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Testing the grit of the Public service

By Gambo Dori

IT is the title of the autobiography of Liman Ciroma, who once combined the posts of Secretary of the Government of the Federation and Head of Service in 1977-79, and as I related on this page, last week, the book dealt mainly with the travails and successes of his extraordinary career in the public service that saw him rise to the pinnacles.

Obasanjo
President Muhammadu Buhari and former President Chief Olusegun Obasanjo

The book was presented to the public on the penultimate Saturday, in Kaduna. Perhaps, it was not a coincidence that the event was chaired by another extraordinary public servant, Yayale Ahmed, who was not only Secretary to the Government of the Federation and Head of Service at different times but also the Minister of Defence, all under a succession of Presidents –  Obasanjo, Yar’Adua and Jonathan.

The bulk of the book is mainly about Mallam Liman’s role in the Public service particularly because he served at a time in the 1960s and 70s when the country was going through plenty of turmoil; military coups and countercoups, a devastating civil war and the rush to rehabilitate and develop infrastructure at all costs.

It was all about his role in those affairs but he also lovingly wrote about his birth place, Fika, a tiny rural enclave tucked away in Yobe State, that is reputed to have turned out far more Public Officers that have held high public office, per square metre, than any other place in Nigeria.

He was a student of distinction and was able to be one of the very few to get into Barewa College, in 1945, then the only institution in the whole of Northern Nigeria providing secondary school education. It was in Barewa that he was thrown into the company of other boys of distinction, Ali Akilu, Zakariya Maimalari, Yakubu Gowon, Sunday Awoniyi, Abba Kyari and several others who  in a few years would be holding the levers of Nigerian Government.

After college he elected to join the Department of Antiquities after listening to a talk by the legendary Bernard Fagg, of Nok terracotta fame. Mallam Liman worked in the Ibadan headquarters and even assisted Fagg to build the Jos Museum. When the headquarters moved to Lagos, Mallam Liman went along. He was posted in Lagos in 1953 when he secured a Northern Nigerian scholarship to study in the UK. He graduated from Birmingham University with a degree in Archaeology in 1959, the first Nigerian to do so. He returned to Nigeria and re-joined the Nigerian Antiquities Department, now as a senior staff. He worked at excavation sites of the old city of Ngazargamu, once the capital of Borno Empire and was also part of the team that excavated at Igbo-Ukwu, near Onitsha that made those ground-breaking finds of ancient bronze that are now world famous.

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Independence 1960 found him a senior staff in the Department of Antiquities. In those early days of independence, all governments of the federation were embarking on series of measures to indigenise the senior segments of their respective public services, particularly the administrative cadre. Mallam Liman was seconded to the Public Services of Northern Nigeria in 1961 and was posted as an Assistant Secretary in the Premier’s office in Kaduna. He worked closely with the Premier, Sardauna Ahmadu Bello and even rose to become a Permanent Secretary.

Mallam Liman had very good regard for the Northern Nigerian Public Service. He wrote glowingly about it, particularly its leadership, the Sardauna himself and other public officers. He wrote: “the Northern Nigerian Public Service was taking off on a firm foundation, rooted in a combination of age-old traditions which are traceable to our pre-colonial tradition of good governance, and from the legacy and virtues of British Colonial Service. That is a blend of our tradition and modernity. By 1961 when I joined this Public service, it had become a Public service that was already in the mould of an ideal bureaucracy. It was still small though, but growing in strength and in capacity. It was above all loyal, yet apolitical and professional. The hallmark of its cadres, high and low, was high sense of responsibility, self-esteem and discipline, hard work, high sense of integrity and commitment to rule of law and due process.”

This ideal bureaucracy then was attained because the political class, the Sardauna, Aliyu Makaman Bida, Shettima Kashim Ibrahim, Ibrahim Imam Aminu Kano, as well as the leading civil servants, Mohammet Lawan, Ahmed Talib, Yahaya Gusau, Ahmadu Coomassie, Ali Akilu, Bukar Shuaib, Ignatius Durlong, Buba Ardo, Dr. Russel Dikko, Muhammadu Gujbawu, Muhammadu Monguno were all contemporaries at the defunct Katsina College or the Barewa College that grew out of it.

Mallam Liman posited that it was probably because they had known themselves during their school days that good understanding was fostered among them thereby building confidence and facilitating good working relationship. He added: “In fact, relationships, understanding, hard work, loyalty, discipline and respect which had been cultivated within and between individuals and groups through years of schooling together, were systematically and successfully imparted and passed on to the younger members of the Northern Region Public Service.”

After a short stay in the Premier’s office, Mallam Liman was posted out to have a feel of other ministries. Eventually, he was sent out of Kaduna to garner the ultimate experience as Provincial Secretary to handle grassroots matters, firstly to Plateau Province and later to Minna Province. It was in Minna that he handled the 1963/64 census. On his return to Kaduna in early 1964, he was deemed sufficiently experienced to be appointed a Permanent Secretary. He was posted to the newly created Ministry of Water Resources to work with Ibrahim Biu, the Minister whom he would later encounter in the North-Eastern State as his Commissioner of Education.

In all interactions with the political class, Mallam Liman found that the top civil servants and the political bosses worked harmoniously and never at cross purposes. The political bosses, ‘related with civil servants maturely, respecting them as experts and professional administrators. In fact, Permanent Secretaries were almost at par with the Ministers. They were seen and treated as such’.

The grit of the public service was, however, to be severely tested early in 1966 when the soldiers struck in a coup. The top civil servants woke up that morning of Saturday January 15,1966 to find their political leadership decapitated. But for the public service life had to go on even if it  involved walking on a very tight rope. When the Permanent Secretaries were invited for a meeting with Major Nzeogwue, the following Sunday, they trooped along.

They were led by Ali Akilu, the Secretary to the Government whom Nzeogwue said he was replacing. It was after that statement that Nzeogwue announced Ignatius Durlong as Secretary to the Government. Mallam Liman wrote: “Durlong immediately and angrily rejected the appointment. He was calmed down by Ahmed Talib – – -.” It was their first victory which emboldened them to remain resolute and strong. This enabled the Public Service to remain together and were able to whether many other storms and run the system as seamlessly as possible till the following year when the regions were broken into States by General Gowon, whence Mall Liman found himself in North-Eastern State.

Mallam Liman wrote about the disillusionment that followed the coup. He dismissed the coup as a premeditated murder of one’s colleagues and of unarmed civilians who as leaders had served the nation in one form or the other to the best of their ability and to the admiration of the majority. He said: “You don’t forcibly remove a prime minister from his home, shoot him, dump his body in the bush and gloat over the matter as an act of revolution or courage.”

We shall return to the subject next week. Keep a date with this page.

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