By Michael Chibuzo
It has now become common spectacle for political appointees or elected officials in Nigeria to be on collision course with civil servants under their jurisdiction leading to some drama that usually become public talking points. Many more of these collisions never make it to the public domain however.
The Federal Ministry of Works witnessed one of such standoffs recently when the Minister for Works, Engr. Dave Umahi locked out a lot of the ministry’s personnel who came to work late. According to the Minister, before now he had raised the issue of late coming and reached an agreement with the workers to move the resumption time to 9am instead of the usual 8am to discount for any delays they might encounter on their way to work from the different parts of the FCT.
Engr. Dave Umahi on that fateful Thursday arrived the Ministry by 9:30am and according to him needed to have a lot of files bothering mostly on the ministry’s 2024 budget preparation treated by the appropriate personnel but majority of these workers were not yet in their offices. He then directed that the entrance into the office complex be locked so that he could address the late comers when they eventually converge.
The late comers became furious, started an impromptu protest and called for the sack of the Minister! This is by some miles the boldest audacity of late comers I have seen. To fully grasp the seriousness of this show of shame, it is necessary to point out that these are the workers that superintend over N14 trillion worth of road contracts across the country. How on earth can they supervise the total overhaul of our road infrastructure if they resume work hours behind schedule every day?
The ministry of works is by no means the only MDA where this menace exist. Lateness and truancy are normal feature in these MDAs. Even when many of these workers eventually show up to work, they keep moving the bureaucratic wheel of service so sluggishly that you would struggle to pinpoint what exactly they achieved in a working day.
Unfortunately, as horrible as these practices might seem, late coming and sluggish work pace is actually the least of the transgressions by majority of Nigerian civil servants. It is indisputable, even if it is not readily visible, that the Nigerian civil service is the engine room of corruption in Nigeria. No public service grand corruption can succeed without the collaboration of civil servants. They are the emperors and their reign is usually long, always longer than the lifespan of any elected public official.
One thing Nigerian civil servants hate with passion is discipline. Make the mistake of pushing them to obey simple rules guiding their conduct or attitude to work and you will become their enemy. If you go further by trying to block any loophole they exploit to steal, you will automatically become one of their daily prayer points.
We have seen civil servants jubilating and printing posters resembling obituary posters to celebrate the removal or redeployment of a political appointee who they deem ‘wicked’, ‘high handed’ or who they accuse of ‘not carrying workers along’. A recent incident at the Corporate Affairs Commission readily comes to mind where CAC workers were celebrating the removal of the former Registrar, A. G. Abubakar, describing him as a ‘tyrant leader’.
We have also recently seen where Civil Servants try to reinstate their ‘well-loved’ boss that was fired by the President, which played out last week in NIPOST. The NIPOST workers wanted to set a world record by attempting to be the first government employees that determine who should be their Boss! Obviously they were comfortable with whatever style the sacked Postmaster General was using and do not want any change in leadership. In fact without even giving the newly appointed Postmaster General a chance to even resume, they have declared they do not want her!
The audacity of these emperor civil servants stems largely from the structure of Nigeria’s civil service where it is very difficult to unilaterally sack a civil without recourse to the Federal Civil Service Commission and the bureaucratic disciplinary protocols that comes with that. The worst punishment a civil servant expects is probably redeployment or posting to a ‘dry office’. Few civil servants are sacked for acts of gross misconduct and corruption.
It is necessary to state that if we are serious about fighting the scourge of corruption so as to allow true service-oriented governance to take root, then the civil service would need to undergo a total and merciless purge. For many who may not be aware of how powerful civil servants are, let me give you a brief insight.
A public servant such as a president, governor, minister or any other elected or appointed public official ordinarily do not sign cheques for payments to vendors, contractors etc. They approve payments as part of their general oversight but the responsibility to sign cheques for disbursement rests on the shoulders of Directors of Finance and Account – these are occupied as .
There is also an Audit unit that reviews all financial transactions and raises red flags if necessary. So, for any act of corruption bordering on stealing of public funds meant for a project to succeed, the different organs of the civil service empire or cartel must be in alignment. There has to be a handshake between the Finance and Accounts department, the Audit Unit, the Compliance Unit (if any), the HOD that is supervising the project or programme, which are all populated by civil servants, and of course not forgetting the political appointee (in most cases).
It is the civil servants that most times ‘propose tactics/methods of corruption’ to newly appointed or elected political office holders, showing them how to navigate through the bureaucratic highway and loot successfully. Unfortunately, as an appointed public official, the moment you are initiated into the civil service corruption cartel for even one heist, you are automatically crippled and usually cannot easily hold them accountable again without being exposed to blackmail. This is where they get their confidence from.
The civil servants are sometimes shameless to the point of openly resisting reforms that seek to change old ways of doing things, which creates inefficiency in governance. If you ask an average civil servant, he or she would prefer every part of their job description to be manual with no form of automation and that every process, no matter how straightforward, should be complicated so that it creates a ‘business’ avenue for them to exploit.
What then is the way forward? To me, it is simple. I would suggest that the President in collaboration with the national assembly undertake a total review of the public/civil service rules to make it easier to fire any worker who does not optimally perform his duties, plays truancy and exhibits crass insubordination.
The performance metrics of the private sector must be incorporated into the civil service since it is one of the reasons we have more efficiency and productivity in the private sector. If we must rejig governance in Nigeria in this Renewed Hope Era, the civil service inefficiency empire must be dismantled, and quickly too.