Linus Awute: Elongating Tenures of Perm Secs is Injustice

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Until his retirement, Mr. Linus Awute was one of the longest serving federal Permanent Secretaries in Nigeria. He served in that capacity in Federal Ministries of Trade and Investment, Mines and Steel Development, Defence, Interior, Health and the Secretariat of the Government of the Federation. Following his retirement, he became an administrative consultant with United Nigeria Airlines Co. Ltd and a goodwill lecturer. He is an annual guest to the National Institute for Policy and Strategic studies, Kuru-Jos. Awute was recently appointed by the federal government to head a committee on the provision of health insurance for retirees and the elderly in the country. He speaks with Kingsley Nwezeh on a range of issues, bordering on political interference in bureaucracy, corruption in the civil service and implications of tenure elongation of Permanent Secretaries in the civil service

What is the function of a Permanent Secretary in the Civil Service?

First of all, we must agree that three arms of government, notably the Executive, Judiciary and Legislative, including their independent functions are necessary for the efficient operation of government, as well as the promotion of good governance and sustainable development. In order to develop an effective leadership responsible for driving the improvement in the delivery of service to the people, a direct relationship between the executive arm of government and the public service is maintained by Ministries, which are the focal organs through which government develops and executes its polices and programmmes on a day to day basis. Each ministry is therefore headed by a minister who is a political appointee and whose office expires at the expiration of the tenure of that government. As a political appointee, he is there in the ministry to provide political leadership in view of the vision of his political party in relation to the development need of the country. In fact, articles of most national constitutions provide that each ministry shall be under the supervision of a Permanent Secretary whose office is a public office and permanent, not partisan. He or she is permanent in the sense that he or she is a career civil servant who has a tenure beyond the life of any particular government.

The permanent secretary is expected to be appointed by the president on the advice of the custodian of the civil service, in our own case, it is the office of the Head of the Federal Civil Service. It is his duty to support the minister by advising and guiding him correctly with the use of institutional connections, memories and records in order to achieve results. It stands to reason that the Permanent Secretary is appointed as the accountable manager of the ministry. As the accountable Head of the Ministry, the Permanent Secretary is to advise the Minister on the formulation of policy in relation to the statutory responsibility of the Ministry and its constituent departments, as well as planning programmes and allocating resources and responsibilities to departmental heads. This includes management of resources such as financial, material assets, human resource etc.

It also includes directing and controlling the activities of the units, components and departments of the ministry. It includes appearances for interrogation before special committees at the National Assembly, as well as appearances before the police, the EFCC, the ICPC, the presidency, by invitation over one issue or the other pertaining to the activities of your ministry. Sometimes, it is about problem and sometimes it is about way forward on development issues. There is also a range of activities associated with this purpose for which the Permanent Secretary must perform. To me, the functions of the Permanent Secretary are a whole text book and it will require six editions of your newspaper.

How would you assess the state of the federal civil service today?

The state of the federal civil service to me is not particularly different from the way we left it in 2015 when I retired. Something could have gone dangerously bad at the onset of this administration but it was quickly corrected. I have two reasons for saying this: Those in the system heading the various components of the service are the very officers that we have mentored and elevated.

They have now grown into administrative position of responsibility. Most of them have attained directorate level as assistants, deputies and directors. Some are now Permanent Secretaries. If they fail, we have failed; if they succeed we have also succeeded. For example, I was Permanent Secretary in seven different locations where I also mentored men and women. Right now, there are nine permanent secretaries in the system that worked under me as either my technical assistants, or assistant directors or directors on one assignment or the other, in my office.

The only job remaining in their hands to do is to cultivate the political elites to understand that undue political interference, which undermines the importance and the essence of the bureaucracy, is dangerous as it weakens the foundation and backbone of government itself. If there is anything currently wrong with the federal civil service it is the problem of unexpected political interference, intimidation and disincentive which deeply dilutes the power of efficiency, institutional memories, meritocracy and international connections.

It happens from time to time and it takes a very resilient civil service to survive it. The present Head of the Federal Civil Service of the Federation has been able to restore some of what was destroyed in the two years that preceded her appointment. The head of service is now advising the government correctly for the benefit of governance. I still believe that she has more work to do in handling the problem of impunity, whether it is from the now unionised civil servants or from the mistakes of government itself.

What are the areas that you think require reforms?

