Nigeria: Refocusing the Civil Service

24 September 2019

Most discerning Nigerians are aware of a silent but focused re-jigging of the Civil Service processes by President Muhammadu Buhari. Before now, there is no denying the fact that the president has an implicit confidence in the service, especially the office of the permanent secretary which he believes does the work the minister takes credit for. Permanent secretaries held forth for more than six months in the early days of the president's first term in office. They also kept the system working between May 29 till August 22 2019 and, therefore, in a good position to put the new ministers through and guide them in policy formulation, interpretation and implementation.

But beyond the personal perception of the service by the president, there is no gainsaying it that the civil service is the major engine that turns the wheel of government and keeps it on an even keel. It is at the heart of the executive arm of government, initiating policies and seeing them through to implementation. That may explain why political operators get worried whenever the civil service lags behind in terms of executing policies and plans.

The point person in this all-important arm of government operation is the Head of Service (HoS) who is saddled with the responsibility of coordinating and monitoring the governance processes to ensure that objectives of government are achieved. It is from this standpoint that the government and, indeed, Nigerians were disturbed by the recent development within the service that affected the HoS which, in a way, weakened the stature, influence and performance of that office and impacted adversely on the entire service. The removal of the immediate past occupant of that office had the potential of destabilizing the system. That is being managed expertly, in our opinion.

Disappointing as the development was, the government is taking it in its stride bearing in mind that the effectiveness of the service is not diminished by the alleged impropriety of the HoS who happens to be first among equals in the Permanent Secretary cadre of the service. Permanent secretaries, it must be noted, are critical in the articulation of policies and their implementation. Nevertheless, some measures are being put in place to ameliorate the negative impact, if any, of that unfortunate situation. Already, an acting Head of Service has been appointed who needs all the substantive hands she can muster to deliver on the priority areas of government, budget 2020, new policies and programmes.

It is from this perspective that we begin to appreciate the decision of President Buhari to extend the tenure of some permanent secretaries. The idea, as we understand it, is to ensure that the administrative machinery functions at optimum levels at all times. The arm of the president is strengthened in this regard by extant laws of the federation as provided for in section 171 of the Constitution of the Federal republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended).

The decision to extend the tenure of these senior civil servants by one year is, in our view, in the best interest of the nation as there is a limit to what overseeing directors can work on. Besides, the extension enjoys national spread. All the permanent secretaries concerned have not attained the age of 60. They also constitute some of the best trained civil servants the country can boast of at this time.

It is pertinent to emphasise that the extension of their tenure is aimed at giving the service time to implement the directive of the president which is to commence the selection process from among the directors in service who will replace them in due course.

While the country is at it, we are compelled to posit that it is time to take a second look at the attrition in the service. We suggest a review of the 35/60 years rule which is denying the nation of the services, the wisdom and experience of that crop of civil servants. We recommend that what obtains in the academia and the judiciary where 70 years is the upper limit ought to be applied also in the civil service.

Experience and competence are some of the qualities required at this important stage of formation of government. In particular, as the president marshals out the ministers for action and issuing them with priority areas, it becomes a joint mandate for delivery with the ministers and permanent secretaries acting in concert. The ministers are not just political appointees but also are almost neophytes in civil service procedures and processes. To that extent, they require to be guided properly. This is even more cogent as the service undergoes some levels of demerger as well as the creation of new ministries in line with ongoing policy decisions, house cleaning and resolute executive actions designed to achieve democratic stability, as well as an inclusive, disciplined and transparent governance process.

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