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50 Years of Nigeria's Public Service

By Dr Bukar Usman         


Writing about the first fifty years of the public service in post -independent Nigeria, I should start by stating that I am now 67 seven years old. I joined the Federal service as a Third Class Clerk now known as a Clerical Officer in the clerical cadre, on December 17, 1965. That was barely 5years after the independence. The post was a junior one. It was not until 1969 that I was promoted to a senior post, upon my graduation that year. I remained in the senior cadre until my retirement from the public service on April 31, 1969. That being so, of the 50years under review, the initial five I was outside the service, the next four I was a serving junior officer. From 1969 to the next 30 years when I retired I had reached the top echelons of the service as a permanent secretary by virtue of which I was an active participant. For the balance of 11years after my retirement I have been a passive, although concerned, observer of the public service and a consumer of the services it provides. I am on the receiving end some would say.

    My career in the public service like anyone else that joined at that grade ,begun with the essential common ‘induction' designed to  prepare young officers for the  ‘confirmation' examination. An officer was allowed three attempts to pass the prescribed examination within the ‘probationary' period of 3years or stand disqualified from holding a permanent post in the service. Thus an officer's appointment remained ‘temporary' pending passing the examination and your appointment published in the 'gazette' as a ‘permanent' staff.

     It is important to note that the induction introduces an officer to ‘office routine' that is the practices and procedures for which the service was known. The routines include skills in filing and managing correspondence and handling documents in general. It is also at that early stage that the officer is familiarised with the ‘almighty' General Orders popularly known as the ‘GO', and the Financial Instructions known as the ‘FI' for short.  Notes of Guidance and the laws of the federation as well as the Constitution of the country complete the array of topics covered.

      The ‘Notes of Guidance' published in form of pamphlet contained information on ministerial and extra- ministerial responsibilities, how to relate with other departments and how to prepare memoranda for consideration by the Council of Ministers. The' GO' contains guidance on matters of appointment, promotion, and discipline. It specifies infractions which may lead to suspension, interdiction, dismissal or mere warning, verbal or written. The ‘FI' which is the' juicy' aspects guides the officer on how to use public funds prudently and also salary scales and annual increments and other perks including travel allowances and vehicle advance. 

     All these documents were updated from time to time and supplemented by circulars to take care of new policies. Outside that an officer is left to his professional ethics, religious precepts and conscience.  I believe that still remains the case. Any difference to what obtains now must be in matters of details and application.

    I had long concluded that any officer who abided by the rules as set out is guaranteed the much-desired ‘security of tenure' in the public service and could hold his head high at the end of it all. Anything to the contrary which might befall an officer of such exemplary conduct must be the result of pure victimisation, sadism, and blackmail just for being un-compromising. But invariably the uprightness often serves as impregnable protective armour against such evil doing.

     How I wish some of the political office holders under go similar tutelage in their calling. As it were some were hoisted raw on the public service and so it had been somewhat difficult to relate. This point needs to be emphasised because it had been observed that those who had had previous public service experience of some sort tended to appreciate better the public service culture, which in turn promotes cordiality and minimises propensity to engage in abuse of office and arbitrariness.

     My postings to the Ministry of Communications, Ministry of Mines and Power between1969 and 1972, and then to the Cabinet Office, afforded me the rare opportunity to observe and experience the service intensely and widely. Ministry of Mines and Power which was then in charge of petroleum resources had just joined the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) headlong with all the politics of it. The Nigerian National Oil Corporation (NNOC) the precursor to NNPC was also newly established and only the Petroleum Refinery at Port Harcourt was in existence.  My tenure at the Cabinet Office especially from 1972 to 1999 spanning over a period of 27 years, gave me more insight into governance, the Cabinet Office later the Presidency, being the hub of government business.

    The Cabinet Office then in Lagos was previously known as the Office of the Prime Minister. That was where Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa actually operated until he moved to Onikan which served as both his residence and office. Following the adoption of the presidential system, the Cabinet Office transformed into the Executive Office of the President under Alhaji  Shehu  Usman Aliyu Shagari. It was after the movement to Abuja that it became the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation under the umbrella of the Presidency. This remains the position to date.

     At this juncture I should state that by late sixties and early seventies there were very few expatriates around in the public service. I knew of only four: two were at the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria (ECN) as NEPA and PHCN were then called; one at the Ministry of Industry on technical assistance; and the fourth at the Ministry of Works as an Architect contract officer.  Mr Hsu the Chinese headed ECN as General Manager while Mr Blanchette also of ECN was an Engineer.I related with both of them as an officer in the supervising Ministry.  They were both devoted and sociable.

