Notion civil servants show politicians how to steal unfounded —Afolabi, Ex-HoS

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A former Head of Service of the Federation, Professor Oladapo Afolabi, speak on the possible implementation of the Steve Oronsaye report and how to transform the system for better governance.

President Bola Tinubu has mandated a 12-man committee to see to the implementation of the Steve Oronsaye report. You were in the saddle as Head of Service of the Federation, when the Oransanye committee was set up. What is your general impression of the intents of the report as it relates to merging, subsuming, scrapping some MDAs?

The Oronsaye committee on rationalising the Ministries, Department and Agencies (MDAs) was inaugurated while I was head of service of the federation in the year 2011 and the report was submitted in 2012 after I had left office. The intent of the committee, by and large, is to reduce the cost of governance, to remove duplications both in terms of institutions and functions, reduce overlap, institute efficiency in the civil or public service. But as the report emerged, in implementing the content of the report, it became very difficult because of the laws establishing the various institutions. I think that must have created the challenges administrations were facing in implementing the report. But this regime also had been assisted by various committee that considered this report and picked out those areas that could be implemented without really disrupting the fabrics of our coexistence in Nigeria, at the same time bringing in some efficiency and reducing cost. The report itself has good intention. Implementation could be very difficult but it is doable. So, this administration has bitten the bullet. It has taken the first step of a one thousand mile journey. It will be a long haul. The committee that has been set up, and given 12 weeks to implement, will try their best. But it is better to start than not to start.

The challenges of implementation faced by previous administration in terms of amending the laws setting up the various MDAs and the fear of job loss are still there. Do you think they can be circumvented this time?

The legal aspects is the major fear; all other things can be done without hurting the system. In the hands of experienced administrators and government craftsmen, there should not be loss of job. For example, in 2007, I deployed to the ministry of agriculture and rural development and ministry of water resources. These were two large ministries and government decided to merge them. I was posted as the permanent secretary to merge those ministries. In the ministry of water resources, you had about 16 directorates; also in ministry of agriculture, you had about 16 directorates. And they wanted me to reduce it to eight departments. We tried, we reduced to eight departments; nobody lost any job; in fact, some were enhanced. So I do not see that as an issue if well implemented.

What about the issue of redundancy?

Of course, you will have some redundancy. But redundancies can be gainfully engaged. The temptation right now will be that many commentaries had pointed finger at the civil service as being over bloated. My view is different. When you consider the developed countries where we copied their civil service structure and enshrined that the civil service as the engine room of government, you find that when you do the per capita ratio of public officers in these countries, it is higher than Nigeria. This is despite the fact that they have Artificial Intelligence, they have IT to support more than we do. What that means is that those that would be considered redundant can be redeployed, retrained and used to service those areas yearning for serious attention. Why, for example, will you go to hospital and have to wait for days, years before you get service? So, these people can be used gainfully. You find the kind of distraction that we have in the civil service today largely attributable to non-payment of living wage. When we were growing up, my dad was a public officer. In the 50s, when I became conscious of how parents were making ends meet, we were depending on salary and my father was able to have a car, service the car, send us to school without any additional income. So they were paying them living wages. How many civil servants can do same today on the salary? All these must be taken into perspective and we should know that this first step should be done in a way that will really improve efficiency and enhance remuneration.

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There is usually the talk about the need for reform of the civil service. Will the implementation of the Oransanye report bring about the much-talked about need for reforms of the service? What kind of reforms are required?

There are many reforms required in the civil service that can bring in efficiency, capacity, the correct skill set, suitability. I just see the Oronsanye report as the first step; there are many things to be done. For example, another school of thought asks, why are we merging? Why are we not just creating a situation where ministries will be only be saddled with responsibility of policy, regulation, oversight and compliance whereas the implementing arms should be the parastatals. And that parastatals will be created to enhance service and that by providing these services, they should also generate some revenue enough to enable them sustain themselves. In this case, the burden that is on government is reduced tremendously. But they will appropriate charges; in the same vein, appropriate remuneration. So, there are many reforms that will be required but this is a perspective.

Considering the failure to implement the report by different administration, are you confident that the Tinubu administration will make this work this time?

Generally, there is no modern society that can be better than the deliverable of the civil service. So any modern society is formed in the nature of the civil service. If they do what they are doing now, they are hitting at one of the fundamentals. We should not doubt but encourage them. It is a lot of political will to want to move on this type of reform. Let’s encourage and not doubt them. I hope the won’t fail us.

