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Towards restoring sanity in public service

By Tajudeen Kareem
31 May 2020   |   3:25 am
As Nigerians come to terms with the rising cases of coronavirus, the polity has witnessed a rather disturbing trend in the past one month.Between May 4 and 20, three chief executives of Federal Government agencies were removed and replaced.

As Nigerians come to terms with the rising cases of coronavirus, the polity has witnessed a rather disturbing trend in the past one month. Between May 4 and 20, three chief executives of Federal Government agencies were removed and replaced. Change is inevitable, for a country seeking good governance and for a people yearning for quick delivery of democracy dividends. But pause a while, an adage in Yoruba says if a cook removes, one after the other, logs under her cooking pot, ostensibly because they seemed crooked while glowing; when will the soup get properly cooked?

No one denies the power of President Muhammadu Buhari to hire and fire his appointees, especially when they are found wanting. In a democracy, it is a fundamental right and acceptable global rule, that every offender must be heard before getting punished. Fair and transparent hearing is an inalienable right of every citizen, more so a chief executive of a federal agency.

Now, the hallmark of the Civil Service, and by extension, Public Service, is job security or if you like, adherence to clear rules and regulations governing appointment, promotion and discipline.  There are many bright, young men who left universities and shunned mouth-watering offers in the Private Sector to work in the Civil Service because they are attracted by the seeming orderliness and clear rules governing employee-employer relationship in the Public Service. This well-cherished tradition is fast being eroded by overzealous politicians – ministers and board chairmen – who often act whimsically, seeking to exercise powers not conferred either by law or tradition.

A permanent secretary who retired recently from the federal service offered an elaborate opinion on the matter, even as he wanted to remain anonymous. “The Public Service is a combination of the Civil Service and other segments of those working at the parastatals, armed forces, universities, institutions of higher learning, medical establishments and so on. The umbrella under which all of them stand is what is called the Public Service of Nigeria. The hallmark of the Public Service is security of tenure. Moreover, everybody holds his or her appointment at the pleasure of the President and he can delegate such powers. The third aspect that we should note is the legal premise. Even where a death sentence is involved, every matter is subjected to scrutiny up to the Supreme Court before a sentence is carried out. That is the principle of fair hearing.

“These particular set of people we are talking about are appointees of the President and they are guided by three instruments: power derivable from the Constitution, power derivable from the laws establishing each agency and the Public Service Rules. These are rules guiding the conduct and procedures for certain actions in the service. Chapter 3 deals with discipline and procedures while Chapter 16 deals with application of Public Service rules to parastatals.

“Now when you talk about issues of discipline, all public officers are subject to discipline, including chief executives. The central clearing house and coordination of the appointment of all chief executives made by the President is the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, SGF. The circulars in contention are not new in respect of guidelines for end of tenure, appointment, discipline and so on.

“The data-base of all political appointees resides in the office of the SGF.  Parastatals are created for specific purposes, they are assigned to certain sectors overseen by certain ministries; the ministers are the political authorities for those sectors and parastatals. They can recommend who should be in a position or who should be removed from that position, but the route through which they are appointed is the OSGF. When ministers were appointed by the President, their letters of appointment were issued and signed by the SGF, just like all chief executives of agencies and parastatals. So, in my opinion, ministers do not have the powers to remove chief executives without going through established procedures.”

It is incongruous that heads of government agencies and parastatals receive their appointment letters from the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, SGF, only to get sack letters through their supervising ministers. Why are ministers running to the president to file allegations against chief executives without giving the ‘accused’ the benefit of fair hearing?

The Minister of Power has displayed some notoriety in this regard. On 24 December, 2019, the minister suspended the Managing Director of the Nigerian Bulk Electricity Trading Company PLC, Dr. Marilyn Amobi. A few days later, this same minister announced the indefinite suspension of the Managing Director of the Rural Electrification Agency, Mrs. Damilola Ogunbiyi.  President Buhari, with the benefit of diligent investigation, overruled the minister on both unguarded steps.

To be sure, the Minister of Power is not alone in this display of overzealousness. Early in May, the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development ran to the President to secure the sack of the Director General of NEMA. Deep throat has it that the erstwhile CEO of NEMA was sacked for ‘serious misconduct’. That remains a conjecture if the man had no benefit of fair hearing to defend himself just like the boss of the Transmission Company of Nigeria. In both cases, the Public Service Rule stipulates that any act of misconduct must be subjected to due process before a submission is made to the President.

“It is also important to ensure that fair hearing is allowed and that the channel through which the CEO was appointed, that is the OSGF, is reverted to in such instances. The benefit of this is institutional stability and protection of overarching public interest,” a former Head of Service of the Federation volunteered.

Let’s juxtapose the instances at NEMA and TCN with the case at National Examinations Council, which had a new registrar two weeks ago upon the sack of Prof. Charles Uwakwe who had been on suspension since May 2018. For 24 months, the Minister of Education had caused a diligent investigation of allegations against him bordering on financial mismanagement and abuse of office. A letter by the Permanent Secretary at the Federal Ministry of Education to Uwakwe, said inter alia:

“After due consideration of the investigative panel on the allegation of unsatisfactory conduct levelled against you and some management staff of the council, Mr. President in exercise of his powers, has approved your removal as the Registrar and Chief Executive Officer of National Examinations Council with effect from the date of your suspension from duty.”

Flowing from the above, one may ask: What does Boss Mustapha want?
A circular dated May 19, 2020, had drawn attention to the growing arbitrary removal of Heads of Government Agencies, Parastatals and Departments without recourse to established and approved disciplinary procedure. The SGF was unambigious in stating his concerns bordering on “the arbitrary removal of Chief Executive Officers and its impact on stability and service delivery.”

It is significant that Mustapha was not acting unilaterally. He said: “Mr. President has approved the following streamlined procedure for the discipline of Chief Executive Officers of Government Parastatals, Agencies and Departments in accordance with the Public Service Rules.”

In issuing the circular, was Mustapha saying anything new? Established facts point to the contrary. He was categorical that the now contentious circular should not operate in isolation. His words: “Without prejudice to the content, it is expected that this Circular should be acted upon conjunctively with the provisions of the following extant Service Wide Circulars and publication”. He listed them as:

i.   Ref. SGF/OP/1/S.3/T.1/132-2nd August, 1999
Guidelines on the relationship between parastatals/State owned Companies and their Supervising Ministries;
ii.  Ref. SGF/OP/1/S.3/T-23rd November, 2017
Re: Procedure for Appointing Chief Executives and Heads of Parastatals, Government – Owned Companies, Agencies and Institutions;
iii.   Ref. No. SGF.50/S.II/C.2/ 268-4th December, 2017
End of tenure processes for Heads of Extra-Ministerial Departments, Directors General/ Chief Executive Officers of Parastatals, Agencies, Commissions and Government –owned Companies and Succession Guidelines; and

iv.  Federal Government Publication on Guidelines to Administrative Procedures in the Federal Public Service Chapter 7.
Whatever misgiving anyone has on the tone and intendments of the Circular, one issue is paramount.  The SGF has a duty to ensure sanity in the affairs of the government he serves. More important is the argument that politicians, be they Ministers or Board Chairmen, cannot take actions officially without regard for established procedure which precedes their own appointments but also necessary to ensure sanity in governance.