     Mr Blanchette in his suit walks more than a kilometre in the heat from his headquarters at Marina to confer in the Ministry at the Six-story building near the Broad street Prison. Around 1972, while in the Cabinet Office I often sighted across the street in the morning and after closing hour the expatriate at the Ministry of works. He used to track over 3 kilometres daily from Ikoyi to his Office at the Tafawa Balewa Square previously known as the Race Course. That was all I could say of expatriates in the public service. Decolonisation and 'Nigerianisation' had taken their toll on the expatriate population in the public service. I never had the opportunity to work under any.

    Post independence public service was therefore largely manned by Nigerians except for the few contract officers here and there and some few others recruited abroad by the Northern Regional Government to man posts where there were no local personnel to fill them. Thus we inherited a colonial structure and culture of service at independence but what obtains currently is essentially of our own making.

    The stories we were told and information I gleaned here and there from some write-ups by the few Nigerians whose tenure of service straddled the colonial service and post- colonial were that there is marked difference between the colonial and post colonial public services. The overall verdict is that in terms ‘service delivery' and ‘general conduct' the post colonial public service particularly after the military intervention in the governance of this country fared no better than the pre and immediate post- colonial days.

      One government after the other had set up commission upon commission to improve on what was inherited from the colonials but somehow at this point in time many are not quite happy with what obtains in the public service. Many would recall in this regard, the Morgan, the Adebo, the Udoji, the Dotun Philips and the Ayida panels and the various constitutional reviews headed by Udo Udoma, Rotimi Williams, Niki Tobi and government decisions on their reports.

     We still have the tripartite structure of government pre and after military intervention, but it seems the sheer magnitude and pace of the growth of the public service throughout the federation has overwhelmed everybody. Otherwise, the territory of Nigeria remains practically the same since independence. In fact it has reduced with the exclusion of Southern Cameroons after the 1962 plebiscite and more recently the Bakassi but the service kept expanding.

     Increase in population aside the creation of more states and local governments and the creation of units to service the legislatures have bloated the public service and left it bereft of expertise and standards. Prof Abdulhameed  A. Ojo of  the University of Abuja had observed that: ‘From three regions we inherited at independence  the country was divided into 36 states and a federal capital territory. This brought the total number of administrative organisations to 38, including the federal government. Nigeria has 774 local government councils. People with the relevant qualifications and experiences required to manage all this institutions remain a rare commodity. The duplication of administrative institutions also involved a huge overhead costs which reduced money that is available for development (Peoples Daily, Friday July 30, 2010, P.14)

     The public service expansion and attendant consequences t o staffing and financial prudence is getting more and more complex and may worsen as current legislators seem hell bent on creating more states in the country ostensibly to satisfy public demands, but there were obvious private interests too as some of the principal officers seem determined not to let go the opportunity to ‘liberate' their communities. There are twenty demands before the legislators and it is being speculated they might end up approving additional ten states (Summit Daily, Monday August 9, 2010, P.36).Whatever be the justification, the financial implications on public service can only be imagined.

      Going by the perks of our current legislators the cry is getting louder and louder that we did not bargain for that. The political structure is not sustainable. From speculations and rumour former President Olusegun Obasanjo in his characteristic forthrightness had opened up about the earnings of our legislators. Some people may have strong reservations about the ‘messenger' but the ‘message' was quite clear: the financial burden is unsustainable even without the elaborate goals set out in vision 20:2020.Something must give way as given the current cost of governance it would be unwise to create more states, no matter the pressure.

     Worse still financial accountability in the public service is getting more and more intricate as finances of some ‘cabal' public service organisations and their operations remain a mystery. This was not the case in early Sixties. There was no such organ whose finances could not be easily x-rayed as they mandatorily submitted their audited accounts regularly and on timely basis .The nation virtually relies on revenues from public services in the oil industry ,ports and marine sector and yet it is in those places that financial accountability remains heavily suspect.

    The problem with NNPC especially is a long standing one and the mystery increases whenever the Chief Executive assumes responsibility for the oil portfolio or elects to act as the defacto Minister. Who is to query who? And so also goes the chilling stories of' ‘who is who' having business interests in the ports and marine services. The overall impact is severe financial ‘haemorrhage' being inflicted on the public finances with the' cash cows' turning  out to be like ‘the tail wagging   the dog' as it were. It is what those agencies declare as' handouts' to government that go into the distributable pool.  

      The GO and FI during the colonial times and soon after independence were fully applied uniformly throughout the federation. The expatriate officers were no saints, but as the story goes they were upright in conforming to the rules and financial accountability. We inherited the system but seem to have lost grounds under the military which in line with their centralised style of administration controls were centralised in the office of the chief executive whereas previously expenditure was easily incurred at all levels once the items had been budgeted and approved in the estimates.