I think this question has already been addressed by my answer to the first question. It takes a weak and inefficient civil service to allow subliminally any government to come and go without strengthening the bureaucracy. I believe that the present head of service is addressing the issue of reform from the damage done on the system, specifically between 2015 and 2017. At the onset of most administrations, what happens is that desperate civil servants, looking for political position in the civil service space go out of their way to sell the wrong narrative about the civil service. Most times, they succeed in getting what they want at the expense of the federal civil service virtues and culture. Reform in the civil service, for a developing country such as ours, is expected to be continuous, most importantly when the civil service is endangered by some public policy decisions that have a second or third order effects.

Are you comfortable with extension of service for permanent secretaries who have attained mandatory retirement age or years of service?

No, that is not right. It profits not the system at all. It profits only those who see the civil service space as opportunity and means for political patronage. I am very glad that it didn’t take time for the president to discover that such undertakings were wrong, as he quickly stopped it. We should give him credit for that. Not stopping it would have meant that you want to rob Musa to pay Abdulahi or pay James in order to rob John. Whichever way you go about that, you are wrong. It means you are against the principle of equity and justice which should be the guiding principle of every leadership. When it happened in 2015 November, a lot of people had openly blamed the president. Some of us knew that it was not the making of the president. I have worked with the president directly for nearly seven months without any cabinet minister in between, I found that the man can easily trust people and so when you are trusted, he doesn’t expect that you will tell him a lie. Unfortunately, some of the trusted people were the wolves in sheep clothing.

At the onset of this administration, they managed to retool the mind of the president, using the opportunity of their previous acquaintance with the him. Apart from the politicians, there were also public servants, who were former officials of Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF), who were regularised and factored into the federal civil service between 2004 and 2005. As at 2015 many of them have become directors and permanent secretaries in the service. The bold ones with political bias and inordinate ambition succeeded in talking themselves into the heart of the president; thereafter got some unmerited protective appointments. Some of them didn’t last when their deficiencies and ineptitude started to wreck the system. The same president who appointed them started sacking them. From that point, sanity started to come back to the civil service. Tenure elongation stopped. Appointment of Permanent Secretaries through the back door also stopped.

There have been complaints about lack of transparency in promotion exams, especially the directorate cadre and selection of permanent secretaries. What’s your view?

I don’t know about any new complaint concerning lack of transparency. I am aware that there was an instance in November 2015 when there was something of the semblance of racketeering of the appointment of permanent secretaries.

Whoever initiated that has already failed. That act alone amounted to self-caricature for those of them who misled the new administration to act that way. This is because it became obvious that such singular action jettisoned due process, it jettisoned institution memory and also abrogated the culture of meritocracy. No sooner it happened than the president discovered that he was ill-advised and therefore reverted to the acceptable norms and culture of due process, a system which we have built and sustained since 2005 on the principle of equity and justice, anchored on a very consistent and sustainable mechanism. The good news is that the federal civil service is currently gifted with two impeccable individuals, Dr. Tukur Ingawa who is now the Chairman of the Federal Service Commission and Dr/Mrs. Folasade Yemi Esan, who was immediately appointed the Head of the Federal Civil Service to replace the ousted Winifred Oyo–Ita. Both persons should be able to overcome any threat to the sanctity of the service and should be able to collectively promote and sustain the right ethics, the desirable work rate and standards that should induce harmony and efficiency in the service by making the issue of career progression, work ethics, staff training, successor generation and promotion clear and consistent.

The issue of availability of vacancies has denied many potential directors and permanent secretaries of opportunities at career progression. What is the way out?

I think your earlier question and answer has sufficiently addressed this very question. I have known Dr. Ingawa well in advance. We were appointed permanent secretary the same day in 2008 by President Umaru Musa Yar’ Adua, but he Dr. Ingawa retired from service much earlier than me. Long before that, he was the Executive Secretary of ICPC. We are both members of the Alumni of the National Institute. He enjoyed a very high collegiate respect from the rest of us, the permanent secretaries, while we served. Dr. Folasade was one of my best directors in the Federal Ministry of Health until her appointment as permanent secretary in the year sometime in 2012 or so. While we worked together, I could rely on her work rate and on a few others with similar tenacity, enthusiasm and mental capacity to achieve results for the health sector of Nigeria. From the development of the National Health Act, establishment of NCDC, Ebola Virus Disease containment to the establishment of the Road Map for Universal Health Coverage. I believe that the President Mohammadu Buhari made the right choices in that regard. The issue of promotional denial in the service shouldn’t arise at all and if it does arise, there should be a solution. That should not require any debate or constitutional amendment.

