Let The Permanent Secretaries Return
AS history affirms time and again, certain existential phenomena are true for all time. One of the obvious cases is the corruptibility of persons entrusted with public office. Abuse of public trust is a wide and complex topic; therefore, this article is limited to one aspect of the topical subject: misappropriations, or theft of public resources. Official corruption is inevitable; no society is immune from it, from the most ancient to the most modern of human aggregations. Humanity inevitably had to create effective means of keeping official corruption within benign levels. However, the recurrent challenge lay in deriving a percentage of society’s resources that could be misappropriated without a price to pay.
How do you pluck the geese without hissing? Indeed, what level of official corruption could human societies contain? It could be suggested that 10 per cent would seem an established threshold beyond which dire consequences necessarily accrue. Nigeria’s history corroborates this proposition. From pre-independence to independence in 1960, through to the first coup d’état in 1966, there had been reported allegations of 10 or thereabouts per cent kickbacks paid to government functionaries. Rather instructively, the leaders of the 1966 coup d’état had referred to the corrupt politicians whom they had un-ceremoniously kicked out of office as “ten per centers.” Though the ousted first republic politicians had been condemned for allegedly receiving 10 per cent kickbacks on government deals, the coup leaders had pointed to the 1964/1965 massively rigged elections as the principal reason they had struck.
The military junta, which finally assumed full control of the country from 1966 to 1975, was not without its fair share of allegations of 10 per cent kickback receipts. But in spite of the lingering allegations against that military government, it was for an unrelated reason that the government was eventually overthrown in late July 1975. The ousted government had become insufferably dictatorial, the new military leaders had then alleged. Therefore, 10 per cent could pass as a rule-of-thumb threshold for official corruption.
From its amalgamation in 1914 to 1975, Nigeria could well be said to have lived within the 10 per cent threshold of official corruption. Reported cases of financial impropriety had been relatively few and far between; and their effects on the larger economy had been as ineffectual as water off a duck’s back. Balewa, Aguyi-Ironsi, and Gowon decidedly didn’t make the list of super-rich Nigerians. General Gowon had been obliged to issue a denial when a section of the print media reported that the Head of State earned a monthly salary of N36, 000! And, when the media reported that the Election Commission Chairman had misappropriated N1, 000,000; the Chairman had been besides himself in protesting his innocence: he would faint if he sighted N1, 000,000 cash. In relation to the present day, those days were decidedly golden. But that golden trajectory took a dramatic turn after July 1975.
It is a tragic irony to retrospectively observe that the 1975 coup leaders (Murtala/Obasanjo/Danjuma) 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. Hitherto, permanent secretaries had attended the 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 rationalizing 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 Mohammed, in announcing the ban had said “the Permanent Secretaries were partners in crime with their political heads and quite often the master minds 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 had been affected ranged from permanent secretaries to messengers.
It is significant to state that the then bulk of civil servants hailed from southern Nigeria; the theatre of the bitter civil war that had ended barely six months 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 Mohammed’s unruly conduct was of a scale that scandalized 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: it was not long before cries of “marginalization!” “marginalisation!” spontaneously erupted from parts of southern Nigeria. I dare say that that morbid mass retirement exercise prevented Nigeria from properly healing her citizens from 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.
About six months following his assumption of power, General Murtala Mohammed was assassinated in a coup attempt in February 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 Musa Yar’Adua, had to be given accelerated promotion to enable him to 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 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 now 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?
