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Nigerian Civil Services observed by Ladipo Adamolekun

The letter inviting me to deliver this Keynote Address includes the following: “Our Association is very passionate about the Civil Service…  regaining its lost glory (bold and italics added). I am certain that the Association is referring to the “glorious” era of civil services about which the following positive statements had been made.

Ladipo Adamolekun

Our civil service is exceedingly efficient, absolutely incorruptible in its upper stratum, and utterly devoted and unstinting in the discharge of its many onerous duties. For our civil servants, government workers and labourers to bear, uncomplainingly and without breaking down, the heavy and multifarious burdens with which we have in the interest of the public saddled them, is an epic of loyalty and devotion, of physical and mental endurance, and of a sense of mission, on their part. From the bottom of my heart I salute all of them.  – Awo. The Autobiography of Obafemi Awolowo (1960, p. 293).

… civil services that are for the most part recruited on merit, that are geared to efficiency standards, and that are largely untouched by crude politics.

Nigerian Opinion (a University of Ibadan-based public affairs magazine), Vol 1, No. 8, 1965, “Editorial”.

“… an able and efficient service, with a spirit of unity and pride in its work, one of the best in the Commonwealth” – D. J. Murray, “The Western Nigeria Civil Service through political crises and military coups,” Journal of Commonwealth Political Studies (1970).

What happened to the civil services that earned the above encomiums? Drawing on my study and observation of these institutions over six decades, I will review what happened around two opposites: institution building and institution destroying. In the second part of the address, I will provide an overview of a blueprint for regaining the “lost glory” of the federal civil service through a bold initiative aimed at transforming it within the wider public service into a world class (first class) institution and provide a summary of the rather modest results recorded to date. Some concluding observations constitute the third and final part of the address.

Part One:

Institution Building  and Institution  Destroying Institution building

The builders of the Nigerian civil services that emerged from the colonial administrative service during the decolonization decade of the 1950s were the top political leaders and the most senior civil servants (commonly referred to as higher civil servants) who engaged in joined-up efforts at the centre and in the regions of the federation. In the specific case of the Western Nigeria Civil Service (WNCS) of which Osun State Civil Service was an offshoot in 1991, it was the partnership between Obafemi Awolowo (regional Premier) and Simeon Adebo (Head of Service) that birthed and nurtured the institution which earned the former’s unusual praise cited in the Preamble.

It is important to highlight three crucial success factors that the political leadership provided. Awolowo headhunted Adebo and some other senior staff to serve in leadership positions in the WNCS. Second, he and his political team had articulated a development agenda with an action plan for which the civil service was to bear the primary responsibility for translating into concrete results on the ground. Third the government ensured decent pay and provided the resources (personnel, materials and equipment) that the WNCS needed for discharging its functions. Regarding the government’s development programme that the WNCS had the responsibility to implement, the two quotes below are self-explanatory:

“We had evolved elaborate plans which, with such modifications as inside knowledge of governmental facts and figures might dictate, were ready to be launched at a moment’s notice.” – Awo. The Autobiography of Obafemi Awolowo (1960), p. 257.

Appointed by merit

“Even before they assumed power, the Action Group party in the West had produced policy papers for practically all fields of governmental activity” – Simeon Adebo, Our Unforgettable Years (1984), p. 155.

Adebo and his civil service leadership team who had been appointed by merit proceeded to institutionalise merit-based recruitment. They also worked with the legislative arm of government to ensure that there was a legal framework for the civil service, resulting in the region’s public administration law, 1959. Another crucial institution building measure that was introduced and implemented was the education and training of staff. This was based on a training policy agreed between the political leadership and the leadership of the civil service. A civil service training school that was established in 1959 handled the training of junior staff while the initial steps were taken towards the establishment of an Institute of Administration for the training of senior staff. (It was established in 1962, in partnership with the region’s University of Ife, later re-named Obafemi Awolowo University).

