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Reforming the Nigerian Civil Service: Tunji Olaopa's Struggles, Pain and Triumphs - Part 5
Dr. Tunji Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary.
The first brutal fact I confronted when I joined the civil service was its complex operational frameworks, and unfortunately its pathology. I came in when the Nigerian civil service had already imbibed, to the fullest possible extent, the disenabling bureaucratic culture. The complex operational dynamics of every civil service system all over the world had begun to overwhelm our own system, and like we said in the last part, the system itself was not prepared for the challenge of change. The rule of the officials had commenced, and to borrow the title of Michel Crozier’s book, the Nigerian Civil Service became a ‘bureaucratic phenomenon.’ As it became immediately obvious to me, as the bureaucratic complacency became entrenched, and the official procedures became multiplied, the citizens became more excluded from democratic transaction, and became more disenchanted.
From the mid-70s, the Nigerian Civil Service had already got a bad name.
We all have experienced the red tape at one time or the other-the clerk painting her fingers while people wait impatiently on the long queue; the official who complicates a simple matter of getting a license because he wants a bribe; moving from one office to the other trying to track a file; the annoying list is endless. Peter Enahoro, the veteran journalist, considers the civil servants as trapped within their own institution: ‘Civil servants are also a compromise between incivility and servitude. They are inherently uncivil and economically servile. The civil servant is underpaid, which makes his service equivalent to servitude. On the other hand, the civil servant takes a razor-sharp tongue to work with him and will snap like the jaws of a crocodile at the least provocation. Thus, while he is not civil, he is a servant. It is a rare compromise.’
It took me a while before I would begin to understand that the public service has a deeper professional pedigree than what we today see all around us at federal and state secretariats all over the country. By the time I had embarked on the doctoral programme, it dawned on me that the public service is actually a vocation, a deep spiritual calling that requires a deep service to the public. Of course, this is difficult to accept within the contextual bastardisation which Enahoro referred to as ‘uncivil servitude.’ But the simple question that would bring enlightenment is: where did we derive the concept of ‘public service’ from? And why ‘public or civil service’?
The civil service, which predates the idea of modern government, derives essentially from a vision of ensuring social order from an administrative coordination of human affairs. Since its beginning in the ancient Egyptian society, the public service has been perennially faced with the urgent need of confronting the complex task of managing public affairs through the ingenuity and creative acumen of a manager who understands the dynamics of management and how it can be directed in a manner that impacts positively on the citizens of a state. Those that were chosen to serve the pharaoh, a demi-god in ancient Egypt, were required to go through a special scribal education that was partly a lesson in administrative responsibility, partly an induction into patriotic enthusiasm, and partly a cultural enlightenment.
I had to understand Plato and Weber to come to a full realization of what service as spirituality means. The first time I read Plato’s Republic, as a young secondary school boy, it struck me as a fundamental political manifesto. It was a philosophical reflection on how to tame political disorder in a state. But Plato had a higher intention if his Republic would be better than Athens. Plato was convinced that if a state must work to deliver the goods to its citizenry and maintain harmony, it must also be strongly fortified by a cadre of managers and experts who know what they are doing. Plato definitely had more intellectual resources and political complexity than the pharaohs. And, still smarting from the judicial murder of Socrates in the hands of public servants, Plato knew that the depth of philosophical diligence must be reached if the Republic must have a public service that is true to the most fundamental principles of the state. And he deployed educational, psychological, metaphysical and epistemological resources to ensure that.
But it is to Max Weber that I must give the intellectual credit for the groundwork that reveals the public service as a vocation. With his theory of the modern bureaucracy, Weber outlined the specific relationship that ought to exist between the public servants and the government. His sociological legacy consists in giving us the template for what he called the ‘ideal-type’ bureaucracy which can serve as the rational basis by which ‘actual type’ bureaucracies, public or private, can be assessed for the rational attainment of the goals of the organisation.The idea of bureaucracy, for Weber, is based on the notion of legal-rational authority; an authority which employees recognise as legitimate. The framework of the legal-rational authority privileges written rules and procedures. Each position in the bureaucracy has its duties and rights, which are clearly defined; rules and procedures are laid down to determine how the given authority is to be exercised. Bureaucracy therefore promises a stable organisation, despite the fact that its incumbents come and go. Weber’s ideal-type bureaucracy emerged as neutral, hierarchically organised, precise, continuous, disciplined, strict, efficient, reliable and ultimately inevitable in contemporary society. The bureaucracy was to become technically the most efficient form of organisation. And in Weber’s sociological, Plato’s philosophical and the pharaoh’s cultural vision, the public service was to become a vocation.
And the first condition for such a vocation is that the public servant must be apolitical in a manner that shields him or her from political patronage that could colour his or her administrative judgment. This is what Joseph Schumpeter meant when he remarked that ‘bureaucracy is not an obstacle to democracy but an inevitable complement to it.’ As history has shown, it is a very short step from administrative service to administrative dominance by officials. As vocation, the public service was to be a spiritual calling, a profession that would consume the affections of those committed to it. A profession becomes a calling or a vocation when it becomes integrated within an ethical framework and is therefore attached to larger vision and purpose beyond itself. It is in this sense that a bureaucrat is ‘called’ to serve the state and a purpose beyond him/herself.
Beyond the rigid intellectual framework of my doctoral dissertation, I did not need to look to pharaonic Egypt, ancient Rome or 18th century Prussia to encounter those who are public servants par excellence-Nigeria had its own golden era of public service professionalism whose foundation was laid by die-hard public servants: Simeon Adebo, Jerome Udoji, Sule Katagum, S. O. Wey, Ali Akilu, Allison Ayida, Phillip Asiodu, Ahmed Joda, Ime Ebong, Yetunde Ighodalo, Francesca Emanuel, Tejumade Alakija, Gray Longe, Shehu Musa, to name just a few. All these worked tirelessly to reproduce a functional and ethically responsible civil service in post-independence Nigeria. Chief Simeon Adebo’s service credential is all the more incredible because he had no special original calling into administration; he was a graduate of English! Yet, he came to a deep understanding of his vocation as more than just an employment. Adebo would definitely understand Abraham Maslow’s contention that ‘Duty cannot be contrasted with pleasure, nor work with play when duty is pleasure, when work is play, and the person doing his duty and being virtuous is simultaneously seeking his pleasure and being happy.’
Unfortunately, these same professional civil servants who laid the foundation of what we now regard as the golden era of public service in Nigeria watched perplexed as the civil service they had built was overwhelmed by incipient bureaucratic pathology. Before their very eyes, their civil service was demoted from being one of the celebrated civil services in the Commonwealth to become an extremely degenerate structure that could no longer transform policies into infrastructural frameworks. It was this civil service that I made the decision to join in the late 80s, and that decision transformed my entire personal and professional lives.
by Tunji Olaopa (with original title - Reforming the Nigerian Civil Service: My Struggles, My Pain, My Triumphs)
*Dr. Tunji Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary.