Reflection on the Nigerian civil service at 60
Recently, the Federal Civil Service Commission celebrated its 60th anniversary and it attracted the crème de la crème of the civil service, both serving and retired. I travelled all the way from Abia State to Abuja just to be part of the historic event. I felt as a Nigerian and as a retired civil servant I owe my country the honour of celebrating an institution that has come a long way and has created employment for millions and also provides the structure on which the country rests.
My concern about the service while I was an active civil servant was the perception people had about civil servants, the attitude of civil servants and their style of management. Even though I am out of the system, I can see that the service still suffers from the same issues that were there when I was active in service.
One of the speakers at the celebration, Professor Costantino, a professor of Public Policy and Economics and the Chairman, African Union Board on the Convention to Prevent and Combat Corruption and Senior Policy Adviser with the UN in New York, treated participants to a subtle x-ray of the Nigerian civil service and its predicament. To this end, he proffered a political economy solution. His presentation was brilliant and insightful, but I am of the opinion that every situation is unique and to really understand the Nigerian system and its inherent problems, one must have a firsthand experience of it. Approaching the Nigerian situation theoretically without an in-depth understanding of the totality of its component parts and the attendant root causes of the problems facing it, will not proffer the best solutions to reengineering the system. Even though he made a good presentation, I believe our own serving civil servants could have done better considering that he focused his presentation on the Imperative for Prudential Competence Fruition in the Nigerian Public Sector. He spoke on the factors that have hindered public sector efficiency, effectiveness, empowerment and accountability. It is easy to talk about all this, but our case in Nigeria is peculiar and you must grow through the ranks or be within the system to understand our challenges and proffer effective solutions.
However, the Permanent Secretary of the Federal Ministry of Communication Technology, Dr Tunji Olaopa, who must have been a young man when I retired from service, gave a historical perspective to the civil service, the challenges and solutions. Listening to him, I could see that this person must have taken his time study the system in which he belongs hence his ability to speak so intellectually about it from four angles that touched me deeply and captured my sense of thinking.
For instance, Dr Olaopa raised issues which I would like to highlight hoping the civil service will learn from it and begin to reconsider restructuring based on these points. First, he suggested that for transformation to happen in the Federal Civil Service, the nation needs to do the unusual; it needs a game plan, one that takes development management beyond business-as-usual by placing the rebuilding of value-based institution as top priority.
Secondly, he suggested that the subsisting ‘I am directed’ bureaucratic - model needs paradigmatic shift. I totally agree with him on this as any attempt to reposition the service for it to become the engine of the vehicle for national transformation will amount to tangible little unless there is a reengineering to totally overhaul it.
Thirdly, he pointed out that the Civil Service has a lot of lessons to learn from the 1954 – 1975 Golden Era. I was happy that he emphasized that we must restore the glory of the profession for the Simeon Adebos, Jerome Udojis, Sule Katagums, Allison Ayidas, Philip Asiodus, Adamu Fikas, Franscesca Emmanuels, etc. At their time, civil service was not just an employment, it was a vocation and a calling; a spiritual endeavour, which entailed a daily search for meaning by an elite corps with esprit de corp.
Finally and most importantly, what Dr Olaopa suggested as a way forward is for everyone to rethink the base fundamentals of the civil service as an administrative system and as a profession. He suggested that the Civil Service check the dysfunction of the service human resource management systems, especially the recruitment and career management system that created a workforce structure with too many people doing nothing, too many doing too little and too few doing too much, when much of the skills required by the service are neither built through training of strategic sourcing.
As someone who has a firsthand experience in the Civil Service, Dr. Olaopa’s presentation resonated with me because it captured essentially the Nigerian problem and proffered solutions that effectively addresses these problems. As a nation, we must face the hard truth that our civil service is in need of serious reforms. Yes the reformation process has already started, but like Dr Olaopa queried, why would an officer strive for the value of excellence in a system where anything but competence and hard work determines rewards? Or how far can a few go on striving to live by the ideals of service when nobody notices? We need to bring back the glory days because it is clear that integrity is critical if the civil service is to be competent, professional and developmental.
Elder Uzo-Amah wrote from Arochukwu, Abia State