‘Demilitarising’ the Civil Service As Prelude To Effective Budgeting, By Oluwadele Bolutife
…it was the short-lived late General Murtala Muhammed regime, which was considered to be a ‘benevolent dictatorship’, that nailed the coffin of whatever ‘decency and professionalism’ was left in the civil service, with its now legendary mass purging of the service. Quite unfortunate, it is this crisis that turned the budget line into an ‘allocation’ line amongst principals of various ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) of government.
One of the profound damages of the 1966 coup and countercoup, and prolonged military rule, has been the total erosion of our ‘civility’ as a people, and more at the level of public service. A cursory examination of many accounts of the first coup and the civil war may give us a false indication that the self-proclaimed messianic intentions of the military were after all a blessing to the nation. However, from a deeper perspective, whether it is Why We Struck, Not My Command or the many others, the resultant effects of military interventions in our politics is that it left us becoming worse off than before they struck. It is so saddening that up till now, our otherwise civil service has become heavily ‘militarised,’ while our military institutions have also become politicised, that the earlier discipline associated with them has become a thing of the past.
For the avoidance of doubt, the primary indication and emphasis of the numerous coups (both successful and failed) was the pronouncement to fight corruption, which had ‘impoverished’ our people. Yet, is it not funny that the principal instrument of accountability and control, the General Order, was suspended and finally buried in the rubbles of our regional governmental experiences? I bet you, many of those in the current top echelons of the civil service, maybe wholly, are unaware of the existence of the General Order. How do we fight corruption by destroying the very instrument that enhances integrity and accountability?
Sadly enough, it was the short-lived late General Murtala Muhammed regime, which was considered to be a ‘benevolent dictatorship’, that nailed the coffin of whatever ‘decency and professionalism’ was left in the civil service, with its now legendary mass purging of the service. The consequential effect of that action has left the crisis of tenure in the service in place till date. Quite unfortunate, it is this crisis that turned the budget line into an ‘allocation’ line amongst principals of various ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) of government. For the purposes of clarity and history, it was a period when top government officials became aware of their sack from duty while listening to the 7 ‘o’ clock news on their way to the office, and with the instruction to hand over to the next officer in rank or a designated person, as announced on the radio. That gave room to the uncontrollable instability in the service up till this moment. Of course, it was not even long thereafter that the concept of “immediate alacrity” became part of our national work ethic. It permeated every aspect of our lives, including religion. Recall Reverend Awunze and his “Jehovah Ozugbo Ozugbo” (Jehovah Sharp and Sharp) and the “demonic bulldozing” demonstration, especially on NTA programmes. That is one of many examples of how we became indoctrinated into the philosophy of ‘instancy,’ with the devastating effect that we no longer think in the long term as people anymore.
In previous articles, I advocated for a move towards a purpose-driven budgeting system, but how will that succeed in an environment of grabbing what you can now and letting the future take care of itself? Do we even have the patience that is sufficient to develop functional purposes, let alone implementing it?
No one will ask that the General Order be exhumed, perhaps where it is still lying in the Government Press archive or the National Library’s ‘rat-infested’ collections, as the world has moved beyond the provisions of the General Order. In its place today is an encompassing instrument of control in the form of the GRC (corporate governance for the private sector, good governance for the public, enterprise risk management and compliance). A well-established governance structure as a subset of GRC will cater for responsibility, accountability and stewardship, while risk management will curb the excesses of numerous decisions that lack proper planning and evaluation. Also, compliance, which incidentally includes internal audit (not the “what is in it for us?” as currently obtained, but proper auditing and reviews), to ensuring that deviations are promptly recognised, queried, and addressed. A structure well-tailored towards GRC principles and practice, anchored on strong political will and non-self-serving leadership are essential requirements for a successful purpose-driven budgeting system.
But the sad reality is that our civil ‘servants’ are not civil at all!
Let me share a personal experience in the hands of the Lagos State Transport Monitoring Agency (LASTMA), circa 2006.
If we cannot change the Constitution, as it has become so ‘complicated’ to, in the minimum, we should embark on the deliberate reorientation of the ‘uncivil’ civil servants if we want to achieve anything meaningful with our budgeting system.
It happened that I went to pay for the ‘darkness’ supplied by Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) at their Alagomeji office. I parked in front of their office but was delayed because there was no fuel in their generator to power their teller machine. So, we had to wait until a messenger returned from the gas station before they could attend to us. On exit, I discovered that my car was nowhere to be found. My first instinct was that the car had been stolen. Anyway, I asked around. Typical of Lagos residents in giving direction, I was seriously misled, until I eventually found my car at Iponri under the bridge, directly opposite the Police barracks. The four tires had been deflated.
On inquiry, I was charged with illegal parking, which had obstructed vehicular movement! No explanation on my part would suffice. The only solution was for me to pay into a designated ank on Allen Avenue, Ikeja, and after that, take the stamped teller to their headquarters at Alausa and bring back clearance to repossess my car.
I went to the bank, paid, and headed to Alausa, but because I refused to ‘drop something,’ I was unduly delayed. On getting back to Iponri around 8 p.m., having lost the whole day technically, as my car was towed around 10 a.m., I showed the clearance to the lady in charge of the keys. She unashamedly told me to drop something in an offering box that was strategically placed. I protested that I had received enough punishment in their hands. She would not budge. She told me to come back tthe following day to meet her boss, as she had to ‘account’ for every key she released. Realising that my car’s four tires have been deflated, I asked myself, what may become of the car if left there overnight. I borrowed myself sense and drop something in the offering box. Yet, my woes had not ended. A vulcaniser was called to attend to me. He charged me triple the usual amount for pumping the tires. I screamed at him! He then called me aside and said that he actually gets the normal amount, but the rest goes to LASTMA officials, and that they take a record of how many tires he attends to in a day. He also ‘advised’ that if I left the car there overnight, I might regret the decision. Of course, for effect, he reminded me that I am a “big man.”
The current civil servants don’t care as they see the ‘law’ to be on their side. The culture of impunity further complicates this. Less we forget, too, the first thing that the military did when they took over power was to suspend the 1963 Republican Constitution and ‘imposed’ on the nation a unitary constitution, the ‘modified’ edition of which we are still operating till date.
If we cannot change the Constitution, as it has become so ‘complicated’ to, in the minimum, we should embark on the deliberate reorientation of the ‘uncivil’ civil servants if we want to achieve anything meaningful with our budgeting system. Incidentally, the government has so many training institutions which may be encouraged to develop an appropriate curriculum to influence the necessary fundamental shift in disposition and operations in the public sector across the board. Not a mere jamboree stuff like the SERVICOM, which is mere lip service that has achieved nothing tangible (except I am mistaken).
We need the necessary courage to take the bold steps to get our country back to normalcy. It is the village boy #JustThinkingAloud.
Oluwadele L. Bolutife, a chartered accountant and a public policy and administration scholar, writes from Canada.