1974 is a fundamental administrative year in the history of the Nigerian civil service. It was the year that Nigeria got its first major opportunity to fundamentally rethink the civil service system
The fundamental question I want to address in this essay is simple: Has the Nigerian civil service system significantly reformed since 1974? Any administrative scholar and professional will immediately see why this is a very difficult question to answer either way. This is because it is not just that easy to present an unqualified affirmative or negative answer to a nation’s entire administrative system. There is no nation that will ever remain the same if it does not pay any attention, no matter how minute the reform attention is, to the health of its public service. This is because it is the public service that serves as the fulcrum on which any government will ever make the state run efficiently. And this is even all the more so for any state that aims toward democratic governance and development. Indeed, the notion of a developmental state that is cogent for third world developing countries is founded on the idea of a functional and constantly reforming public service.
Nigeria falls squarely into this category. The Nigerian civil service system has been in the reform business since 1954 when it was inaugurated before Nigeria got her independence. This is because the founding fathers were immediately confronted with the challenge of making the Nigerian state meaningful for the teeming populace who were motivated to join the fight for independence on the premise that it will signal the beginning of a good life for them. The story of Nigeria’s existence since independence has belied that promise. From a terribly managed civilian rule to the long night of military rule, Nigeria has gone from one bad governance programme to another which has given Nigerians a very bad deal with regard to the kind of governance that would empower and transform their existence. Yet the civil service system has been injected with some of the best reform ideas and paradigm that could ever be infused into any administrative system anywhere in the world.
In Nigeria’s administrative history, the pre-1954 and pre-independence reform efforts are cogent because they constitute the proper foundational reflection on how the civil service system could be made relevant for a newly independent developing countries that is already challenged by the reason of its plural nature as a multi ethnic, multicultural, multi religious and multi linguistic society. Within this context, it became immediately obvious what role the public service was constituted to play in ameliorating the expected fractional conflicts that would no doubt engulf the emerging nation. From 1934 to 1954, seven commissions were put in place: Hunt Committee (1934), the Bridges Committee (1942), the Tudor-Davies Commission (1945), the Harragin Commission (1946), the Smaller Commission (1946), the Foot Commission (1948), and the Phillipson-Adebo Commission (1953). As is to be expected, these commissions were burdened with the administrative issues that any colonial and soon-to-be-postcolonial civil service system would face—cadre, promotion, compensation and remuneration, as well as the fundamental issue of the nature of the civil service. Between 1954 and 1960, there were altogether four reform commissions: Lidbury Commission (1954), the Gorsuch Commission (1955), the Mbanefo Commission (1959), and the Newns Commission (1959). Cadre and remuneration still remained major issues for the emerging civil service to contend with. However, one significant issue that spilled into independence was the “generalists” and “professionals” distinction that remained the bane of the public service efficiency unfortunately up until today.
However, it is one thing to inject a system with fundamental reforming ideas, but an entirely different thing to follow up on the optimal implementation of these ideas and insights in a way that transform the system into a democratic service delivering mechanism. Nigeria has had the best of reform commissions and committees but their recommendations and their possible effectiveness have been swallowed up within the political context that pays lip service to reform but lacks the ultimate will to see it through. The administrative system has thus been progressing in fits and starts, but it has not achieved the reform optimality that would have made the Nigerian civil service a transformed professionalized institution with the capacity readiness for democratic service delivery to Nigerians.
1974 is a fundamental administrative year in the history of the Nigerian civil service. It was the year that Nigeria got its first major opportunity to fundamentally rethink the civil service system and lay its foundation on groundwork of productivity and optimal performance. The Udoji Commission came into existence as a result of the recommendations of the 1971 Adebo Commission that was set up basically to iron out the thorny wage and salary issue that kept recurring since 1954. However, this Commission got caught up in the deeper managerial challenges raised by the 1968 Fulton Report set up in the UK to reassess the efficiency problem of the British Civil Service. The Fulton Report is regarded as the “high watermark of managerialism”, as well as the theoretical foundation for the New Public Management (NPM) revolution. The Report was set up to reflect on the possibilities of the Weberian administrative system within the context of the imperatives market system. The Adebo Commission was therefore compelled to confront the issues of an appropriate organisation and structure that would energize the efficiency profile of the civil service in Nigeria. In other words, wage and salary are just symptoms of a deeper administrative malady Nigeria needed to engage with. However, because it had its specific objective, the Commission recommended the establishment of another commission to focus on organisational and structural matters.
The Udoji Commission tackled its terms of reference head on. As at the time it was set up, the Fulton Report was already six years old, and thus Chief Jerome Udoji had the full complement of the debates and discourses as well as the administrative responses to the Fulton Report. The Udoji Commission saw the fundamental problem of the civil service in Nigeria as that of an administrative inflexibility that finds it hard to respond to positive changes. Its Main Report therefore advocated the need for a total reassessment of the Nigerian Civil Service and its capacity to internalise and adapt global best practices. The Commission was also bold enough to tackle the generalist-professional issue when it recommended a new style public service infused with “new blood” working under a result-oriented management system operated by professionals and specialists in particular fields. There was also the need, according to the Report, for standardization of conditions of service, increase in public sector wages, a unified and integrated administrative structure, the elimination of waste and the removal of deadwood/inefficient departments, but with the caveat, that the wage component, in terms of phasing, should follow the managerial and systemic changes recommended.
Like the Fulton Report before it, these cogent recommendations never saw the light of the day! Any time I write about the Udoji Commission and the ill that befell it, I usually take a pause because I am always consumed by a deep sadness at the great opportunity for renewal and rebirth that Nigeria missed. We had an opportunity to transform a colonial heritage into a truly postcolonial administrative machinery that could have been sufficiently empowered to take on the development challenges of a developing Nigeria. The military administration that received it preferred and implemented the wage component of the Udoji Report rather than its deeper recommendations for managerial transformation of the system. The reform reputation that ought to have dignified Chief Udoji’s name was damaged by a superficial wage issue.