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Career and accidental public servants

Career and accidental public servants
July 15
17:34 2020
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When Mallam Nasir el-Rufai, governor of Kaduna State, published his book some years back with the title, ‘Accidental Public Servant’, he used the opportunity to share his experiences in public service – first as Director General of the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) and later as Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). I thoroughly enjoyed Mallam el-Rufai’s blow-by-blow and gripping account of the intrigues and high-wired politics in public service, including the games civil servants play and the encounter between him and members of the National Assembly. I recall that the media feasted on the revealing “cash-for-appointment” saga at the time. Once you start reading the book, you don’t want to put it down – it is a bestseller any day!

Mallam el-Rufai is not your regular kind of public servant: he is vocal, creative, focused, diligent, hardworking, assertive and very passionate about his mission. If you want to keep a secret that can cause great harm, please don’t go to Mallam el-Rufai – he will name and shame you at the appropriate time. He described his life in public service as “accidental” because he was appointed to serve by former President Olusegun Obasanjo. With a first class degree in Quantity Surveying from Ahmadu Bello University, the Kaduna State governor could have chosen a career path as a university teacher or remained in private practice and stayed away from serving in government permanently as some people do. Anywhere you find “accidental public servant” in this article which I have used interchangeably with “political appointee”, please note that I “borrowed” the phrase from Mallam el-Rufai’s book.

Honestly, my view is that it does not require rocket science to serve in government and distinguish yourself except you do not want to in spite of the numerous banana peels that would be thrown at you. This was precisely the point Mallam el-Rufai made in his book. Whether as DG of BPE or as Minister of FCT, Mallam el-Rufai served with gravitas and produced top drawer performances. In carrying out his duties as an accidental public servant, he was bold, courageous and he even stepped on some famous and powerful toes. We still need men like Mallam el-Rufai in public service because, as we say in Rotary, he upholds high ethical standard which is a scare commodity in many quarters, and he is unlikely to drop the ball for a mess of porridge. Thankfully, we have not lost him as he continues to serve the people of Kaduna State confidently and productively as their governor. You could accuse Mallam el-Rufai of being quick tempered, controversial, aggressive, arrogant and impatient but he is an excellent reformer and achiever, and it appears these are the ingredients that catalyse his successful outcomes.

We have also been richly blessed with other distinguished accidental public servants who shone like a million stars when they served the country. They include the late Prof Dora Akunyili who cleaned up the image of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) even at the risk of her life and Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who has served in different capacities at home and abroad. Right now, Dr Okonjo-Iweala is one of the front runners for the position of Director General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). She previously served as President of the World Bank and, as Finance Minister, Dr Okonjo-Iweala displayed excellent management skills, saving the country billions of dollars. 

Oby Ezekwesili is yet another amazon who wants Nigeria to become a better place. She served as Vice President for Africa at the World Bank and also as Minister in two ministries – Education and Solid Minerals Development. We also have Senator Udoma Udo Udoma, a distinguished lawyer, who served as the chief whip at the Senate. He was a two-time senator of the Federal Republic and Minister of Budget and National Planning in the Muhammadu Buhari administration. I could go on and on; it is a long list of Nigerian men and women who make a difference each time they have the opportunity to serve in government – we must continue to celebrate them as Nigerian heroes and may their tribe increase to the glory of God.

What do you make of the sordid soap opera featuring Godswill Akpabio, Minister of Niger Delta Affairs and Dr Joi Nunieh, former managing director of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), as lead actors? It can surely pass as a Nollywood blockbuster movie and I won’t be surprised if some producers sign them on very soon for lead roles so that we can enjoy more of their acting talents.

Akpabio and Nunieh have been at each other’s throat and “dancing naked” in public with mind-boggling revelations. Allegations bothering on sexual harassment, oath taking, certificate scandal and corruption have dominated social media since the eye-popping scandal broke recently on Arise TV. How did we get here? Before matters reached boiling point, Akpabio should have been more pro-active and played the game like a chess player. Deft moves of tact and diplomacy would have solved the riddle and he would have overcome the scandal that is threatening to consume him and his job.

The optics are not right for Akpabio but as we often do, I will not be surprised if this matter is eventually swept under the carpet and life will just move on as if nothing happened. Nunieh said she is Rivers woman and nobody messes around with Rivers women. Wow! That sounds interesting. Akpabio on his part was more interested in the salacious details on Nunieh, even alleging that she had married four husbands. Why was Akpabio interested in her love life? Instead of addressing the allegations by Nunieh one by one, Akpabio was busy chasing shadows during his appearance on Arise TV. My view is that Akpabio could have done a better job as a crisis manager after Nunieh put him on the hot seat. Where were all his media and public affairs managers?

