Simon Kolawole: Beyond sacking civil servants

…we cannot be building a new Presidential Banquet Hall at over N2 billion and be complaining about “no money”.

A few years back when I was in the UK, my wife wanted to do a course. She needed a waiver on council tax, as a student. We went to the council office. An officer attended to us. We filled a form. He asked for her admission letter. He photocopied it, along with her ID card, and said he would get back to us “before the end of the week”. In 10 minutes, we were done. Two days later, the exemption letter arrived in our mailbox. We didn’t need to send reminders. We didn’t need to, as we say in Nigeria, “find them something”. We didn’t need to know the council chairman. If it was Nigeria, the officer would not be “on seat” for weeks and months. In fact, we would have been told “the file is missing”.

I am bringing up this issue today because the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Malam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, was making a point at a retreat in Asaba during the week that Federal Government needed to reform the civil service. Although he spoke principally, and controversially, about downsizing/rightsizing in order to reduce recurrent expenditure, the bigger picture is that of a comprehensive overhaul of the civil service to deliver efficiency. Sanusi said 70 per cent of overhead costs go to the civil servants in form of salaries and entitlements. He reportedly recommended that half of the civil servants should be sacked.

Being Sanusi, he makes valid points but in a manner that could spark off the much-awaited World War III. He is the sort of surgeon who operates on a patient without anaesthesia. The labour unions are already on his case. They have, in fact, called for his sack. That should be expected. I have never heard of anywhere in the world where a labour union would support sacking workers. However, we need to ask ourselves some hard questions. Is the civil service, the way it is organised now, primed to deliver optimal performance to help develop this country? Can Nigeria make significant progress with this enormous gap between capital and recurrent budgets? Can we sufficiently reduce recurrent expenditure without cutting down on the work force?

The first question is quite easy to answer – our federal civil service is currently not primed to deliver the goods. There are various reasons. One is how people get recruited. I am made to understand that the recruitment process is dodgy. People bribe to collect forms. Of course, they will recoup your money, in no time, when they start work. Almost every desk in government offices is a police checkpoint. You can hardly get anything done without paying a bribe. “Not on seat” is the most common expression. “Your file is missing” is another. I don’t know about you, but I am never eager to go to any government office to do anything. It is always harrowing and humiliating.

Contrast this with, say, the UK. The civil service is the first choice for the best products of their top universities – Oxford and Cambridge. First-class products often opt for civil service. That is the engine of any government. That is where policies are developed, implemented and monitored. That is how the developed world keeps itself ahead of the pack. In Nigeria, on the other hand, it is usually those who have unsuccessfully looked for “good jobs” that end up in the civil service in frustration. Worse still, it is those who are able to properly bribe their way that get picked, in addition to those nominated by politicians who are eager to offload some of their idle supporters.

Therefore, we end up with a civil service that is substandard, poorly motivated and bloated, where 10 persons would be doing the job of two workers. A former minister once told me of a government department that had 63 drivers, whereas that department had only five vehicles! Yet we complain about high recurrent expenditure! I have been to government offices where workers would be watching Africa Movie Magic channel during work hours. Some workers sell shoes and fresh fish in office! Many of them are not just idle, they are not fit for purpose! We are getting the kind of service we deserve then.

Meanwhile, it is very glaring that we cannot reduce recurrent expenditure without cutting down on allowances, salaries and bills. How can 70 per cent of Federal Government spending go into recurrent expenses? However, I completely disagree with Sanusi that 50 per cent of civil servants have to be sacked to cut the bill. No, sir. As a short cut, retrenchment may bring down the bills but it will not solve the fundamental problems. The little place to start from is to drastically cut down on official trips for ALL government officials. We are wasting too much money on travels. That is one of the reasons government officials are always “not on seat”. The incentive for absenteeism is too much.

I’m constrained by space, so I would quickly make these points: we cannot continue to increase salaries and allowances and expect recurrent expenditure to come down; we cannot continue to spend billions of naira on feeding government officials and expect recurrent expenses to come down; we cannot continue to appoint battalions of aides and expect a reduction in recurrent expenditure; we cannot be paying monetisation benefits and, at the same time, buying official cars again and then expect expenses to drop; and we cannot be building a new Presidential Banquet Hall at over N2 billion and be complaining about “no money”.

I agree with Sanusi that we need a “fit and trim” civil service where workers would be highly competent and well compensated, comparable to what obtains in the private sector. But the bigger problem, in my view, is that government generally is full of waste and corruption. Sacking civil servants now will only worsen unemployment, as the economy cannot absorb them. Wasteful spending will go on in other forms. The inefficiency is not guaranteed to reduce. That is the way we are in Nigeria, and you can’t really blame those who are opposing Sanusi’s suggestion. But things cannot remain this way forever. The civil service needs an overhaul, but so does the whole wasteful expenditure profile of government.

By the way, the same logic applies to the 36 states, FCT and the 774 councils!


And Four Other Things…

Boko Haram Franchise
The attack on the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) unit of the police in Abuja last week, coming same day terrorists hit another church at Jaji, should be worrisome, but we seem to be getting used to these terrible things these days. An unknown group, calling itself Jama’atu Ansasrul Muslimina fi Biladissudan, claimed responsibility for the SARS attack. Is this group real or just an attempt to divert attention from the real Boko Haram? Or is it a confirmation of the suspicion that the terrorists run a loose federation and “Boko Haram” is just a franchise, meaning the different cells are virtually independent of one another?

Romney and Obama
I recently celebrated the way bitter rivals in the US presidential election put national interest above personal interest after the closely fought November 6 battle. President Barack Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney, further put their differences aside on Thursday and had lunch. Both men spoke about their “passion” for America. I’ve heard people say it was because the election was free and fair, but I dare say again that if our own politicians truly, truly love Nigeria, on no account would they incite their supporters to violence before, during and after elections. QED.

Ojukwu’s Poisoned Chalice
I would have been surprised if there was no drama in Dim Odumegwu Ojukwu’s will. The old soldier is (was, if you like) incapable of doing anything without a special touch. He willed his entire estate to his immediate family. He left out Sylvester, his first son; threw a virtually unknown daughter, Teny Harman, into the mix, and gave Bianca, his widow, the juiciest and sweetest assets. Now wait for this: Ojukwu allotted to her two hectares of land at Umuezeani Umudim Nnewi on the condition that she does not remarry! For a former beauty queen who still has age on her side, I guess she could readily let go of the Nnewi land!

Take Heart, Buhari
On a sad note, General Muhammadu Buhari had to contend with another death in the family with the loss of his 40-year-old daughter, Zulai, on Thursday. Zulai’s mother, Safinatu, died a few years ago.  Although Zulai died after childbirth, sickle cell anaemia was said to be responsible for her death and you are left to wonder what might have been if she had better medical care. Only God knows. I used to think people with sickle cell are considered safe after crossing the 18-year age mark, but obviously there are always rare cases like Zulai’s. My sympathies go to her family.

Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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