‘Civil servants have tremendous roles to play in ensuring due process’
Former National President of Nigeria Veterinary National Association (NVNA), Dr. Edgar Amos Sunday, is currently the Head of Service (HoS), Adamawa State. In this interview with Mansur Aramide, the former union leader speaks on the issues of N30,000 minimum wage, celebrating Labour Day amid COVID-19 lockdown, low productivity among workers and ghost workers syndrome among other labour issues.
Globally, this year’s Workers’ Day would be celebrated amidst Coronavirus pandemic. What lessons are there to learn?
Firstly, it shows that the world is now flat. We are at the same level; we are back to the time of the printing press. A single thing affects the entire world and it calls for humility. It is not the question of which community is big or small; all of us are in it and we must join hands together because it has forced us to now look at humanity as a single unit; we are one and this is something that affects us as a collective. We must address it frontally.
How do you assess productivity and quality of labour in Nigeria?
I think it is above average because whatever government or politicians do to come into government, there are many of them who don’t know anything about government and governance. It is the civil service that would say, ‘no, this is how you should do it’. For example, a politician would come in and say, ‘I want to give contracts for the construction of roads to my friends.’ It is the civil service that would say, ‘first of all, you must have it in the budget; it must go through due process; there is a Bureau for Public Procurement (BPP); there are procurement procedures that must be adhered to and that contracts have to be vetted using civil service engineers and that you must advertise for other companies to bid for the projects.’
But a typical politician will say, ‘because I am the president or governor I can just award contracts to my favourites at whatever cost, so that person who supported me and my ambition can make money’. But the civil service would say, ‘no it has to undergo certain laid down official processes.’ Civil service has tremendous roles to play in ensuring that things are done properly.
There may be challenges because a lot of corruption cases are with connivance with civil servants; that is, in terms of individuals, but in terms of the system, the service has performed above average in meeting some of these tendencies. But I agree that there are also bad elements in any system and a lot of corruption takes place without mincing words and I’m ashamed of it. I admit that civil servants play active roles in corruption processes. This, we can improve through good governance, so that while in service the system will be able to help you provide accommodation, transportation, water and electricity supply and good schools among many more.
If all these are guaranteed by the system, you will continue with your work; if the system guarantees that at the end of your service year you have packages to fall back on in terms of gratuity or pension or regular contributory pension scheme then the temptation to save or embezzle money to be used at the time of retirement would be reduced and the value system I talked about because, if at the final analysis you go to your village and you are unable to help beyond your resources, your people will tag you a bad person. But if the system evolves where the people will understand the value of hard work, of honesty, and not glamourising people who steal money.
How do you tackle the issue of capacity building?
We have done a lot in building the capacity of civil servants. By the way, we introduced what is called the staff of the month award. I directed departments, agencies and ministries to organise Productivity Merit Award every month and then send the names to me. And at the end of the year, we will collate and we will have ‘Civil Servant of the Year’ and honour the awardee at a diner with a certificate and some token in appreciating what he or she has done.
We also have an anti-corruption unit in the system and we also incorporated and introduced exams. Hitherto, permanent secretaries were appointed almost arbitrarily. The last appointees to the office of the permanent secretary had to go through an exam period – written, ICT and oral because we are in the era of information technology management. As I am speaking with you, we have scheduled a meeting using Zoom, so that we (me and the permanent secretaries) don’t have to be in one place – we use ICT technology. We have built the capacity of civil servants to understand the importance of ICT here in Adamawa. We have organised seminars, workshops, and symposia to keep them abreast of current trends in the service.
Talking about ghost workers, how rampant is it in Adamawa civil service?
Well, you know ghosts don’t work… (laughs)! Therefore the issue of ghosts working does not even arise. However, like any human organisation, we will always have miscreants because we know where there are 12 disciples there is always a Judas. It is a matter of fact that corruption is endemic in Nigeria and we try to check it with the best of our ability. We use so many means like screenings, BVN, setting up of anti-corruption unit in every department in every ministry. We try to ensure that everyone on the payroll of government is a genuine worker. I agree there will be room for improvement but we do our best to see that we don’t pay anybody outside our payroll. We wouldn’t say we have succeeded 100 per cent, but we will continue to update our system. Presently, there are no fictitious names on our payroll.
As a top civil servant with over 30 years’ experience, what factors could be blamed for ghost workers in Nigeria?
Let me say that of all the institutions bequeathed to us by the colonialists, the civil service is the most resilient and has been able to provide stability for the country. If you look at other tiers of the society, the military, for example, the structure and functions of the military have been bastardised over time. It has forayed into politics and there are instances where indiscipline and politicisation are rampant. If you look at the political class you will recall that we have gone from parliamentary to presidential system and have tried all kinds of constitutions.
We have gone through civil war during which the foundation of this country was threatened; it was the civil service that provided the stability and so it was the civil service that has sustained the country, whether military or civilian. It has been able to survive and provide the stability the country needs. In spite of all these, civil service has its own challenges, because corruption has become pandemic. If you look at the changes that have taken place, especially the era of General Murtala Muhammed; suddenly, there was mass purge and people were sacked. Some civil servants may have felt: ‘well, if a particular regime could wake up and sack workers without any remorse, perhaps it is better to do certain wrong things so that he would have something to fall back on’. One of the causes is military putsches.
