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Change begins with return to permanent secretaries

By Afam Nkemdiche   |   05 October 2016   |   3:30 am
Fed. Secretariat Abuja

Fed. Secretariat Abuja

It goes without saying that Nigerians have known for decades, that a radical change in the scheme of things is a sine qua non for the resumption of effective national growth. However, defining that overdue change has been the challenge as opinions are in diversity respecting the principal issues that need to change in the polity. Only recently, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), “change government,” even after 17 months in office, still betrayed the impression it has yet to come to terms with the change that Nigeria needs. For me, the question needn’t be as complicated as it has assumed: change must begin from where the backbone of Nigeria’s civil service was broken by the military in 1975. I have culled relevant excerpts from my previous articles in this newspaper to help make the point.

“It is a tragic irony to retrospectively observe that the July 1975 coup leaders (Murtala/Obasanjo/Danjuma), who had accused Gowon’s regime of dictatorial tendencies, exceeded by orders of magnitude previous dictatorial national governments. As though preparing the nation for unprecedented magisterial leadership, the new military junta, barely a week after assuming power, banned permanent secretaries from attending executive council meetings. Before then, permanent secretaries had attended executive council meetings as the bona fide chief executive officers of the ministries and other government agencies. The input of these cerebral and seasoned technocrats to executive council deliberations had been adjudged invaluable in rationalising government’s expenditures.

“No logical explanation had been offered to the nation for such a far-reaching ban; though the new Head of State, Brigadier-General Murtala Muhammed, in announcing the ban had said “the Permanent Secretaries were partners in crime with their political heads and quite often the masterminds of business deals.” (It was a classic case of throwing the baby away with the bath water). But the regime had more shockers for the nation. The illogical ban was closely followed with a most controversial mass retirement of civil servants, “with immediate effect.” The cadre of personnel that were affected ranged from permanent secretaries to messengers.

“It is significant to state that the then bulk of federal civil servants hailed from southern Nigeria; the theatre of the bitter civil war that had ended barely six years previously. The new Head of State had been a ruthless, if unruly commander in that war. A senior British instructor at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, England, might have preferred the phrase “unruly commander.” Commander Murtala Muhammed’s unruly conduct was of a scale that scandalised the Supreme Headquarters; the commander was consequently withdrawn from the war.

“One could then imagine the dreadful thoughts that the controversial mass retirement would have conjured up in the highly agitated minds of the affected southerners: Commander Murtala Muhammed has substituted his guns with a pen, and was now continuing his ruthless war by executive orders; the affected southerners must have then reasoned. And seeing that the pen is mightier than the gun, it was not long before cries of “marginalisation!” “marginalisation!” spontaneously erupted from parts of southern Nigeria. I dare say that that morbid mass retirement exercise prevented Nigeria from properly healing her citizens of the traumas of the civil war. If anything, the exercise deepened the effects of the war traumas by unwittingly providing manure to the sour seeds of inter-regional suspicions that had been sown in the period leading to the civil war. (The ongoing agitation for the State of Biafra and the militancy in the Niger Delta, albeit ill-advised, are proved-positive that the lacerations of the 1967-70 civil war as yet fester; which is all the more reason why the need to reconsider the extant political structure of Nigeria cannot be wished away)

About six months following his assumption of power, General Murtala Muhammed was assassinated in a coup attempt on February 13 1976. General Obasanjo, another legendary war commander, succeeded him as Head of State. General Danjuma declined the number 2 position for reasons personal to him; he preferred to remain chief of army staff. A relatively junior officer, a Lt. Colonel Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, had to be given accelerated promotion to enable him occupy the number 2 position as Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters. The trio of Obasanjo, Danjuma and Yar’Adua maintained both the letter and the spirit of the slain Head of State. The permanent secretaries remained banned from executive council meetings, and no restitutions were considered for the prematurely retired civil servants.

“The civil service community was thus wounded to the quick. Working for government no longer provided security of tenure for career civil servants; and upon retirement the terms of disengagement had become as precarious as ever. A feeling of alienation quickly crept into the heart of the civil servants. They had now to fend for themselves; their service to the nation thenceforth became a secondary interest. The civil service community then developed a less-than-patriotic mindset that subsequently infected the rest of the country. Need I say that selfsame mindset persists to this day?”

This is why change must begin with returning the permanent secretaries to the chambers of the executive councils. With the return of the perm secs the office of minister of state should logically be abolished, which is consistent with the call for substantial reductions in the cost of governance.

Afam, a consulting engineer, lives in Abuja.

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