Are you comfortable with the pay disparity between federal civil servants and staff of NNPC, CBN, NPA etc. What is the way forward?

I have never looked at pay raise of civil servants as the solution to the problem of the civil servants. It is, however, bad of me to view things that way realising that as a director in the federal civil service, between 2003 and 2008, my monthly package was only between N73,000 and N78,000 only per month. When I became permanent secretary in 2008, I moved many motions on the floor of our monthly meeting to discuss the true problem of the civil servants. In several instances, I have listed them for discussion as follows: Set up a dedicated loan scheme for the civil servants with inbuilt subsidy mechanism for one-time-house-acquisition in any town of their choice and two times vehicle acquisition at two stages of his/her career. A civil servant should be eligible for any of these after putting in 10 years on the job of the civil service. Set up health insurance coverage for every single civil servant and make it to cover him, his spouse and four children less than 18 years within the period of service. Consider exclusive scholarship award for one child of one civil servant after putting in 10 – 15 years on the job. Retirement package should be the amalgam of the accumulated pension savings plus a gratuity calculated on the basis of a measurable percentage deriving from a proportional rating of each annual pay multiplied by the number of years put in the service. If all these are put in place and made functional, the civil servant has no need to envy any one’s salaries.

Do you think the salary or emoluments of members of the National Assembly is justified when compared to that of the civil servants?

I have no reason to envy anyone in the National Assembly. First of all, I don’t know how much they earn, but I do know how much work they are meant to do as the people’s representatives. We should be concerned about how they do their job and to ask questions if they are not doing as they pledged. We also have the constitutional responsibility to vote out any one of them if we want to. Coming to your question, to me any one that wishes to earn their type of salaries should go and contest election and get himself voted in there. I am a retired permanent secretary and have been a technocrat in all my public service life. I don’t also think that I am the right person to speak on salaries and wages. I believe there is such a commission in place that takes care of that. There is an old saying like this “Act well your part; there the honour lies”. I think, that quote is credited to Dr. Alexander Pope. It means that in any role that you are called to play, for any responsibility you are given, you just have to take pride in the things you are meant to do and give it your best. The unique thing about this quote is that it applies to all of us, whether you are a civil servant or a senator, but if your pay is too little for the volume of work that you do, you can make a case for wage increase. A lot of groups are doing that already. Let it not look like you are making such a case because Mr. Etuwa who is an airline captain is earning more than Mr. Timi who is a clinical surgeon or medical doctor. These are two different people on different jobs and contracts.

What is the panacea to corruption in the civil service?

When you talk about corruption you must be able to clearly purify your mind to aim at the right quarters where corruption is existentially thriving, certainly not in the civil service please. Corruption is an existential phenomenon and something of concern, yet the concerned people are the ones perpetrating corruption and shouting wolf! Wolf! Wolf!! It is very unfair and painful to associate civil service with corruption all the time. I think the media should be able to research into this and excuse the civil servants. Different public entities manifest different types of corruption and that of the civil service is perhaps the lowest. Because this is a group that is highly intimidated and frustrated, you people want to use them as a scape goat, sometimes as guinea pig in corruption narratives and tests. You see, forms of corruption vary, it can include bribery, lobbying, extortion, cronyism, nepotism, sex abuse, parochialism, political patronage, influence peddling, graft and embezzlement. The place of the civil servant in all these is very little, I stand to be corrected, it doesn’t constitute 0.

01% of what obtains even in the holy places like the church. I also stand to be corrected that given the huge population of civil servants, and if they are truly corrupt, as they are being accused by the real corrupt people, just to divert attention, the streets of Nigerian cities would have been littered with hotels, private churches, supermarkets, housing estates, business plazas, industries, industrial estates, brothels and lounges owned by civil servants. Unfortunately, all these are owned by those who call the civil servants corrupt. Most of them are former-this and former-that, who made the money from the official position they held and not from their salaries. Corruption is Corruption. Evidence of the proceeds of corruption conspicuously litter the towns and villages of Nigeria and you know the people linked to these overwhelming evidences, yet you want to go down so low to call your hunter dog a bad name in order to kill it for pepper soup.