Significantly, Adebo ensured that the relationships between himself and the other higher civil servants on the one hand, and Awolowo and his ministers on the other, in respect of the functions of policy advice and policy coordination and monitoring, were cooperative and smooth: ministerial primacy in policy making was respected and higher civil servants were responsible for ensuring effective policy coordination, implementation and monitoring. Regarding the actual running of the WNCS, guidance was provided by the “leadership by example” philosophy of Adebo: he was the leading embodiment of the attributes highlighted in Awolowo’s 1959 praise of the civil service.

The features of the WNCS summarised above also characterised, in varying degrees, the civil services at the centre and in the other regions as highlighted in the 1965 praise cited in the Preamble. Although the political leadership that had helped to nurture the civil services were replaced by military politicians with no knowledge of civil governance beginning from January 1966, the institutions maintained significant aspects of their quality characteristics through the first decade of military rule.

Institution  Destroying

However, during the immediate years after the end of the 1967-1970 civil war, there was evidence of civil servants getting involved in politics both at the centre and in the states. Alison Ayida’s The Nigerian Revolution, 1966-1976 (1973) that contained controversial political statements is an illustration of the situation at the centre whilst in the states, the civil services became the venues for political bargaining over the sharing and location of development projects and government amenities, issues that belonged to the political realm during civilian rule. (The combined prohibition of political parties and elected assemblies by the military had created the vacuum in the political space). A major public service reform initiative, the Public Service Review Commission (1972-1974) – customarily referred to after the name of its chairman, Jerome Udoji – sought, among other things, to restore efficiency standards in the civil service through the introduction and use of modern management techniques and improved internal processes. However, implementation focused more on recommendations for salary increases than on those for achieving improved efficiency.

Then, in 1975, there was the purge of the public service which clearly marked the beginning of the decline of the civil services as the vast majority of the 12,000 officials “purged” were civil servants. (The grounds for the purge included: “abuse of office”, “decline in productivity”, “divided loyalty” and “corruption”). At a stroke, the security of tenure of civil servants – the cornerstone of a career civil service – disappeared. There was another round of public service purge in 1984/1985 and many civil servants were among the victims. In addition to politicisation and lack of security of tenure, merit-based recruitment was undermined by the “federal character” principle that was introduced in the 1979 Constitution under the watch of the military. Failure to articulate clear guidelines for the application of the federal character principle resulted in its interpretation in practice as a crude, opaque, and sometimes blatantly unfair, quota system.

Sadly, the civilian rule interlude of 1979-1983 witnessed the maintenance of the battering the civil services had suffered under the military with intensification of the politicisation bug in some instances at both the federal and state levels. Efforts aimed at reforming the civil service during the last decade of military rule did not adequately address the restoration of the key characteristics that had made them strong institutions during the pre-military era. Consequently, the civil services inherited by civilian administrations at the centre and in the states in 1999 were fundamentally weak, in varying degrees. Notwithstanding the civil service reform initiatives introduced since 1999 at the centre and in a significant number of states, I am not aware of any civil service that has regained the “lost glory” of their predecessors of the pre-military era. Indeed, regarding the federal civil service, the assimilation of permanent secretaries as “political appointees” for remuneration purposes, effective from January 2009 (see the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission, RMAFC Act 2008), was another harmful dose of politicisation. And the introduction of tenure limitation for permanent secretaries and directors at the centre, effective from January 2010 (a maximum of eight years), is a further blow to civil servants’ security of tenure because it implies that the career civil service ends below the director level.

Part Two: Towards a  World Class Civil  Service

In 2009, a National Strategy for Public Service Reform (NSPSR) was prepared for the Federal Government (FG) by a mixed team of external experts and selected senior civil servants with the support of the Department for International Development of the United Kingdom. The vision articulated in the NSPSR is: “A world-class public service delivering government policies effectively and implementing programmes with professionalism, integrity, excellence and passion to secure sustainable national development.” (The NSPSR was “refreshed” in 2014 and “reviewed and updated” in 2017). The strategy has three phases: a rebuilding/reinvigorating phase; a transformation phase; and a final phase to lead to a world class public service status. And it has four pillars: an enabling institutional and governance environment; an enabling socio-economic environment; public financial management (PFM) reform; and civil service administration reform (CSAR).