     The civilian governors who in turn inherited this practice have so perfected the system such that subordinates have lost initiatives. Virtually no expenditure of any substance can be incurred without the chief executives approval .This does not enhance financial responsibility at all levels. What obtains at the state level translates to the local government but today you have no standards in expenditures. The financial controls are as varied as the number of governments and legislative houses in the country.

     Reflecting on the prevailing situation, Chief Philip Asiodu one of the ‘super' permanent secretaries once lamented,'...I went back in '99 as chief economic adviser. I saw what was left of the civil service, it was deplorable. There were no uniform standards, one ministry would buy Peugeot N15.9m and another ministry would buy it for N2.4m.It has been going on for years.

     They would devise funny ways of procurement and all that. The president tried to introduce civil service rules (the new name for GO) again, financial instructions but there is a lot to go to re-orientate..'(Vanguard, February 27, 2004).

      To arrest the situation, the Procurement Act of 2007 was enacted. It provides stiff penalties for any breach of the procurement process. However because of lack of sufficient lead time in planning like the INEC requirement for Biometric Computer for registration of voters often the rash was such that a waver is required for the execution of the project. Coupled with delayed budgets and late release of capital votes, compliance with the procedure may mean targets would be difficult to meet. That itself comes at a cost to the nation.

     I fondly recall how Dr. R. A. B . Dikko and Ahaji Shettima Ali Monguno as Hon Commissioners of Ministry of Mines and Power under the Gowon government routinely and promptly retired unspent allowances/estacodes whenever they travelled abroad. They were products of the colonial service. They were role models in accountability and leadership. Which subordinate officer could fail to do the same under the circumstances? What obtains then is the contrast of the current situation where the rules say that once the duty tours are approved no retirement is necessary. This waver merely rationalises the non-compliance with the rules.

     It must be understood at this juncture that a lot has taken place since independence to affect the character and outlook of the public service. These include the sheer magnitude of the expansion of the service and its implications on span of control. There was also the strong wave of' militarism' which in the first instance impacted  heavily and negatively on the Whitehall model of the British public service tradition bequeathed to Nigeria. This came about in the first decade of independence and still persists like the elements of authoritarianism of the chief executive in handling affairs of the state. The devastation of the great purge of 1975 and the far-reaching reforms of 1988, the Udoji style of management which abolished the dichotomy between the generalists and professionals among the higher echelons of the public service were all unsettling.

      The reforms of i988 confined career progression of officers to their ministries and removed financial control powers from career officers and handed to the political head. The reforms were subsequently dismantled one by one as a result of further reviews.

     The nation has had several task forces and intervention agencies like the Directorate of Food Roads and Rural Infrastructure (DFRRI).For the brief moments of their existence such ad hoc bodies operated not only outside the formal structure of the service but also outside the rules. The disruptive effect of all this had left the service without the benefit of the reservoir of requisite expertise and valuable records.

      The presidential system too introduced in 1979 superimposed its peculiar characteristics on what was left of the Whitehall model, upstaging the ‘security of tenure', discarding procedures and generally weakening stability of the administrative superstructure and operative system. The end of this withering is yet to be seen as we continue tinkering with the Constitution.

     Meanwhile to update itself the public service is forging partnership with the private sector and also embracing modern systems of management: human resource management, the use of communication technologies, a better personnel and payroll system and a more frequent training of officers to ensure prompt, efficient and courteous delivery of its services. IT is creeping into the service in the sense that it is costly and therefore it is well neigh impossible to discard the archaic systems immediately, desirable though it may be.

     We also had innovative and welcome measures of monetisation, fixed term tenure for the higher cadre and new pension scheme though the introduction of some had caused initial disquiet. With all this on the ground, the question is: what is the character of the public service? To me it seems to defy any classification.

     But, there is need to say something about local government service. The mini 774 local governments are by political definition nearer the people at the grassroots. However, they do not perform as the former Native Authorities in service delivery. The impact of the Native authorities was better felt in the area of security, road maintenance, education, health and sanitation and agricultural promotion. Agricultural show in which farmers effectively participated and were rewarded handsomely seems to have been neglected. All this obtains despite the fact the current local governments have more resources, although they lack financial accountability.

     Since the financial control in the civil service was taken away apparently along with financial discipline a return of that control is highly desirable; and it behoves the political leadership to be the vanguard of that role model. The financial leakage in the ‘cabal' organisations especially needs to be  more seriously addressed by the infusion of a higher degree of financial transparency, accountability and  ensuring equitable and defensible financial reward  system at all levels.

     One important issue to ponder on is the fact that the current minimum wage of N5500 per month fixed a decade ago makes a mockery of the pay ‘package' at the apex of the public service.

Finally, it seems the public service in Nigeria cannot stabilise unless the political system itself is firmly entrenched and stabilised.






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