Are you saying that the civil service is not corrupt at all?

First of all, no one is fighting corruption more than the civil servant. Okay tell me, who is the eye of EFCC or ICPC if not the civil service or the civil servants. Nearly every investigation by the EFCC is triggered by the internal queries for accountability issued by the civil service. Between 2014 and 2015, there were 1,228 queries issued by the Auditor General of the Federation deriving from cases viewed from the monitoring mechanisms of the civil service in the various ministries who have oversight and supervisory responsibilities on the policy implementing agencies and parastatals of government. These are sent to the concerned Ministries, Departments and Agencies to address the queries, failure of which they are forwarded to the Public Account Committees of the two houses, the House of Representatives and the Senate. The ones found outrageous and inexcusable are taken to the anti-graft agency.

Okay, tell me, what is the effect of the corruption in the civil service?

The highest thing to say is that this and that contract was awarded to Mr. ‘A’ instead of Mr. ‘B’ just because Mr. ‘B’ wrote a petition directly to EFCC and exposed same to the media who in turn carry it and blow the news into multiple colouration. Another thing is that people often attribute issues of substandard public service job to corruption by a contractor in colusion with the civil servants. There is more to this point. People forget that such problem is not from the contract award process. It is actually the fault of the professional engineer who will go on to certify the job as done when he knows that it is substandard. Don’t blame the civil service in that case, blame the engineer who deceived the civil service and betrayed his oath of professional ethics. Blame him and his own regulatory body for failing to withdraw his certificate of registration as engineer.

In the service, we have always exposed and disciplined such persons that project the civil service in a bad light. Now, are you aware that there is public procurement Act 2007 and that each of such huge contracts awarded under the service are evaluated and vetted before going to the Federal Executive Council for approval? Some of the contracts are stepped down and some are approved. So what else do you want from the civil servant. It is still we the civil servants that articulated the verses of the Public Procurement Act 2007. Now who are the most disturbed by the procurement Act 2007, certainly not the civil servants.

You know who they are. You must be aware that this is a fundamental measure against corruption that is currently hunting the corrupt Nigerians. We did not only articulate the procurement Act 2007, the Treasury Single Account system is another milestone. When will the civil servants ever be commended for once. Even as the population of the civil service clearly constitutes the majority in the public service space, they only occupy less than 0.1 % in the corruption space because they are the ones fighting corruption. You don’t see them becoming senators, governors and what have you. This is because they cannot rent a hall for political meetings but others retiring from other public spaces can do anything including the recruitment, payment and setting up of army and armoury for election campaigns.

As a statesman, what troubles you about Nigeria today?

My only problem is insecurity. Without it, this is the best country. I have visited about 27 countries in the world, most of them more than once, with about eleven times to United States alone. Each time I visited I had found myself hunted by the spirit of nobodiness. Anytime I spend up to four days, my body and soul begins to agitate against my stay. I love Nigeria and believe that when we begin to hold people accountable for their evil deeds and recognise those who have genuinely served this country, our social environment will start to normalise. Again too, the National Assembly owes this nation a statement on what it has come up with as its own findings on the true cause of this overwhelming spate of insecurity in Nigeria, as well as the legislation that would outlaw insecurity forever. Those of us who are represented by them will want to draw inspirational guidance from them, particularly on how to interpret and handle what is going on in this country, considering the spate of killings arising from lawlessness.

In your view, has the appointment of the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation followed due process?

I guess you are talking about Folasade Yemi Esan? I have not given that a thought. Perhaps because she is doing the right thing. I also became excited when she started cleaning the mess that was heaped upon the system, which was actually endangering the virtues and culture of the civil service. I still believe that she has more to do to magnify the mileage achieved during our own time, particularly under Amal Pepple, Steve Oronsaya and Alhaji Buka Goni Aji. These are wonderful individuals who displayed integrity, empathy and altruistic service in the conduct of the affairs of the federal civil service in the last 15 years or so. These people were believed to be inspired by such great men like Abu Obe, Yahyale Ahmed and Ebele Okeke who saw the position of Head of the Federal Civil Service of the Federation as opportunity to strengthen the bureaucracy which is the back bone of government. I believe the present head of service is in that same camp of the patriots.