Home Africa REMINISCENCES: HOW THE GREAT PURGE AFFECTED THE PUBLIC SERVICE

REMINISCENCES: HOW THE GREAT PURGE AFFECTED THE PUBLIC SERVICE

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The Federal Government of Nigeria that came into force of account of the palace coup that removed Gen Yakubu Gowon from office as Nigeria’s military Head of State had a reformist proclivity. Gen Murtala Mohammed, in his address to the nation asserted that the take-over was necessitated by the need to return power to civilians and operate responsibly and efficiently. The regime set up panels on the question of new states and the federal capital; cancelled the controversial 1973 population census and reverted to the 1963 census among others. In what has been described as the Great Purge, more than 10,000 public officials and employees of federal and state governments were sacked on account of age, health, incompetence, and malpractices. The purge affected the civil service, judiciary, police and armed forces, diplomatic service, public corporations, and universities. In truth, some top civil servants had by then become so powerful that they could circumvent the directives of their political bosses. Some were called: super-permanent secretaries on account of the influence and powers they held.

 

The purge had its functional and dysfunctional results. It restored sanity into the system. However, the exercise negatively impacted the civil service tradition of security of tenure; as many officials who were yet to attain the statutory retirement age were sent packing through broadcasts on the electronic media.  The Dotun Phillips Reforms of 1988 also came to radically alter the system of appointing bureaucrats – Permanent Secretaries; now with the title of Directors-General who could be appointed from outside the system. Before that novelty, the civil service was apolitical, characterized by the norms of impersonality and well-organized authority. All these have adversely affected quality, morale and efficiency. Undue interference and manipulation through outside influences have greatly worked against attempts to ensure that merit and competence are the keywords for recognition of excellence and promotion to higher positions. Promotions are now not strictly based on merit, seniority, competence, or vacancies.  More often than not, juniors have been promoted over and above their seniors in the public service on account of local government of origin at the state level, or state of origin at the federal level, all in accordance with the demands of the federal character. And these means of achieving and maintaining mediocrity have been written into our Constitution.

 

SOME STRANGE DEVELOPMENTS

In the past few decades, such issues as quota system, balancing on account of religious beliefs and godfatherism have either been openly introduced as a matter of policy, or have surreptitiously crept into the appointment and even promotion processes. In 1994, a military administrator of one of the states inherited a public service operated along the Dotun Phillips recommendations with several non-career appointees as Directors-General. In line with the regulations, they were all dropped in an exercise which saw the re-emergence of some of them who were career civil servants. What happened? The administrator, conscious of the high penchant of the people of the state for writing petitions was careful in making appointments of new career Directors-General to head the ministries. In a few cases, he went as low as Grade level 13 in an attempt to satisfy all the sections of the state. But there were qualified Grade level 16 officers who could not be appointed just because they originated from some parts of the state which had too many qualified hands. In spite of this, petitions were still forwarded to the General Staff Headquarters and the military administrator was queried. He had to rush to Abuja with the seniority list to explain to his superiors how he had to embark on the delicate art of balancing appointments, in the process, leaving out highly qualified seniors to appoint less qualified juniors, simply to satisfy all interests.

 

This seemed very queer and strange and seemed a clear case of injustice. In the course of my public service career, I stumbled on a few minutes which gave directives that subordinates be queried for “misadvising” their superiors.  I have since wondered if this is not an absurdity. One, how could a boss worth his onions; and who is expected to supervise and take decisions affecting millions of lives allow himself (or herself) to be misadvised? It would seem natural, and to be expected, that a superior must be more knowledgeable than a subordinate, except where the superior officer is not adequately equipped for the position he or she occupies. The fact remains that many people at the helm of affairs do not give enough of their time to official matters and do not consciously and meticulously handle their assignments. Positions of trust are too sensitive to be handled as just another assignment in a laissez-faire manner. However, governments must squarely take the blame for paying lip service to the training and re-training of public servants for enhanced performance. The public service should be viewed and treated as a dynamic entity that facilitates the exercise of democratic governance. More importantly, “tenure of civil servants must be guaranteed and the payment of pension to retirees must not be at the mercy of an insurance company, whose owners are merely profit-oriented,” as said by the former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Modibbo Alfa Belgore.

