In most democratic countries around the world, civil service rules and regulations stipulate that civil servants must not engage in activities likely to call their political impartiality to question. In other words, civil servants must refrain from creating the impression that, as people paid from public funds, they can be used for the attainment of party or political goals. As career public officers, they are expected to perform their duties with a sense of visible political neutrality. But that is as far as the books go. In actual practice, the general behaviour of civil servants in Nigeria, particular those of them in the higher echelon, always appears a far cry from these stipulations.
The reason may not be far-fetched. Even before trade unions are counted, the civil service in Nigeria remains one of the most formidable organisations which directly impacts on, not only the politicians, but also the business community and, as a matter of fact, the nation at large.
There is a general understanding that while members of the public in one way or another depend on the government for the running of their day-to-day businesses, government itself depends mostly on the civil service for the success of government business in the country, and even abroad. In such a way, civil servants find themselves handling very sensitive issues, from national economic policy formation to what company gets what contract in the government. Put in a nutshell, the influence of the civil service circumvents practically every aspect of the lives of Nigerians.
This fact, more than any other, deeply contributed in making the civil service in Nigeria extraordinarily powerful. The side-effect is that once a new government comes into power, the newly elected public office holders, like the proverbial new broom begin to sweep clean. They commit their time and skills to actualizing their campaign manifestoes. They know that the people who voted them into office will always take them to ransom on account of their campaign promises. They don’t want to be seen as a disappointment to those who elected them into public office. But no sooner have the politicians been sworn into office than the civil servants begin to “educate” them on how “stupid” they would look if they failed to seize their opportunity to make some quick money. They begin to indoctrinate them into the attitude of grabbing as much money as comes their way, to prove to all and sundry that they are actually “running things”, as Nigerians would say. Gradually, and steadily, politicians who initially came into government with clean hands and open minds, and a willingness to genuinely serve their people, begin to get corrupt. Sadly, this has been the trend over these five decades since Nigeria had self rule.
When the current Nigerian civil service metamorphosed from the colonial civil service established by Britain to administer Nigeria as its colony, it inherited many good qualities. For example, at that time, civil servants were employed purely on the basis of their skill and competence. There was nothing like “quota system”. Recruitment into the civil service meant that the applicant had to pass several tests conducted without prejudice to state of origin, social status or religious inclination. Those early civil servants were known to be very hard-working and self-disciplined. They were ever ready to make self-sacrifices, just to ensure that the nation moved forward. They were sensitive to local interests and to the feelings of the ordinary citizens who walked the streets of the nation.
It was at this time that the foundation of the rightful role of the civil service in Nigeria was laid. It was meant to represent the broader national interests in a fair and unbiased manner. On the other hand, politicians and political parties were regarded as representing the more narrow interests of the nation. This, they did in a kind of self-serving manner which predicated on their party affiliations and the mandate of their constituents. Thus, civil servants came to have the sort of over-political legitimacy they have continued to wield, even though their positions were not attained through election by popular votes or by political appointments. Furthermore, the long years of military interregnum enabled the civil service in Nigeria to consolidate its grip on government. But the truth must be told.
That truth is that between the civil service and the legislature, it is not so difficult to see why all the blame for whatever is happening wrong today in Nigeria, from child labour to bribery and corruption, from rape to the marriage of underage girls, from kidnapping to bank robbery and ritual murders can be laid squarely at the feet of the legislative arm of government.
Take the recent developments in the country that have once again called the credibility of the civil service to deep question, for instance. Many Nigerians in Diaspora are shocked to learn about the millions of pounds that are siphoned from Pension Funds meant to cater for elderly Nigerian citizens who spent the best part of their lives in the service of their nation. Huge sums of money running into millions of pounds are incautiously diverted into private bank accounts on daily basis even from the office of the Head of Service. Or take the recent case of Honourable Farouk Lawan and his committee on oil subsidy regime. Here is a man charged with the responsibility of chairing the ad hoc committee that would probe the oil subsidy regime and make recommendations to the Parliament. He betrays that public trust. Why?
Again it is easy to see. Everybody now knows why Nigeria has refused to come out of the woods all these years. It is because corruption seems to be paying them. It is no longer a secret that every succeeding government makes it a point of duty to stand on top of the roof to advertise how much it is committed to the eradication of bribery and corruption in the nation. But then government is always the number one culprit when it comes to the question of corruption. It is a national curse that Nigerian leaders must break.
The more advanced democratic countries, like the UK and the US, started their war against corruption by enacting laws which made it a very serious CRIME for employers of labour not to pay their workers on time. This was one of the benefits of the industrial revolution and one that has been largely responsible for the stability that has been recorded in their society over the centuries. In these countries, some workers are paid weekly, some bi-weekly, some every four weeks and others on a particular day of the month. No one is ever owed arrears of salary because employers know that if an employee brings their case before an Employment Tribunal, they might end up paying heavy fines as penalty or the company may even be shut down for incompetence. The result is that working class families are able to plan their lives, living within their means.
When the breadwinner of a family is unsure whether or not his family would eat the next meal because he does not know when his wages would be paid, or if indeed, they will be paid at-all, what would any one expect? In his anxiety, he tries to get some money, by hook or crook, so that at-least he can put some sort of food on the breakfast table for his family.
That state of affairs inevitably culminates, not only in corrupt practices, but more depressingly, also leads to child labour. This is why, in practically every city in Nigeria today, children as young as ten can be seen hawking commodities ranging from akara, moi-moi and banana to groundnuts, puff-puff and pure water. In the process, they are shamefully exposed to all kinds of hazards, from road accidents to rape and even kidnapping. In this messy state of affairs, government remains the main culprit because it is the highest employer of labour, and because its legislative arm has criminally refused to enact laws that can financially stabilise Nigerian families and consequently, the Nigerian society. For, if it did, the career of civil servants will be protected because getting money by hook or crook will no longer be a compulsion, and civil servants will have no reason to coerce innocent politicians into corrupt practices.
The question Nigerians have to address is whether the enormous influence the civil service has on government has bestowed a sort of political legitimacy on the country’s civil servants in their dealings with both the political and business classes who have come so much to depend on them. Could this influence be the reason why, most times, civil servants in Nigeria tend to see the political class and the business community as “objects” which can be manipulated and used any way they like to run the affairs of the country? By the same token, could the political class, at some point, have compromised its political mandate to the whims and caprices of over-bearing civil servants in order to be “protected” to have a go at the national cake? In other words, are the legislative arm of government and the civil service not like Siamese twins who collude and watch over each other’s back as they milk the nation’s economy dry?
And if they are not, why is the legislature finding it so difficult to enact laws that would make it mandatory for employers of labour to pay their workers promptly and not owe them arrears of salaries as it is done in all advanced democracies, as a way of beginning the fight against bribery and corruption?