By Olu Fasan
THERE is a tendency to blame politicians for the appalling way Nigeria is run. Rightly so: the buck must stop with them. But the government environment is also inhabited by another species: civil servants. While politicians should provide leadership and set vision, civil servants should translate the vision into workable policy and effective delivery.
The relationship is symbiotic. A state without visionary leaders who can provide the right political leadership and the right vision is doomed to fail. But, as Max Weber, the German sociologist, said, the state cannot conduct its affairs without the bureaucracy. And truth is, no country has ever truly developed without a first-class civil service.
Sadly, Nigeria has one of the worst civil services, one of the most mediocre public services, in the world: excessively bloated, poorly skilled, utterly unmeritocratic and wholly unprofessional, with an appalling reputation for corruption, indiscipline and inefficiency. But the situation wasn’t always like this.
For a start, the British left a legacy of first-class bureaucracy. In his book, There was a Country, Chinua Achebe wrote: “There was a very highly competent cadre of government officials imbued with a high level of knowledge of how to run a country.”
He added: “I am not justifying colonialism. But it is important to face the fact that British colonies, more or less, were expertly run.” Achebe was right: the colonial civil service in Nigeria was outstandingly efficient! Which was why the future of the Nigerian civil service was discussed during the debate on Nigeria’s independence in the UK House of Commons on July 15, 1960.
A body of senior colonial civil servants, known as the “Association of Senior Civil Servants of the Federation of Nigeria”, had petitioned the British Members of Parliament, MPs, saying that while they wanted to remain in Nigeria after independence, neither the Nigerian nor the British government was willing to pay them international-level salaries.
Several MPs expressed strong concerns that the departure of the colonial bureaucrats would weaken the administrative capacity of the newly independent Nigeria. To some extent, the fears were unfounded. The Western and Eastern Regions, which had operated self-government for six years before Nigeria’s independence, had each created a strong cadre of well-trained expert administrators, modelled on the British system.
Furthermore, there were attempts to train other Nigerian civil servants to maintain a strong and effective administration and civil service after independence. So, at independence, Nigeria inherited and subsequently developed a meritocratic and efficient civil service. Indeed, in the 1960s and 1970s, Nigeria had one of the best and most meritocratic civil services in Africa.
Today, however, Nigeria has one of the worst bureaucracies in Africa. Why? What went wrong? Well, some blame decades of military rule. In truth, the politicians who ran Nigeria immediately after independence in 1960 had begun to politicise the civil service, but the military bastardised it by filling civil service positions with people who lacked requisite skills and competence.
The last straw was the introduction of the Federal Character Principle in the 1979 Constitution, which sets a quota of how many people are to be appointed into the public service from each state. Of course, a recruitment process based on a Quota System will inevitably sacrifice merit to mediocrity, as some from the least educated states will, by virtue of the quota system, get jobs they are less qualified for and could even be ranked above better-qualified persons.
But the consequence will be a poorly-skilled, demoralised and unattractive civil service. A few years ago, in an interview with this newspaper, Chief Philip Asiodu, a distinguished and highly-respected former permanent secretary, said that the Federal Character and Quota System “have destroyed the administrative class system”, adding that the civil service “is no longer the destination for highfliers”.
But when a civil service lacks a strong policy cadre and it’s not attractive to highfliers, well, what do you have except a mediocre, third-rate bureaucracy? In Britain, first-class graduates of Oxford, Cambridge, LSE and similar top universities want to join the civil service through the prestigious Fast-Stream scheme, and government introduced a policy profession scheme that provides specialised training and progression for policy professionals.
Nigeria, by contrast, has a predominantly low-skilled civil service. In her book, Reforming the Unreformable, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former minister of finance, now Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, wrote that in her ministry, “only 13 per cent were graduates of universities or other tertiary institutions” and “just eight per cent had degrees related to accounting or economics”.
Now, if Nigeria’s ministry of finance, the nerve-centre of its economic policymaking, is not bursting at the seams with some of the best brains in economics, finance and accounting, how can it be innovative and creative in finding solutions to Nigeria’s economic mess?
By the way, Okonjo-Iweala also wrote: “70 per cent of federal civil servants had no more than a high school diploma, with less than five per cent possessing modern computer skills”. Of course, such a mediocre public service cannot support the private sector, cannot meet the needs of foreign investors and cannot deliver basic services to the citizens.
Put simply, with such an appalling public service, Nigeria lacks capacity for essential functions. Recently, the Federal Government was livid that Twitter opened its first Africa Office in Ghana, not in Nigeria. But Ghana has been attracting more foreign investments than Nigeria, and part of the reasons is its respected public service. In 2018, I attended an international investment conference in London.
The CEO of a multinational company said: “When I meet government agencies across Africa, I use Ghana as an example.” He was referring to the transparency and efficiency of Ghana’s public service. Well, hardly any foreign investor has anything positive to say about Nigeria’s public servants! In 2015, President Buhari vowed to restore the civil service’s “old glory”. Six years on, the civil service is more utterly politicised and mediocre. Little wonder serious investors are shunning Nigeria!