In the search for a new Head of Service, President Jonathan sticks to a formula that critics say has, for years, bred corruption and entrenched inefficiency in the federal civil service.
At the inauguration of Bukar Aji as the Head of Service March 2013, President Goodluck Jonathan delivered a rare acknowledgement of the rot that has tarnished Nigeria’s civil service for years, and challenged the new boss to cleanse the system.
“The civil service was historically acknowledged as the citadel of excellence where the best brains, equipment and strategies are engaged,” the president told Mr. Aji. “Under your leadership, you must all work hard to bring back that type of civil service in the interest of our nation.”
He pressed the new chief bureaucrat to “enhance discipline and curtail corruption” in the service.
If that directive yielded gains 16 months later, it failed to show on a service that has grown notoriously corrupt and inept, despite reform programmes that have gulped billions of naira.
Now, as Mr. Aji sets to quit office this August, Mr. Jonathan appears to have jettisoned his own call for reforms and cleansing of the system.
In an intensifying hunt for a new Head of Service, the president is conducting largely the same search that produced Mr. Aji and many of his predecessors, one that factors political interests ahead of excellence, administration officials told PREMIUM TIMES.
The calculation this time is that the successful candidate must come from Nigeria’s North-east geo-political zone, the same region that produced Mr. Aji and his immediate predecessor, Bello Sali, those briefed of the process say.
Put simply, even where more competent hands exists elsewhere, they stand no chance.
“If Civil Service, the engine room of government is rooted in politics, corruption and impunity, then Nigeria is finished,” said Auwal Rafsanjani of the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, CISLAC.
The plan conforms to a pre-set zoning formula in place since Mr. Jonathan’s election in 2011.
The selection process also reflects a constitutionally-stipulated federal character by taking into consideration the regions that produced past Heads of Service, and the occupants of other key offices such as the Secretary to Government of the Federation, SGF.
But analysts accuse the government – and past administrations- of exploiting those arrangements for political gains.
For a start, the holder of the office now is expected to provide quality electoral value from a troubled North-east beset by a deadly Boko Haram insurgency, for Mr. Jonathan’s all, but certain re-election bid in 2015.
Mr. Rafsanjani said the government, and its predecessors will chose a candidate it can “manipulate”; one that must bear party loyalty and have the ability to help “siphon public funds for the next elections”.
“In all the years we have monitored the process of appointing the Head of the Civil Service, politics, not merit has always been the rule,” said Mr. Rafsanjani. “This is very sad.”
The outgoing Head of Service, Mr. Aji, and at least 80 percent of past 16 heads of the bureaucracy, now regarded as the faces behind a ruined civil service, emerged through a similar process.
For a service that has faced growing calls for radical changes, its equally growing politicisation has angered those who advocate reforms. They argue that the dire measures are needed for change.
“It is not supposed to be a political civil service, but an independent institution based on merit and not politics,” said Eze Onyekpere, the Lead Director, Centre for Social Justice, CSJ.
“Once the bureaucracy is led into politics, then the country would run into serious crisis it can hardly find a way out of. What Nigerians want is a merit-based, apolitical civil service,” Mr. Onyekpere said.
Indications that the president may not be prepared to dump a “political civil service” came in recent months.
The race for the seat began in the dawn of 2014 when it became clear Mr. Aji, the incumbent, was set to retire.
From Yobe State, Mr. Aji took over from Isa Sali, an Adamawa State indigene, on March 21, 2013. A year and five months later, Mr. Aji is set to step down this August after a career that began August 18, 1979.
As required by protocol, not law, the outgoing head of service submitted a shortlist of candidates to the president, for a final choice, officials close to the Head of Service, said.
The list includes senior Permanent Secretaries from the North-east states of Taraba, Bauchi, Borno, Adamawa, Gombe and Yobe states.
But the process has since drawn a massive political attention, with powerful backers of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, pushing for their respective candidates, PREMIUM TIMES understands.
As the pressure mounts, PREMIUM TIMES understands the president might be unable to independently choose the most competent and qualified candidate due to the aggressive lobby by two powerful PDP blocs in the region.
The president’s inability to make his pick without political consideration also has to do with his own political interest and self-preservation, particularly in the run up to the election next year, close sources said.
The influential interests from the North East are in support of two candidates mainly, insiders say. One is Umar Faruk, from Bauchi State, who is currently the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Water Resources, and the other is Goni Musa, the Permanent Secretary in charge of Ecological Funds Office in the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation. Mr. Musa is from Borno State.
Mr. Faruk was part of the shortlist from which the President chose the outgoing Head of Service in 2013.
But, according to officials in the civil service, the duo enjoy some advantage over other nominees because of their states of origin and the support they draw from their powerful political backers.
The third candidate, Danladi Kifasi, a chartered accountant and lawyer from Taraba State appears to be the dark horse. But, his strength in the race, officials briefed about the permutation say, may be his closeness with the one of President Jonathan’s favourite ministers.
Mr. Kifasi is a former Permanent Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Finance and currently the Ministry of Petroleum Resources.
Unlike the procedure for appointing the head of a specific government agency, say the Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, there are no detailed rules for choosing the Head of Service.