Also, even in the era of politics, the emoluments of councillors, commissioners, governors, lawmakers and ministers, in fact, politicians generally; you will find out that the pension law for governors who served for just four years is so huge in terms of millions of naira; he is entitled to a house in his state and in any part of the country. He is entitled to two cars every four years, entitled to holidays abroad and all kinds of emoluments. It is tempting for an average civil servant to say, ‘I served for 35 years, I don’t even get my gratuity and pension’, to the extent that some civil servants falsify their data to stay longer because they are not sure of their pension and gratuity after leaving. But here is someone who served as minister or commissioner or governor; not only has he jumbo payments, in term of pay, but he is also appointed as a minister or elected as a senator and would, in essence, be receiving combined pay after leaving office. And so that is tempting to civil servants. I think these are some of the factors tempting those who are weak in terms of morality.
How can the menace be tackled frontally?
A number of ways. Firstly, it is through good governance by ensuring that the entitlements of workers like effective housing scheme, effective water system, effective electricity supply through public means, and public schools should be functional for civil servants’ children are provided. When there is good governance there will be minimum corruption, because there are some who justify corruption out of the sheer reality that they need to provide the above amenities for the survival of their families. Secondly, providing post-service entitlements like pensions and gratuity. By this I mean if at the end of the day I am sure to get my pension and gratuity or there is an effective contributory pension scheme, then the temptation to steal will be minimised.
Again, the gap between civil servants and political office holders in terms of emoluments is too wide, because if on becoming a councillor or commissioner or minister you suddenly have multiples of what a director or permanent secretary would get, then some civil servants would feel, ‘well, this is an unfair deal’ and they would devise means to rock the system.
Also, we need to review our value system, especially in our mosques, our churches where we will emphasise the value of service, not inordinate ambition and material wealth. In our society, people are sometimes encouraged into corruption by unnecessary titles by religious institutions and organisations. Only value system that frowns at these questionable donations would check to perpetuate corruption in our society.
We must change the value system to discredit questionable sources of wealth.
How often should the state engage workers in labour incidents?
It might interest you to know that I came from labour constituency. I told you that I was the state chairman of an association and then the national president before being appointed and sworn-in as HoS. Immediately I was appointed, my first port of call was Labour House so that they understand I am from their constituency. When the minimum wage issue was discussed and approved at the federal level, we didn’t wait for workers to look for us (government); it was the government that sought for the organised labour to engage them in negotiations for the new minimum wage. That happened because I am from their midst. In this state now, every 23rd of the month, irrespective of federal allocation, salaries are paid regularly; you can predict with a precision that you will receive a salary on the 23rd of every month. I have a good rapport with my colleagues in the Labour House.
Could you comment on the controversies that trailed your appointment by Governor Ahmadu Fintiri? Is it true that you were foisted on other permanent secretaries who were your seniors in service?
First of all, let me correct you by saying I was appointed by Jubrilla Bindow, not Governor Ahmadu Fintiri. Fintiri actually met me on the ground, and the office of Head of Service is an important office. Although it is only natural and fair for all those who are qualified to aspire to be HoS, you know there is only one seat and the constitution is very clear on criteria for appointing the HoS. It is provided for in section 208 where it says that the HoS shall be appointed from among the Permanent Secretaries (PSs). Second is that in appointing HoS, the governor should consider the diversity of the state so that the appointment will engender unity.
So the first qualification is that it must be among PSs. Now the question is, ‘was I a PS?’ Yes, I was a PS. I think the constitutional requirement of being a PS has been met. On whether it fostered unity, I think so, because, in the case of Jubrilla Bindow, he had the prerogative to appoint whoever he wanted among the PS. But beyond that, he actually called all PS and told us that he wanted to carry us along so that when he eventually announced his choice we will understand the thinking behind what he considered. And some of those issues he considered had to do with the diversity of the state and the need to engender unity.
There are also people who are interested in becoming HoS from among the PSs; it is valid, but there is only one person to be HoS. So, I am not aware whether there was any serious agitation. People talk of seniority in service, but the constitution didn’t talk about it; I stand to be corrected. I don’t think in the history of Adamawa State the most senior PS had been appointed; the constitution did not amplify that.
I know of a PS that was appointed and was sworn-in as HoS a few hours later on the same day, because the constitution says you just have to be a PS and, if you are a PS, you don’t have to be 10 years in office to be appointed HoS, as long as you are PS and as long as the government considers the diversity of the state. Let me add here that I am not an ambitious person; I never sought to be HoS; I never told the governor or anybody to tell the governor to appoint me. I just see it as service to my state and to humanity in general. I am a very ambitious person in terms of holding leadership positions to serve the people. As much as possible, I often try to run away from it. But when I was appointed, I thanked the governor for giving me the opportunity to serve my people.
I also thank Governor Fintiri for sustaining the appointment, bearing in mind that the former governor belonged to a different political party; he contested against Fintiri. The pressures on Fintiri, I understand, were high, that he should change some key appointees that were made by his predecessor. So, I thank Fintiri for the confidence reposed in me and for holding my hand so that we can work together. All this was possible because he saw in me the determination to serve the people in my own way not borne out of a passion to be Head of Service. I see it as an opportunity to serve and I am grateful that the opportunity was given to me. I want to do my best to serve the state, to serve humanity and through that to serve God.
Most politicians often claim that they abandoned their businesses to serve the nation and as such they must be compensated. What manner should such compensations take?
Why must they be compensated for offering to assist in nation-building? If truly they left their businesses to serve the people, then let it be the sacrifice they are rendering to serve their fatherland. What sacrifice have they made to build the nation when they are actually being paid? It is common sense that what they left they get back from the government, then they have not made any sacrifice; they have not lost anything for the sake of the country if that is the argument.