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I don’t wanna be a civil servant

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About a decade ago, I bought a collection of Christian evergreen songs. One of the songs was my favourite. But I did not get part of a particular song right. Trust little children-they made it up for me by interpreting it as ‘I don’t wanna be a civil servant’. But I knew that this was not what the singer actually sang. Later, I realized that they were probably passing a message to me about their impression regarding the Civil Service. After over three decades in the Federal Civil Service, and retirement from the Service, I have come to the realization that the kids were right, just like other ambitious and enterprising youths, from across the country whom I have met, who do not see the Civil Service as an ideal place to seek a long-term career for growth and fulfillment in life.

To them, the Civil Service is a killer of visions, dreams and noble aspirations. But how did we get to this stage? In trying to unravel this mystery, following his appointment by President Olusegun Obasanjo as the pioneer Director General, Bureau of Public Service Reforms (BPSR) in 2004, Dr. Goke Adegoroye, tasked himself with answering two questions namely: ‘What is it in the mainstream Civil Service that kills initiative, and frustrates talents; and ‘What is it about the Civil Service that seems to make it go in circles that lead nowhere? These questions, and more, are contained in his paper titled ’Challenges of a Public Service Reforms Administrator: An Analysis of the First Year’ in ‘Nigeria Public Service Reform’- ‘The Vision and Challenges’.

Dr. Adegoroye bowed out of the Civil Service providing veritable answers to these questions which did not sufficiently resonate well with the establishment. He has not relented, though. Other champions and guardians of the reform process, including former Heads of the Civil Service of the Federation, Governor Nasir el Rufai, Dr Ngozi Iweala, Oby Ezekwesili, Nuhu Ribadu and experts such as Professors Ladipo Adamolekun, Jide Balogun, Dele Olowu, Victor Ayeni, have also provided pathways for changing the focus and drive of the Civil/Public Service without success. Undoubtedly, the damage to the Civil Service, from its resistance to change, and be fit for purpose, is deep, devastating and hurting. Without any sustained and appreciable efforts to urgently remedy the situation, the Civil Service, especially the Federal Civil Service, is destined for a fatal crash from which it may never recover.

As a nation, it seems that we have suddenly forgotten that, once upon a time, the Nigerian Civil Service was among the best institutions in the Commonwealth of Nations. And, thankfully, then it impacted on the nation in many profound ways. Perhaps, we still need to be reminded about the role of the Civil Service, as succinctly stated by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, of blessed memory, in his book – ‘The People’s Republic, wherein he states that: “the importance of the Civil Service in any society cannot be over-estimated. Without the civil servants, Government programmes would not even be worth the paper on which they are written, and momentous Government pronouncements would only amount to so much ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing. Indeed, a proficient and incorruptible Civil Service is the most valuable asset with which a country can be blessed…Now, if we are to succeed in rearing a breed of efficient, upright and objective civil servants, we must see to it that their entry into, and promotion within the Service are absolutely governed and dominated by sheer merit, and totally free from every taint or semblance of political influence, nationalism, tribalism and nepotism’. In line with the above enunciation by the late sage, a reform initiative was launched in Nigeria after the re-establishment of democratic governance in 1999.

The Public Service component of the change programme took off fully with the establishment of the Bureau of Public Service Reforms (BPSR) in February 2004, as the expert house and institutional champion of the reform programme. The overarching objective, as stated in one of the reform publications titled, The Obasanjo Reforms, is ‘to build a first class service whose performance is substantially enhanced, with added capacity, for enforcing ethical standards, and instilling a sense of core values and principles for promoting good governance and sustainable democracy’. A further aim is to build the capacity of the Service to enable it perform the respective roles of providing ‘guidance in policy making, assistance in policy planning, policy advice to Ministers and other Functionaries of Government, building and communicating institutional memory to decision makers, guidance and management of resources required to accomplish policy objectives, delivering quality public services, establishing standards and enforcing norms, and measuring, monitoring, evaluating the performance of public sector organizations, and other non- government agencies rendering services on behalf of Government’.

