Nigeria: Why the Public Sector is inefficient

By: Salisu Suleiman

 A few years ago, I was in a team of Nigerian and World Bank officials strategizing on public service reforms in Nigeria. In the process, a participant described Nigerian civil servants penciled down for retrenchment as ÔÇśun-trainable'. I was truly aghast that such a term could be used on human beings. I knew that back in my village, even the most stubborn donkey could be trained and made to behave. I thought it was part of the Bank's ploy to institutionalize poverty in Nigeria by sacking innocent civil servants. Events in the Nigerian public sector since then have made me rethink.

There is a general tendency to blame politicians for the poverty, underdevelopment, and colossal tragedy of leadership that best describes Nigeria today. From military dictatorships to ÔÇśdemocratic' governments; all have conspired to reduce governance to the manipulation of public office to deceive and loot public funds for personal use. But we can blame the politicians and ÔÇśmiliticians' only to an extent because they come and go. The only permanent feature of government ÔÇô whether under military or civilian dispensation ÔÇô is the civil service. This is why civil servants cannot escape responsibility for the rot that characterizes every aspect of the public sector in Nigeria.

The public sector refers to all organizations that exist as part of government machinery for implementing policy decisions and delivering services that are of value to citizens. It is a mandatory institution under the Nigerian Constitution of 1999. Chapter VI of the Constitution, Executive, Part 1 (D) and Part II (C) provides for a public service at the federal and state levels of government. The Public Sector in Nigeria is made up of the following: (1) The Civil Service, which is often referred to as the core service and is composed of line ministries and extra-ministerial agencies; and (2) The Public Bureaucracy, which is composed of the enlarged public service, including the following: (a) Services of the state and national assemblies; (b) The judiciary; (c) The armed forces; (d) The police and other security agencies; (e) Paramilitary services (immigration, customs, prisons, etc); (f) ÔÇśParastatals' and agencies including social service, commercially oriented agencies, regulatory agencies, educational institutions, research institutes, etc.

It is obvious that Nigeria has a large public sector running into millions of personnel. Their major function is to implement government policies and programs. While it is true that some governments did (do?) not have any programs for the common good, the public sector has not successfully implemented the policies and programs of those that did. Many civil servants found it easier to align themselves with the government of the day and participate in treasury looting that has reduced Nigeria to an embarrassment among the comity of serious nations. So, why is the public sector so inefficient? 

The public service in Nigeria is a colonial heritage of public administration during which the upper echelon of the civil service was dominated by the Europeans on whom were concentrated executive, judicial and legislative powers. Succeeding constitutional reviews increased the stake of Nigerians at the helm of the public service until the Independence in 1960. Independence was supposed to catalyze the evolution of the service as a national institution for spearheading the rapid transformation of the nation and ensuring continuity in administration. It has failed to do any of these.

Though the Nigerian public service has undergone changes and transformation over the years, unfortunately, successive reforms have not made significant impact to reengineer the public sector. Reforms were tailored towards achieving efficiency and effectiveness of the service because of the belief of successive governments that a thorough-bred public service was necessary for effective delivery of public good. Again, the public sector has continuously failed to deliver.

The rapid pace of the ÔÇśNigerianisation' reforms created a few other problems requiring reform action, prompting some to argue that ÔÇśwhatever might be the stage in the evolution of the service as at independence, the administrative system has not really gone through the full cycle of its establishment: birth, growth and maturity'. A major reference point in public sector reforms in Nigeria was the Civil Service Review Commission headed by Jerome Udoji which was the first to discuss the issue of efficiency in the public sector.

The main purpose of the Udoji Commission was to conduct a comprehensive review of the standards of service and compensation in the civil service and public corporations. Apart from the preoccupation with wages and salaries, the Commission recommended a unified and integrated administrative structure, the elimination of waste and removal of deadwoods/ inefficient departments and the introduction of a results-oriented public sector that functioned on the basis of management by objective. Sadly, the goals of the reforms were not achieved. The Commission is better known for the salary increases it gave to public sector workers. 

