By Obi Nwakanma

President Muhammadu Buhari’s sacking of sixteen Permanent Secretaries, and appointment of seventeen new ones to replace them seems to me a mistake. The office of the president from which the announcement of this mass removal of the Permanent Secretaries was made, did not give any real details regarding the whys and the wherefores of this presidential action. But that is only part of the problem. Two questions ought to worry Nigerians about this move.

First, why does the constitution allow the President the kind of power he has exercised in sacking the top echelon of the Civil Service with no recourse, either to the Civil Service Commission or the Federal Legislature? We are operating, it seems to me here, in very strange territory, and the waters are darkened further by the confusions – the lack of coherence in the procedure of the civil governance of Nigeria, increasingly under this presidency. That brings me to the second part of the worry: if the president does have the powers, as I think it is made clear in the laws establishing the Nigerian civil service that he does, to sack the Permanent Under Secretaries of State before the expiry of their tenure, and without the regulatory procedure laid down under the General Rules of the Civil service to guide his action, why has the Federal Legislature not responded fully to respond to this anomaly.

Section 171, subsections 1, 2, 3, 4, 6 & 6, undermine the institution of the Civil service, whose heads, owing their appointments to the president, rather than to the Civil Service Commission, makes the Nigerian civil service, rather than an independent executive institution, an appendage of the office of the president subject to extreme executive control. This aspect of the laws establishing the Federal Civil Service in the current constitution was inserted under the direction of the military which did not seek, nor brook, an independent civil service. Although he is the head of the executive branch of the government, and as president effectively the minister of the civil service, it should not just be up to the president to summon the permanent heads of the National Civil Service to his office, and sack them with “with immediate effect.” The president might just be exercising his clearly enormous powers, but perhaps it is time enough for the National Assembly to intervene and redefine this provision. A politicized civil service is the breeding ground of corruption and larceny. If the heads of the permanent bureaucracy can be sacked at the mere whim of the political head of state without questions asked, just on the premise that Nigerians should trust his judgment and his words, such a system may just as well be manipulated to dangerous ends. We have seen this happen over and over since the Babangida Civil Service Reforms of 1988, which has led to the massive corruption of the system and its politicization. Summary dismissal are military things which has no place in the slow, deliberative mood of democracies, whose ultimate end is often the protection and safeguarding of the rule of law. In sacking these permanent secretaries “immediately,” this president seems to suggest that he learnt nothing about the failures of a military approach to purely civil processes.

The National Assembly must at least demand, through its control of funds, to rein-in the president. These people sacked from the service are some of their constituents, and they have rights too, which the members of the Assembly are elected to protect. Nigerians are rather a little in awe of the extent of the decay of the judiciary, needless to say. Nigerians do not trust their judges and magistrates whom they have long known to be corrupt. The role of the Nigerian judiciary is often, it seems, not to secure the bastion of justice for the weak and acted-upon. The Nigerian judiciary, because it is largely an establishment institution is less likely to question the president’s action, and may in fact go further to legislate from the bench, against the general rule of the law which it has been charged to interpret and protect with courage. So, Nigerians are skeptical about the judiciary because they expect no justice from these robbed figures in the event of a presidential overreach. They are more likely to back that overreach as law.

Yet, it is expected that a courageous judge might someday stand and interpret the laws that ought to limit the president from acting beyond the given boundaries of the powers granted him under the constitution. One of those limits of presidential power should be the inability to break the protective glass that preserves the institutional integrity of the permanent bureaucracy – the non-political arm of state service. To sack a permanent secretary for purely political consideration should not be tolerated. To discipline a member of the Civil Service should not be up to the president at any rate. It should be the function of the Civil Service Commission which recruits, rewards and punishes members of the service.

The Civil Service Commission is constituted as a non-ministerial body, which provides and secures the backbone of the administrative machinery of the nation, and is subject to no other authority under section 158 of the Nigerian Constitution. But that power is evacuated by section 171, rendering both the provisions and the intension of that constitution both contradictory and anomalous. One of the happier ironies of colonialism is that it gave us a great system of the civil service.

Over the years this has been tinkered with and undermined. But there are still the general principles of that civil service tradition that remains valid and necessary if we are to create and reform strong institutions that would drive Nigeria’s goals for prosperity, growth, and transparent governance. The most important institution in the modern nation is the civil service. Corruption in the system is the result of a politicization of the service, and the destruction of the system of permanent tenure that gives a sense of safety to career civil servants. I think that President Buhari, once again, made a mistake in “summarily” sacking the permanent secretaries, simply because the constitution grants him that authority. We must return to an era in which the president cannot sack any civil servant, much less, the executive heads of the service.

We must rebuild an independent, professional, and career service, with an effective Civil Service Commission, that should be able to carry out its duties of hiring and firing career members of the administrative service, following laid down rules and procedures. President Buhari may no doubt have his intentions in the right place, and may have real justifications in sacking these civil servants, who are by no stretch of imagination, all lambs to the slaughter, yet, the greatest threat to the state is not corruption, but the lawlessness that breeds corruption.

There are grounds to investigate and find evidence to legitimately sack these officers, but we must follow the process and be strict to the law. We must also, as a necessity for creating the rule of law, remove the power of the president to hire and fire Permanent Secretaries under the laws establishing the service. An effective civil service executes the policies of the political arm of state, while it retains its independence, and its capacity to offer advise without political implications or consideration. The president’s sacking of the permanent secretaries compromises this goal, central to the life of the state.

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