Unfortunately, today, we are in dire straits. The Civil Service is absolutely diminished. The governance architecture of Ministries, Extra-Ministerial Departments and Agencies (MDAs) are not built around functional systems, processes and procedures- but on imperial lords of different colourations. Political correctness is the order of the day, at the expense of manifest courage to speak truth to power. The system does not welcome diversity/systems thinking and innovation. The merit principle has virtually disappeared from the firmament of the Service. Large numbers of officers across all levels are completely frustrated. Welfare packages are poor. Remuneration is low. Officers bribe their way to secure promotions and deployment to ‘juicy’ positions. Thanks to the Dr Ingawa-led new team in the Federal Civil Service (FCSC) where a new culture of due process, accountability and transparency is emerging to stem this tide. The commanding heights of the Service are dominated by politically exposed and highly connected transferees, at the expense of more experienced and competent in-service career officers. Being courageous comes with a heavy price, hence a culture of silence, timidity and bootlicking reigns in the Civil Service. Even directors have become little boys and girls who must appease the godfathers and mothers, within the system, in order not to be left out in the distribution of patronage and privileges.

Indeed, the highest level to which a civil servant can aspire in the Service- i.e. the post of a Director-is almost meaningless, being of no significance in many contexts. The consequence is that the system is deprived of the breadth of experience of courageous officers in the Service who are shut off in the decision making process aimed at providing enduring and cost-effective solutions to the myriad of governance challenges confronting our beloved nation because they cannot play the ‘yes’ game of other servile officers in the system. The confidence and trust gaps between political masters and core civil servants have widened in the mistaken belief by political masters that their team of advisers, usually procured at a heavy cost to government, can be a suitable replacement for the Civil Service.

And they, with their aides, often impact the system negatively by setting up parallel systems of public administration and management, in their respective Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs), because of the permissiveness of the system, given that their excesses are not checked, but are often rewarded handsomely, in spite of the fact that they have acted in breach of their terms of engagement. Leadership selection in the Civil Service is also at variance with the helicopter view of Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore. As espoused by him, in his best seller From Third World to First, the major ingredients of this leadership model are an ability to perceive problems from a wider horizon and to seek solutions by identifying and zooming in on critical details.

In other words, leadership entails an ability to think through issues in a comprehensive and detailed manner.

Other critical factors which he identified as germane to leadership are courage, determination, commitment and character, thus reaffirming the truism that a diminished Civil Service is one without deep thinkers; one without a sense of purpose, whose vision, drive, passion and added capacity to serve efficiently, effectively and competently, are blurred and permanently impaired. On the contrary, and in the typical Nigerian way of life, we choose leaders through a narrow, counter-productive and almost worthless examination-based system, which is often rigged and manipulated in favour of preferred candidates.

Nigeria truly deserves a World class Civil Service of distinction, pride and excellence, anchored on the four core principles of Stewardship, Trust, Engagement and Professionalism (STEP), as enunciated by Ms. Amal Pepple, CFR, former Head of the Civil Service of the Federation, as part of the legacies she bequeathed to the Federal Civil Service. Surely, Nigeria needs a recalibrated reform programme, with measurable performance indicators, and capable institutions for the delivery of the anticipated outcomes of the change initiative. It must no longer be an institution where we invest more on the lousy, the indolent than the deep, the gifted and the exceptional. It must be an institution of first, and deliberate, choice- not the last option, by any means. Obviously, Nigeria needs a Civil Service that can attract a new generation of the brightest and the best to its system, without any inhibitions. Nigeria does not deserve a Civil Service where Lilliputians dominate the space of enlightened leadership.

Certainly, Nigeria needs a revamped Civil Service made up of officers of uncommon pedigree who are giants in loyalty, knowledge, foresight, integrity, character, commitment, determination, purposefulness, patriotism, courage, candour, innovation, amongst others. And civil servants must heed the clarion call of Abhijit Naskar in ‘When Humans Unite: Making a World Without Borders’, by repositioning themselves as serious allies and partners of Government, and other key stakeholders, in the development process. They must realize, as he has rightly said, that: ‘On your shoulders, lies the responsibility of humanity’s present and future. If the armed forces are our last line of defence in every corner of the world, then you are our first line of defence in every corner of the world. Injustice must ask your permission before entering the lives of the people. You, civil servants are the first vanguards of the society’. So, are we still in doubt about the progressive and life-transforming role of the Civil Service as a force for advancing the cause of our shared humanity, and enabling Nigeria to claim her position of pride and distinction in the comity of nations? I hope not, because we can only continue to deny this reality to our shame, gloom and inglorious end. By the way, the world will not wait for Nigeria forever to justify her importance and fulfill her glorious destiny, hence the need for us to act fast, bearing in mind that there is no virile nation without a virile Civil Service. A word is, indeed, enough for the wise.

Mayomi is a retired director, public commentator and analyst.


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