The Pressure Is Mounting

The Governor of Imo State, Owelle Rochas Okorocha, is said in the media to have been lamenting over the huge wage bills expended on the state civil service. He sees it as a waste of public funds. He says he doesn't need more than 200 workers to run the state civil service. He is concerned that these huge wage bills are expended on a non-productive sector of the economy. He prefers employing people in productive sectors of the economy like agriculture to maintaining an unproductive civil service.

The Governor is quoted as saying: “I don’t need more than 200 workers in the state civil service but I need more than 100,000 in the agricultural sector of the state. It’s like if this nation makes $1 trillion every day and ends up paying salaries with it, there still will be no progress. Unless we address those basic issues and get people to work in the productive sector of the economy, we cannot make any headway.

If I have 70 percent of the money that comes to the state for capital expenditure, Imo State would look like London in the next five years. Public service is not welfarism. We don’t have a welfare state where people can sit down and expect money from government. We have what is called governance by investment and not people sitting down and collecting money. That money they collect does not aid production."

Unbelievable as it may seem, I think Governor Okorocha has a point here. In my article published in Tell Magazine and in the 27 October 2013 edition of Sahara Reporters titled: “Nigeria’s Siamese Twins of Corruption”, I pointed out certain facts which the current position of the Imo State Governor seems to echo. And for that reason I would like to visit the story once again, for the records.

The indispensability of civil servants in the evolution of democracy in developing countries like Nigeria was never in dispute. Government depended on the civil service for the success of its business of governance inside the country and out of it. As a result of this dependence of government, civil servants found themselves saddled with the dispensation of very sensitive national policies some of which were economic.

For that reason, the civil service in Nigeria continued to remain one of the most formidable organisations which directly impacted not only on the activities of the country’s political class and business community, but on the nation at large.

Stringent rules and regulations had been put in place to ensure that civil servants were politically neutral and that they did not engage in activities likely to call their political impartiality to question. They were expected to refrain from doing anything that might create the impression that, as people paid from public funds, they could be compromised for the attainment of political or party goals.

As career public officers, they were expected to perform their duties with a sense of impeccable political neutrality. But that was not the case with the civil service over the years. The general behaviour of civil servants in Nigeria called their level of professionalism to question.

Those of us who are old enough still remember when 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 affiliation.

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 of the nation.

It was at this time that the foundation of the civil service in Nigeria was laid. The civil service was meant to represent the broader interests of the nation in a fair, unbiased manner 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 because their commitment was self-serving and 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. The civil servants came to have what could be seen as legitimacy over the political class – a legitimacy they continued to wield tenaciously over the years. The long years of military interregnum also 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 making good their campaign promises. 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 won’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 [who have been in the system for so long] 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 the ones 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 doses 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 had 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 political class had 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.

To prune the civil service to a manageable and less unproductive workforce certainly makes sense. But to dump the whole lot of civil servants in the state is a recipe for disaster. At the end of the day, it is the responsibility of government to create jobs for its citizens. Government must not shy away from its responsibility. For that reason, if Governor Okorocha implements what he has said, it would definitely become an infectious trend that will catch up with other states of the Federation sooner than later.

Nigerians do not need an over-bloated civil service whose staff do nothing but loaf around or sit in office busy gossiping and expect to be paid at the end of the day. They will be needed in more productive areas like agriculture, as Governor Okorocha points out.

The governor must not forget though, that this decision will throw up its own challenges. The government will have to itemise the sort of agriculture it wants to divert this workforce to. Is it animal husbandry, rearing goats, sheep and cattle? Is it cultivating staple foodstuff like potatoes, yams, cassava and vegetables like tomato and pepper? Is it fisheries? Is it poultry farming, rearing chickens and hatching eggs? All these would need serious feasibility studies. And then of course where is the land?

Would it be possible to acquire about half a mile of arable land from each of the 27 local government areas of the state and assign each locality with the production of a specific food item? And would it also be possible to build factories within the farms which would be associated with the farm’s final products.

For instance, build a factory that will turn fresh tomatoes in ketchups, tomato soup etc in the tomato farm; or cashew into cashew nuts, cashew oil etc in the cashew farm; or cassava into garri in the cassava farm and so on. In this way, jobs can be created along the lines I suggested some time ago in my article titled “Coping with hard times in Eastern Nigeria” and published in the 16 July 2013 edition of Modern Ghana and The Nigerian Voice newspapers.

These are challenges that the Okorocha Administration must set in position if he sincerely wants to prune the workforce in Imo State civil service and re-channel it to more productive use. It won’t be easy. But it can be done. And the pressure is mounting.

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Articles by Emeka Asinugo