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Nigeria’s Siamese twins of Corruption

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As it is the case with many other countries of the world, the indispensability of the civil service in the evolution of democracy in developing countries like Nigeria can never be in dispute. There seems to be a general acceptance that while members of the public in one way or another depend on the government of the day for patronage of their daily business affairs, every government on its part depends mostly on the civil service for the success of its business of governance both in the country and abroad. As a result of this dependence of government on the civil service, civil servants find themselves saddled with the dispensation of very sensitive national issues, ranging from economic policy-formation to what company gets what contract from the government of the day. Put in a nutshell, the influence of the civil service in Nigeria circumvents practically every aspect of the lives of the citizens. Even before trade unions are counted, the civil service in Nigeria was, and still remains, one of the most formidable organisations which directly impact not only on the country's political class or business community, but on the nation at large.

Consequently, the stringent rules and regulations that were meant to put the civil service in place had to stipulate that civil servants must be politically neutral and must not engage in activities likely to call their political impartiality to question. In other words, civil servants must refrain from doing anything that might create the impression that, as people paid from public funds, they could be used for the attainment of political or party goals. As career public officers, they were expected to perform their duties with a sense of visible political neutrality.

But that is only as far as the books can go. In actual practice today, the general behaviour of civil servants in Nigeria, particularly those of them in the higher echelon, is a far cry from these regulations. Indeed, it has become difficult to say categorically what the civil service in Nigeria represents today. It is even more difficult to perceive and analyse their mission and vision.

Those of us who are old enough still remember that when what can be regarded today as the civil service in Nigeria metamorphosed from the colonial civil service which Britain established to administer Nigeria as its colony, it inherited many good qualities. 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 always ready to make self-sacrifices, just to ensure that the nation moved forward through the efficient functioning of their ministries. They were sensitive to the interests of the local people, and to the feelings of the ordinary citizens who walked the streets of the nation.

It was at this time that the foundation of what should have remained the proper role of the civil service in Nigeria today was laid. The civil service, on one hand, represented the broader interests of the nation in a fair and an unbiased manner. This, they did by being totally unaffiliated to any political or party interests. On the other hand, politicians and political parties were regarded as representing the more narrow interests of the nation. This, the politicians did in a self-serving manner which predicated on their party affiliations and the mandate of their constituents. The implication was that while governments came and went, the civil service remained – to work with the government of the day. This fact, more than any other, deeply contributed in making the civil service in Nigeria extraordinarily powerful. Thus, career civil servants came to have a sort of legitimacy over the political class – a legitimacy they have continued to wield tenaciously over the years. Furthermore, the long years of military interregnum enabled the civil service in Nigeria to consolidate its grip on government.

The side-effect was that once a new government came 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 full well 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 while in office. 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. They begin to remind them that political appointments have expiry dates – and that opportunities don't last forever. They begin to convince them that this is their opportunity to make as much money as they possibly can. And they begin to give them daily dozes of tutorials on “the way forward.” Gradually, but 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. The government of the day begins to soil its hands with corruption and as a result, all the loud noise about tackling bribery and corruption in the country ends up only on the pages of the national newspapers and the screens of television sets.

Sadly, this has been the trend for more than five decades since Nigeria had self rule. But Nigerians cannot be fooled forever. The truth must be told someday. That truth is that over the years in Nigeria, the civil service and the legislature have become like Siamese twins of corruption. They are joined in their hearts, feeling each other's heart-beat as they continuously collude to milk the national coffers dry.

Today, it is not so difficult to see why all the blame for whatever is happening wrong 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 both the government and the civil service.

The problem Nigerians have to address is how the enormous influence civil servants have on government has influenced both the political class and the business community 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 deem fit, 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?

Take just two of the many recent developments in the country which called the credibility of the civil service and the political class to deep question, for instance. Many Nigerians in Diaspora were shocked to learn about the millions of pounds that were 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, incautiously diverted into private bank accounts on daily basis even from the office of the Head of Service! In the same vein, there is also the year-old case of Honourable Farouk Lawan and his Senate Committee on the Oil Subsidy regime. Here was a man charged with the responsibility of chairing the Senate Ad Hoc Committee which would probe the oil subsidy regime and make recommendations to the Parliament. He is now in court, accused of betraying that public trust.

From the look of things, it seems pretty obvious now that Nigerians in the civil service, their counterparts in public offices in collaboration with their business community, will take quite a while to come out of the woods because bribery and corruption seem to be paying them.

Over the years, it has become an open secret that every succeeding Nigerian 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. Yet every year seems to even deepen the rot Nigerian citizens are into because 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 bribery and 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 level of stability which their society has recorded 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, which is also child abuse. 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. Nigerian children deserve a better deal than this.

If only Nigerian legislators can do this for Nigerian people, if only they would enact this law to protect working class families, they would have done it all for them. The career of civil servants in the country would be protected. For them, getting money by hook or crook would no longer be a compulsion, and civil servants would have no reason to coerce innocent politicians into corrupt practices.

* Asinugo is a London-based journalist and editor of Trumpet newspaper

Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of Emeka Asinugo and do not necessarily reflect those of The Nigerian Voice. The Nigerian Voice will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."

Articles by Emeka Asinugo