The recent flurry of activities and tense atmosphere among our normally staid and desk-bound Directors in the Federal Civil Service preparing to swot and sit for examinations to fill vacant posts of Permanent Secretaries was as a result of what a Daily Trust editorial of 27th July 2017 called a flip fop of government policy. The same government on coming to power in 2015 had cancelled the exams as an unworthy path of reaching the top echelons of the civil service. The government then returned to the old, nebulous manner of appointing Permanent Secretaries and even got a few from outside the system. Apparently after realizing the futility of that whimsical arbitrariness this government now had a change of heart and was ready to flip flop. And because it took some time for the change of heart, it accumulated many vacant posts of Permanent Secretaries who had retired without replacements.
Then out of the blues 300 of those managing the directorates of ministries and agencies were asked to prepare for the exams. It must have been a giddy time for most of them. Many of them that have never read a book in the last many years were spotted with tons of heavily-bounded books with the inevitable civil service rules and the financial regulations booklets making glaring presence. They would form discussion groups and would be seen after office hours huddled in one of their offices discussing past question papers with as much seriousness as if they were once more WAEC candidates. I should know because I was once a participant.
To be fair to the present government they were not the first to flip-flop on the appointment and tenure of Permanent Secretaries. Flip-flopping on tenure and appointment of Permanent Secretaries has been the norm by Nigerian Governments. Nigerian governments have never lost sight of the important role the civil service plays as the engine room of government activities and have always made it a priority to secure control over it. It had always been recognized that appointments and tenures of civil servants would be strictly governed by codified rules and regulations as a means of stabilising the polity and allowing continuity whenever there is a change of government. Yet political leaders -military and civilian- had always made attempts to tamper with this time-honoured convention. Realizing that the civil service is a highly hierarchical set-up with the Permanent Secretary playing the role of the leader, the office always was the first target for interference.
The Murtala/Obasanjo regime was the first to interfere with the tenure of civil servants when they seized power in 1975. They started by sacking the Chief Justice of the Federation, as well as the Chairman Federal Civil Service Commission. They then down the line to massively remove civil servants across all cadres without recourse to the niceties of the established procedures. It was probably the first time Permanent Secretaries were sacked in such an abrupt manner. In his book, Not My Will, General Obasanjo, who became Head of State after Murtala was assassinated, alluded to those unsavoury happenings where he said, ‘our shake-up of the civil service was designed to set in motion a new orientation and a new awareness in the public service. In effect we had to put the Permanent Secretaries on retirement essentially because their mode of operation would just not accord with the new dispensations. It was indeed a shock therapy that had to be administered’.
However that singular act left in its wake a destabilized civil service and a plenty of bitterness which still rankles years after. Many Permanent Secretaries that were shown the way out were some of the best and the brightest the system had at the time. They were also fairly youthful and they went to greater heights thereafter. Phillip Asiodu was one of those affected who went on to become a Special Adviser to President Shagari and Obasanjo and a Minister in the Shonekan’s Interim Government. He had never spared the Murtala/Obasanjo regime for tampering with the Civil Service and even believed that, that infamous act stopped Nigeria’s march to greatness.
In a paper Asioudu presented at the 14th Daily Trust Dialogue on 19th January 2017, he said, ‘the traumatic massive purge of about 10,000 officials country-wide over a period of four months had destroyed the competent, professional, bold, non-partisan, fearless, prestigious, merit-driven civil service inherited from the British Colonial Administration which might have influenced the new administration – – the stage was then set for the economic stagnation and the degradation of infrastructure, educational, health, and other sectors over the next three decades despite the fairly high level of oil revenue – -‘.
Obasanjo was unruffled by the criticisms and undeterred because when he returned as President in 1999 one of his first acts was to gather all the Permanent Secretaries he inherited from his predecessor and subject them to days of gruelling workshop supervised by eagle-eyed consultants at the end of which he selected those he wanted and handed over letters of retirement to the remnants.
Perhaps one of the boldest attempts at interference in the tenure and appointments of the top of the civil service was initiated by General Ibrahim Babangida when he promulgated the Civil Service (Re-organisation) Decree 43 of 1988 which among other far-reaching changes replaced the designation of Permanent Secretary with Director-General whose tenure terminated with the government that appointed them. The decree also gave unlimited powers to the President (for the Federal Civil Service) and Governors (for State Civil Services) to appoint Director-Generals at will and from anywhere. The intentions of the decree were laudable because if properly used, it would have allowed the Presidents and Governors more elbow room and a wider choice from where to select Chief Executives of ministries and departments.
However those intentions were thoroughly abused both at the federal and state levels, allowing for patently whimsical appointments and dismissals. In one infamous case the incoming civilian government of Borno State in the early 1990s sacked over 95% of the Directors-General, while in the same period, just across the border, in Yobe State, hardly any of the Directors-General was touched. Things were so bad, morale of civil servants was so low, the outcries were so loud and unrelenting that some years down the line General Sani Abacha, then Head of State, had to set up a panel led by a veteran civil servant and former Secretary to the Federal and Head of Service, Allison Ayida. The panel which included other tested veteran civil servants such as Liman Ciroma, Augustus Adebayo, Abubakar Umar, Ibrahim Damcida, among others, was mandated to critically re-examine the problems of the Civil Service Reforms as contained in Decree 43. By the time the panel had finished its assignment in December 1994 it had gotten rid of the controversial Decree and restored the status quo ante.
However the call for a review of the status quo continued unabated particularly by the new political class holding the levers of power in the millennium years. They viewed with concern and deep suspicion a top of the civil service whose appointments and tenure were regulated by a body with hardly any input from them as an anathema. A ready answer was found in Steve Orensaye who was appointed Head of Service of the Federation in 2009 by President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. The new Head of Service who came to the office after distinguishing himself in many other high offices – Principal Secretary to the President, Permanent Secretary, State House and later Ministry of Finance – immediately initiated a reform programme that enthroned tenure and exams as part of the requirements governing the appointments of Directors and Permanent Secretaries in the Federal Civil Service. The reforms took off but failed to survive. We shall examine the reason why the Orensaye reforms failed when we meet on this page next week.