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“Those useless civil servants” by Dr Joe Abah

This post was prompted by a tweet by @ManiPeters that some civil servants are untrainable. As always, I will start by providing some context, and my views will be based both on rigorous academic research and many years of practitioner experience. Of course, it wouldn’t have been authored by me if it was not somewhat controversial. Oh, and it may a bit long.

The brilliant Nigerian political scientist, Peter Ekeh, wrote a seminal paper way back in 1975 titled “Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa: A Theoretical Statement”. If you have never read it, I strongly recommend that you do. Ekeh explains why public servants in Africa and other post-colonial societies tend to chose the path of poor performance, rather then good performance. He argues that in the minds of post-colonials, like Nigerians, there are two publics.

The first is a “primordial public” (usually at his village or tribe level), which is moral, just and communal. To this public, the Nigerian will give his all, will not embezzle communal funds, will aim for optimal performance in all endeavours, will look out for the interests of others, and will strive for the common good.

The second is a “civic public” (such as the civil service, the public service and the entire machinery of government at Federal, State and Local Government levels) which was first created and imposed by colonial masters and then reinforced following independence. This second public is seen as amoral, deserving of no loyalty, no dedication or taxes, and should instead be extracted from to feed the needs of the primordial public.

Ekeh’s paper blames everything on colonialism. His assertion (in 1975) that the only non-Western nations to have successfully modernised are those that have never been colonised no longer holds true, with examples such as South Korea and Malaysia. However, it could successfully be argued that those countries (and other successful Asian economies) have managed to overcome the “two publics” in their minds by integrating their primordial publics with their civic publics. And therefore that the essential theory of the two publics in the minds of many public servants still holds true in many developing societies that have failed to develop, such as Nigeria.

Ekeh’s brilliant theory starts to explain why a Nigerian civil servant could be among the most competent, professional and diligent when it comes to matters concerning his village, but completely useless at work. He would build the village communal centre or worship place to time, cost and quality without embezzling one Naira, but at work, he is “useless, lacking in capacity and constantly in need of training.” Some would even say he is untrainable. What happens in the mind of the civil servant between Sunday afternoon when he is brilliant, honest and dedicated at his village association meeting in Abuja, and Monday morning when he turns up at the Federal Secretariat, late, unwilling to work and “useless”?

You see, as soon as he enters the Federal Secretariat, a light bulb goes off in his brain. Ekeh’s civic public kicks in. He is there to extract from the State to feed his primordial public. Of course, a Constitution based entirely on sharing national resources, and a Federal Character principle that sacrifices merit on the altar of representation, takes the light bulb in his brain beyond just being switched off. There is a power failure, or as Nigerians would say “NEPA takes light.”

That is not all, because the big masquerade is yet to appear: corruption. By the way, unknown to many, only very very few civil servants have access to significant resources with which they could even be tempted to be corrupt. If I were to guess at a figure, I would say less than 1% of the workforce. Therefore, in the minds of those that don’t have that opportunity, it is every man for himself. No matter how junior, they will design tollgates to obstruct the public and extract their share. With corruption institutionalised as a way of life and the lavish lifestyles of the corrupt few that have the opportunity, NEPA completely disconnects the brain.

Why else do you think that a government lawyer would procure a litigant to sue the government she works for, deliberately throw the case and split the profits with the litigant? Would they do that against their village, church or mosque?

Corruption by the few that have access, plus the completely senseless budgeting system we had until recently, added to inadequate overall resources, meant that for the majority of civil servants there was no money to do any work, even where there was the will to do some.

After a few years, the brain gets used to this lack of activity at work and people actually become useless, lacking in capacity and constantly in need of training. The capacity to undertake even basic tasks like writing down minutes of meetings is lost because nobody cares. Nobody has ever cared. Nobody is likely to care in the future. The ability to do work has absolutely no correlation with promotion. To be promoted, you just need to be able to pass a mundane exam every few years. A typical promotion exam question is “How many Nigerian states are named after rivers?” Keep answering these kind of questions and you will keep getting promoted. All of a sudden, you are a Director but cannot even write a one-page letter. You need “training and capacity building”, as if those in the private sector did not go to the same university or read the same course.