Analysts see that as the first flaw of the selection process.
Section 171(3 and 5) of the Nigerian Constitution merely requires an appointee to be a Permanent Secretary or from that cadre in the civil service.
In addition, the constitution requires the President to reflect federal character and ensure national unity in the appointment, a provision analysts believe now bellies the political shade of the process.
“That there is no acceptable guidelines to follow by whoever has the responsibility to appoint a new Head of Service is bad enough,” said Mr. Onyekpere.
“But, the least one should expect about the process should be that whoever is appointed has integrity and knowledgeable enough in the rules and regulations of the civil service. The candidate must be capable of bringing the civil service to a new height through his experience,” Mr. Onyekpere said.
The Nigerian Civil Service was considered efficient for only a few years in the 1960s and early 1970s. This was the era of the Super Permanent Secretaries.
At that time, the appointment of the civil service chief gave consideration to seniority, in terms of length of service, maturity, history of exemplary performance, character and integrity, a serving Permanent Secretary in one of the Ministries, who did not want to be named because of service rules, told PREMIUM TIMES.
With little emphasis on the state of origin, the three best candidates were usually shortlisted by a special Service Management Committee composed of the ranking Permanent Secretaries and Heads of Departments of the Ministries.
The shortlisted candidates would further be examined to establish their competence, their level of understanding of the service rules and their capacity to interpret the government’s vision. A final list was then sent to the President or head of government, the permanent secretary said.
Much of that process changed as late as mid-1970s with repeated military interruptions in government. That decline peaked in 1999 with the restoration of civil rule.
For many reasons, political considerations have over the years remained what is most considered in picking candidates for the job.
“Today, because the decision is highly politicized, it is not the best candidate that often comes out any more, as against what obtains in other countries where capacity, performance and diligence determine who emerges as Head of the bureaucracy,” a director in one of the Federal Ministries in Abuja told PREMIUM TIMES.
Civil servants are not allowed by law to speak to the media. Those who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES did so anonymously.
According to the director, apart from the appointee being politically correct, where he or she comes from takes precedence over merit and competence.
“What this means is that even if there are more competent and more qualified candidates from other geo-political zones in the service, they do not stand a chance of being selected,” he said.
Aggrieved officials in the system who would not speak out for fear of victimization, and campaigners for a reformed civil service, say the current practice breeds mediocrity and incompetence.
One senior official said the situation had deteriorated to a level where a Permanent Secretary cannot write a decent official memo, a craft often seen as the test of the quality of civil servants.
Where issues of corruption arise, the affected officers swiftly offer bribes to cover their tracks, the official said.
“Apart from their inability to write the simplest of official memos, they have several queries hanging on their necks from either the Independent Corrupt Practices and related offences Commission, ICPC, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, or other anti-corruption agencies of government. Yet, such persons pay as much as N10 to N20 million for their positions and stay on,” she said. The directorate level is also deep in the same rot, she said.
“There are some Directors who did not take the mandatory promotional exams, but pay in cash or kind to remain in office till they rise to become Permanent Secretaries,” the official said. “There is so much hopelessness.”
She added: “But, as a person, I see no hope for the civil service in the country. My candid assessment of the situation is that in the next five years, if care is not taken, the country would not have a credible director in the civil service capable of taking charge of the country’s bureaucracy.”
Rot dates back in time
For a service that has lasted more than half a century, much of its development has been amid corruption and abuse.
“The sowing of the seed that birthed the rot in the service dates back to the Murtala Muhammed regime when the era of Super Permanent Secretaries was truncated, ushering in drastic changes in the administrative structure of the civil service and the role of the civil servant in the polity,” a retired senior civil servant, Fidelis Awoshika, told PREMIUM TIMES.
Mr. Awoshika said the situation worsened during the Ibrahim Babangida regime, which completely changed the administrative structure of the civil service with the appointment of Directors-General, who were no more core career civil servants in charge of the ministries.
The removal of the office of Permanent Secretaries from the structure of the bureaucracy negatively impacted the bureaucracy significantly and eroded that responsibilities assigned to the technocrats.
Although the office of the Permanent Secretaries was restored under the late Sani Abacha regime, the role of the Office of the Head of Civil Service of the Federation, OHCSF was merged with that of the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, OSGF, creating a different challenge for the bureaucracy.
The Obasanjo administration came with the desire to restore the civil service to its past glory, he said. But the separation of the OHSCF from the OSGF by the administration ended up creating a different kind of challenge by making the occupant of the OHCSF a political appointee, subject only to the President’s approval.
“This is where the rains started beating us in the civil service,” Mr. Awoshika lamented. “I don’t know whether the ongoing reforms in the service would be able to reinvent the service and restore the country’s bureaucracy.”
But there are others who see nothing wrong with the need for politics and federal character in choosing heads of the civil service.
“It is important that political consideration be given to whatever process is in place, to take care of the country’s peculiar diversity,” Chidi Odinkalu, Chairman, National Human Rights Commission, NHRC, said.
“If merit, professionalism and competence are the only considerations, a time would come, like during the Obasanjo administration, when a section of the country would produce the personnel for all the offices in the civil service, such that other sections would not be represented.”