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Sule Katagum, Civil Service Commision and Future of Public Administration

By Tunji Olopa

The Nigerian Civil Service has again been decimated. The death of Alhaji Sule Katagum, Wazirin Katagum, has just been announced. And even though he was an old man, his death is one that historians of public administration in Nigeria will celebrate with nostalgia.

This is because the very personality and professional credentials of Sule Katagum is one that is decorated with significant administrative arsenal that is as significant as it is ironic. In fact, Alhaji Katagum credential is a critical dimension to the very essence of why the Nigerian civil service system has become the opposite of what we thought it ought to have become.

The death of Katagum not only represents the exit of the last of the conscientious Nigerian public servants—in the company of especially the likes of Simeon Adebo, Jerome Udoji, Ali Alilu, etc., extending to the super-permanent secretaries—who exited with him in 1975—whose administrative professionalism defined the Golden Age of the public service in Nigeria, he was at the helms of affairs of its professional gatekeeping task. Indeed, with the death of Sule Katagum and Gidado Idris, a whole archive of rare information about the Nigerian public service and a certain dimension of Nigeria’s political history are lost.

Vital information and tons

I am not sure whether it is the gentle and self-effacing personality of Sule Katagum that is responsible for the dearth of information about him and his professional credentials or whether the blame belongs to Nigeria’s historians of the Nigerian public administration.

What is however certain is that Sule Katagum went to the grave with vital information and tons of administrative perspectives on how the Civil Service through the Federal Civil Service Commission (FCSC) of which he was a chairman, could be deployed as the core gatekeeper of professional conduct, attitude and performance in the civil service in Nigeria.

Before he passed on, I had made strenuous attempts to excavate crucial information about him and Alhaji Ali Akilu and many thanks to Prof. A. D. Yahaya who has offered to help out. I was even very lucky at a point in my research to have got in touch with him. We had an appointment to meet at Abuja and I was very excited about the possibility that such an appointment would yield for my inquiry into the Northern Regional Civil Service as well as the last decade of the federal civil service in Nigeria. Unfortunately, the meeting could not hold. The second appointment that was supposed to hold in Azare hometown also failed.

I therefore consider it a matter of responsibility to outline the imperative of public service professionalism which Katagum represented. This is all the more significant because he was not just a professional civil servant in the rank of the best that Nigeria had to offer, he was also sufficiently worthy to seat as the Chief Gatekeeper of the public service ethos, conduct and professionalism which Nigeria needed at a critical juncture in its administrative evolution.

Quite unfortunately, Katagum was one of the prominent public servants that the civil service purge of 1975 swept away. We probably have not begun to understand the historical effects of that singular but disastrous policy decision on what the public service had become today.

Yet, Sule Katagum and many others in his generation dedicated their lives to making the civil service a worthy world class institution that could service Nigeria’s development and progress.

As at the time Alhaji Katagum was the chairman of the then Federal Public Service Commission (FPSC), the Nigerian public service was already in the throes of bureau-pathology. For instance, the military regime at the time had rejected the Udoji Commission Report and its strident insistent on the reform of the management system of the public service as a means of transforming its capacity readiness to backstop Nigeria’s post-independence development management.

The unfortunate decision to favor the reward component of the Udoji Report over the managerial reform effectively consolidated the downward spiral of the public service. We can therefore understand immediately the herculean task of those charged with the responsibility of clearing the Augean Stable of the Nigerian public service system.

Established in 1954 as the Federal Public Service Commission under the MacPherson Constitution, and later renamed in 1979 as the Federal Civil Service Commission, the FCSC came into existence as part of the British Northcote-Trevelyan reform of 1885. Most countries which inherited it—Botswana, the Philippines, Thailand, New Zealand, South Africa, Bangladesh, etc.—have innovatively recreated its modus operandi.

In Nigeria, it has a constitutional vision “To build a core of highly focused, disciplined, committed and patriotic Civil Service totally dedicated to supporting the Government in the development of a strong, united and virile Nigeria.” Its objective four-fold: (a) To appoint qualified candidates to man the different Ministries/Extra-Ministerial Departments in the Federal Civil Service; (b) To ensure that such appointments maintain/represent the Federal character of the Federal Republic of Nigeria; (c) To make recommendations to the Federal Government on Personnel policies aimed at improving the effectiveness and efficiency of the Federal Civil Service; and (d) To ensure that Personnel decisions are taken objectively, promptly and competently in accordance with the policies and interest of the Federal Government.

Yet, sixty three years after its creation, the question remains whether the FCSC has the necessary institutional mechanism to attract, retain and effectively utilize administrative skills and competencies on behalf of the Nigerian civil service? To what extent has the FCSC been able to protect the principle of merit in recruitment without buckling under political pressure, especially for representativeness?

Posing this question this way especially situates the FCSC within the global dynamics of human resource management, and the framework of merit and professionalism that has become the global benchmark for measuring performance and productivity. Within the context of Nigeria as a developing country, this is not a simple matter. And its complexity is further complicated by the managerial revolution which raises the private sector as the standard of operational efficiency for the public service. In fact, with managerialism, two significant things happened to the public service.

