migrants rarely register in death – almost as if they never lived at all. A growing number of migrants have drowned, died in deserts or fallen prey to traffickers, leaving their families to wonder what on earth happened to them” wrote AP.

My coming book, ‘FROM FRYING PAN TO FIRE: How African migrants risk everything in their futile search for a better life in Europe’, scheduled for presentation in Abuja next Thursday, 22 November 2018 at the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Centre addresses some of these salient issues. Chair of the occasion, the Emir of Kano, His Highness Muhammad Sanusi II, will also speak to the challenge of ‘irregular migration’ while Governor Godwin Obaseki, who has been battling the ‘Edo connection’ to the ugly drama that is well captured in the narrative, will present the book after a review by spoken word and performance poetry artist, Mr Dike Chukwumerije.

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