President Buhari and the Other Side of Oronsaye Report By Lawson Omokhodion
In 2010 when it was doubtful to predict a presidential victory for General Muhammadu Buhari I stood firm that he remained the only man to fix the Nigerian malaise. His ascendancy to the presidential palace in Aso Villa is therefore a welcome development. During the campaign, President Buhari variously spoke about the need to reform the Nigerian federal public service. Many All Progressives Congress (APC) chieftains then added that the report of the Stephen Oronsaye-led Presidential Committee on the Rationalisation and Restructuring of Federal Government Parastatals, Commissions and Agencies (The Oronsaye Report), produced under the regime of the discredited Goodluck Jonathan presidency would be the platform for this much vaunted public reform.
A number of politicians gloating about the Oronsaye report have not taken time to examine the implications of the recommendations contained in this document and the monumental dislocation and the ripple effects in the Nigerian extended family system that awaits its implementation. On a general note, the Oronsaye report is a very poisonous document which is neither credible nor empirically sound. Its shallowness must be exposed so that the government of President Buhari is not plunged into an early crisis by being stampeded into a hasty implementation of the fallacious recommendations contained in the report. Any action of the Buhari administration that has the potential of bringing the labour unions onto the Nigerian streets so early in the day is definitely unwarranted. The honeymoon of this very enigmatic and popular president must be prolonged.
The major plank of the Oronsaye report is that the federal public service is inefficient, ineffective, bloated, too heavy and full of duplicated ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs). The report says that out of 541 MDAs existing in Nigeria, only 163 should be retained. Thus, many of these MDAs need to be rationalised, some merged and others simply closed down. The Oronsaye report went further to list agencies that seem to have a duplicated mandate and it would appear that any MDA that has a similar nomenclature in its name with another is automatically a duplication of functions. Oronsaye believes that the National Communication Commission (NCC) and the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN) perform similar functions because both of them exist in the information milieu. The same for Aviation agencies.
These bodies, according to the Oronsaye report, should be merged. Many of these MDAs, with only few recent additions, were created decades before the return of the democratic dispensation in 1999 and have served the country creditably.
The way politicians and senior government officials have continued to disrupt and interfere in the functions of the MDAs preventing them from executing their mandate must be questioned. When Oronsaye was asked, if the enabling Act of these MDAs had been thoroughly reviewed, he had no answer. In my younger days staff of the federal works ministry engaged in road construction, building culverts and cutting grass on highways.
Staff of the housing ministry actually constructed low and middle income houses. But today, ministries only award contracts. Why then would civil servants not look lazy? Ask Oronsaye where the disengaged staff would go after the recommended actions have been taken. The only concern of the Oronsaye panel was simply to reduce the size of the federal public service, in the typical context of the IMF/World Bank tradition, not minding how it is done! The objective is to achieve a better recurrent and capital budget ratio for the federation. The amelioration of the cost and pains of the proposed course of action is not the business of the Oronsaye report. Is the Oronsaye report a serious document? It is a lazy solution to a complicated problem, a highway to anarchy and a suicidal option for any democratic system.
But what is truly wrong with the federal public service? Nothing that cannot be fixed! Is the government supposed to use the public service as an avenue for job creation? Certainly yes! We need more employees in the police, armed forces, border controls etc. The problem the country has had in the past five years has been the total absence of leadership. Ex-President Jonathan was an accident and a tragi-comedy. The body language of ex-President Jonathan was opaque. Today, EFCC, NDLEA have suddenly woken up. Public servants are punctual to work.
The public service can read the unmistakable signal from President Buhari. Part of the cardinal programme of President Buhari is job creation. Our constitution prescribes a mixed economy system of economic development. It means that both the public and private sectors have similar opportunities for productive economic activities. Thus the government needs to focus on job creation as much as the private sector.
The massive job cuts that would arise from implementing the Oronsaye report would not do justice to the minimal benefits that would accrue. The responsibility of a government in a developing society like Nigeria is to, on the one hand, expand opportunities for direct job creation under the various MDAs and on the other hand, provide the enabling environment for private sector to create more jobs. We need both the public and private sectors to complement each other and produce a mutually reinforcing economic system at local, state and federal levels.
