by Jibrin Ibrahim
Finally, we will know this week the proposed members of President Buhari’s cabinet. It has been an interesting four months in which the President has, in the main, conducted the affairs of State directly with civil servants. He has also been on record as saying words that are not too flattering of ministers and the political class.
The President’s ruling party, the APC has been very loudly silent about their absence in the scheme of things and have made a few half-hearted statements about the government being on track. Nigerians have not been worried about the president ruling them with civil servants. What I hear them say is that there is more electricity, more fuel, less stealing and less noise since the new governance style started, so DO WE REALLY NEED MINISTERS? This is of course a rhetorical question as the Constitution is clear that ministers must be appointed and even enunciates the principles that should guide their choice.
My view is that it is problematic to rule with just civil servants after all; one of the most important signifier of the crisis of the Nigerian state is the collapse of public administration. We cannot assume that the civil service is still the competent bureaucracy bequeathed at independence 55 years ago. T
he major change that has occurred in Nigerian public administration since independence has been to settle the question of the source of power in favour of political office holders who after a long period of struggle succeeded in subordinating the professional cadre of the civil service to their authority. This important change took a long time to occur because the tradition of the civil service, established since the colonial era, has been characterised by the pre-eminence of the administrative cadre. We recall that the system of colonial administration had all powers – legislative, executive and judicial invested in the hands of appointed officials.
In his book, Administration of Nigeria: 1900 to 1960, Mr. I. F. Nicolson, a former British colonial official used the concept of “Administocracy” to describe the Nigerian system. He explained that in its specific colonial form of “Indirect Rule”, suzerainty resided with the British Crown, and in particular, with the Secretary of State for Colonial Affairs, who in turn, delegated his authority to the Governor, the Head of the Colonial Administration. The colonial civil service had a clear role and ethos ever since the Royal Charter of the Niger Company, which was ruling Nigeria, was withdrawn in 1900, explained the late Bade Onimode. “The Administration was not to engage in commercial activity of any kind, but to prepare and maintain the conditions – political, moral and material – upon which the success or failure of such enterprises in a very large measure depends.”
The raison d’être of colonial administration was thus the protection of British commercial interests in general and was in this sense a committed, selfless and successful service. According to the late veteran Nigerian civil servant, Sunday Awoniyi, the Colonial Administration had clear and limited objectives – the maintenance of law and order and the administration of justice in order to create “a favourable environment for British trade at minimum cost to the British treasury”. It was in this context that Professor Adamolekun reminds us of the words of the late sage, Obafemi Awolowo in 1959, just before Nigeria’s independence that: “Our civil service is exceedingly efficient, absolutely incorruptible in its upper stratum, and unstinting in the discharge of its many and onerous duties.”
So let’s move from history to the reality of our civil service today. The adjectives have since been inverted. The civil service today is generally acknowledged to be inefficient, incompetent, corrupt and lacking in motivation and commitment to its formal duties. It is the engine room for the production and sustenance of kleptocracy – the institutionalised robbery of state resources by the so-called custodians of state power.
The, alleged, massive looting of Nigeria’s resources under the Jonathan Administration was designed and implemented by the civil service under the directives of their political bosses, the ministers. The point here is that corrupt politicians are able to steal massively because the current civil service is very competent in that regard. The solution to corruption cannot come from relying solely on the civil service, it most come from a new type of political class that has a different orientation – that of using public resources for the public good.
Nigerians today are clamouring for punishment for the corrupt class that governed, or rather misgoverned us. That clamour must acknowledge the expertise they received from the civil service. The reality today is that the permanent secretaries that implemented the kleptocracy have now had four months to cover their tracks without any political supervision. As the President appoints his cabinet this week, he should be conscious of this fact. The ruling, or is it non-ruling APC should have been making this point publicly. It has been too silent.
In presidential democracies, elections are contested and won on a manifesto that is proposed by political parties. The parties also nominate a presidential candidate who uses the manifesto as a source from which to draw their priority political programme.
After victory, the president would usually transform from a party candidate to the leader of the entire nation. This transition is always a delicate one as the mandate of the president derives from his party’s manifesto. It is the role of the ruling party to ensure that the president does not stray far from the party manifesto. When therefore President Buhari’s media aide distanced the President from a document everyone assumed was part of the APC manifesto and programme, the party owed Nigerians a clear response but all we heard was silence.
The emergence of a cabinet would be the occasion for the party to provide clarity on what the programme of its candidate is and President Buhari would also need to come out and situate himself within or outside the programme so that Nigerians know the basis on which they would be assessing the government.
There are many issues in which Nigerians need clarity. We all assumed, for example, that the policy thrust of the new Administration was the immediate cancellation of fuel subsidy. We were wrong. What then is the policy?
Of course the larger issue has been the absence of an economic policy team to spell out the direction of the government so that the debate can take off. Hopefully, with the emergence of a cabinet this week, we can begin to see the contours of the new policy framework. There has been so much speculation on the implications of the establishment of a single treasury account but there is no one to engage with, so that we can fully comprehend what government is trying to do so that we as citizens can work out our own responses in agreeing with or disagreeing with the policy.
As work on the budget progresses, zero-budget rather than the envelope system is the future we are told. Trust civil servants, none of them is trying to explain what the shift means. I for one need ministers who will make noise and explain to me what it means and why the change is good for the economy. As the ruling party is not talking, let ministers come and talk so that we can engage them.
We all know that the reality of our economy is that very difficult choices would need to be made in terms of expenditure and there would be losers and gainers in the short and medium term. It is therefore important that government articulates the economic policy arguments so that citizens can respond in terms of their criticisms and preferences.
Those of us who devote ourselves to engaging policy have had a difficult time trying to understand the little snippets of information that are released occasionally.
Let the ministers come and let the noise begin.
Dr. Jibrin Ibrahim is a senior fellow of the Centre for Democracy and Development, CDD, and chairman of Premium Times Editorial Board where this article was first published. He writes from Abuja.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.