By Obi Nwakanma

The plans to retire an entire generation of civil servants from the position of directors, and cap the years of service of the permanent under secretaries of the Federal Civil Service announced recently by the current Secretary to the Federal Government of Nigeria, Steve Oronsaye is wrong headed policy.

I do not think the SGF has given adequate thoughts to the long term effects of this policy. But it brings to bear yet again the crisis of the Nigerian state. I will suggest here that every sovereign state designs the kind of civil service that complements its stature and accomplishes its national mission. One of the clearest manifestations of the dire situation of Nigeria is the absence of mission in the character, orientation or perhaps the lack of it, of the Nigerian public service. The Nigerian civil service is terribly ossified.

The civil service is normally the thinking arm of the sovereign nations, and often draws from a country’s most unique talent pool; from its established centres of knowledge production – the universities, the research centres and the entire schools system. It generates ideas to create and continuously renew the charter and mission of nationhood.

In the case of Nigeria, reflecting the collapse of almost all its strategic national institutions – the bureaucracy, the judiciary, the police, the schools system, etc.- what we now have is a paradoxical service: ignorant, unimaginative, overbloated and careerist.

I hope this statement will not be simply construed as another example of whingeing from another Nigerian skeptic. But it does seem to me that the secretary to the government of Nigeria has not benefited or fully comprehended the history, original mission, and intent of the Administrative Service in Nigeria. I think Oronsaye’s background from Industry rather than from the public bureaucracy gives a significant tinge to his conception of change in the civil service.

In some very important respects, there is strength in that background, and in many other fundamental respects, there is weakness of the sort that can lead to a potential  misreading that might end up misdirecting the necessary changes required to transform the Nigerian service for greater efficacy.

I think Oronsaye missed an important opportunity to embark upon groundwork reforms of the federal service. Rather, he makes ineffective cosmetic changes that speak more to careerist privileges and notions of entitlements that have both politicized and ethnicized, and thus reduced the efficacy and even mission of the Nigerian service.

From 1957 when the first set of Nigerians were carefully recruited directly to the colonial Administrative Service then under the leadership of the English chief secretary, Sir Ralph Gray, preparatory to home rule, it was assumed that Nigeria would build upon the best tradition and values of its inherited service.

But midway into the postcolonial state, that service lost its direction, and was further destroyed and corrupted by the buffalo soldiers who ruled and co-opted the civil servants into their buccaneering ways. What emerged, especially by 1970, after the civil war, with the forced removal of many officers among some of the more experienced and efficient of that generation, and compounded by the Murtala/Obasanjo shenanigans of 1975 was a cynical and careerist service.

Babangida’s regime further attempted some reform, giving permanent secretaries new titles and new executive authority, revising the tenure principle of the permanent under secretary.The current reform plans by this administration, and announced by secretary to the federal government risks further politicization of the service. Destroying the tenure of the permanent secretary will create new avenues and incentives for even greater corruption. We duly note the excuse Oronsaye gives for his reform plans.

The top, he says, is too overcrowded, and too linear in its regional character. It goes right to the heart of the contradiction that has become the Nigerian public service. For long, officers were not recruited, promoted, and maintained per efficiency, but on selective quota – the so called “federal character” requirement. Many junior and inexperienced people, with varied and even occasionally ambiguous levels of skill, training, and preparations from so-called “disadvantaged” states were brought in and sometimes promoted and privileged over more tested and senior officers from other parts of the country.

Seniority was over turned and re-interpreted. Careers were stymied. Innovative thought was hardly rewarded. It led to bitterness and deadly languor. The service was also over-bloated and top heavy, creating problems of transition. Corruption became inevitable and widespread. The Nigerian civil service truly needs bold and far reaching reforms, not tepid, and arbitrary changes. We need to keep the permanent secretary, permanent.

We need to create a lean, dynamic, and imaginative service. We need to recruit the highest quality of individuals to the service, and above all, instrumentalize the service as the delivery arm of government. We need to remove quota as a condition for the recruitment of the Administrative cadre of the service, and base both recruitment and advancement on merit, and so it wouldn’t matter if only individuals from Taraba State, for example, end up through rigorous processes of selection supplying the entire directorate of the Nigerian service, for as long as conduct is regulated by the General Orders and placed on constant scrutiny and independent oversight for fairness and honesty.

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