The Nigerian Public Service, Public Expectations, and the Rescue Missions

A prevailing sentiment in Nigerian society is the belief that the public service is inefficient and ineffective. This perception often stems from the stereotype that the public sector is a refuge for those unable to find employment elsewhere, rather than a place for the brightest minds. Consequently, expectations for quality performance from public servants are often very low.

Paradoxically, the public service is entrusted with the crucial responsibility of formulating and implementing policies and programs for the entire nation. Career Civil Servants are the backbone of the executive arms of government. Elected and appointed officials rely heavily, if not entirely, on them to fulfill campaign promises, programs, and policies. Ministers and Commissioners operate under the guidance of Civil Servants, from whom society expects little or nothing.

However, it is inaccurate to claim that society expects little or nothing from Civil Servants. We expect them to steal to provide their children with a quality education, drive good cars, build homes, and generally enjoy a comfortable lifestyle. Society anticipates that Civil Servants will work sparingly for meager pay and supplement their income through corruption. These are the unfortunate societal expectations!

When a man needs his wife to work with flexible hours to care for their children, he secures her a government job. When he seeks a job with less demanding schedules, he joins the civil service. The Service has become a haven for mediocrity and frivolity. The core of our nation’s administrative well-being has been relegated to a place where incompetence and inefficiency reign supreme.

Politicians stand as the primary beneficiaries of the current state of the civil service, while society bears the brunt of its shortcomings. Civil servants often engage in a symbiotic relationship with politicians, deferring to them for appointments and promotions while simultaneously providing guidance on how to navigate the corridors of power without falling prey to anti-corruption measures. The public service has effectively become a conveyor belt for corruption, safeguarding both elected and appointed officials as they move through its ranks. This system has been aptly described as a haven for institutionalized inefficiency and corruption.

President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration made the fight against corruption a central focus with little success, and President Bola Ahmed Tinubu is expected to continue the crusade. However, reliance solely on law enforcement agencies such as the Police, EFCC, and ICPC to tackle this entrenched issue may prove futile. These agencies, composed of career public servants, are often entangled in the very corrupt system they are tasked with dismantling. This situation is akin to employing a thief to apprehend another thief.

The eradication of corruption, underdevelopment, and general inefficiency in Nigeria hinges on transforming the public service into a bastion of professionalism, accountability, neutrality, and transparency. These values cannot be instilled overnight; they require a concerted effort to inculcate them from the outset, starting with recruitment, training, motivation, and discipline.

It is untenable to entrust the public service, an institution with far-reaching implications for every aspect of national life, to individuals perceived as “losers,” demotivated individuals, merchants, or political jobbers. The civil service must be repositioned to attract the best minds in the country, individuals who are committed to delivering exceptional value in exchange for fair compensation.

This repositioning will not occur spontaneously; it demands persistent advocacy, unwavering demand, and robust enforcement. Civil society organizations must assume the mantle of driving and monitoring change. This responsibility cannot be abdicated to civil servants or their political masters, as they are complicit in perpetuating the cycle of inefficiency while the nation hemorrhages.

Existing laws, rules, and regulations are in place to uphold the highest standards of service from public servants. What is lacking is diligent enforcement of these measures, coupled with a system of meaningful rewards for basic and exemplary conducts. Who holds accountable a Permanent Secretary actively campaigning for the ruling party? Who speaks for a Grade Level 12 core civil servant earning less than N100,000 per month before now after ten years of service? Certainly not the civil servants themselves or their political patrons.

The Aig-Imoukhuede Foundation has stepped forward to fill this critical void. Through its Public Leaders Training Program, the foundation aims to bolster the capacity of public sector leaders. Recognizing that public sector performance hinges on the quality of its leadership, the foundation acknowledges that the challenges and opportunities facing Africa cannot be addressed solely by the public sector; they necessitate public-private partnerships. The foundation’s Chairman, Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede (2023), firmly believes that the public sector’s capacity and competence are essential for steering the nation’s development in the right direction. He asserts that Nigeria’s prosperity requires equal strength and contributions from both the public and private sectors, emphasizing that a robust partnership between these spheres is paramount for sustainable development.

More private sector initiatives are urgently needed to enhance the capacity of civil servants. Civil society organizations and civil liberties groups cannot remain passive and antagonistic. Instead, a collaborative effort is imperative to undertake rescue missions and stem the bleeding.

Get the public service right: get Nigeria right!

OB Dada-David
Lagos, Nigeria

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