By Dr Muiz Banire

As I continue to reflect on the challenges confronting Nigeria as a nation and the various actors responsible for its woes, it suddenly occurred to me that there is a category of persons that is often forgotten in the post-mortem of the corpse (state) of the country. This class of Nigerians, who are workers in the public service of the nation at various levels, are called civil servants.

They are the Nigerian workers responsible for service delivery in the public service.  They form the engine room of governance at all levels. It is impossible and impracticable for the political class who are in charge of the governance of the nation to do anything in the absence of civil servants. At times, they are called bureaucrats because they ought to follow institutionalized processes in the conduct of governmental business.

In the past, they largely operated on the hierarchical structure and form part of the institution called “the Executive” under Chapter 6 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999. To what extent they have discharged this assignment and assisted in the upholding of the values and etiquettes of governance shall summarily constitute the fulcrum of this engagement.

This exercise is not an exposition of the roles of the civil servants in the administration of the country but a conversation around the evaluation of their contribution to the state of anomie the nation is in. To this end, I start with their roles as technocrats. Civil servants are meant to be the primary specialists in the rendering of advice and implementation of resolutions of the political class. 

They are not meant to be swayed so much by the politics of the nation but mainly by the national interest. In the past, civil servants would not permit the execution of any agenda or programme that was inimical to the interest of the nation.  While the political class formulates policies and programmes, the execution of such policies and programmes rests on the shoulders of civil servants.

The head of the civil service is called the Head of Service (HoS) while the head of each ministry in the civil service is referred to as the Permanent Secretary (PS). At a point during the regime of Military Head of State, General Ibrahim Babangida, the Permanent Secretaries, by way of nomenclature, were redesignated  Directors-General. 

At another time, during the late President Umar Yar’adua’s administration, their tenures became limited and transitional. The point must be quickly made that the use of the description ‘Permanent Secretary’ is not accidental but designed to indicate the security of the tenure of the various heads, with consequential imports on other civil servants. In those glorious years, except for misconduct, these heads, inclusive of their subordinates, could not be removed arbitrarily by the political heads, as they enjoyed security of tenure.

The civil servants were then responsible to the people and not the political class. The civil service structure we are maintaining today is supposed to be a vestige of our colonial past but for the recent balkanization by the political class.

The emphasis of the British people who bequeathed the civil service to us was to emphasize the superiority of the people over the civil service, thereby subordinating them to the civil populace. That explains why, in the various correspondences in the past, it would be concluded with the affirmation of servitude, using the language of my friend and brother, Rauf Aregbesola, “your obedient servant.”

This appellation obtained up and until the military interregnum in the Nigerian governance. It is the omission of this practice in contemporary civil service that has given civil servants the wrong impression of entitlement and favour. Some, particularly, senior civil servants, assume superiority over the Nigerian people they are employed to serve most diligently. The net effect of all these are that civil servants suddenly became inept and irresponsible. 

The situation is so bad today that, unlike in the past while growing up, all correspondences sent to the government would be favoured with some sort of acknowledgement and promptly treated, in the contemporary period, correspondences are hardly ever acknowledged, much less treated.

The civil service, therefore, certainly needs a cure, as it is indubitably sick at the moment. This attitude of the civil servants cannot be distanced from the compromise of their personalities by the political class. 

This is because they enjoy the backing and immunity of the political class to who they actively rub their backs. It is now a case of “I rub your back, you rub my back”. Share-and-share alike now reigns. What a nation! The civil servants behave as if they were our masters doing us a favour while carrying out their responsibility. You start wondering what could have gone into their psyche? 

As remarked above, they enjoy immunity through the political class members who they have compromised and provided the platform for pilferage. I shall dwell further on this in the course of this conversation. While indulging in this habit, the civil servants believe that they can easily escape culpability. 

The situation is compounded by the quality of the political class that we have. The political class members hardly understand the issues around the civil service, much less other issues. Hence, the political class cannot be expected to effect any progressive reform of the civil service. 

Who, therefore, will save or cure the civil service in the circumstance, maybe the people to whom they are supposed to be historically accountable. That there is an urgent need for reform is an understatement. The degeneration of the civil service has reached a crescendo. Civil servants appear to have lost all sense of direction and suddenly become cocky and arrogant in the discharge of their duties to the people. As soon as citizens approach them in office, this is noticeable. 

