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Preserving the civil service

By Gambo Dori

THE recently concluded primary elections have once more brought forth the acute dilemma of those in the civil service to come out as candidates for political positions or not. Ideally civil servants should resign from their offices before putting themselves up for elective posts. But what we have now is clearly getting out of hand.

A situation where very senior civil servants put themselves up for high positions to represent political parties in the coming elections without necessarily quitting their offices had caused plenty of consternation around. And this jostling to become candidates for political parties was not done surreptitiously, or in a cloak and dagger, clandestine manner.

The civil servants who were vying for posts ranging from gubernatorial positions to membership of the National Assembly and State Assemblies were seen to be openly jockeying for the attention of their party members at various platforms.

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They were seen in party secretariats hobnobbing with stalwarts, their pictures boldly appealing to party members high up from billboards at strategic points of the cities, their political manifestoes in colourful handbills and holding all manner of chit-chats on various shows on television and radio stations. They had virtually abandoned their offices and playing truancy at political party events.

And when everything was over they returned to their cosy offices, in their whatever departments of the civil service, secure in the knowledge that their misadventures would not be sanctioned.

In one extreme case, a governor of a state officially directed that even those civil servants who resigned to participate in the primaries and were not successful should be returned to their offices. Now, what does all these foretell for the Nigerian Civil Service, its integrity, its aura and its fairness?

A former permanent secretary who has been out of the service for over a decade now but who keeps a sharp eye over developments phoned me one night at the height of the primaries, clearly bewildered and enraged at the open engagement of top civil servants in partisan politics.

It was not only the open partisanship of the top civil servants that infuriated the retired permanent secretary but the do-nothing attitude of the governments of the country, particularly the Federal Government that should have led the way.

I guess this particular permanent secretary and the like-minded are being nostalgic at the kind of civil service that we had that was attuned to the operations of a government that suits a federation like ours with a multi-party democracy.

I have seen many comments on this subject and I have also solicited comments from many serving and retired civil servants.

A must read on this affair is the article written by Ahmed Joda whom many readers would know had been a civil servant since the 1950s. He was there during the transition from colonial government to the First Republic and on and on. He served at the highest rungs of the civil service at both the regional and federal governments and had interacted at close range with both our military and civilian leaders.

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That makes him the institutional memory he is now. His opinions would seem to be magisterial and I suggest should be taken as such. The tone of his article titled ‘should civil servants participate in partisan politics’ conveyed clearly his bewilderment at what had happened to the civil service they as founding fathers have bequeathed to the nation. He operated actively at a time when the aura of the service was at its highest. The service had integrity and its neutrality was taken at first value.

As he said it was because of that ‘they were able to discharge their responsibilities not only to the governments they served but to the opposition political parties and to the general public. This was never in doubt. It is these principles and impartiality of the service system that served well in the First Republic and sustained the military regimes that governed the country during its worst crisis’.

Actually the seeds of the present dilemma were sown early in the Third Republic when a group of civil servants went to court to challenge the Public Service Rules that prohibited them from what they deemed to be their inalienable rights to engage in political activities.

They went all the way to the Supreme Court. In its judgement the Supreme Court came out with a decision upholding certain clauses of the constitution that could be interpreted to give the plaintiffs relief. Since then the political civil servants who sought this relief have gone to town proclaiming victory and challenging anyone to stop them from participating in political activities.

Opinions have, however, been divided, ever since the Supreme Court judgement. Of course many have sided with the political civil servants but the larger majority were aghast that the civil service that is expected to be neutral and be available for all political parties that could form a government would have partisan elements within and probably at the highest rungs.

I am surprised that over the years since that judgement, governments at the federal and state levels have been lukewarm in dealing with the matter leading to a situation whereby directors and permanent secretaries in the mainstream civil service abandon their offices to go gallivanting in the political arena.

But you might not blame them for doing so because they firmly believed that it was alright to have done so. We forget that a politicized civil service is never the best practice.

Many countries that have travelled that ignoble route only found out at a heavy cost and had to make the inevitable U-turn.

Tanzania is a typical example that had even legitimate party cells in the departments of its civil service before the advent of multi-party democracy in the 1990s.

To make progress and be in tune with best practices the party cells had to go. In any case it is untidy for one to occupy a civil service office with all those rules about neutrality staring you in the face and engage in partisan politics.

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It amounts to nothing less than running with the foxes and hunting with the hounds.  It obvious that we must face and address this dilemma squarely. I understand that the Federal Government is already addressing the issue.

For a start I learnt that those Federal directors that got entangled in the recent political controversies were barred from sitting for the permanent secretary exams that took place a few days ago probably on the advice of the Attorney General of the Federation. But that is just for starter, on a journey that could be tortuous.

What is needed is for the Secretary of the Government of the Federation and the Head of Service of the Federation with the active participation of the Federal and State Civil Service Commissions to urgently study this matter and come up with definite pronouncements via a circular and/or a gazette. Anything else will just be wishy-washy!


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