This is the same Akpabio who preached the gospel of “uncommon transformation” when he was governor of Akwa Ibom State. For eight years, Akpabio bestrode the oil rich state like a colossus and rode shoulder high as a flamboyant politician. At that time, the problem was not money but how to spend it. For reasons that I still do not understand, Akpabio switched parties and crossed from the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to All Progressives Congress (APC). It was alleged that Akpabio made the move at the prompting of Adams Oshiomhole, former National Chairman of APC, so that “all his sins would be forgiven”. Really? What were the sins if I may ask? At the time Akpabio crossed over to APC, the news shocked a lot of people including most of his supporters. How could the “uncommon transformer” of great ideas widely believed to be a strong PDP stalwart become an APC member? Wonders shall never end.

Politicians just have their set ways and they are all the same. What exactly is their motivation when they wake up each morning? The NDDC scandal, coming so soon after Ibrahim Magu was suspended as EFCC boss, is one chokehold too many on Nigerians who keep wondering when “lootingmania” will end or at least be minimised by those who betray the public trust. No one is talking about why NDDC was set up as an intervention agency and how the agency has underperformed over the years. NDDC has always been a cesspit corruption and a revolving door of egregious contract scandals. Maybe a #StopLooting campaign that can sting like a bee will be the appropriate response to all the looters. Nigerians can no longer “breathe” due to multiple chokeholds of our greedy and corrupt elite. Let me be clear: one way we can make Nigeria a better place is by building strong institutions and holding our leaders to account – everyone has a role to play in the task of nation building.

Prior to the Akpabio vs Nunieh episode, we also witnessed what happened recently at a joint session of the National Assembly when Festus Keyamo, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and Minister of State for Labour, Employment and Productivity, was invited to explain details of the special public works programme in all the 774 local government areas. The programme was approved by President Muhammadu Buhari as part of the fiscal stimulus package in response to COVID-19 pandemic. 

The encounter did not end well with Keyamo alleging afterwards in media interviews that went viral that the lawmakers wanted to “hijack” the programme as if it was another constituency project. The often touted cordial working relationship between the Executive and the National Assembly was put to test over this matter. Dr Chris Ngige who heads the Ministry led a delegation to apologise to the lawmakers in an attempt to make “peace” but that move actually begged the issue. What was Keyamo’s offence? The federal government has now directed that the special public works programme suspended by the National Assembly – a wrong-headed decision in the first place — should kick off nationwide.  If we do not stand up for something, we will fall for anything and that is not the way we should build the country of our dream.

Eight years ago, a similar scenario played out before the cameras when Aruma Oteh, Director General of the Securities and Exchange Commission at the time, confronted the House of Representatives Capital Markets Committee headed by Hon Herman Hembe over issues of probity and accountability. “I was told when I took up this appointment that corruption will fight back if I ever tried to confront it,” Oteh told a bewildered audience in the Green Chamber. As far as Oteh was concerned, the House Committee embarked on a smear campaign to undermine her integrity and she fought back vehemently. The pattern of mindless looting and unbridled corruption is still alive and here with us, but remember one thing: as Oteh noted, corruption, whether minor or major, will always fight back if you try to stamp it out.

The allegations made by Nunieh against Akpabio are damning but they are not new. The allegations raise a lot of moral issues and the probity of public service. “This is why most people don’t accept government appointments because no matter how hard you try, there are always people with tar brush to decorate you,” a senior journalist told me, citing the Akpabio vs Nunieh unfolding soap opera. “If we all stay away from public service, how can Nigeria become a better place?” I countered. Since NDDC is an agency under the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, it means Akpabio will supervise the agency and its managing director.

What led to the crisis of confidence between Akpabio and Nunieh was the investigation of the Interim management Committee (IMC) of the NDDC over alleged mismanagement of N40 billion. Nunieh was relieved of her appointment because of alleged insubordination and incomplete national service papers. Apparently, she thought that Akpabio was responsible for her ouster from the “pot of gold station” and therefore waited for the opportunity to get back at Akpabio. The probe of the expenditure of IMC in the last few months by the National Assembly must have provided the window for the brutal attack. If you remember the popular saying, “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”, then you will understand why Nunieh seized the opportunity and descended on Akpabio.

The whole episode might be part of a distraction game that always plays out when public officers are in the dock for alleged corrupt practices. Please note that there is a forensic audit exercise going on into the financial activities of NDDC, and names of ranking members of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, especially some of those in the Niger Delta committees, have become a recurring decimal in the probe; so the current action packed movie might just be to take the public eye off the ball. In Naija, anything can happen, but Akpabio, having been around in the political space long enough, should have been more circumspect in his approach to the matter the moment Nunieh appeared on the scene.

