The state of the public service, and the status of the public servant, has always remained a problem since the inauguration of the public service system in Nigeria in 1954. The fundamental issue, before independence, had been that of how to transform the structures, systems and tradition of colonialism into one that would suit the postcolonial and post-independence realities of Nigeria. This consideration was not as easy and smooth as it sounds. One reason for this is that those structures were established in the first place for completely negative purposes, like the exploitation of those who are colonized. The challenge was therefore that of making those same structures to serve the colonized. This then required lots of reflection and adjustments. The colonial public servant, for instance, was a frightening figure, the very embodiment of the full weight of authority that the colonized dreaded. But for all this, the colonial public servant was a professional, steeped in the very best essence of the British administrative tradition.
So, the public service system that Nigeria inherited at independence was one that carried a heavy paradox. On the one hand, it is a structural inheritance that came with distinct administrative promises that an emerging nation required to balance up its postcolonial acts. But on the other hand, it was a legacy that had been corrupted by the colonial objectives of exploitation and suppression. When the colonialist therefore left, one of the most important postcolonial challenges was the need to come to terms with the paradox of the public service: How do we transform the image of the public servant without the colonial baggage? In other words, how do we achieve the image of a professional and apolitical public servant from the ashes of the structures of the inherited colonial public service?
Thus, right from independence, and from the Nigerianisation Policy, the Nigerian state has been struggling with the issue of a professional public servant with the competence to handle the administrative tasks of a new and emerging nation. One of the early and still persistent issues that necessarily intruded into the moulding of a professional public servant in Nigeria is the ethnic composition of the new state. Nigeria, after independence, had to contend immediately with the challenge of ensuring that its broad and ethnically divided constituents have a fair share of participation in national institutions and structures. The principle of representativeness, which the national legislature opted for as the basis of the Nigerianisation Policy, was meant to allay the fear of an ethnic domination from any particular ethnic group. But the larger concern was that of how the public servant could be trained in a way that the ethnic identity would not in any way colour his or her professionalism, performance and productivity. This worry in itself is a huge administrative one for both the political and bureaucratic leadership of the Nigerian state. This is to the extent that ethnicity interferes with the loyalty that a state demands from her citizens, especially if such a state is barely managing to socioeconomically empower the life prospects of her citizens.
Add to this worry of an ethnic undercurrent in the professional competence of the public servant, a much bigger problem of a partisan public servant—a public servant with a political ambition. That sounds straightforward like an anathema in the literature. Recently, there was a series of development about Nigerian senior and junior officers in the Civil Service contesting for and losing elections, and then returning to their duty posts. The question is one of whether a civil servant is not violating his or her professional responsibility by even thinking of contesting in partisan election, and not even going as far as contesting without first resigning his or her appointment. Those who have joined the national discourse have weighed in from two perspectives. The first of these consist of those who argued that there is legal provision in the Nigerian 1999 Constitution which permits civil servants to become partisan and seek political positions. On the other side are those who find it disturbing to see civil servants and politicians hobnobbing together at political campaigns where the civil servants themselves are critical players in the intrigues of winning electoral offices. For these critics, the significant issues go beyond the ease with which those who lost return to their various offices without any thought for the legal and professional ramifications of their actions.
The weight of opinion seems to be in support of the partisan civil servant. In fact, there are several opinion pieces urging them to actively become partisan and join political parties. A news report sometimes in 2018 quoted the deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, as urging Nigerians, including civil servants, to join political parties as part of their constitutional rights. And the argument for a partisan civil servant is anchored on Section 40 of the Constitution which states: “Every person shall be entitled to assemble freely and associate with other persons, and in particular he may form or belong to any political party, trade union or any other association for the protection of his interests.” Furthermore, advocates of the partisan civil servants equally cite a 2003 Supreme Court judgment—INEC v. Musa and Others—which reiterated the said section 40 of the Constitution.
But then, there is also a reason why the Public Service Rules exist as the institutional policy that define and constrain the professional behavior and activities of the public servants. Section 4 of the Public Service Rules (2008 edition), titled “Serious Misconduct,” defines serious misconduct as “a specific act of very serious wrongdoing and improper behavior which is inimical to the image of the service and which can be investigated and if proven, may lead to dismissal.” Subsection 030402 (g) categorically states that “Engaging in partisan political activities” as one of the significant examples of serious misconduct. This is clearly the documentary evidence of those who argue loudly that the neutrality and professional non-partisan character of the public service must be preserved at all cost. A few colleagues have written in defense of the time-honoured political neutrality of the civil service as one of the critical mediators of good governance in Nigeria. Indeed, this is the point at which the former super-permanent secretary and elder statesman, Ahmed Joda, weighed into the discourse.
So, does the Constitutional provision about the freedom of assembly for all Nigerians, as well as the Supreme Court judgment on the partisanship of public servants, settles the matter of civil servants joining political parties and participating in political activities like politicians? I will respond in the negative. And this is because, in my opinion, there is something obviously and immediately professionally wrong with the notion of a political public servant. Yet that professional anomaly is beclouded by the very Constitution that ought to serve as the final arbiter of legal circumstances of professional service in Nigeria. I will address, in another piece to follow this, my argument against a partisan public service from the perspective of administrative history and normative requirements of the profession.
A preliminary statement, however, is that this discourse about the partisan public servants reveals the depth of the institutional dysfunction of the Nigerian state and its civil service system. And, quite unfortunately, the source of this institutional confusion lies very deep within Nigeria’s Constitutional order and its vague proclamations on the rights of Nigerians. There is a fundamental reason why the Public Service Rules exist as the ethical and professional guideline for the professional conduct of the public servants and a governance norm in Nigeria. The heart of the institutional reform which made me outrightly outspoken through my public education series, in the first place, even though not partisan, is the urgent need to unravel the institutional parameters that could be rehabilitated to enable the civil service function in a professionally efficient manner that will backstop the consolidation of good governance and the effectiveness of the Nigerian government in the lives of Nigerians. To achieve this, we need to first disambiguate the outspoken public servant from the partisan one. Like Ahmed Joda argued, the limit of the Constitutional rights on public servants is that they can hold political opinions, say, regarding who amongst all the presidential candidates have the governing capacities to institute good governance in Nigeria. The Constitution even legally enables them to back up their political opinion with the right to vote for any candidate of their choice. What bears argument is whether the Constitution and the Supreme Court are right as to the “right” of public servants to actively seek political office while still in a service which requires them to maintain a neutrality that should enable them to discharge their professional responsibilities without any possibility of partiality or disloyalty.
By examining administrative history and global practices, I will be suggesting that we should be able to get a traction on not only how to understand this national discourse, but more importantly, how to get a spot on the required institutional reform that is needed to rehabilitate the public service itself as a fundamental institutional framework whose autonomy must not only be clearly and constitutionally defined, but must be the subject of intense reform scrutiny in a way that facilitate efficiency, performance and productivity on the behalf of good and democratic governance in Nigeria.