Civil Service in Lamido Sanusi’s Image

In Columnists

by Patience Akpan-Obong

It appears that Central Bank of Nigeria Governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi wants to recreate the Nigerian civil service in his own image: lean and mean. Well, at least the one half of the duo. Though the man has been described as strict, I don’t know him and can’t say if he’s mean. If anything, he looks like a beloved older brother or some ex-boyfriend – you know, the one who was reluctantly let go because he took life too seriously.

Mallam Sanusi certainly looks lean and street-wise, or banking hall-wise given his background as a career banker. That was the impression I got as I listened to him the other night on Africa Magic. He was interviewed by a journalist during some continental event in Arusha, Tanzania. The first thing that caught my attention about the Islamic scholar and royal “shon” of the Kano Emirate was his articulateness. He also had that crisp upper crust, Westernized Fulani accent. And beyond the packaging, the content was top-notch in its soundness and logic. He shared ideas about how Africa can navigate an increasingly dynamic global landscape. He also demonstrated a good knowledge of issues and policies in other African countries.

Obviously, it was the first time that I was hearing him speak. All I had known about the man in recent times was his advocacy for a N5,000 bill. Surely, he was too smart to think that raising the denomination of the Naira was going to solve our economic problems? From his austere look, one would understand if he were advocating the 100-Naira bill as the highest denomination in the land. While it might not reduce corruption, it would at least help to achieve the goal of a cashless society that he also promotes.

Then on Wednesday, I saw the news about how the CBN governor thinks the Nigerian civil service is too big with 70% of the country’s revenue going into salaries and entitlements. It sounded like the American Tea Party-ers had arrived the Nigerian shores. It wasn’t a sound bite that would win the governor a Mr. Congeniality with the Nigerian public. The stuff hit the fan immediately and the reactions were swift.

At the risk of getting hit by a “stray bullet,” I agree with the “Nigerian Tea Party-er.” The Nigerian civil service is the largest employer of labor. That’s the good news. The bad news is that most of the people employed have absolutely no business being where they are and have no clue about what is expected of them. Also, in the age of information and communication technologies (ICTs), people are still duplicating efforts and wasting time. There are so many examples of the waste in the Nigerian civil service that it would take a PhD dissertation to document and analyze them all.

Only recently, I was appalled by how manual the processes continue to be in one organization. Incidentally this is one place that actually does what it is expected to do and with demonstrable outcomes. The information processing aspect is certainly its major blind spot. Its “database” is a notebook – the type that we used in the secondary school eons ago. Memos are still written by hand and taken from one official to the next for signatures and approval. I suggest that the more manual an organization’s processes are, the more people that are needed to accomplish routine tasks.

Besides the fact that too many people are hired to perform the same tasks, half the time Nigerian civil servants don’t even bother to show up. Meanwhile, salaries are still being paid and there are no consequences. American Republicans will have instant heart attack if they saw the Nigerian civil service. In fact, maybe they should and then they would stop complaining about how bloated their federal government is. (They will stop not because they had heart attack but because they would appreciate how lean the US government really is.)

While much fat can certainly be shaved off the Nigerian civil service, I doubt that it will ever be as lean as CBN Governor Sanusi imagines (or looks). The Nigerian civil service has always been Nigeria’s welfare scheme: a program that supports people most of whom do nothing and have no intention of doing anything. If 50% of civil servants are laid off, as Sanusi suggests, what are the socioeconomic consequences of so many suddenly-unemployed Nigerians? Those “persuaded” to take early retirements may still be too active to ride into the sunset of old age. Many might go into politics, another heavy-duty entitlement program for the jobless and idle. Those too young and too poor to go into politics will swell the ranks of kidnappers and armed robbers … and we thought Boko Haram was our national nemesis!

So, what’s the solution? Or the more appropriate question might be, why bother thinking about it when it’s not going to happen? There is no president or minister in this country who has the political will to trim the Nigerian civil service. Mr. Sanusi can talk about it because it makes for great sound bites but he is smart enough to know the impossibility of such a venture. For one thing, the “usual suspects” are already raising heck at the mere thought of it.

Perhaps one day, even they will have to evaluate the Nigerian civil service and decide if we really need so many people doing the same thing or if there are better ways of administering the country more efficiently. And while at it, the number of paid politicians at the various levels would have to be trimmed. Indeed, that is where the largest fat is, and not just the minimum wage paid to the cell phone holders – a.k.a. personal assistants – in the ministries.

For the foreseeable future though, the image of a leaner and meaner civil service remains only in the imagination of the one civil servant who has remained lean (despite all the spoils of office) and who may or may not be mean. Either way, I could go to bed listening to his voice all night long … on television, that is … regardless of what he’s talking about.

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