The tragedy of Nigeria’s civil service By Godwin Onyeacholem

Onyeacholem tackles Fani-Kayode on his recent piece on Nigeria's troubles, saying he was part of those who dragged Nigeria into its current mess
Onyeacholem tackles Fani-Kayode on his recent piece on Nigeria's troubles, saying he was part of those who dragged Nigeria into its current mess

In the uncontainable urge for agitated minds to continuously reflect on the state of affairs, it is necessary to briefly pause, once again, to review the impact of the public sector, more commonly known as the civil service, in the largely self-imposed crisis of underdevelopment hobbling post-colonial Nigeria. Please take note: this is by no means a tendentious evaluation of the civil service. Rather, it’s a detached undertaking inclined at best toward rendering a factual assessment of a critical segment of government relative to where we are today as a country.

For the benefit of those still confused, who may be thinking that only those who work in the Ministries are civil servants, it is important to emphasise that any employee of state-owned institutions – be it Ministries, Departments, Agencies, Councils, Research Institutes, Corporations, Commissions or any government-controlled establishment of whatever arcane nomenclature – is a civil servant; and therefore a worker in the public sector (civil service).In its heyday, the Nigerian civil service was the poster child of robust bureaucracy, a sort of metaphorical heirloom honed in the best tradition of Victorian thoroughness and rigour, and handed down to honest, but inexperienced local administrators by the British colonial masters. It was an efficient and functional structure; a reasonably admired establishment and a fruitful hunting ground for job seekers inspired by productive forerunners to build a career under the wings of government. If the middle class enjoyed its best run at that time and became a decisive catalyst in those early stages of the country’s development, there would not be any fulmination against the civil service stepping forward to take a larger share of the credit.

It was under this stirring atmosphere, suffused with alluring nostalgia of the 60s and 70s, that one grew up in one of the “government quarters” scattered around Yaba, a throbbing Lagos suburb, to know a father who woke up every working day to exhibit a quiet sense of purpose and the compelling seriousness that captured the dignity of labour in an era the phrase truly had meaning. And then a mother, who demonstrated the fierce diligence and clerical dedication that embedded public service and earned it silent acclamation in those good old days.Cumulatively, both offered well over five decades of selfless service in government offices, and before the patriarch’s final departure, they repeatedly singled out that period as the golden years of their lives, in spite of the measly pension. They had nothing to show for having worked in the civil service other than the calm satisfaction of being actively involved at the time of its consummation, and then the random goodwill gesture that came as a token of appreciation.There was no estate to point at as personal property in the city, no tens of acres of land to show off, no mansions in the country home to call their own, no 4-star hotel anywhere to cause not a little swagger, no fleet of cars and buses to boast of, no super market or shopping malls to gloat over and no petrol stations to produce the excessive arrogance of oil magnates.

And it was not just about one’s parents. The civil servants of old evinced discipline. Looking around the quarters then, one noticed an overpowering air of self-restraint – the type that goes with acceptance of responsibilities and certainty of integrity. All manner of exotic automobiles didn’t clog up a sizable portion of the space in the quarters and in the offices. It was an age the Nigerian story was sweet to tell.

Hardly can anybody say the same of today’s civil service, whose steady decline began with the destruction of values engineered by errant political leaders and their counterparts in military uniforms. My friend and colleague, Chido Onumah, sketched the decay in government offices in one of his latest articles. And civil servants should thank him for limiting the deterioration to “channel flipping”, “ghost workers” and turning office premises into huge bazaars. The rot goes deeper than that. Truth is, Nigeria’s civil service is dead. That institution no longer serves anyone outside those charged with the responsibility of running it.

Unlike what obtained in the past (and one actually refers to the glorious past), the civil service ethic, with its evident overarching kernel of service to the public, has been completely abandoned and its place taken over by a pernicious culture that has no other description beyond self-serving. The typical civil servant of these days is not just lazy, but also irrepressibly corrupt. A brief stopover in any government department, federal or state, will suffice. There is no passion to do the job. The staff just sit idly or hop from one office to another, blathering away the whole day. Records are poorly kept, that is when they are kept at all, and so an interminable search for letters and files is a normal, everyday story.

Files pile up untreated sometimes for as long as four weeks on the bosses’ desk without anyone being struck by conscience, or awakened to the fact that such habitual act of undeviating slothfulness amounts to a huge disservice to the country. And then any attempt by an assertive outsider to point out the anomaly, if not dismissed by an outright contemptuous silence, gets the standard reply of Na so government work be o!

Given this kind of attitude, it’s no surprise that programmes and projects rarely get implemented; while something as normal as requests for approvals for useful projects that ought to take no more than one week to wrap up take almost eternity, if it manages to overcome the obstacles of narrow-minded bureaucrats.

As a result of the bankruptcy of its public institutions, Nigeria remains the only country in the world where it takes unduly long time to conclude paperwork on any issue. In a bid to reverse this negative identity, former president Olusegun Obasanjo established a service delivery watchdog called SERVICOM with a marching order to every government establishment to set up a branch of its own. The idea is to restore efficiency by fast-tracking services in all government offices.

Typical of the administration, the scheme was launched with fanfare. Then the public was charged to send observations and complaints regarding service delivery to this body. But it turned out to be a futile effort, as the unraveling of the civil service, in the face of widespread prodigality of the political class, assumed a more disturbing dimension even with Obasanjo still in office. In no time as expected, SERVICOM more or less disappeared from the radar of public governance.

In furtherance of this relentless sectoral degeneration, a simple, straightforward exercise of staff promotion has been added to the growing list of victims. No longer is it a secret that promotions are for sale in the civil service. Workers on different levels are routinely called out for interviews or examinations for promotion, but in the end, performance almost always does not determine who gets promoted. It is always those who are able to pay some specified amount of money that get lifted to the next levels.

The bigger shame is that members of the Federal Civil Service Commission and the Head of Service and his lieutenants know that Deputy Directors, Assistant Directors and others down the line offer bribes in order to gain promotion, but they have refused to do anything to stop the ugly practice because they are said to be receiving remittances from some group of workers called schedule officers. Deputy Directors and Assistant Directors pay as much as N1m and more to be promoted.

No doubt the impulse for paying that much can’t be divorced from the assurance of recouping what was paid, thanks to the ongoing massive corruption in the system. Evidence of this is the scandalous material wealth being displayed by many public officers. In spite of the regular complaints of lack of funds, civil servants ride the most expensive cars in the market and buy mansions, build estates, shopping malls and acquire all kinds of property across cities.

On a regular basis Ministries, departments and parastatals budget money for seminars and workshops, but the big guns end up diverting the cash into their pockets. For them, there is usually enough to steal. Under the guise of holding meetings, they dip their hands into the office purse and share public funds behind closed doors. This orchestrated stealing goes on virtually every week, and only the generous ones among them extend the loot to other junior staff.

There is no question that a civil service like this one has only helped to preserve the country’s stagnation. The way to turn things around is not to embark on mass sack of workers as recommended by the governor of Central Bank of Nigeria Sanusi Lamido Sanusi. Instead, Nigerians should insist that the current civil service serves no useful purpose and, therefore, a new, strictly enforced orientation for the workforce in public institutions is urgently required.

Godwin Onyeacholem, a journalist can be reached at gonyeacholem@gmail.com; www.giraffemagazine.com.ng

  • NightShadow

    If I may just make a correction, the Central Bank Governor did not say that civil servants should be sacked. He suggested that the number of political office holders and appointees should be reduced.