Cheta Nwanze, Lead Partner, SBM Intelligence

Follow Cheta Nwanze

View Profile

Subjects of Interest

  • Fiscal Policy
  • Geopolitical Analysis
  • Governance
  • Politics

El Rufai’s good intentions and reforming the civil service 16 Jun 2021

At both federal and subnational levels, Nigeria’s civil service has been over-bloated for a long time and is full of redundant staff. This has been the case since civil service employment first started to be used for political patronage and to fill geopolitical and religious quotas in the 1970s.
The late military Head of State, General Murtala Muhammed, in trying to solve the problem of corruption in government, made it worse by conducting a mass purge of civil servants back in 1975. This shattered the sense of job security in the civil service, was believed to have inspired more corruption, and provided the basis for the unwieldy recruitments into the service when Gen. Muhammed was assassinated in a military coup in February 1976.

In spite of the serious unemployment problem in the country (the latest data by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) puts the national unemployment rate at 33 per cent), the federal, and many state governments, have continued to contemplate mass retrenchment of civil servants. The administration of President Goodluck Jonathan commissioned the Presidential Committee on Restructuring and Rationalisation of Parastatals, Commissions and Agencies, under the chairmanship of Steve Oronsaye. The committee in its final report, which has yet to be implemented, recommends that some of the government’s agencies should be merged, and others scraped, to downsize the federal civil service.

Such actions as recommended by the Oronsaye Report are politically fraught, hence their non-implementation. There-fore, political considerations and nepotism have continued to trump productivity in the civil service. This is nevertheless the case as many state governments have been struggling to pay the new N30,000.00 minimum wage. Before then, state governments were already owing their workers several months of salary arrears.

The rot in the civil service is a marked deviation from the British model of merit, which Nigeria’s bureaucracy was built on at independence. It is well considered that an efficient bureaucratic system needs to be urgently reasserted in Nigeria. The impression one gets is that this is precisely what Kaduna State Governor, Nasir El Rufai, was trying to achieve with his plan of mass purge in the civil service of the state as part of a broader civil service reform.

However, El Rufai has been met with strong opposition by the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC). The national labour body embarked on a five-day warning strike to protest the retrenchment of thousands of workers in Kaduna State’s bureaucracy without due process. No notice was given the affected workers and there was no provision of severance package for them.

The controversial governor, who had declared that he was not elected to pay salaries, may have taken a calculated action nevertheless, and not without justification. His intention is arguably good. As he had stated, the wage bill of the state leaves very little resources to invest in social infrastructure and provide public utilities. Whereas keeping people employed is important, it is also crucial that the government is able to invest in capital projects and provide social amenities for the people.

However, the timing of a mass down-sizing of workers under the current economic realities in the country is insensitive. It possibly reflects the limits of policy thinking, as a policy may not be appropriate for all circumstances. El Rufai has been talking up civil service reform for nearly a decade, during which period economic indicators, including unemployment and insecurity – which many are now persuaded to be driven, even if in part, by poverty – have worsened.

Politically, perhaps there was a window of opportunity to initiate the civil service reform as soon as El Rufai came into office in May 2015. The reform agenda could have been sold and bought on a transformational plan for the state, with provision of severance package for workers that may be laid off.

However, it could also be argued that now is more politically auspicious for the difficult decision. Having been re-elected into office for the maximum second term in 2019, El Rufai is no longer eligible to run for the same office in 2023. That personal calculation may have inspired the rash action the governor has been accused of taking. Also, it is also worth noting that unemployment in Kaduna State has increased above the national average to 44.35 per cent, according to the NBS. Food inflation has also increased to 23 per cent nationally. These indicates that the civil service reform being touted by El Rufai is a harbinger for increased poverty in Kaduna State. Pushing such a harsh policy with utter disregard for its consequences and without adequate consultation is a wrong approach to governance.

If El Rufai were to have held consultations before finalising his civil service reform agenda, it is doubtful he would have succeeded in manufacturing consensus for it. Perhaps his realisation of this informed his attempt at pushing the agenda somehow. The governor has deepened fractionalisation in the state that is nearly evenly divided along Christians and Muslims. When he sought re-election in 2019, he dropped his Christian deputy governor and ran on a Muslim-Muslim ticket. So far in his governorship, the Christian Southern Kaduna have been in crisis, with the rhetoric of the governor often divisive or unhelpful in dousing religious and communal tensions.

A confrontational approach to governing the people who elected a leader is a misnomer in a democracy. Moreover, a reform agenda will not be successful just because it is informed by good intentions. The government needs to be able to build a consensus for its reform agenda as part of ensuring its success. In the absence of this, it is safe to conclude that the attempts by El Rufai now adds to the laundry list of unsuccessful attempts to reform the civil service by the federal and state governments since 1999.

Cheta Nwanze is Lead Partner at SBM Intelligence.