In 2003, the federal government embarked on yet another reform of the public sector. It has produced a number of changes to the structure of the public service and to its procedures, particularly the monetization of salaries and allowances. Nevertheless, the universal conclusion of those who have studied the issue is that it has not achieved its fundamental goals. The public sector has not helped President Yar'adua to fine-tune his 7 Point Agenda, or developed an action-plan to implement it. Even if the political leadership fails, it is the job of the public service to help steer the nation in the right direction. Again, what explains the consistent inefficiency in the sector?

It is impossible to explain the public sector's inefficiency in this space, but the following are central to the point: (1) Colonial, outdated administrative machinery; (2) Poor capacity of the majority of civil servants, sometimes to the point of Illiteracy; (3) Certificate forgery to gain entry and get promotions; (4) Age falsification to remain in service beyond the stipulated period/ age; (5) Corruption; (6) Policy reversals; (7) Primordial considerations like ethnicity at the expense of merit, etc. How do these relate to public sector inefficiency? 

On a visit to the National Archives in Kaduna in 2007, I caught sight of a memo that was being scanned for digitization. It was written by a white colonial official back in 1907, exactly 100 years ago that year. The same diction, style and procedure are still in use today. Any attempt at modernization is resisted forcefully by civil servants afraid of venturing out of their comfort zone. Similarly, the public sector is full of people that lack the skills required to be efficient in this age. The absence of a secretary or typist to operate a typewriter or computer can truncate important assignments because the big ÔÇśogas' cannot do basic word processing. It is a fact that many workers in the public sector use fake or forged certificates. Indeed, if any serious verification of claimed qualifications is to be undertaken in the sector, many jobs would go.

At a time when even the most powerful nations in the world are opting for younger, more energetic leaders, the Nigerian public sector is full of people who have passed the mandatory retirement age of 60 years or 35 years in service. These people have nothing new to offer, but continue to remain in the service courtesy of their ÔÇśaffidavit ages'. This is a true recipe for incompetence. The issue of corruption is also central to inefficiency in the public sector. Also, when policies and programs (like energy, for instance), keep getting reversed by every government with support of civil servants, little, if anything can be achieved. And when primeval issues like ethnicity determine progress in the sector, efficiency becomes a mirage.

In conclusion, while it is true that the political elite - whether military of ÔÇśdemocratic' - have made Nigeria the laughing stock of the entire world (no exaggeration), part of the blame lies with civil servants. It is only when the public sector is viewed as different from a public welfare service that true reforms, including the retrenchment of ÔÇśun-trainable' staff who create and benefit from the existing chaos, that values such as efficiency and professionalism can be expected from the public sector. At the moment, what obtains is a bazaar mentality, where everything and everybody has a price. And that price is shockingly low.

Suleiman is doctoral student of public administration at A.B.U, Zaria.


Join the conversation through disqus comments or via our forum. Click on any of the tabs below to select your desired option. Please engage decently.

  • Disqus Comments
  • Facebook
  • Forum Discussion

Re: Nigeria: Why The Public Sector Is Inefficient
Black.E posted on 04-28-2009, 11:33:55 AM
Hi Suleiman,

Nice piece. It a brilliant and well articulated piece and will save it. Thanks. I concur with pretty much everything you wrote. What bothers me mostly is that, I think what we really need is CHANGE. In every sense of the word. We need to change how we elect our leaders and as you put it, our primeval cultural bias. It probably will need a revolution on the part of the young and educated middle class and importantly a leader who isn't cut from the same cloth of the ruling class. I have first hand experience of the first hand ruthlessness of Nigerian elite families in London, I went to school with senior ministers and civil servant children. They truly look down on the 'rest' so called less fortunate around them, its shocking. Funny enough, I hear more often than I can recall of them saying with conviction that they will go back and become 'president' one day. And so continue the cycle of bleeding the nation dry from the privilege few.

Why did Nigerians allow Yar'dua to be elected on a flawed mandate? I never saw him debate the issues on TV or Radio or online. You say we shouldn't blame the leaders. I agree. But I feel with the Naija bookcase. Change has to be a top down approach. So little can be achieved if the vision is'nt there!

Just look how Obama makes people feel!!

look forward to your next post.

Re: Nigeria: Why The Public Sector Is Inefficient
Ozoodoo posted on 04-28-2009, 15:53:25 PM
Why the public sector is inefficient? Because our public sector is full of evil servants.
Please register before you can make new comment