The development objective of the CSAR is: “To re-invigorate [rebuild] and transform the civil service into an efficient, productive, incorruptible and citizen-centred institution with the capacity to deliver the government’s policies and programme”. Six key target results are identified in the strategy: (i) effective governance and management of the civil service as an institution; (ii) organizational efficiency and effectiveness; (iii) professional and results-oriented civil service; (iv) well-motivated civil servants; (v) improved competence of civil servants; (vi) an accountable and results-focused workforce. The development objectives of the three other pillars and their key target results are interlinked with those of the CSAR. This means that to achieve a world class civil service, simultaneous implementation progress must be made in respect of the three other pillars.

By 2017, that is, about nine years after the NSPSR was submitted to FG, it had not been formally approved by the Federal Executive Council (FEC) for implementation. (I made an unheeded plea for its rapid adoption for implementation in the Presidential Inauguration Lecture that I delivered in May 2011).

With an average of 12-month tenure between 2007 and 2014, no Head of Service (HOS) was able to champion the implementation of the CSAR. And no political champion of civil service reform has emerged since 2009. However, implementation of aspects of PFM began almost immediately in 2009 and by 2017, significant implementation progress had been recorded in respect of some aspects of the key target results envisaged.

The latest development regarding CSAR is a new initiative by the incumbent HOS: Federal Civil Service Strategy and Implementation Plan (FCSSIP), 2017 – 2020, prepared with the support of Africa Initiative on Governance and McKinsey & Company. The strategy has the following themes: re-design and re-launch three core training modules, including leadership enhancement and development programme (LEAD-P); launch a strategic sourcing of identified skills to bring in external talent at senior levels to drive high-level impact; institutionalise performance management by finalizing the performance management system, piloting tools and introducing non-monetary recognition; launch a salary review of the civil service; drive innovation in service by establishing a public service innovation unit within the OHCSF; launch an EPIC culture transformation of the civil service (efficient, productive, incorruptible and citizen-centred); accelerate roll-out of the full implementation of Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS). The HOS obtained FEC approval for (FCSSIP), 2017 – 2020 in July 2017. Understandably, implementation is still at an early stage.

It is important to stress that the approved stand-alone CSAR is effectively delinked from the three other pillars of the NSPSR, contrary to the clearly articulated linkages among all the four pillars: reforms under the enabling institutional and governance environment (pillar 1) are to ensure that that the governance and institutional environment are conducive to reforms in the public service; pillar 2 is focused on achieving the socio-economic development of the country through policies and programmes, and service delivery by the public service; and pillars 3 and 4 are focused on the internal processes – public financial management and the management of the civil service respectively.

Overall, implementation progress in respect of the three other pillars is mixed. Implementation progress in respect of Public Financial Management (PFM) reform has already been highlighted. Regarding the pillar on “An Enabling Institutional and Governance Environment”, it is only in respect of the key target result focused on “transparency and zero tolerance for corruption” that limited progress has been recorded since 2015 when the incumbent president emerged as the champion of an anti-corruption war. Furthermore, Nigeria joined the Open Government Partnership (OGP) initiative in 2016 and adopted a National Action Plan (2017-2019), focused on fiscal transparency, anti-corruption, access to information, and citizen engagement.

Finally, sector ministers and higher civil servants cooperated to champion the implementation of some aspects of the key target results of the pillar on “An Enabling Socio-Economic Environment” between 2011 and 2015. Some concrete results were recorded, notably in respect of high growth rate and emergence of Nigeria as Africa’s largest economy (after the rebasing of the country’s Gross Domestic Product, GDP, in 2013/2014). Since 2016, the Vice President and the sector ministers are cooperating with the relevant higher civil servants to champion the implementation of all the key target results that are consistent with the goals spelled out in the incumbent government’s Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP). But it’s too early to assess implementation progress.

Part Three: Three Concluding Observations

I conclude this Address with brief observations on the following: (1) politicians and civil servants as institution builders and institution destroyers; (2) weak-strong civil service continuum; and (3) impact of technology on civil service.

