In whose interest is Nigeria’s public service?

Symbolism with Simbo Olorunfemi

Email: Twitter: @simboolorunfemi

Simbo QED“The law will never make men free. It is men that have to make the law free” – Henry David Thoreau

The state of the public service in Nigeria is the state of the nation in its steep descent towards unravelling as a full-fledged state of nature, where order goes on vacation. With each day, the failure of governance metastasises in a worse form and catches up with more sectors. With the essence of the nation lost in the wind, different shades of dysfunction manifest daily, to the chagrin of the discerning. As the country hobbles around like a drunk on skateboard, people paid to serve the public are left to their own devices, fiddling while files gather dust.

Few will argue with the fact that the public service has been everything but a symbol of service to the Nigerian public. The wide gap between those who formulate policies, the quality of thought propelling them, the framework they fashion for implementation and the actual needs of the people is a grim reminder on the disconnect between what ought to be and what is.

The state of the public service, as it is, is a difficult one to explain. With the greater bulk of the resources at all levels of government devoted to servicing unwieldy administrative structures, it amounts to double jeopardy that the system hardly ever serves the interest of the people. Yet, all around us are imposing structures occupied by ministries, departments and agencies pretending to render one form of service or the other, at enormous expense, to the people.

What is at the heart of the apparent lack of connection between those paid to serve the people and the people they ought to serve? Why is public service everything but service to the public? Why is the civil service everything but civil in its relationship with the public? Or is it simply a case of Nigerians deserving the kind of public service we get? Some argue that public service, in its true element, died long ago. They cite the Murtala Mohammed purge of 1975, which affected over 10,000 government employees, in one swoop, as a singular act that sounded the death knell of the civil service.

The fear and uncertainty that was triggered by the massive dismissal of high-ranking officials have been identified as factors that triggered unrest within the system. Yet, as far back as then, Murtala Mohammed had cited indiscipline, corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency as reasons for purging the civil service. Four decades after, nothing much has changed. A collection of reports sits on the desk of another set of public servants that have indicted many of them and confirmed the irrelevance of many agencies and parastatals, whose functions are unknown to many, yet exist on paper, to receive subventions from government. Not even the Oronsaye report calling for the scrapping and merger of many of the agencies is able to shake off the dust on its cover, and come to life.

Perhaps the state of the Nigerian public service is a statement to our poor understanding of what public service is all about. Professor Agbakoba, one of Nigeria’s eminent philosophers, traces the problem further back. He argues that the idea of public service was brought by colonialists and is, in fact, alien to our culture. It was seen as white man’s work (ise Ijoba to the Yoruba). That lack of ownership and attendant lethargy eventually extended to the private sector and has come to define the engagement of public servants with governmental institutions and the people they ought to serve.

There is an overwhelming sense of alienation in the relationship between the public servants, the agencies of government they man and the generality of the people. Dr Oby Ezekwesili only this week made a distinction between agencies and institutions, with agencies only transcending into institutions when the people take ownership of them.

Perhaps, the lack of accountability and arrogance that is exemplified in the attitude of public servants towards the people is only symbolic of a deeper issue of alienation that runs deep into the lack of sense of ownership on the part of all of us of government and the agencies set up for the purpose of governance. If those who are paid to serve do not understand the essence of service and the intended recipients of service have never accepted the ownership of formal organs of government and the people who represent them, is it any surprise that governance is in utter shambles, serving only a few, at enormous cost to the people?