Should Civil Servant Participate in Partisan Politics?


By Tunji Olaopa

The state of the public service, and the status of the public/civil servant, has always remained a problem since the inauguration of the public service system in Nigeria in 1954. At the very core of the Nigerianisation Policy was the challenge of how to retain the professional and efficient status of the public servants while also attending seriously to Nigeria’s plural status with the adoption of quota system policy at independence. This worry in itself is a huge administrative one for both the political and bureaucratic leadership of the Nigerian state. This is to the extent that ethnicity and such other tendencies interfere with the loyalty that a state demands from her citizens. To summarize: How does Nigeria ensure that her public officials imbibe and sustain the timeless public service values of loyalty, impartiality and neutrality in the pursuit of the public interest?

Recently, there was a series of development about senior and junior officers in the Nigerian Civil Service contesting for and losing elections, and then returning to their duty posts as if their professional responsibility has not been violated by seeking elective offices. Two sets of critics have emerged on the matter. The first are those who argued that there is legal provision in the Nigerian 1999 Constitution which permits civil servants to actively seek political positions. Then there are those who find it professionally disturbing to see civil servants involved in the intrigues of winning electoral offices. The weight of opinion seems to be in support of the partisan civil servant. A news report of early 2018, for instance, quotes the deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, as urging Nigerians, including civil servants, to exercise their constitutional rights by joining political parties and contesting for offices. After all, Section 40 of the Constitution which states: “Every person shall be entitled to assemble freely and associate with other persons, and in particular he may form or belong to any political party, trade union or any other association for the protection of his interests.” On the other hand, in the Supreme Court judgment of 2003 between INEC v. Musa and Others, the highest court of the land reiterated the supremacy of the Constitution over any other legal documents, including the Public Service Rules.

But then, there is also a reason why the Public Service Rules exist as the institutional code that define and constrain the professional behavior and activities of the public servants. Section 4 of the Rules (2008 edition), titled “Serious Misconduct,” defines serious misconduct as “a specific act of very serious wrongdoing and improper behavior which is inimical to the image of the service and which can be investigated and if proven, may lead to dismissal.” Subsection 030402 (g) categorically states that “Engaging in partisan political activities” as one of the significant examples of serious misconduct. Indeed, this is the point which the former super-permanent secretary and elder statesman, Ahmed Joda, considered to be paramount in determining the partisan status of a public servant. The limit of the Constitutional rights on public servants, for Joda, is that they can hold political opinions about governance in Nigeria. The Constitution even legally enables them to back up their political opinion with the right to vote for any candidate of their choice.

This discourse about the partisan public servants reveals the depth of the institutional dysfunction of the Nigerian state and its civil service system. And, quite unfortunately, the source of this institutional confusion lies very deep within Nigeria’s Constitutional order and its vague proclamations on the rights of Nigerians. There is a fundamental reason why the Public Service Rules exist as the ethical guideline for the professional conduct of the public servants in Nigeria. What bears argument is whether the Constitution and the Supreme Court are right as to the “right” of public servants to actively seek political office while still in a service which requires them to maintain a neutrality that should enable them to discharge their professional responsibilities without any possibility of partiality. My argument is simple: the Nigerian Constitution, in this matter, cannot be said to be the final arbiter on whether or not it is sound statutorily for public servants to contest for political power. Thus, beyond the sound provisions of the Public Service Rules which outline the ethical guidelines for the professional conduct or misconduct of the public servants, global and national administrative history, theory, and practices constitute the complement of the argument for neutral, impartial and non-partisan public servants that seek to be efficient and productive.

The ethnically and culturally plural nature of the postcolonial Nigerian state already makes it conducive for the high and violent politicization of any issue and event. And the public service as an institution is right in the middle of this politicization from the onset because of its centrality to the governance of the Nigerian state. We can trace the whole politics of public service to the Nigerianisation Policy, and the choice of representativeness, rather than merit, as the choice method for recruitment into the public service. Merit further suffered during the military interventions in politics. With the 1988 reform for example, the renaming of the permanent secretaries as directors-general was a politicising act that gave them the tenures of political appointees. They therefore occupied offices as long as the tenure of the appointing government lasts. The inevitable consequences are that the service and its workforce became over-bloated, and there commenced a subsequent brutal decline in performance, efficiency and productivity.

We have a very good example in history which led to the definitive theory of administrative relationship between the politician and the public servant. This historical account is taken from the political differences that led to the parting of ways between Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany and Otto von Bismarck, his chief public servant and chancellor. Of the two, Bismarck was the stronger in terms of political views and administrative acumen. Both got inextricably tangled, with strong political and ideological views, on the content of Germany’s foreign policy as well as on cogent domestic policies affecting the fate of Germans. Inevitably, Wilhelm, as the emperor, got the upper hand which led to the dismissal of Bismarck. However, his victory was cut short because the emperor then consequently got enmeshed in “bureaucratic officialdom” which enabled bureaucrats to dominate his thinking on governance, and ultimately weakened his government.

This specific history influenced Max Weber’s conceptual reflection on the emergence of the ideal public servant that is categorically apolitical and shielded from the affairs of the politicians. His arguments for an apolitical public servant led to the founding of the three fundamental dichotomies of public administration—the first is the politics-administration; the second is the public-private, and the third is the state-society. The politics-administration distinction is meant to insulate the public servant from politics by delineating the purely administrative matters and officials from political ones, especially in terms of professionalism, recruitment, responsibility, and policy process. The public servant is then circumscribed by a legal-rational authority privileges written rules and procedures. Each position in the bureaucracy has its duties and rights, which are clearly defined; rules and procedures are laid down to determine how the given authority is to be exercised. Bureaucracy therefore promises a stable organisation, despite the fact that politicians which the public servants serve come and go.

We have in Nigeria another historical example that contradicted the Wilhelm-Bismarck rivalry, and exemplifies the efficiency and productivity which the apolitical public servant can achieve for good governance. This is the celebrated Awolowo-Adebo model of the politics-administration dichotomy. Chief Simeon Adebo was the very embodiment of Weber’s apolitical public servant whose efficiency was grounded on the legal-rational dynamics that insists that he must be neutral, impartial, precise, disciplined and reliable. This all matters as a means by which the government can achieve the neutral competence and professional commitment of the public servant. And that was what Chief Obafemi Awolowo got as the premier of the Western region from Adebo-led civil service. It is the Awolowo-Adebo model that signaled the infrastructural monuments and good governance of the AG administration in the First Republic. By the time the super-permanent secretaries emerged within the administrative cauldron of the Nigerian Civil War, we got a serious intimation of the political intrigues that placed Emperor Wilhelm II at loggerhead with Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. The super-permanent secretaries got into serious politics after the civil war with the War Generals who were not happy that they were going to be subordinate to the grand mafia of bureaucrats around General Gowon. They eventually toppled General Gowon and got rid of the super-permanent secretaries’ mafia and went on to purge the civil service massively with vengeance.

It therefore takes little reflection to see how this narrative could lead us to intervening in the national discourse on whether or not public servants should join political parties and become essentially partisan. There is a fundamental sense in which Section 40, and indeed the entire constitutional reference to the public service, requires serious amendment in ways that will enable the autonomy of the institution with regard to its founding dichotomy that insulates public servants from political intrigues and distractions. The question is that of what Nigeria could possibly gain by bringing the already politicized public servants into the murky depth of national politics. But a larger question, on the converse, is that of what Nigeria’s democratic experiment could gain if the public service is reformed in line with existing global civil service traditions and their dynamics. Let me direct our focus to two significant administrative traditions, the British and the American, from which we can commence the interrogation of the current reflection on the character of the Nigerian public servant.

The British tradition furnishes us with the technical character of the public servant as a legal-rational figure deeply and professionally inserted into a technocratic merit system that is urgently required to implement the policy frameworks of democratic governance. From this perspective, the constitution must therefore necessarily support these responsibilities of the public servants. However, the American civil service tradition is even more instructive in its understanding of the political context from which the public service may not be able to totally extricate itself. This tradition has evolved an administrative framework that has successfully mediate between a spoils system which allows an incumbent government to utilize a patronage system that helps it give top administrative positions to its supporters, and a merit-based system that recruit public servants based strictly on merit and competence. Politicians are often beholden to their supporters, and one good way to express gratitude is by enlisting political appointees into, especially, the public service. However, it became glaring that filling the service with political appointees who lack the legal-rational values was counterproductive. Hence, the creation of the Senior Executive Service (SES) peopled with equivalents of our Technical/Special Advisers, SSAPs, etc., ideologues and policy experts/subject specialists. Yet, the main frame of the public service is not affected.

The merit of this tradition is obvious: While the SES is filled with political appointees and tenured technocrats, the rest of the public service system can be truly guided by the meritocratic dynamics that will enable the public service to generate a capability readiness to perform and enhance the productivity that democratic governance requires. This, I believe, the kind of institutional reform that could be built into the Nigerian constitutional order. It took the Pendleton Act of 1883 to deliver the American civil service system from the patronage system instituted by the Jackson administration. It will require a similar radical reform for the Nigerian civil service system to organize itself into efficiency that will not be undermined by the lure of politics. This will then be the beginning of the urgency of rethinking the noble vocation of the public service and its distinct relationship to good governance in Nigeria.

*Prof. Tunji Olaopa is the Executive Vice-Chairman, Ibadan School of Government & Public Policy (ISGPP), Ibadan (