In the last piece, I outlined the emerging discourse on the relationship of the public servants in Nigeria to partisan politics. I argued in that piece that the public service that emerged after it was inaugurated in 1954 was confronted with the challenge of undermining the ethnic character of its officers in an attempt to build an image of the public servant as a neutral and impartial public functionary whose expertise demands neutrality, impartiality and non-partisanship. I argued that the possibility of this discourse emerging at this point only goes to show the extent and the depth of the institutional dysfunction that has plagued the Nigerian state. And this is all the more unfortunate because this dysfunction is centered around the vague provisions of the Nigerian Constitutions whose contents and proclamations trump any other statutory requirements. On the one hand, Section 40 of the 1999 Constitution states that every Nigerian has the right to associate with anyone, form or belong to any association, trade union or even political party. On the other hand, the Section 4 of the Public Service Rules specifically regard any form of engagement in partisan political activities as “serious misconduct” that, if proven, is liable to dismissal from the service. In the Supreme Court judgment of 2003 between INEC v. Musa and Others, the highest court of the land reiterated the supremacy of the Constitution over any other legal documents, including the Public Service Rules.
I have taken this national discourse on the partisan or non-partisan nature of the professional public servant in Nigeria as another point for reform reflection. And the starting point of that reflection is to argue that the Nigerian Constitution, in this matter, could not be said to be the final word on the matter of whether or not it is sound constitutional requirements for public servants to consort with politicians in the search for political power and offices. Thus, beyond the sound provisions of the Public Service Rules which outline the ethical guidelines for the professional conduct or misconduct of the public servants, I will be ransacking global and national administrative history, theory, and practices as the complement of the argument for neutrality and impartiality as the defining features of a public service that seeks to be efficient and productive. My point is that the national discourse on the character and constitutional rights of the public servants cannot be settled only within the context of the Nigerian state and its constitutional provisions. There are many more administrative variables that could enable us achieve a professional and constitutional balance.
The ethnically and culturally plural nature of the postcolonial Nigerian state already makes it conducive for the high and violent politicization of any issue and event. And the public service as an institution, a management system and a profession is right in the middle of this politicization from the onset because of its centrality to the governance of the Nigerian state. We can trace the whole politics of public service to the Nigerianisation Policy, and the choice of representativeness, rather than merit, as the choice method for recruitment into the public service. Merit further suffered during the military interventions in politics, and paradoxically through the series of reform efforts which the military regime took on to transform the public service. I have in mind, specifically, the 1974 Udoji Commission and the 1988 Civil Service Reform. On the one hand, the Gowon regime interjected politics into the implementation of the wage component of the Udoji Report rather than the performance management component that would have transformed the civil service system for a better productivity paradigm. With the 1988 reform, the renaming of the permanent secretaries as directors-general was a politicising act that gave them the tenures of political appointees. They therefore occupied offices as long as the tenure of the appointing government lasts.
The full extent of the politicization of the public service was the over-bloated nature of its workforce, and the subsequent brutal decline in performance, efficiency and productivity. And these are the precise opposite, indeed caricature, of what the civil service or the public servant is meant to be in theory and in practice. We have a very good example in history which led to the definitive theory of administrative relationship between the politician and the public servant. This historical account is taken from the political differences that led to the parting of ways between Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany and Otto von Bismarck, his chief public servant and chancellor. Of the two, Bismarck was the stronger in terms of political views and administrative acumen. Both got inextricably tangled, with strong political and ideological views, on the content of Germany’s foreign policy as well as on cogent domestic policies affecting the fate of Germans. Inevitably, Wilhelm, as the emperor, got the upper hand which led to the dismissal of Bismarck. However, his victory was cut short because the emperor then consequently got enmeshed in “bureaucratic officialdom” which enabled bureaucrats to dominate his thinking on governance, and ultimately weakened his government.
Max Weber, the German philosopher, was a witness to this power tussle between the two powerful public officials and the unfortunate consequences that the rivalry brought to Germany’s fortune. These critical observations significantly influenced his conception of the ideal public servant that is categorically apolitical and shielded from the affairs of the politicians. His arguments for an apolitical public servant led to the founding of the three fundamental dichotomies of public administration—the first is the politics-administration; the second is the public-private, and the third is the state-society. The politics-administration distinction is meant to insulate the public servant from politics by delineating the purely administrative matters and officials from political ones, especially in terms of professionalism, recruitment, responsibility, and policy process. The public servant is then circumscribed by a legal-rational authority which privileges written rules and procedures. Each position in the bureaucracy has its duties and rights, which are clearly defined; rules and procedures are laid down to determine how the given authority is to be exercised. Bureaucracy therefore promises a stable organisation, despite the fact that politicians which the public servants serve come and go.