Meanwhile, the new military leaders gleefully discharged their executive functions with diminishing consultation; civil servants were simply invited to the State House and issued instructions on what to do. Chief A. K. Hart, former chairman of Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, told a Commission of Inquiry that the Head of State (Obasanjo) routinely invited him to the State House and issued him with the list of companies that had been approved to lift Nigeria’s crude oil. Before long, Nigeria’s national budgets that had hitherto been consistently balanced, rapidly ran into serious deficit on account of suspect outsize loans. A usually taciturn if self-effacing but widely respected former federal permanent secretary of the ministry of finance, Allison Ayida, was to remark that Nigeria had “had no external debt problem until the Jumbo loans of 1977/78…” Nigeria had not taken any loan to successfully prosecute the three-year civil war; now, in peacetime, she curiously finds it necessary to take questionably-negotiated Jumbo loans. It was also in that regime that a whooping sum of N2.8billion disappeared from the nation’s account. The missing money was later allegedly traced to a private account. That magisterial regime it was that initiated the scandalous policy of allocating oil blocks to private individuals. The new military leaders not only appropriated absolute powers to themselves, but they also unashamedly played ducks and drakes with one of the country’s choicest resources. The mystery of Nigeria’s lingering financial problems is deeply rooted in the Obasanjo/Danjuma/Yar’Adua regime. To resolve that mystery, the country must necessarily study the palpable cult-like bond between the trio, going back to 1979: Obasanjo and Yar’Adua had been implicated in the so-called phantom coup plot against the Abacha regime. When Obasanjo first contested for office, Danjuma had startled Nigerians with the announcement that he would go on exile if Obasanjo did not win the Presidential race. And when Obasanjo failed in his infamous third term bid, he had conveniently looked to the Yar’Aduas for a successor; he had done this in spite of the array of formidably qualified aspirants for the office, and Governor Umaru Yar’Adua’s suspect health.
• Nkemdiche, a Consulting Engineer, wrote from Abuja.
Curious. After less than four years of presiding over the nation, the trio had begun to look to Nigeria as their fiefdom. Absolute power, they say, corrupts absolutely. This is one of the dire consequences of the ban on permanent secretaries. Tragically, subsequent political and military regimes had not deemed it fit to revisit the questionable ban; rather, all of them, with the possible exception of the Buhari/Idiagbon regime, had unreflectingly continued with the plundering.
My gut feeling that there was more to the ban on permanent secretaries found some justification when l fortuitously came across the autobiography of a former Director General (permanent secretary) of the Ministry of Telecommunications, Engineer Theophilus Oluwole Akindele: Memoir of Mixed Blessings, published by The Book Company, Lagos. Engineer Akindele had been DG when Colonel Murtala Mohammed was federal commissioner (minister) of Telecommunications. According to the autobiography, the DG and the federal commissioner hardly saw eye to eye on any major policy issue. As was the tradition before the infamous ban, both the political and the technical heads of each ministry and government agency submitted memoranda to the executive council. More often than not the versions of memoranda submitted to the council by the Telecommunications ministry tended to be diametrically opposed to each other. And more often than not, the technical version won the council’s vote, much to the irritation of the federal commissioner. Consequently, the irate federal commissioner had made many attempts to remove the DG, but the accomplished telecommunications’ engineer’s track record saved his job. The federal commissioner’s frustrations mounted. Over time, he came to loathe the conscientious DG. You guessed it; Engineer Akindele had been one of the first permanent secretaries to be prematurely retired, no sooner than Brigadier General Murtala Mohammed had assumed the headship of the country. Interesting.
Nigeria is often likened to a tragic comedy where the villain is celebrated while the hero is crucified. Dyed-in-the-wool skeptics may refuse to see the objective truth in the aforesaid autobiographic narrative; nonetheless, the slain Head of State’s ban on permanent secretaries could never be justified under any guise. Even if a generation of permanent secretaries were deemed unworthy of the office, that is not reason enough to deny Nigerians the only veritable platform of vouchsafing their commonwealth. The permanent secretaries’ representation at the executive council provided that all-important platform. Juxtaposed with the incalculable consequences in human lives; material wealth and opportunity costs calibrated in socio-economic developments, the ban on permanent secretaries would forever rank among the most nonsensical decisions ever taken by a head of the federal government. The earlier it is lifted, the sooner Nigeria would return to accountable (good) governance.
So please, let the permanent secretaries return to the executive council chambers.
• Nkemdiche, a Consulting Engineer, wrote from Abuja.
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