In Defence of the Civil Service


THE HORIZON by kayode komolafe

It is important to preface this defence of the civil service in this season of campaigns with an observation: not a few voters would find it most welcome that the presidential candidates are presenting their programmes in a manner that has heightened the prospects of issue-based elections in 2019.

For instance, the Buhari “Next Level” and the Atiku ”Plan to Get Nigeria Working Again,” should provide solid substrata for analysts, critics and other commentators to work on in the next three months or so. As this important process begins in earnest, the media in particular should be reminded of the provisions of the electoral law that all candidates and political parties should be fairly treated in terms of the attention given to them.

In other words the 2019 presidential election should not be reduced to a settled contest between the candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), President Muhammadu Buhari, and Alhaji Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).

Without prejudice to the objective fact that APC and PDP are the two largest parties, it is undemocratic and unfair to completely ignore the other parties and their candidates. The media should be reminded of the underlying principle. In fact, this principle informs Section 100 of the electoral act which makes it mandatory for the “public electronic media” to allocate “equal” airtime to all political parties and their candidates.

It is in this sense that the plans and development strategies of Donald Duke, Oby Ezekwesili, Obadiah Mailafia, Kingsley Moghalu, Gbenga Olawepo, and Omoyele Sowore and other presidential candidates should also be critically discussed along with those of Buhari and Atiku.

In the coming weeks, attempts will be made to discuss in this column the competing plans on display to develop Nigeria as voters prepare to decide on them next year.

Meanwhile, this campaign season is a good time to stress the obvious fact that the presidential election is actually a process to decide on the role the state should play in the development process. Names of political parties presenting candidates will appear on the ballot papers. Market forces will certainly not appear on any ballot paper. The purpose of election is, therefore, to give jobs to those who are expected to deliver on public goods while in government. That is why it would be irresponsible socially and politically for politicians to turn round and wring their hands when it is time to deliver public goods to the people while pointing in the direction of market forces.

Since our politicians and their experts relish citing the examples of Asian Tigers, it is pertinent to observe that one streak that runs through the development approaches in Asia is that the state is never absent when it comes to efficient economic management.

As Nobel Prize in economics Joseph Stiglitz once put it while reflecting on how some Asian countries survived the 1998 financial crisis: “The East Asian states set out to create and regulate institutions which promoted savings and helped allocated resources, including scarce investment. They promoted investments in infrastructure, human capital, and the advancement of technology.” Another economist actually said the state in Asia “governs markets.”

Now, the capacity of the state to perform the role assigned it in the Nigerian constitution – the security and the welfare of the people – would be partly determined by the quality of the public sector. The civil service is the nucleus of the public sector. It may not be out of place if political parties have in their strategies of development programmes to boost the capacity of the civil service as “the engine room of public administration.”

However, despite the huge volume of research and scholarly works that abound on public administration in Nigeria, a lot of prejudice still abounds in the discussion of the place of the civil service. The prejudicial trend has exacerbated as neo-liberalism prescribes market solutions to all problems. In that context, the civil service is virtually cast in the image of an inferior institution.

This trend is manifest in the piece by a fellow columnist, Simon Kolawole, entitled “The Demons Tormenting Nigeria.”

Among other things, on Sunday, Kolawole constructed on this page his argument like this: “(The) Civil service is the second demon on my list. Go to any country we call “developed” today and check out the calibre of their civil service, which is the engine room of public administration. This is where policies are formulated, implemented and appraised. Take a country like the UK as an example. The civil service is filled with first-class brains. The best products from their best universities get automatic employments. Civil service runs the country. That is why UK has had four prime ministers in 11 years and the system still runs smoothly regardless.

“Our civil service is not only excessively bloated (both at federal and state levels), what is the calibre of the civil servants? How many first-class brains end up in the civil service? Have you ever tried to get anything done in a typical government office anywhere in Nigeria? Enter the office and nobody will acknowledge your presence. If you greet them they will respond with contempt. They are busy watching African Magic or, increasingly these days, Zee World. How many people get promoted on the basis of productivity? Promotion is basically a formality. Files go missing with ease. One director or the other is never “on seat” to sign a document that could save a life. The attitude is appalling.

“But how do we recruit our civil servants? Usually, when there are vacancies, slots are allocated to politicians and other demigods who use the opportunity to resettle their thugs and hangers-on. In many instances, these employees hardly come to office. The dedicated of the lot report late to office, close early and take many days off. By Friday, government offices are like ghost towns. They are only committed to receiving salary alerts at the end of the month. And we expect Nigeria to develop! If we do not build a meritocratic, well-motivated, trim and fit civil service, Nigeria is going nowhere. Let crude oil sell for $500 per barrel, we would remain stuck in this vicious circle.”

