Urgent Need to Fix Nigeria’s Civil Service
One of the major but least discussed problems with Nigeria is its civil service. The civil service should be the fulcrum of government, the engine of growth and development in society. But in Nigeria, this engine is severely broken and ill-suited for the task of efficient and effective governance in the 21st Century.
Save for a few exceptions, Nigeria’s civil service is largely deficient in quality and professionalism. Culturally, it is anchored on a vaunting sense of entitlement and a crude inversion of the sense of service. For most of the civil servants, it is more about service to selves than to society. And the rules of engagement are overly protective, fashioned by the same people they are meant to keep in line, and invariably enabling bad behaviours.
Nigeria cannot make the desired progress with its civil service as presently constituted, remunerated and socialised. Comprehensive overhaul and upgrades are urgently needed.
Two developments within the week should remind us about some of the key challenges with our civil service and the pressing need for a comprehensive reform. The first is the face-off between the Minister of Works, Senator David Umahi, and some workers of the ministry. The second is about some of the approvals reportedly made by the former Chairman of the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), Mr. Muhammed Nami.
I will discuss the two episodes, then examine the larger issues.
According to media reports, Umahi ordered the gates of the ministry to be locked after 9.30am on Thursday. This was after he found out that only about 15% of the staff of the ministry had reported for work that day. The adjusted resumption time in the ministry is 9am. Hundreds of workers of the ministry, including directors, were reportedly locked out because they came late by more than 30 minutes.
The workers were miffed by the minister’s effrontery. They reportedly locked him in too, switched off the light in the building, barricaded the road, and started a protest against the minister. This went on for hours. The minister eventually came down to address the workers. There is a long, hard-to-watch video on social media where the leader of the workers publicly chastised the minister for not following due process, for fancying himself as a sole-administrator, for mistaking ‘federal government for a state’, for ‘not constructing even a kilometre of road’ since he assumed office, and where the minister, tactically, ate the humble pie by apologising for offending the workers. It was a sorry sight.
There is a lot to unpack from this unfortunate turn of events. To start with, a case can be made that a minister has no business with gates or the locking of gates and with the floor-level staff members of the ministry. That is too downstream. Ministers should be engaging directly with permanent secretaries, who are the chief accounting officers in the ministries, and with the heads of agencies in their ministries and maybe some relevant directors. It is the permanent secretary that the minister should charge with and hold responsible for enforcing punctuality and discipline. A permanent secretary that cannot get his civil servants to behave can at least be moved elsewhere. Also, a manual register or preferably a biometric log-in device is less dramatic but a more effective way of monitoring and documenting punctuality.
However, the fact that late-comers who ordinarily should be ashamed and remorseful took umbrage at being locked out shows how low the civil service has sunk. Staging a protest, preventing others from working or accessing a public road, and speaking openly in such an indecorous manner to the political head of the ministry go beyond the pale and negate everything the service should stand for. At issue here is not just habitual late-coming but also insubordination, gross indiscipline and public nuisance—serious infractions frowned at by the very permissive Public Service Rules (PSR). It is important to nip this degeneration in the bud, otherwise it will lead to further deterioration.
The really sad part is that what transpired in the Ministry of Works on Thursday is not an isolated occurrence. In most Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs), it is not unusual for most civil servants to get to work late, to leave before closing time and to saunter in and out during working hours. This is hardly seen as bad behaviour by the perpetrators or those who should enforce discipline and productivity in these MDAs. I documented my own experience in my book, ‘The Arc of the Possible’.
The treatment meted to Senator Umahi is standard fare in agencies where the CEOs insist on discipline and worse where the workers are unionised. It is not so unusual for workers to insult or blackmail or threaten or lock out or make life difficult for CEOs who simply ask them to report for work on time and do their jobs diligently. And they do this without consequences, which emboldens other protesting workers to even push the button further.
To be fair, there are a few centres of excellence and there are some really, really hardworking, conscientious, upright and exceptional civil servants in Nigeria. But for most, the civil service is a place of ease, a place where putting in the minimum shift or even none is the norm, where no one bothers anyone else, and where the rules provide almost iron-clad security of employment.
I understand the principle behind making it difficult to sanction or sack erring civil servants. It accords with universal best practices of insulating the civil service from political interference and protecting civil servants against the whims and vindictiveness of political office holders. But it has created a situation where most civil servants play with their jobs and underserve the country that spends the bulk of its earnings in paying their salaries. For context, Federal Government’s total revenue for 2022 was N5.3 trillion, according to data from the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation. Out of this, personnel cost and pension gulped N3.8 trillion. This means that 72% of FG’s revenue for the year went to paying a tiny portion of the country’s population.