First, the capacity of the government, through its public service, to satisfy the citizens’ expectations for infrastructural empowerment was put into serious doubt. In other words, the government had become too bureaucratic to facilitate democratic service delivery.

Second, as a direct consequence of this, there was a massive competence and skills flight from the public sector to the private. By becoming the preferred place of employment, the private sector left the public service bereft of the capacity readiness to backstop the democratic policies of the Nigerian government to effectively affect the lives of Nigerians.

We therefore immediately confront the fundamental challenge facing the FCSC: the urgent need to (a) restore confidence in the public service as a world class professional institution capable of sustaining the imperatives of democratic governance, and (b) effectively gatekeeping the flow of skills and competences in a manner that will build the professional credential of the public service through the standard of merit. Specifically, recruitment implies that the FCSC must be aware of the capacity gaps in the federal civil service that speak to specialization and professional requirements. Essentially, the FCSC is charged with the task of producing intelligent, efficient and effective public servants that would be able to help implement government policies.

Success in achieving this function is mediated by both the political environment within which the FCSC operates as well as the internal organizational dynamics of the FCSC itself. We can all imagine under what excruciating and limiting circumstances someone like Alhaji Sule Katagum had to function as the chairman of the FPSC in the immediate post-independence period, and especially when the military commenced its adventure in Nigerian politics.

The military did not operate under any democratic compulsion to ensure efficiency in the gatekeeping of public service ethos and values. The diminution of several structures and institutions under the military also affected the gradual undermining of the organizational integrity of the civil service commission in Nigeria. I will highlight just four of the several problems that had bedeviled the FCSC since its attempt to grow into its constitutional role right from its inauguration till date.

The first has to do with the Commission’s struggle with the federal character principle and the necessity to impose merit on the recruitment exercise into the public service. When the Nigerian leadership voted for the principle of representativeness over that of merit in the implementation of the Nigerianization Policy, the choice could only overwhelm the FPSC and its attempt to gatekeep professionalism.

Merit and fairness inevitably suffered, and still do. The second challenge concerns the problem of placing recruits according to their professional capacities. Again, this resulted from the administrative inheritance of Nigeria.

As a public service grown on the generalist orientation, the HR function of the FCSC had to struggle to undermine its original framework of human resource dynamics that fails to leverage the professional skills and competences of those recruited as the platform for transforming the performance profile of the public service. To further complicate matter, there is even evidence that the examination that brings in new public service intakes lack the critical competitive edge that could serve as the game changer in performance measurement.

The crucial third challenge arises from the unfortunate disconnect between the civil service commission and the MDAs which constitute critical HR clients. Since the MDAs constitute the real engine house of the public service operational efficiency, they become the first institutional parameter for judging the effectiveness of the FCSC and its gatekeeping capacity. Essentially, and arising from the above challenges, it becomes difficult for the civil service commission to meet the competence and skills requirement of the MDAs.

This, the disconnection between the FCSC and the MDAs, derives from the latter’s lack of enthusiasm about the capacity of the FCSC to meet its human resource needs. MDAs therefore stopped declaring critical vacancies that can boost performance and productivity. Again, this challenge is complicated by the inadequate attention that even the FCSC itself paid to staff training and development as well as the professionalization of its engine room.

What this analysis of the challenges confronted by the federal civil service commission lacks is the touch of personal testimony that someone with the stature of Sule Katagum, who was in the very eye of the institutional storm, could have brought to bear on the understanding of the evolution and performance of the FCSC. But more than this, mining the memory and professional vitae of Katagum could have reinforced for us the urgent necessity of administrative gatekeeping especially at this time when bureaucratic corruption has become pandemic and the essence of public service seems to have been buried under many decades of negative administrative practices defined by the culture of instant gratification, nepotism and politicization.

Values of the FCSC

The public service is defined by specific value imperatives, some of the fundamental of which are values of integrity, equality, impartiality, professionalism, probity, transparency, accountability, neutrality, responsiveness, and probity/rectitude. And these are the values that the FCSC was established to protect and sustain.

To rise from its structural point of weakness and hence make headway in the institutional struggle which people like Katagum and their glorious era tried to achieve, the FCSC must undertake, within the framework of a service-wide change agenda, a strategic rethinking of its reform logic and rationale.

In this wise, it is crucial to establish structural alignment, for instance, with the Office of the Head of Service of the Federation (OHCSF) as a strategic partner in the human resources dynamics that will deliver capable and efficient public managers for the task that is the objective of the OHCSF itself.

A strategic reorientation will not only create strategic partnership but also leads to the emergence of a new talent management system foregrounded within a solid framework of wages and incentives. It should be noted in this regard that it is inevitable that within Nigeria’s heterogeneous polity, that the federal character principle must come into play.

But the task which the HR function of the FCSC must address is that of achieving a talent management strategy which refuses to compromise merit and professionalism. A robust talent management system and a solid performance management reform combine to achieve an optimal operational framework that transforms the operational capacity of the MDAs. This is what sums up the professional struggle of Alhaji Sule Katagum. This is the reform that will keep his albeit forgotten efforts alive.

Olaopa is Executive Vice Chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP).


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