  1. Politicians and civil servants as institution builders and institution destroyers

Based on the experiences reviewed in this Address, I would conclude that politicians bear the primary responsibility both for building a strong civil service and for destroying one that already exists. The explanation is that a political leadership team with a clear development programme that it would like to see implemented effectively would understand the need for a strong civil service and take the necessary steps for ensuring its emergence and nurturing. However, the complementary role of the civil service leadership team in the building and nurturing of the institution was also highlighted. Similarly, politicians (in khaki and agbada) played the lead role in the institution destroying narratives provided. Again, with the exception of ten to fifteen years when civil servants maintained the strong institutions that they had partnered pre-military era politicians to build, they were also partners (active or passive) during the subsequent institution destroying years.

  1. Weak-strong civil service continuum

Although I have asserted that civil services in Nigeria have been weak since the mid-1970s, it is important to stress that there are varying degrees of institutional weakness. This is best represented on a weak-strong civil service continuum in which at the extreme weak end, the civil service is incapable of ensuring the continuity of the state (there is state collapse) while at the extreme strong end, the civil service would qualify as world class or first class. In the Nigerian case, the civil services have successfully ensured the continuity of the machinery of government both at the centre and in the states through military coups and changes of government, including cases when opposition parties have replaced ruling parties. Regarding the actual performance of the civil services, the degree of efficiency and effectiveness in service delivery to the public is a key measure for determining where each civil service would lie on the weak side of the continuum: close to the extreme end would represent poor service delivery while close to the middle of the continuum would represent fairly efficient service delivery. It would be interesting to find out from the incumbent leadership teams of the federal and state civil services the putative positions of their respective institutions in respect of service delivery to the public.

Below are two illustrations of civil services at the strong end of the continuum that have earned the status of world class or first class institutions.

Botswana’s civil service has been acknowledged by both its political leaders and outside observers as one of the key factors that made it possible for the country to emerge as one of only thirteen (13) countries world-wide that recorded sustained high growth (7 per cent and above) for 25 years or longer during the second half of the 20th Century (Commission on Growth and Development, 2008). In the case of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, a former prime minister, highlights the contribution of the civil service in the country’s rise “From Third World to First” (2000). And in 2008, the country’s incumbent Prime Minister, Mr. Lee Hsien Loong, asserted that Singapore’s civil service has remained critical to the country’s good development performance: “[Singapore’s Public Service] is our most sustainable competitive advantage. The investments in Singapore’s future are only realisable with a first-class public service” (bold and italics added).

  1. Impact of technology on civil service

Today, both weak and strong civil services are impacted, in varying degrees, by technology. Based on my observation of the federal civil service and a few state civil services, I would assert that only a small number of Nigerian civil servants have basic computer skills (Microsoft Office, PowerPoint and Email) and a smaller number would qualify as effective Internet users (connecting, accessing and using browsers). Until all officers on Grade Level 7 and above master basic computer skills and become effective internet users, no civil service can make real progress towards e-government, that is, the utilization of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of service delivery to the public. (Of course, fully functional e-government will depend on significant improvement in electricity supply and increased broadband penetration, currently less than 30%).

A worrisome illustration of limited capacity in ICT at the federal level is the failure to effectively implement the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS), that was first introduced in April 2007. Besides the astonishing claims of savings (close to one trillion naira to date) through removal of ghost workers (at least, between 100 and 150,000) during the last eleven years, the incumbent HOS’s on-going civil service reform strategy includes removal of many more tens of thousands of ghost workers and an estimated saving of N120 billion by 2020. (For example, in 2014, Jonathan administration claimed to have eliminated 60,000 ghost workers and saved N170billion whilst Buhari administration claims to have saved N198 billion from eliminating ghost workers in 2016).

However, the introduction of e-learning tablets (Opon imo) in secondary schools in the State of Osun since 2013 is evidence that leapfrogging is feasible in ICT use. And it is almost certain that there are individual professionals (doctors, engineers, architects, teachers, accountants) within the civil services across the country who enhance their productivity and efficiency through effective use of the Internet and possibly one or two social media platforms (for example, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Twitter). But a critical mass of professionals needs to join their ranks before efficiency and productivity can be significantly enhanced within the civil services.

*Professor Ladipo Adamolekun writes from Iju, Akure North, Ondo State.

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