After a stress free weekend, and thinking about going in to work on Monday, I caught myself fortifying my mind against the assault I know will come with the morning when I go back to work in one of the Federal Ministries in Abuja. It slowly dawned that of all categories of public servants in the world government workers in Nigeria must be the most violenced. Yes violence! This group of people have been silently living their own purgatory, a purgatory that no doubt has purged even the last vestiges of humanity from their souls resulting in the bestial attitudes for which they have come to be dreaded and reviled. It of course does not help that successive government administrations and their ministers persist in raping these people, taking from them all semblance of dignity while branding them as the evil that happened to Nigeria.
I acknowledge that there are those who have dipped ignoble filthy paws into the till, appropriating public revenue for personal use and colluding, if not setting up brazen heists, with on-again off-again political appointees, some of whom have become so adept at staying on the carousel of political appointments that one would be forgiven for concluding that the positions are hereditary and that there are no other people in a nation of 160 million and counting who would remotely merit the post of Minister or Special Adviser. Still how many are those in the multitude of public servants both at the Federal and the State level? If in some States Permanent Secretaries have been known to attend training workshops just for the plate of food that would be served. Again there are those who build their mini empires at their desks and these can range from ignorant guards and clerks who take the odd thousand or two for making sure that your job file does not go missing or that you get to see oga to the desks in the long room of Customs import clearing house upon which family fortunes have been built.
Then there are the others, those civil servants caught in the morass of tedium, of coming to work to do naught because there is naught to do. Still in doing naught having to kowtow and do their obsequious best to build the right political alliances so they might be posted to lucrative offices, like the Lands Bureau in Lagos State or one of the triumvirate of Education, Agriculture and Water Resources or similar agencies at the Federal level. Just being in these offices would fetch a healthy boost to monthly take home in tips and per diem for trips designed for just that, to earn per diem
Caught in the vice of servitude to cruel masters who sadistically hide personal inadequacies by picking on subordinates that dare to show even the slightest modicum of intelligence and the sheer terror of job loss in a country where unemployment figures are in the stratosphere, majority of civil servants are resigned to waiting out their time until retirement. Most struggle valiantly to push up retirement pay through programmed promotion exercises that only reward loyalty. Just demonstrating the ability to think would seal your fate as a pariah, a no good trouble maker who must be kept down and denied entitlements, an invisible lid put on your career progression. How would you, how could you dare to voice an opinion, much less one contrary to your bureaucratic superior’s. A single step in the salary scale is a yawning chasm that requires the utmost in humble respect to cross. Failing that, you would have to be allied in the most obvious way to acknowledged power blocks. Influential civil servants who let it be known overtly that you are under their protection. Woe betide the official not within the alliance who would dare to ask a power block prot├ęg├ę to carry out an official task or worse still attempt to mete out some disciplinary measures.
A woman in the Lagos State civil service had her desk and chair taken away from her for daring to do so. She came back from running an official errand one day to find her hand bag and other effects on the floor of a now empty office. When asked, the unit director claimed the office furniture were his and he had taken them away. She was forced to go share a desk in the typing pool while she waited in vain for the Permanent Secretary to sort out the problem.
An extreme example but common enough. At least she simply had her furniture taken away. Some like me never get assigned a space much less a desk and chair. Completely alienated because I do not speak their language, I do not understand their jokes and I fail to show enough deference to the head honcho. 6 months in an office and nowhere to sit, not even an ID card or the offer of one. Since I came via another agency, one whose purpose they do not understand, they just will not process me through the system. So every morning I spend at least 15 minutes convincing the guards to let me in. If I get in early enough I can colonise a desk and chair for the day by not getting up at all otherwise I would return to find someone else with more urgent work that constitutes catching up with the day’s news and chatting with colleagues has taken over the work space. That I decide to squat against a vacant wall of sit on broken down furniture trying to update work plans and reports required by the Minister has never yet yielded a work space back to me.