This trend should be thoroughly interrogated. A more scientific approach is required in solving the problem in the civil service.

To start with, the victim should not be mistaken for the culprit. For the civil service is certainly not one of “the demons tormenting Nigeria.” If anything at all, civil servants are among the victims of the underdevelopment of Nigeria’s neo-colonial capitalist system.

It is not enough to keeping repeating the sermon of an “a meritocratic, well-motivated, trim and fit civil service,” without putting the trouble with the civil service within the context of societal decay. That sermon has been preached since the great purge of 1975/76 when the civil service lost his soul. Subsequent administrations have performed all kinds of experiments with the civil service depending on their fancies. On a rather comical note, Governor Rochas Okorocha of Imo State recently came up with his own brand of reform of the civil service: all civil servants would take some days off in the week to farm. It is actually a way of circumventing payment of salaries. On a more serious note, however, the history of the civil service in the last 40 years has been a history of reforms. The shelf is filled with reports of panels set up to reshape the civil service. Yet the situation has got worse over the years.

Kolawole cites the examples of the civil service in the “developed ” world in which the working of the system rests squarely on the civil service. What should be added is that in those places the civil service maintains its traditional feature of permanence because like other members of the society civil servants are entitled to social protection in the forms in which it exists in different countries. In the United Kingdom, for example, neither the clerk nor the permanent secretary would have to seek funds outside his salary to go for overseas treatment of an ailment because like other workers he or she would be a beneficiary of the National Health Service (NHS).

It is particularly objectionable to insinuate that that there is not enough “first class brains” in the Nigerian civil service. There are first-class brains amidst misfits in the private sector, politics, military, police, the liberal professions, traditional institutions, religious organisations etc. The aggregate of the respective contributions of these sectors have not taken national development beyond the present unsatisfactory level. To make a useful diagnosis of the problem, you should not isolate the civil service from the society and then inferiorise the mentality of the ladies and gentlemen keeping the institution alive despite all odds. In any case, Nigeria has a history of some senior civil servants who retire to become boardroom gurus in the private sector. A number of them have been branded models of leadership. When private banks collapse or some erstwhile blossoming industries just vanish on the economic landscape, it is not because “first class brains” are not recruited in the private sector. You may need to look at the system the country operates among other steps in the diagnostic process.

The poor productivity of the civil service is not a thing to rationalise, but it should be put in context. The civil servants are not to blame for the lack of equipment to do the work. You should not only ask for how many first class brains are recruited into the civil service, you should also ask questions about the degree of digitalization that has taken place in the service. Some civil servants have neither chairs nor even office spaces allocated to them. So how would the offices not look like “ghost towns” when members of the public came calling for their services? It is not only the work ethics of civil servants that are “appalling,” their salaries are also grossly inadequate. Worse still, in some states they are owed arrears of these salaries. In the systems that Kolawole referred to all these practices would not be permitted. So, before you declare civil servants lazy, you should first inspect their work environment.

The bogey of “over-bloated” civil service has been on in the Nigerian system for a long time. In over 40 years the quest for a “trim” civil service has brought about “retrenchments,’” “downsizing” “rightsizing” etc. Even in 2018, political office holders still talk of “ghost workers” without any one being prosecuted for padding the payroll. No one seems embarrassed about this public service culture. Political officers go into government with a retinue of aides presumably to do the job that in their prejudice they think civil servants cannot do satisfactorily. Besides, jobs that engineers, doctors, architects, builders, economists, pharmacists, lawyers etc. in the civil service could do are “outsourced” to contractors. Yet, only the civil servants have the institutional memories of the projects and development trajectories.

Talking about the recruitment of first class brains into the civil service, it is noteworthy that the excellence of professionals in the civil service is as much acknowledged by their professional bodies as the brilliance of their peers working in the private sector. Yet, taking a historical view of things there is every reason to be charitable to the Nigerian civil service. Right from the colonial days, the system has produced excellent administrators in all departments whose credentials could compete with those of their counterparts anywhere in the world. Once upon a time, young university graduates resigned their appointments in multinational companies to make a career of civil service. Unfortunately, the contributions of the shinning stars have been eclipsed by the decay in the system. Beyond the attitude to work, the socio-economic conditions are also important.

What is to be done about the civil service? Bureaucracy is an indispensable institution in making any political economy work. It does not matter if the systemic orientation is left or right. The Chinese success story is partly credited to his bureaucracy just as the Italian bureaucracy has saved the system in periods of political vagaries. Kolawole is right that for Nigeria to develop a virile civil service should be built. One of the building blocks required in the process is institutional respect for the civil service especially by the politicians.