It can be argued and it is true that most of our civil servants are poorly paid. We need to pay them better and more competitive salaries. Contrary to received wisdom, we actually need more civil servants. According to the Bureau of Public Service Reforms, the total number of federal civil servants as at 2022 was 720, 000. Some other estimates have put the figure at 1.2 million. By the time we add the civil servants employed by states and LGAs, the number will be about five million. For a country with a population of more than 200 million people, all these figures are paltry.
Given our developmental challenges, we actually need more teachers, more doctors and nurses, more firefighters and other emergency responders, more agriculture extension workers, more health inspectors, more police officers and soldiers etc., etc. The problem now is that of misalignment: our civil service is more skewed toward people who just go to the office and push files or just watch Nollywood movies or do their side businesses even in the office. We need to rebalance the service, give civil servants the tool to function optimally and pay them much better.
But the problem goes beyond money. There are actually some government agencies whose staff are as well paid as those who work in the private sector, and in some instances, some civil servants are even better paid than their peers in the private sector. The argument for creating special salary structures for some agencies, especially parastatals, is compelling: to be able to attract and retain the best of those with scarce skills, to pay staff of regulatory agencies as close to the salaries of the sectors they regulate, to insulate those who hold sensitive positions from temptation and capture.
Good arguments in theory. In practice, however, the arguments collapse like the sand houses that kids build on the beach. These organisations are hardly populated by people with scarce skills, and their staff members are rarely above temptation and capture and they hardly exhibit a work ethic commensurate with their special salary scales or different from those in the mainland MDAs. For our politicians, political appointees and political authorisers, these special agencies are good places to plant their wards, relatives and constituents. For the staff members of these agencies, such places are just good places to work, places where they can have the best of all worlds: decent salaries, the protection/permissiveness of civil service, and regular even if vacuous trainings.
This leads me to the second development of the week. According to The Cable (an online newspaper), the former FIRS boss, Nami, approved expenditure worth N11 billion days after he was relieved of his position. He has denied any wrongdoing. He may or may not be right. However, one of the things that caught my attention, which has not been denied, was approval for trainings for the staff of the organisation. The Cable revealed that the former FIRS boss approved N1.4 billion for a ‘business case for strategic leadership’ retreat for 807 nominees, N250 million for a course on data mining and analytics for taxation, N221 million for a skills development and management improvement training, and more than N1 billion for different trainings on tax disputes, capital market operations, tax evasion strategies and others. That was at least N2.9 billion as training for a single agency from approvals made in a single day.
The issue for me is not whether Mr. Nami followed due process or not. Nor is it about whether civil servants need constant trainings. It is about what agencies do when they are awash with cash. Some government agencies have become governments within the government, with a few of them receiving more allocations than the National Assembly or the Judiciary, which are whole arms of government. These agencies are those classed as revenue-generating: some are allowed to keep a portion of the revenue they generate or are assigned a special levy or granted a percentage of the money they generate. FIRS falls into the last category, as it keeps 4% of non-oil taxes. Three of these commission-raking agencies received more than N300 billion as their costs of collection in 2021 alone.
I get the argument about the need to incentivise agencies to bring in more revenues to government or the need to earmark money for strategic purposes. But this has ended up as a perverse incentive, and there should be a better way to provide incentive and limit the abuses. Now, every agency wants a special status or wants to generate revenue. This happens at the expense of the citizens and companies that are over-taxed and even at a cost to public treasury. Worse is that the well-resourced agencies spend money on gleaming offices, official cars, foreign trips, sundry allowances and trainings to make their staff sweet and happy (the staff come to see the trainings as entitlement too.) A version of the Parkinson Law states that expenditure rises to meet available revenue. So, no one should be surprised about the absurd spending decisions of these juicy agencies, a widespread practice enabled by the political authorisers.
My point here is that the problem of our civil service goes beyond poor remuneration and limited funding. Since independence, we have had various attempts to reposition the civil service. Notable among these are the Morgan Commission of 1963, the Adebo Commission of 1971, the Udoji Commission of 1972 to 1974, the Dotun Phillips Commission of 1985 and the Oronsaye Panel of 2011. Most of these attempts have been limited to renumeration, structure, tenure and cutting costs. All of these are important. But we can do all these well and still get a suboptimal civil service if we continue to see our civil service as a dumping ground and as a place where bad decisions and bad behaviours are the norm.
The president needs to urgently appoint a reform czar who will be charged with implementing thorough-going but sensible reforms to ensure that our civil servants have the skillsets, the attitude and the ethos to propel the country forward. This won’t be an easy task and it won’t be a vote-winner (as many governors who tried quality of teaching reforms sadly found out). But it is a necessary task. Without improving state capacity for getting things done, all else will be in vain.
•Written By Waziri Adio