A high level of service to the public is carried out in occupation of public office. This, therefore, makes requirements for occupying public office to be high public-spiritedness, consuming passion to serve and absolute dedication to high moral standard. Certain practices in Nigeria have made it imperative for us to consider two aspects of practices in public office, both of which relate to accessibility and transparency issues.
The first relates to barring members of the public from accessing public office and, by extension, public officials, in the course of the discharge of their official responsibilities. This vice, in my view, predates the invasion of the pandemic. Therefore, the pandemic cannot be used as an excuse. A Nigerian with a mission in public office will most often be prevented from accessing public office, in the same manner as the opportunity of seeing a public officer while discharging his duty. A public office, as the description depicts, is a place supposedly accessible to members of the public with business to transact there. However, in the last couple of years, it has become a no-go-area for members of the public that are meant to be served.
You have a complaint and approach the relevant government office with a view to seeing an official, the query you are immediately confronted with at the entrance to such public office is, do you have an appointment with him? If you say no, call him on phone and book an appointment, is the next response. This is someone you have never come across, in fact, he is a stranger to you, and you are expected to call him on phone to book an appointment. Recently, I was to visit a state commissioner of police, this time even on appointment. I was not only stopped over a kilometre to the office block, I was instructed by the members of the rank and file at the blockade to the entry to phone him for clearance. Besides the appointment, it took me over 30 minutes to access him on phone for clearance to come in for an official engagement. Now, imagine an ordinary complainant without such an appointment and access to the telephone number of the commissioner of police, that would end his genuine mission.
This is the plight Nigerians are facing currently in the hands of public officers who are meant to serve them. Should the complainant attempt to correspond through any other means, not only is the access lacking, in most instances, there won’t be any response. The sad thing is that acknowledgement of your correspondence is another challenge. You probably had even made efforts to secure an appointment by sending an earlier mail with the hope that the official would read it and get back to you for an opportune time to host you or listen to your complaints, no response is ever coming. The interesting thing at times is that the suggestions you are putting forth towards better service in government or the pure intention to render a service, which may have to be remunerated by government, if found worthy, is unwittingly jettisoned.
In all these cases, mails sent to government offices are hardly acknowledged, much less responded to. How is such a complainant meant to book an appointment, much less knowing the right officer to contact? How does he get the details of the relevant official? These are the hiccups that an average Nigerian faces daily in accessing public officers in public offices. What a joke! While I appreciate the probable busy schedule of the officials, there must always be a time or times created for the members of the public to contact public officers and have issues sorted out. Balancing of the schedule with the need for members of the public to access public officers is a must. I remember in my days in government, Tuesdays and Thursdays were dedicated to members of the public without any prior appointment having to be fixed. Those days were made available as public appointment dates, which did not require any prior contact or negotiation of time to meet. It is undeniable that a public officer that is not available to listen to members of the public can never render adequate service to meet the needs of the people.
The mentality of a public officer who sees himself as a potentate or a god that must be propitiated for divine mercy has never been a virtue in any epoch of human history. It smacks of lack of any leadership trait. It is the beginning of corruption in public office, as less scrupulous members of the public who intend to get their desires met would offer anything to have their complaints listened to. This gives room to touts who loiter around public offices and claim to have the audience with ‘Oga patapata’, or ‘Oga at the top’, leaders at the upper echelon, I mean, to secure appointments or influence decisions. Today, in virtually all the sectors of the economy, or all institutions, touting is a thriving business as a result of this impediment or barrier created by public officers. My activities while reviewing some states’ legislations gave me an insight into the kind of problems this unsavoury practice must have created.
Some states, like Oyo, had to legislate prohibition of touting in public office into law and criminalise the practice. In any case, this would have been unnecessary if public officers made themselves more accessible and attentive to public demands. Active and responsive approaches in attending to members of the public will create opportunities for the people to feel the impact of government. I, therefore, solicit the intervention of government in addressing this scourge that is fast becoming endemic in our society.
The other aspect of inaccessibility in government offices is that relating to refusal to allow members of the public to enter public offices with their phone handsets. It is now becoming ‘normal’ to be forbidden to enter public offices with phone handsets. The rationale behind this I do not know but, basically, must be to forestall recording or taping of any discussion or act taking place within the public office. This is more pronounced in security agents’ offices and you start wondering what the officials want to prevent or protect by so placing such restrictions on entry with phone handsets. Are we not running open offices? Is transparency no more the watchword in governance? This practice has now been embraced by several other government officials, governors, ministers, commissioners, some members of the National Assembly, even chairmen of local government councils. This certainly does not exclude or exempt heads of government parastatals and agencies.
For me, the moment there is such barricade or barriers to bringing in phone handsets, it signals a red flag that there is something unorthodox going on in such offices. In my very strong view, these practices not only engender corruption but also actively promote it. For instance, in law enforcement’ circles, it is certainly done mostly to perpetrate abuse or engage in corruption. No other plausible reason could be supplied than this. It reminds me of the contradiction in governance of Nigeria, where the government proclaims transparency and simultaneously administers oaths of secrecy. Should anything be secret in governance where transparency is sought? ME THINK NOT! My position is that access to public offices with phone handsets must not be impaired under any circumstance. Nigerians visiting public offices must be allowed where they like to approach the various offices with their handsets.
This issue dovetails into the barricade of most roads, particularly those running across military and para-military offices. These are roads that are insufficient in the first instance and now you discover some institutions depriving the general populace access to the roads available. The sad thing, as said above, is that these are security formations that ought to know better how to secure their environment without such barbaric practice of blocking the otherwise insufficient/inadequate roads. I know, even from my civilian experience, that there are technological devices capable of addressing the fears they have without such errant behaviour of depriving Nigerians access to those roads. Another seemingly innocuous behaviour of public officials is the attitude of lording their views on the people and giving the impression of doing someone a favour while discharging public office responsibility.
I can continue to replicate all the above but suffice to just conclude that there is urgent need for the reform of public service and reorientation in the country. I believe that the time is ripe to stop the foregoing practices, except there is more to it than what we seem to know. There are still so many of these aberrations that need to be tamed in the public service but space will not permit me to discuss them all. Suffice, therefore, to generally call on the various heads of service, at the federal and state levels, that an urgent review of the modus operandi of public officials is now imperative.