 

RECIPE FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF EXPERTS

Two brilliant minds, Amb. Oladapo Fafowora and former Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Prof. Chukwuma Soludo believe that the future of Nigeria depends largely on the civil service which is the key organ for formulation, implementation and monitoring of policies, programmes and plans of government. What is the way out? Fafowora, Nigeria’s one-time deputy permanent representative to the United Nations believes that for the system to truly contribute its quota effectively to nation-building, the desire must come from the top.  The first thing is that the government itself must be genuinely interested in the reform of the public service. Recruitment must be based strictly on merit, even when we apply the principle of federal character. Secondly, civil servants must be properly trained to ensure that they have the requisite capacity to carry out their functions. Thirdly, they must have clearer guidelines as to what the objectives of government are. Fafowora, in summary, noted that for the civil service to be able to restore itself to its former pride of place, it must embark on a complete and exhaustive reorientation of all civil servants who have in the past few years or decades imbibed and cultivated massively, wrong work-cultures and ethics. They must be purged of all wrong notions and practices, including those ills inflicted by the society within which the civil service operates. (The Nation newspaper: Nov. 16, 2008)

 

Chukwuma Soludo, in a Thisday Newspaper publication noted that: ”When people talk about the successful Asian countries, they ignore or forget that the critical success factor was a meritocratic public service cadre that attracted and retained the best. ‘’In the case of Singapore, former Prime Minister Li Kuan Yew actually deliberately groomed future politicians and leaders by recruiting the best minds from the best universities in the world, including Ph.D holders, and encouraging them to run for elections so as to better understand the ‘real world’. That way, the quality of human capital that made up the parliament and cabinet in Singapore was second to none. Also, the civil service salary and conditions of service were such that attracted the best and the brightest to the service. It is only when people are given public responsibility on merit that you could charge them to act in the ‘best interest’ of the country. If they get to positions to represent their ethnic group or state of origin, it is only natural that they act to protect those narrow interests first, and those of the nation only accidentally. ‘’The message is simple: if we want to learn from the Asians, we should go for the full menu. Soludo asserts further that: ‘’a country will, just like a corporation, only seek to employ the best skills if the objective is to produce results. If a country is looking for a leader that can create four million new jobs a year, then the citizens will be interested in the public debates by politicians on how they will do so, and how they will finance the boom. Only then do you look for ‘qualified’ or ‘competent’ leaders as if politics is about sharing money — distributional politics.’’

 

COMPETENCE, REGULATIONS & RULES

The civil service is naturally expected to be characterized by three key factors: permanence; anonymity; and neutrality. However, those incidents suffered in the past made nonsense of these characteristic that promoted security of tenure.

The permanence of tenure has so much been abused that the ordinary public servant no longer feels secure and does not truly believe that he or she would spend the statutory number of years, even with a good record. On the question of anonymity, civil servants are expected to be ‘seen and not to be heard’. This means that they are to place their skills and expertise at the disposal of their political masters, who would take the glory for all actions of government. The rules also stipulate that civil servants must maintain a stance of political neutrality. It is most regrettable that this situation is no longer so today. Administrative Officers, Professionals and even those in the junior echelons of the civil service now identify openly with political parties and exhibit partisanship most brazenly and arrogantly. This development must naturally affect discipline and productivity in the service, such that a permanent secretary may find it difficult to control or discipline a clerk, messenger or driver, simply because of the latter’s strong attachments to some politicians who maintain some form of control on the civil service.

 

But it must be noted that civil servants could only be cowed if superior officers at the topmost positions are weak and unsure of themselves. The Head of the Civil Service (federal & States) must be bold and assertive in protecting the second line managers and their immediate juniors – permanent secretaries; in the event of disagreements on policy and bureaucratic issues with their political bosses. Civil servants must ensure strict compliance to rules and regulations. In like manner, a permanent secretary must be able to weigh actions of his/her subordinates in the event of disagreements and stand by them should they want to be victimized for protecting government’s regulations from being violated. A civil servant must be able to guide the political boss, very humbly and dutifully in the course of applying regulations to manage the bureaucracy. In the advanced countries, a law enforcement officer will greet respectfully, and even be very courteous to offenders, while performing his or her duties, even while informing you that you are under arrest.