The other way to appraise the situation of this insubordination of the civil servants to the people is to locate it within the relationship of master and servant. 

Is it possible for an employee to treat his master/employer with disdain and disrespect? Of course, the answer is negative. Civil servants easily forget that their salaries and wages are provided by the people who are the taxpayers. 

As hinted above, the immunity enjoyed by civil servants is not out of any propriety or forthrightness but due to the nefarious assignments carried out for the political class. Most times, in the contemporary period, we hasten to condemn the political class for corruption, while forgetting that no political office holder can navigate the ocean of corruption in the civil service without the guidance of civil servants. 

The civil service is ever a landmine to the political class.  No pilferage or corruption can take place without active connivance with the civil servants. 

Remember, they are the gatekeepers of the nation’s resources. The civil servants are the ones that render access to the plundering of the nation’s resources by the political class. So, whenever you find a political office holder guilty of any misconduct, behind the evil must be a civil servant at the barest minimum. 

The civil servants show the way and possess the keys to the nation’s vault. You will discover that, by and large, the vaults are hardly broken into but willingly and voluntarily opened by the trustees of the access, who are civil servants. 

They also help themselves to plunder the wealth of the nation while assisting the political office holders to whom they have shown the way on how to successfully loot without being caught. Civil servants then become the largest real estate owners in Abuja, Lagos and Port Harcourt, to mention a few metropolises.

In every state of the nation today, they own choice properties, over-spilling bank accounts in local and foreign territories and their children school in Ivy League institutions where thousands of dollars are paid as school fees evidently beyond the statutory incomes of their parents. The consequence is the public service dies while both the gatekeepers and political office holders have seen it as the proverbial cow that must be milked to death. 

Thus, if corruption thrives in our system today, it is simply because the civil service has collapsed. Some commentators have derisively referred to them as “evil servants”. But what other factor is responsible for this ugly development?

The degeneration of the civil service and, by implication, the civil servants, is aided by various malfeasances perpetrated by the political class. The civil service presently suffers several afflictions, courtesy of the political class.

Their tenure of office is no more secured as they are sacked from time to time prematurely; their promotions are stultified; their emoluments are nothing to write home about; their career progression is no more guaranteed as oftentimes, non-civil servants are brought in indiscriminately to displace existing civil servants, particularly at the peak of their careers, thereby afflicting them with low morale. These and many more are reasons for the eventual progressive collapse of the civil service and the decline in the status of civil servants. 

Their resolve is broken. They have been badly devalued and their ego battered. Consistently and gradually, you cannot differentiate them from the politicians. As a result of this, the confidence that used to be exuded by civil servants vanished and is now substituted with compromise. The situation is worsened by the apex Court’s decision permitting the civil servants to engage in politics, and now taking off context to imply that the civil servants can be politicians.

How do you explain several civil servants resigning, or retiring on a day and the next, becoming a candidate of a political party? Certainly, he must have been a member before then. 

A classical case is that of the Central Bank Governor of Nigeria, Godwin Emefiele, who had the effrontery to manifest the intention to contest the primary election of a political party while still on sit as the Governor of the Central Bank.

By that singular act, he has, by today put the forthcoming election preparation in jeopardy. The political neutrality expected of that office has been compromised, now compelling the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to look for an alternative haven other than the conventional Central Bank storage for its sensitive materials. 

Therefore, as we approach the year 2023 in which new political leaders of the country will emerge, we must start clamouring for the restructuring and reorientation of the civil service in preparation for a new dawn.

To this end, to have a motivated, courageous population of civil servants with integrity, it is crucial that we raise their level of welfare, restore the security of tenure for them, retrain and reorientate them, politically insulate them etc. 

There must be a rebirth of the civil service in a way that it is not only professional but is subordinated to the people with the right culture in place. As we embark on this with the existing civil servants, the recruitment process must be overhauled in a manner that courage, honesty and integrity count in the recruitment process.

The best materials in all ramifications must be those to be employed. Gone were the days when the best trooped into the civil service, not now that the dregs largely populate the civil service out of lack of alternative; or prompted by the opportunity to steal. It is when this is done that, the civil servants will be able to discharge their duties efficiently and responsibly.

The concomitant implication of this on the struggle to tame corruption in the country can be imagined. It certainly will have an exponential impact on the good governance of the nation. Therefore, as admitted earlier, without reform, the progress and growth of the nation will remain impaired and stultified.

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