We have in Nigeria another historical example that contradicted the Wilhelm-Bismarck rivalry, and gave us the insight into the efficiency and productivity which the apolitical public servant can achieve for good governance. This is the celebrated Awolowo-Adebo model of the politics-administration dichotomy. Chief Simeon Adebo was the very embodiment of Weber’s apolitical public servant whose efficiency was grounded on the legal-rational authority that insists that he must be neutral, impartial, precise, disciplined and reliable. This all matters as a means by which the government can achieve the neutral competence and professional commitment of the public servant. And that was what Chief Obafemi Awolowo got as the premier of the Western region from Adebo-led civil service. It is the Awolowo-Adebo model that signaled the infrastructural monuments and good governance of the AG administration in the Second Republic. By the time the super-permanent secretaries emerged within the administrative cauldron of the Nigerian Civil War, we got a serious intimation of the political intrigues that placed Emperor Wilhelm II at loggerhead with Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. The super-permanent secretaries got into serious politics, after 1970, with the War Generals who were not happy that they were going to be subordinate to the grand mafia of bureaucrats around General Gowon. They eventually toppled General Gowon and got rid of the super-permanent secretaries’ mafia and went on to purge the civil service massively with vengeance.
The significant lesson of these two historical examples is simple. The figure of the public servant that emerged from administrative history, via the arguments of Max Weber, is a specific one that was conditioned by important historical events like that between Bismarck and Emperor Wilhelm II. And this is the figure of a pubic servant as a neutral, non-partisan and anonymous personality that is aloof and immune from political intrigues in a way that makes him or her function properly in the roles and responsibility preserved for it by administrative history, administrative logic and high-ethical grounds of professionalism. When Adebo became the head of service of the old Western region, he had a political leader in Awolowo who recognized the essence of this historical lesson. He was told by Awolowo that what he required is for Adebo to stand with the public service values, and not to involve himself with the politics of policy contestation, negotiation and associated games which in Nigeria is more often than not triangulation in narcissism, in a manner of speaking. Adebo took this insight and advice to heart because he himself was trained in the best administrative tradition of the British public service and its rigid adherence to rules and regulations guiding the professional public servants.
Thus, while the Germany of Bismarck and Wilhelm II floundered in terms of policy direction, the old Western region of Awolowo and Adebo became emblematic of how the distinct public service values, especially that of an apolitical public servant, could serve as the basis of performance and productivity. Most concretely, Adebo’s professionalism and non-partisan character enabled him to focus basically on transforming the capacity readiness of the civil service to achieve the competence in implementation that Awolowo required. Just a few strands of his innovative administrative reform bear highlighting. In the first place, Adebo’s first bureaucratic coup was the insistence he brought to the public service as indeed a service whose integrity could be compromised, and its vocational dynamics undermined or even destroyed by partisanship. Once this insistence had been firmly planted in the entire civil service, every other professional framework followed. Another significant one was the establishment of the Public Service Commission to serve as the gatekeeper of the vocational values, of neutrality, anonymity and non-partisanship, that circumscribe the public servants and inform his or her responsibilities and productivity. Lastly, Adebo initiated a personnel management transformation that ensured that the public servants were duly satisfied with their conditions of service, and hence are not tempted as much as is humanly possible to stray into the political arena.
It therefore takes little reflection to see how this narrative could lead us to intervening in the national discourse on whether or not public servants should join political parties and become essentially partisan. There is a fundamental sense in which Section 40, and indeed the entire constitutional reference to the public service, requires serious amendment in ways that will enable the autonomy of the institution with regard to its founding dichotomy that insulates public servants from political intrigues and distractions. The question is that of what Nigeria could possibly gain by bringing the already politicized public servants into the murky depth of national politics. But a larger question, on the converse, is that of what Nigeria’s democratic experiment could gain if the public service service is reformed in line with existing global civil service traditions and their dynamics. Let me direct our focus to two significant administrative traditions, the British and the American, from which we can commence the interrogation of the current reflection on the character of the Nigerian public servant.
The British tradition furnishes us with the technical character of the public servant as a legal-rational figure deeply and professionally inserted into a technocratic merit system that is urgently required to implement the policy frameworks of democratic governance. From this perspective, the constitution must therefore necessarily support these responsibilities of the public servants. However, the American civil service tradition is even more instructive in its understanding of the political context from which the public service may not be able to totally extricate itself. This tradition has evolved an administrative framework that has successfully mediate between a spoils system which allows an incumbent government to utilize the patronage dynamics that helps it give top administrative positions to its supporters, and a merit-based system that recruit public servants based strictly on merit and competence. Politicians are often beholden to their supporters, and one good way to express gratitude is by political appointments into, especially the public service as technical advisers, consultants, etc. in the British administrative tradition. However, it became glaring that filling the service with political appointees who lack the legal-rational values was counterproductive, hence, the institutionalization of those posts through the creation of the Senior Executive Service (SES) peopled with a mix of expert bureaucrats, high-end tested professionals and expert ideologues who are supporters of the government in power. Yet, the main frame of the public service is not affected.
The merit of this tradition is obvious: While the SES is filled with competences that might be lacking in the public service including party think tanks, the rest of the public service system can be truly guided by the meritocratic dynamics that will enable the public service to generate a capability readiness to perform and enhance the productivity that democratic governance requires. This, I believe, is the kind of institutional reform that could be built into the Nigerian constitutional order. It took the Pendleton Act of 1883 to deliver the American civil service system from the patronage system instituted by the Jackson administration. It will require a similar radical reform for the Nigerian civil service system to organize itself into efficiency that will not be undermined by the lure of politics. This will then be the beginning of the urgency of rethinking the noble vocation of the public service and its distinct relationship to good governance in Nigeria.