If you are not a political appointee, then you must be a “career civil servant”. These are full time workers who serve in ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) of government until retirement age when they attain the age of 60 or after putting in 35 years of service – whichever comes first. Once you are in public service as a political appointee, you automatically become the toast of friends and foes alike. It does not matter whether you are a provincial councilor, local government chairman, commissioner, head of agency or Minister; you will always have courtiers at your beck and call because “government money is free money and it is always available to be spent”. Unfortunately, this inverted logic is the outcome of a culture of servitude. “Now that you are in government, don’t forget us oo!” is the constant refrain from a community of hangers on who cannot manage their expectations because their brother or friend or colleague has been given a government appointment.

Apart from the fact that your phone will not stop ringing, you’re regularly inundated with unreasonable requests. But the day you are kicked out of office, your phones will suddenly stop ringing. It is not a crime to serve in government but you must be careful because you serve at the pleasure of civil servants who can make or mar your temporary appointment. More importantly, quit when the ovation is loudest – do not stay in office for too long. Career civil servants and political appointees are not supposed to be strange bed fellows but mutual suspicion always exists, according to insiders. 

The perception has always been that the civil service is in dire need of significant reforms because the system is often alleged to be “rotten” and rigged against “outsiders” such as accidental public servants. If you are not careful, you could step on the banana peels and come crashing down. As a reformer with a bold agenda for change, you will be stopped in your tracks. The cabal in the system will tell you, “this is not how we run things here”. By the time career civil servants discover that you are a hard nut to crack and you are refusing to “bend”, they will use anything and everything including planting stories in the media to frustrate you. Until the civil service system and its operational structure and methods are cleaned up, every political appointee is a potential victim. 

The civil service is over bloated with many redundant workers who are paid for doing nothing. By the time you add “ghost” or “mystery” workers, you would discover that government is losing significant revenue at all levels. In every Ministry, the Permanent Secretary (PS) is the de facto head. Ministers who are appointed come and go but the PS remains until retirement age. There are several Directors in each Ministry with each one aiming to become a PS because of the retirement benefits attached to the position. Any Minister who wants to succeed must work hand in hand with the PS and set the right priorities. In addition, the Minister should create an effective stakeholder management framework that would foster a sense of ownership through the rank and file: Senior Officers, Principal Officers, Chief Officers, Assistant Directors, Deputy Directors, Directors and, of course, the PS. 

Apart from the PS, another powerful position is the Director of Finance and Administration (DFA); they are like kingmakers. If you ignore them, you are on your own. When it is alleged that the system is “rotten”, it is another way of saying there is no honesty, transparency and equity in the civil service. Allegations of corrupt practices are rife and they take mainly the form of inflated contracts and wastages. We cannot be fooled no matter how hard they try — most ranking civil servants are stupendously rich people; they cannot honestly explain the source of their wealth and affluence which they hide but the African proverb tells us that walls have ears.

In spite of the strict accounting methods put in place to control the flow of public funds, including the Treasury Single Account (TSA) window, civil servants have ingenious ways  of getting money out of the system. I do not expect them to like me for saying this but it is the truth and they know it. In fact, they are the ones who show the political appointees how to “chop and clean mouth”. And if such appointees dance out of tune, the same people will “expose” them.

An associate of mine, a Nigerian living in Cape Town, South Africa, said to me that once you do not have skeletons in your cupboard, then you are free to take up a government appointment. “Anyone digging for dirt will dig forever,” he added in our telephone conversation. “Our people do not like progress and it is such a shame; all they think of is how to pull someone down,” my associate continued. Unfortunately, members of the public do not help matters. Once an allegation is hung around your neck, you are pronounced guilty even before the jury is out with a verdict – that is the stigma that worries a lot of people, not even just being guilty.

Don’t be deceived, if your traducers are not searching for fake certificates, they will be looking for missing letters in your name, or that your name was wrongly spelt on your certificate or that you did not even go to school — it is that bad. But why would anyone in his right senses forge a certificate? When you lie under oath, it is called perjury and it is a criminal offence. I know how desperate politicians vying for public office can get to overcome the hurdle of paper qualification; they can always go back to school and they should simply follow what the law says. By the way, most of the successful people in the world dropped out of school and no one is complaining. Paper qualification is good but skills that can create value are better.

Government appointments come with excellent trappings and immense goodwill, and the beneficiaries get the chance to tap into a formidable network for life. However, all accidental public servants are advised in their own interest to avoid deadly landmines as much as possible because there are no paddies in the jungle – it is every man for himself! In spite of our hopelessness, we should be encouraged that we still have some good people and great minds in the rigged system.

Braimah is a PR and marketing strategist based in Lagos

 

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