One good thing about exemplary people and ideas is that they enable us to generate further ideas or shed more light on current situations and circumstances. At the recent inaugural annual memorial lecture and posthumous birthday celebration in honor of the first head of service of the old Mid-West region, Chief Joseph Enaifoghe Imoukhuede, I was hit with an insight that derived from a combination of factual observation from my deep immersion in the public service and theoretical insights from the historical emergence of the public service over time. It was just so appropriate that it is the admirable and excellent memories of someone of the caliber of Pa Imoukhuede that would generate further thoughts about the state and future of the public service in Nigeria. This was a system he dedicated his entire life to serving and transforming. From 1938 when he joined the public service, Imoukhuede had no other passion or dedication. Unfortunately, the public service system Imoukhuede and the other administrative pioneers built had gone into disrepute and dysfunction. It is no longer something that they would recognize if they were still alive.
Through celebrating these exemplars of professionalism, we thereby seek to keep reminding ourselves of the debt of reform that we owe them. From Simeon Adebo to Joseph Imoukhuede, we have people who saw Nigeria and the public service differently from the way we see them today. We have administrators and public servants who operated according to different rules and perceptions that would be strange to those of us who are now called upon to carry on the task of administering Nigeria. We had deeply patriotic individuals who took Nigeria seriously enough to compromise their own immediate base desires for the greater glory of a nation caught in the grip of ethnicity and religious disunity. As a collective, these pioneering administrators who all supervised what we now regard as the glorious era of the public service in Nigeria stand in judgment against the present generation and what we have turned the public service into.
At the heart of their indictment is a conceptual and historical question: who is a public servant? This pungent question becomes necessary because of the current distortion of what public service means, and how this had corrupted not only how service delivery ought to be done, but inevitably undermined the empowerment of Nigerians that ought to be the top objective of democratic governance in Nigeria. Nigeria’s current dilemma is how to resuscitate the efficiency of its public servants through a rejigging of the capacity readiness to facilitate performance and productivity. One reason why these have been compromised is that public servants in Nigeria today, and unlike the administrative forebears, now have divided attention defined by their administrative responsibility and the urgency of making a livelihood. In other words, public service commitment have been intruded by more subjective aspirations that most often than not undermine administrative responsibilities. This conflict of interest issue is a grave danger to the efficiency of the system, and the understanding of the significance of the public service to democratic governance. What do we expect of efficiency and productivity when public servants are now more concerned about the politics of their ambition and the juicy contracts they might be able to get from government business than the service their profession demands they render to the public? Once personal interests begin to clash with public responsibility, then the public service is essentially compromised.
I identify two sources to this debilitation of the concept of public service in Nigeria. One is historical, and it can be traced to the civil service purge of 1975 when the military carried out a massive retrenchment of public servants in an attempt to reform the workforce and performance of the public service. This was, in all honesty, a right-headed policy move that however became wrong-headed with implementation. Many public servants, and many more especially who were deeply committed to the fundamental essence of public service and were real patriots to Nigeria, were traumatized personally and professionally. Government ought to have suspected the unintended consequence of such a policy to right size the public service—public servants were now forced to weigh their commitment to the system with their more existential aspirations. And when the system fails to intervene to assure public officials about its commitment to their lives and future, then they will be forced to attend to them by themselves. And that was the unintended lesson that the government sent to the public servants since 1975. As a consequence, all the revered public service ethos and vocational essence flew out of the window! With a new culture of public service enthroned, a new generation of ‘public managers’ who can see rent-seeking and ethnic power play as the dominant script of public service in Nigeria, concocted the game plan that inexorably distorted the workforce composition in favour of contractors and politicians in disguise. The proportion of the workforce in this mold may be in the minority at first, but today, they constitute a significant number and are perhaps in charge.
A second factor that compounds the first is Nigeria’s unemployment crisis that has messed terribly with the already compromised gatekeeping task of the civil service commission. With the encroachment of bureaucratic corruption and the totality of what we now call the Nigerian factor, it became possible for just anyone who has failed to get desired employment to turn to government work, especially the public service. and everyone knows the perception of slackness that attends working with the government. The dereliction of duty that comes with this lackadaisical attitude to work moderated by smartness or being streetwise and remote control by godfathers is directly proportional to the lowering efficiency of the public service. So, we end up with all sorts of people who get into the public service with all sorts of “qualifications” and documents and “competences”. Public offices are thus transformed into a part of the clientelist network of prebendal rent-seekers who poach on the normlessness that the structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s inserted into the weakened public institutions in Nigeria.
The question of who a public servant is carries the burden of the historical struggle to forge an institution that would carry the weight of government and governance. From Weber’s theoretical fabrication to the British administrative tradition, the idea of the public service has been defined around the concept of a vocation characterized by public-spiritedness.