Jide Akintunde, Managing Editor/CEO, Financial Nigeria International Limited
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El Rufai and civil service reform in Nigeria 04 Jun 2021
Effective civil service reform is nearly impossible in Nigeria. In many instances of enacting it, the reform essentially entails mass layoff of government workers. This impels the powerful Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) to oppose the reform agenda. It, therefore, looked certain that the recent effort of the Kaduna State Governor, Nasir El Rufai, to carry out “civil service reform” in the state was doomed to failure.
El Rufai appeared not to be bothered by this fatalism. Instead of sugar-coating his reform agenda, he made it clear that it will cost some of the government workers their jobs. But apparently, he had a strategy to push the reform through. One of his discernible strategy actions is to divide the people of Kaduna State. In this regard, he described the civil servants as the “entitled minority”, whose salaries gulp most of the state’s public funds, leaving little resources for the government to provide amenities for the “majority” of the people of the state.
El Rufai was also ready to play hardball with the workers and their unions. Without the constitutional power to do so, he summarily declared the President of the NLC wanted for supporting Kaduna State workers in exercising their labour right to embark on a strike to protest against the reform that looked set to cost them their jobs. He also ordered the sacking of nurses, lecturers and other government workers who participated in the strike last month.
For sure, these antics were unlikely to succeed. They are well-worn, knee jerk reactions that have only contributed to making successful civil service reform impossible in Nigeria. The outrageous actions only demonstrate a temperamental reaction to the backlash of government’s inability to design and successfully implement reform to improve the performance of its bureaucracy.
To be sure, the major issue with the civil service in Nigeria is that its productivity is very weak. Increasing the level of its productivity should, therefore, be the key objective of a civil service reform agenda. Whereas it may be possible to deliver the current level and quality of output with fewer workers, the public sector’s performance gap is considerable.
Cutting the civil service wage bill cannot be the end of a well-thought-out labour reform. If the ‘incompetent’ workers are sacked, there would be a need to hire competent new workers and provide adequate training for them and those retained from the head count reform.
Ostensibly, and as El Rufai presented his reform, the savings from the wage bill would be used to provide social amenities – including quality schools and hospitals – and infrastructure for the people. No doubt, the public facilities are needed. But they only constitute additional deliverables of the government – to complement those provided by the private sector – and not an alternative to a civil service that is adequately staffed and well remunerated.
The Nigerian civil service is not competitive for talents. The political appointment of well-credentialed or notable professionals as heads of some of government’s agencies masks the systemic incompetence in the system. The reasons the civil service is not competitive for talents are many. Poor emolument system, which also has a perverse structure that overly rewards those at the top, and the unprofessional workplace culture – including corruption – are the most notable and quite serious. Incidentally, the workers are not responsible for this. The government is both responsible for, and the main beneficiary of, the dysfunctional system.
Given that many state governments are struggling to pay the thirty thousand naira monthly minimum wage, which is circa $62.00 based on the market exchange rate, a legitimate question may be asked: how is the government supposed to be able to pay a decent wage that will motivate its workers to increase their productivity? If one may answer, where to start the intervention is not a reform that would reduce employment – definitely not with the current high unemployment rate in the country. For starters, the government must be competent, very productive, and committed to good governance.
The elected government officials and their political appointees, although fewer than the people in the civil service, gulp more resources than the latter. Even if it were productive, the government can consume less of the financial resources available for public use. This is why Nigerians have been clamouring for a drastic reduction in the cost of governance. But the government officials, some of whom earn more than their counterparts in the rich countries, are not bulging. Instead, they have continued to engage in various forms of financial impropriety in office, making the poorly paid civil servants cynical about conscientious service.
This by no means says the much-needed reform to boost the productivity of the civil service can continue to wait. Using the existing tools of appraisal, promotion and voluntarily exit with severance package in a transparent and impartial manner can help to weed out misfits from the service over time, while encouraging improvement in performance in the immediate term.
What is needed is not a smaller bureaucracy. What is needed at all the tiers of government is a competent and productive bureaucracy, adequately compensated, and rid of all forms of corruption to effectively help the government to carry out its functions.