The Oronsaye report erroneously sees job creation and intervention in productive enterprises as the duty of the private sector alone. Writing off the public service as the Oronsaye report has done is a disservice to all the hardworking men and women in the service. Bad eggs in the service can be uprooted and overall service re-engineered within the limits of responsible governance practices. As it stands the Oronsaye report is an invitation to misery and anarchy.
The key to promoting public service efficiency is to reform how staff are recruited into the service. It is not the issue of salaries as shown by the number of desperate Nigerians who subjected themselves to the criminal interview conducted by the INS a few years ago. The public service needs to juxtapose the approved establishment levels of public service positions side by side the actual manning levels and develop a job specification document for each position. The Oronsaye panel did not bother to specify the jobs in each MDA to determine whether the jobs are real. It is largely believed that under ex-President Jonathan candidates were made to pay around N500,000 to get employed into the federal public service with Board Chairmen and Permanent Secretaries recruiting unqualified candidates into the MDAs. If the Oronsaye panel identified this problem, the solution is to test for ability by an examination conducted by a credible and reputable human resource consultant and not by simply decreeing these MDAs out of existence.
In the past, entry into the administrative cadre of the federal public service was not by federal character quotas but through a rigorous competitive examination conducted by an impartial umpire. The federal civil service commission must return to that glorious era. For now, a careful audit of the personnel records of hundreds of thousands of public servants will reveal multiple queries for poor attitude to work, dishonesty, theft, insubordination, truancy and absenteeism and repeated issuance of final warning letters. Several public servants have multiple false age declarations to the extent that they become younger than their first child. The only authentic age declaration in any file is the very first one. Many public servants, while on full time employment, are simultaneously engaged in full time self-sponsored study all over the world and in distant Nigerian universities and get paid monthly for doing no work. These are unacceptable fraudulent practices.
Administering severance packages for staff being disengaged from the public service is expensive and wasteful. In previous public sector reforms in Nigeria, severance packages were abused.
The reason for failure was that the reforms were only targeting staff rationalisation not efficiency promotion. In his book “The Accidental Public Servant”, former FCT Minister, Mallam Nasir Ahmad el-Rufai, and head of ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo’s public sector reforms committee and now Governor of Kaduna State, noted that after disengaging 36,843 officers at a whopping severance cost of N24 billion about 20,000 of these severed civil servants have found their way back into the civil service, thereby defeating the clean-up exercise and wasting monies spent. These ‘staff’ now earn both pensions and current pay explaining why partly the federal payroll ballooned astronomically. El-Rufai added that the N57 billion earmarked to disengage another 75,475 staff in 400 or so parastatals and paramilitary services had to be suspended. The Oronsaye report may not have noted this observation that apart from ‘sacking’ civil servants and paying their benefits, these same staff could one day return to the same service to earn both pensions and current salary. Staff on both pensions and monthly salary should be treated as fraudulent.
The Oronsaye report suffers from a failure of introspection and disdain for lessons of experience. When the monetisation of benefits was carried out in the public sector under ex-President Obasanjo, drivers, cooks, gardners, messengers, stewards and cars were withdrawn from DGs, Permanent Secretaries, directors and all those entitled to them at the time. Commensurate allowances are now being paid annually to this category of public servants in cash.
As I write, the domestic staff, cars and other benefits in kind have been reallocated to these public servants and yet they continue to draw the monetised benefits. The solution is to adjust their salaries and let them keep their domestic staff. The huge financial leakages from spending on overseas training courses and the attendant fees, estacode, business class air tickets should be stopped and replaced by training courses mounted by Nigerian universities and certified local manpower development and training companies.
Particular experts can be invited to participate in such programmes at the cost of the organisers. With a paradigm shift, the huge savings in the overhead budget will manifest. Added to this is the fight to address the ghost workers phenomenon using high technology interventions. Again, the remuneration of National Assembly members must be drastically reviewed. Senators and federal representatives are a criminal burden on the nation’s finances. Salaries of National Assembly members or state assembly members should be no higher than the grade level of a federal or state permanent secretary. A local government chairman is the equivalent of a director in a ministry.
It is not the business of government to pay legislators’ constituency allowance to bribe people. The Revenue Mobilisation and Fiscal Commission must be alive to its responsibilities. The Oronsaye panel did not seek to solve problems as it was too concerned with corporate decapitation and promotion of anarchy
• Chief Omokhodion was MD/CEO, Liberty Bank Plc