Saving Nigeria From Its Civil Servants By Tolu Ogunlesi
For any Nigerian who does even a bit of travelling outside the country, the question that never leaves you is: Why is Nigeria the way it is? Is it a curse? Are we doomed to stay this way, showing promise but never fulfilling it?
You don’t even need to go outside Africa – a trip to Ghana just down the road from us is enough to set the self-questioning going. This was the country from which hundreds of thousands of citizens fled in the 70s and early 1980s; the country to which we expelled them en-masse in 1983 and 1985. Today, we’re shamelessly fleeing there to go on holiday, educate our children, and buy up land and apartments, because it is an evidently saner place than the country we live in.
In the same time in which we’ve seen Ghana cast off the shame that lies immortalised in the “Ghana Must Go” bag, we’ve seen Nigeria stubbornly refuse to make progress.
I often say this; that my biggest fear for Nigeria is not that it will implode anytime soon, but that things will stay just as they are today. So that even in 2020, we’ll still be here lamenting the state of the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, or pleading with the government to fix the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, or asking why it has to take 33 hours to travel by rail from Lagos to Kano. Or, shouting about Vision 2050, which will see Nigeria become the greatest country in the world. We’ve been promising ourselves electricity, and pretending to fix the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, since 1999. How much of a big deal will a few more decades of dysfunction be?
Far wiser and more accomplished people than me have spent their lives asking these questions – why is Nigeria the way it is? What is it that keeps us more or less trapped in a dysfunctional time-circumstance loop?
If you don’t think it’s the product of a curse, then you have to find another answer(s). And the most popular one is: “Political Leadership.” Arguments about “second elevens” and about the best lacking conviction while the worst are drunk on passionate intensity, deciding the fates of people much smarter and more committed to excellence than them.
The above is, of course, true, but maybe not the full story. We must look at Nigeria’s public servants to get a fuller sense of why this country might never work. Let’s visit the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Ikeja, Lagos, staffed by public servants of all hues, from the Immigrations to Customs to the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency to health workers. You quickly realise that that airport is a fitting metaphor for everything that’s wrong with Nigeria. If you assume that the way things work – or don’t work – at that airport approximates the scenarios everywhere else across the public service in Nigeria, the country instantly loses its power to mystify you.
October 1 was the deadline for the replacement of the old yellow fever vaccination certificates with the newly issued ones. I’m sure you all knew that? You didn’t? Well, neither did I, until I got to the airport that day.
What I witnessed was disgraceful. Tens of people in and around the cramped Airport Health Centre, shoving and being shoved. They needed to fly to South Africa that night, and the airlines were not going to board them without the new certificates. I also needed a certificate, but at that time, lacking the energy for a struggle, stayed at the tail of the crowd until it thinned enough for my muted aggression to have some effect.
And of course, in classic Nigerian style, touts were in business. For anything between N3,000 and N5,000, you could get someone to get the card on your behalf. Some people did. I sighted one or two of the touts – the dysfunction of Nigeria had become their opportunity for prosperity. I paid N2,000 for the new certificate – because I didn’t go through a tout. Needless to say I got no receipt for the payment. Nobody was issuing any, or requesting any. There was no sign anywhere that said how much the card cost, even though all regular travellers know that the old card cost N500.
That incident at the Airport Health Centre – which by the way looks more like a veterinary clinic than a place for human beings – got me thinking about how Nigerian bureaucracy specialises in creating obstacles for citizens as a way of maximising exploitation.
So, someone probably sits in an office somewhere and decides to create a new yellow fever card – not necessarily because it is going to be a better card (whatever that might mean), but just because it’s an opportunity to award a new contract. That person also knows that the existence of the new card means that all holders of the previous one will have to come forward for a replacement. That person – or other people within the system – know that in the bid to get a replacement, chaos is very likely, and very easy to perpetuate, and that officially-created chaos is the most efficient creator of economic value in Nigeria.
So, going along with the example of the yellow fever card, the first thing to do is withhold information, because the scarcity of information provides a viable nutrient medium for chaos. No attempt was made to publicise the fact that yellow fever cards are being phased out, and that the cut-off date was October 1, 2013. The authorities did not think they needed to make any efforts to get the airlines to inform intending passengers ahead of time, or to warn that waiting until the last minute might jeopardise people’s chances of making it onto their flights. There was also no information about where else one might get the new card, apart from the airport.
That’s for the simplest of reasons: if intending passengers knew, they’d have made arrangements to get their cards ahead of time, reducing the likelihood of tout-friendly queuing arrangements.
The principle of artificial scarcity – connected of course to a national penchant for monopolistic authority – underpins many of Nigeria’s ancient and contemporary dysfunctions.
I have no doubts in my mind that there are people within the civil service whose job it is, (often) in collusion with private operators, to constantly think up new obstacles to the happiness and sanity of citizens, and new routes into their pockets. I imagine that civil servants generally get promoted on the basis of how much fresh money-making confusion they’re able to create. Which explains why, from driving licences to vehicle number plates to e-Passports to land ownership documents, what people are confronted with are hellish experiences to which the idea of customer service and value are alien.
A while back, I got a call from a reader of this column who wanted to complain about the challenges people were facing at one of the licensing offices (new driving licence) in Ikorodu, Lagos. Apparently, you have to get there very early in the morning – well before 7am. And then you need to expect to spend the entire day there, with no guarantee of being attended to, because there are not enough machines or staff to attend to people. (That seems to be the pattern everywhere else).
Because this is Nigeria, it’s not far-fetched to imagine that this policy is deliberate – frustrate people so much that they’ll start to look for short-cuts. (In fact, expecting to be frustrated, Nigerians have learnt to look for shortcuts in advance). And then you, the official “frustrator”, goes ahead to provide the short-cuts – in the form of officially-sanctioned touts who will promise to take away the stress of registration, for a fee. And everyone is very happy, save the customer, who has to exchange his or her happiness for a measly sense of relief.
Public commentators are fond of singling out Nigeria’s political class for censure. What we don’t do a good job of acknowledging is that the public sector – civil servants and bureaucrats – may be a greater menace to this country than the politicians. Sometimes, you can be fortunate to achieve good without the public service. But there’s no way any significant evil gets done without their active involvement. And they’re here long after the politicians have completed their terms or fallen into irrelevance.
Until we do something about the way the public service views itself in Nigeria, and in the context of national development, we will not go far as a country. If you read Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala’s book on the reforms of the Obasanjo era, she acknowledges the crucial role the public sector has to play, and rues the fact that the reform agenda would have been far more successful had the public sector been more cooperative.
Sometimes, all that that sector knows how to do is issue threats – of strikes, shutdowns and disconnections. And that’s why, even as irrelevant as the now fading away Power Holding Company of Nigeria is to the lives of many Nigerians today, it’s not unusual to still read reports of its staff unions threatening a shutdown and declaring their intention to throw the country into “darkness.” Threats that speak of persons hopelessly out of touch with reality, adept only at stealing from the government and from hapless consumers.
Someday, a government will arise possessing the moral authority (emphasis on that) to squarely face the thankless job of pushing civil service reform past the point of no return in Nigeria.
And hopefully, before then, the civil servants themselves will start to ask themselves the hard questions – what’s our role in a country that aspires to 21st century greatness? Are we here merely as thieves and obstacles, or is there really something about this much-talked about idea of seeking to add value to the people whose money we’re shamelessly taking?
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