All of that I can live with, and have been doing for 6 months and counting. What gets me is the absence of conveniences. The only toilet available is locked and the key kept with the guards who never seem to know where the key went every time I want it and always send me on a wild goose chase that alerts the entire floor that I would like to use the toilet. Red flag days are a trial. Even if you curtail what you drink and eat during the week, controlling the monthlies for a woman would require medical intervention. The last time I simply packed up my laptop and headed for home. Apart from the less than sanitary conditions in the toilet, there was no water and coupled with the trots that accompany some heavy days, I simply could not cope for another minute. I carried on working from home for the rest of that day and better part of the night only to return in the morning to a blustering head honcho who in spite of email exchanges until late into the night accused me of having skived off work. Beyond belief? But it is true. If I had not experienced it first hand, I would have questioned the probability of such a deleterious narration.
Still it is better for me, I am after all not a civil servant and have the option of finding more conducive work environments if only occasionally. And my salary is not only regular but can buy me some creature comforts and my progress is not dependent of the largesse of more senior colleague.
A troupe of them civil servants came to church today to offer thanks giving in advance of the Public Service Week that kicks off tomorrow and I wondered what the world they would give thanks for? But then I learnt that they were mainly Permanent Secretaries and Directors attended by the usual retinue of down at heel colleagues who were probably brow beaten into attending. The difference was stark. The well-heeled senior civil servants, reeking of designer perfume compared with their tired looking junior colleagues in droopy garb, smiling and fawning over the bosses, who looked balefully at parishioners who dared to sit in pews that had been marked reserved for their sakes. I bet they were surprised that no one jumped through hoops to please them or to hearken to their every need.
How could a Permanent Secretary not know that facilities within his ministry are run down? That staff do not have enough desk and chairs to sit on, that there is no provision for decent refreshment in an office where you are required to spend more than 8 hours daily? The offices are dark and dank, yet partitions go up to create private cubicles for ‘management’ staff. In many of the crowded rooms, air flow is minimal because the room that has the window has been partitioned closed to keep the boss’ air conditioning cold and to make guards of other colleagues who must stay in that outer room. Do staff not complain that they are subjected to verbal abuse from porters, guards and self-appointed minions of self-styled bosses? Why is it that a senior staff in the Ministry must go through the Permanent Secretary’s clerks to his secretary to his confidential secretary to gain audience of a special assistant who determines the worthiness of issues for the Permanent Secretary’s attention and when it should be brought up? How does such a system auger for work effectiveness? For staff morale, esteem and sense of dignity?
The Minister for whom I work but have never been given audience with – I must speak through the head honcho because I was not his direct recruit, looks to be a man of high breeding and competence. He graduated from University of Ife in the very early eighties and went on to gain higher degrees from foreign universities. He has always worked in international organisations in foreign lands and in the last 10 to 15 years headed up those organisations. These credentials qualified him for leadership and management of a ministry critical to the development of Nigeria and which requires technical expertise. Since he took up the job of Minister however, he has never once to my knowledge crossed the threshold of his well-appointed office into the bowels of the ministry to see the work conditions of his albeit temporary staff. He has no clue what interdepartmental relations are and how well the consultants he rabidly hired upon assumption of office work with civil servants under his care and who will be responsible for sustaining his dubious achievements while in office. He has obviously not heard or been party to derogatory references to civil servants, many said in plain hearing of said civil servants by the high profile consultants who have yet to prove their mettle. The Minister spends more time traveling with his consultants to see good examples all over the world and relegates professionals in the Ministry by simply not involving them in work or meetings. I have heard him say that if they are interested, civil servants should get on his train which he maintains already left the station!
I wonder what he would say if he got told that like him, the rest of us contributing to the implementation of his agenda under very adversarial conditions – with coping faculties deployed only in times of war - also need decent and sanitary conveniences and that we could use dedicated desks and chairs in well aired, regularly cleaned offices to be productive. That we would like to water and feed ourselves while we work and will be grateful for proper and hygienic facilities to do so. That even if you think us barely human you don’t have to let us know that you do. We would like you to show us some respect if only as evidence that you also respect yourself and that your breeding is more than skin deep.
Civil servants preyed upon by sharks and piranhas should certainly not be blamed when the take on the personae of beached sponges, becoming hard, seemingly lifeless and no use to themselves or anyone at all.