However, the focus of all training is actually the training allowance. Any opportunity for foreign training was essentially as opportunity to shop and bring back goods to sell. Nobody was going anywhere to learn anything. Of course, the foreign training institutions did very well out of Nigeria. Name any training institution in the world, Nigeria was its biggest client. We were such good customers that when we banned foreign training in 2015, RIPA International collapsed overnight.

It may surprise some, but I think it is actually unfair to blame the junior civil servant who hangs around gossiping all day and looking for the odd thousand Naira from delaying files. I am of the firm view that the role of leadership is to overcome problems. I will therefore place the blame squarely on leadership. If the leader cannot motivate, demonstrate example in their personal conduct and is not concerned about the public good, why kick the poor junior civil servant who has not been given any work to do, who is on extremely low pay and is likely to be punished for having an opinion?

The less sophisticated will say sack them all, since they have no work to do. Can you really look at Nigeria and say there is no work to do? It is also rather impossible to recruit oneself. Someone must have recruited them for some purpose. Of course, some were recruited for entirely the wrong reasons and came into the service with entirely the wrong attitude. They do not want to work even when there is work to do and the means with which to do it. These should be identified and kicked out. There are also those that refuse to learn or improve. Given that most civil servants have some tertiary qualification or the other, it is obvious that they can learn if they want to. I only mean the ones with genuine certificates, of course.

When I first came to the Bureau of Public Service Reforms (BPSR), my civil servants admitted that they had not read anything intellectually tasking for 5 years! For a research focused organisation like BPSR, that was indeed shocking. Nobody had sought their opinion about anything or involved them in any work. So my first question when they ask me anything is always “What do YOU think?” Initially, that question took them aback because they were not used to being asked to think. They were also not being required to go back and re-write memos up to six times until they got it right. Now, our most popular publication, “How Nigeria Contained Ebola”, which has been downloaded more than 100,000 times, was entirely researched and written by Mr Inyang Anyang, one of those civil servants.

The Asians overcame Peter Ekeh’s two publics in the mind of their public servants by investing in and nurturing their public service, not by sacking everyone and destroying it. Nigeria can do the same. No country has developed in the last 50 years without a strong, powerful, well resourced and well paid civil service. None.

In the long term, we need to clarify the ‘Theory of State’ that we subscribe to. Do we want a private sector-led economy, a public sector-led economy, a mixture of both, or what? The “Theory of State” we subscribe to will determine the size, nature and functions of the public service we want. It will determine the type of people who join the public sector and clarify what they are joining it to achieve. This will mean a review of the 1999 Constitution we have.

In the short term, introducing a workable Performance Management System is perhaps the best short cut. BPSR has supported the Office of the Head of Service in fully designing one. There are a few niggles to be sorted out before it can be piloted, we hope later this year.

In the meantime, many civil servants will continue to giggle privately at the “useless civil servants” tag. They will laugh at the sanctimonious exhortations of private sector commentators trying to teach them what key performance indicators and targets mean, particularly as many have attended the best training institutions in the world to learn about all that stuff. Some have even written books on the subject and teach it in foreign universities, part-time. Some others will ask “If I am useless, why shouldn’t I be? If it was you, would you be useful?”

Our civil service will start to improve the day we want it to improve. We will make efforts to blend our civic public with our primordial public in a uniquely Nigerian way, just like the Asians have done. Until then, we must guard against further deform in our pursuit of necessary reform. You cannot reform what you do not understand.

Dr. Joe Abah is the Director-General of the Bureau of Public Service Reforms, The Presidency, Nigeria.

This article was first published on Medium and is republished here with the permission of the author.