Reform the Civil Service or Forget this “Change”

by Michael Oluwagbemi II

Reading about the escapade of Nigeria’s dignitaries at the annual festival of talk and do-nothing at the United Nations General Assembly held every September in New York is almost certainly painful- a wreck of a show, made up of even sadder characters in Nigerian government officials in past times hiding behind statecraft to hide the reality of the banana republic where rules of common sense and decency don’t matter, and where only perfidy and corruption counts.

That was 2014, and this is 2015? With a brand new President and brand new party one would think Nigeria’s UNGA games would at least skip its perennial central act – an embarrassed Nigerian President, but not so given the latest news of missed sessions and shut gates we’ve been hearing from New York.



From all accounts, the smaller than usual delegation of the President, which was not helped by the lack of cabinet in place, were totally misdirected by the characters we call diplomats that man the Nigeria United Nations Mission. Sadder than the President being subjected to rookie mistake of waiting for a co-sovereign in the Pope at a gate and being barred by security officers because he turned up at the wrong gate was the practical matter of skipping a session to discuss the plight of Internally Displaced Persons in the Chad Basin, as he attended another poorly attended session where few head of states showed up.

While one can put these down to inadequacy of working without a full cabinet months into his administration, which many of his supporters have continued to defend, it cannot go unnoticed that the President’s own theory of running a civil service led administration is being tested. One will hope the President’s New York experience is giving him a perspective that the civil service of 2015 he inherited from the People’s Democratic Party is not the civil service he left in 1985.

The seeming inability of the Nigeria UN Mission staff to coordinate the President’s schedule is likely by the way to continue. We now understand that Nigeria is a likely no-show at an all important gala, and has even cancelled a key meeting with foreign investors who traveled all the way to discuss economy with a President who honestly is scoring low in that department in real time.

Be it as it may, the direct culpability for the bungled schedule has to be the staff of Nigeria’s UN Mission, as well as the Consulate in New York. Despite the large budget Nigeria spends on representation, Nigerians continues to witness gross under-representation due to unprofessional staff of the diplomatic corps i.e. civil servants.

More than the President, Nigerian citizens overseas have become accustomed to bad customer service; the Diaspora is a living witness to the penchant of our Embassies, Consulates, High Commissions and Outposts treating citizens with disdain while remaining unclear about their commercial mission to open up markets for Nigerian companies. The High Commissions in Ottawa and London will have to rank high up in this bad bucket – and it is time to take their reform seriously if the President is desirous of Nigeria being perceived differently internationally. A simple use of Google by Mr. President will reveal the high crimes against Nigerians by Nigeria Embassy Staffs especially those in Ottawa, London and various USA locations.

For discerning minds, this can only point to one and one clear point only – if the President is mindful of his legacy and his desire to change Nigeria permanently, then he has no choice but to look seriously at Nigeria’s civil service, and conduct a honest to God reform that cuddles no one, and spares nobody. It won’t be enough to empower incompetent people, because all he would have done is to entrust Nigerians to sloppy, ignorant and sometimes egoistic class of people called “evil servants” in hush tones by ordinary citizens, and who have connived in time past with the political and military class to fleece Nigeria with their mandates, expert knowledge and seeming permanency.

It makes no sense to treat this mess in our Diplomatic Corps as an incident in isolation; the reality is that most civil servants in Nigeria have no clue about what their job description, required outcomes or benchmark actually looks like. Ministries and Departments are created by fiat, while Ministers move around like legs of the tailor’s sewing machine paddle a tradition that extends all the way to their confirmation when no specific ministry is assigned to names when they go to the Senate. The Senate is equally culpable, as no serious confirmation hearings have been taking place as the media is hung up on who is likely to get juicy posts and why; such a waste of time.

This brings us to an opportunity for the President to do things differently starting now. First, we cannot wait for his much-awaited cabinet list but more importantly he can do us all a favor to assign portfolios to his cabinet list when it goes to the Senate, so the qualification and depth of his appointees can be gauged. Secondly, Nigeria desperately needs the much-rumored right sizing which brings me to the need for a Bureaucratic Act, to delineate all the approved Ministries in Nigeria and taking away these permanent structures of governance to whims and caprices of mischievous politicians. Thirdly, Nigeria desperately needs a bold reformer in the mould of a corporate restructuring specialist to head the civil service. For one, the current guy in the position could barely express himself on a recent Channels TV interview and should please be retired to his father’s village.

This third point must be made clear, that a civil service that is not thoroughly reformed from top to bottom is going to be disastrous for the President’s agenda, and will only continue to shadow performance and focus. Yes, the reforms will likely lead to retrenchments, and the President might need to back his czar to fight our Labor Unions, but that is exactly why we voted for him.

The days of outlandish mistakes without consequences must be over. The President must direct his new outsider Head of Service (pick a foreigner, even a white man if he likes) to evaluate personnel files for past errors and immediate move to right size the service with an eye at keeping all personnel costs including politicians and their aides to no more than a third of the national budget from the high of seventy-eight percent (78%) that it is today. Even more principally, only suitably qualified and trained civil servants with history of outstanding service must be retained in service while the country must race to fill open positions with young fresh blood that have long been sidelined by the “old men” that preside over Nigeria in the name of “bad” experience.

Ability to use technology, and explore new ideas and paradigms must be a critical evaluation metric when deciding who to retain and let go, but the process of right sizing must be humane with emphasis on keeping cash costs low to the nation, and providing suitably designed retirement package that redirects the current dead weight that the civil service constitutes on the nation into areas where the country requires people: education, security and agriculture.

If needed, land and agricultural homestead training should be thrown into a package so that we can derive benefit from the new generation of retirees upon which a new jobs revolution must be built while freeing us from paying folks that have constituted themselves to a cabal- clogs in the wheel of national progress as our Mission officials at New York are clearly doing.

The task of reforming the civil service is a goal that must be accomplished if this change train will pick up steam and leave the station intact.

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