There is a notion that civil servants, having been in the system for appreciable time, show political office holders leakages and the path of corruption. What do you make of this notion?

Perception, a lot of the time, could be real and unreal. Until we go in there and feel it ourselves, we may not know what the truth is. In my own experience as a civil servant, I started from the university as a classroom teacher, became a professor, then to the federal environmental protection agency as a technocrat, I did not touch any money and I didn’t show anybody where to steal. In fact, if I went on any assignment, especially tours, and there was excess funds, I would return to the treasury. So were many of my colleagues at the time. Then I joined the core civil service, which had a different culture from a purely technical parastatal. People keep saying it is civil servants that show politicians how to steal. There are rules and you steal when you circumvent the rules. Look at the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs who is presently on probe, and followed the story, you will see that civil servants had advised along the rule of law but they were overruled, which is allowed. In service, your boss can overrule you. So when you have such things, you know it is not the civil servants that showed them where to steal. It is who wants, determines to steal that steals. Why will a governor be facing the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) when the accounting officer is the permanent secretary. The person to call to question at any time would be the permanent secretary but when EFCC investigates and probes, the governor is the one fingered. That tells you that rules have been broken. So this perception, in my view, is unfounded.

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Beyond desire for restructuring the civil service, many people have called for restructuring as solution to the challenges facing the country. What is your take on the restructuring calls?

For Nigeria, we are always treating the symptoms. The real issue to be tackled is what mode of governance do we want? How do we want to relate to bring out the best in us? We are good people in Nigeria, beautifully constructed, intelligent, healthy, that can add value to the present civilisation. But the way we have decided to govern ourselves lowered our bar. This is what we should be thinking about. In the past, there were regions that really went along the line of healthy rivalry, positive competition. Whatever happened in the East, the West will look at it if it was beneficial, study it and do better. The North will look at it too and do better. This was the way we got the best from our people. But we under a so-called federal government that is really unitary in practice and not federal. If you look at the constitution, a lot of issues on the exclusive list should have been in the hands of the states. So we must look at how best we can govern and have the best of delivery from our people. What you have is treating the symptoms, the fundamentals must be revisited.

Talking about mode of governance, some have canvassed for parliamentary form of government. Is that the way to go?

Parliamentary system may be suitable but if it does not improve us in terms of getting the best out of us, I will say no. Maybe, it is blend but the governance arrangement we have now is too expensive. We must look for options that will be more efficient and cheaper. For example, why should we have bicameral legislature? Why should we have permanent legislature and not part time? Why presidential system? Why can’t we have a blend of parliamentary and presidential? Just study systems around the world and pick the one that is most suitable for us and we do our homegrown system of government. But one thing is clear and that is, Nigerians must really want to have Nigeria and be Nigeria and not Yoruba, Ibo or Hausa. We need to have Nigerian taking charge of Nigeria not Ibo, Hausa, Yoruba wanting to take charge and everybody saying, It is my turn. Which turn?

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Will a constitution review help us?

If we are sincere, yes.

Regarding moving some items from the exclusive to concurrent, there is the argument about whether the subnationals can really be trusted with states, for example, largely usurping the responsibilities of local governments. Isn’t this call for caution in terms of giving more powers to states, therefore, in order?

When you have a child and you never test the child with responsibility, you will always have fears that the child is either incapable or will fail. What we have now in the constitution actually created mistrust between the state and local government. In my view, why should the number of local government areas in any state be prescribed from the federal? Why don’t you allow states create their own local government areas as required? Already there is clear suspicion created by the constitution itself. So if you give the states responsibility, they are only responsible for anything in their states. Yes, you can have despots but if the constitution is well written, it will prevent despotism. So in this reform, you must do the checks and balances that will enable the state governor become a monster. We need to think through all of this and Nigeria must be ready to want the change. We pretend a lot; we don’t mean what we say.

Nigerians are presently going through a lot by one pronouncement on May 29, 2023 by President Bola Tinubu that, Subsidy is gone. What must the present government do to ameliorate the hardship faced by Nigerians?

This is where we need very capable civil/public service. Yes, the president has made a pronouncement. That is political statement, political policy, it is now for the civil servants to rally round, go to the drawing board and advice government in the implementation arrangement. I think some of these is missing and that is why we are having the kind of impact we are having. My call is to ensure we have a very knowledgeable, skillfull, strong civil service and use them for implementation, elaboration, elucidation of policies. I think that is missing somehow.


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