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Tragedy of corruption in the civil service

Written by the Editorial Board of The Guardian Newspaper

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Written by the Editorial Board of The Guardian Newspaper

It is gratifying to note that just when the perception is growing that the Nigerian government has been fighting a few corrupt people without really fighting corruption, the presidency has rightly identified corruption in the civil service as “the nation’s greatest tragedy.”

This declaration by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo was made during the inaugural quarterly civil service lecture series with the theme: “Civil Service in a Change Environment: The Change is Now” at the Banquet Hall of the Presidential Villa in Abuja.

The then Acting President had noted that a situation in which civil servants subverted the system for personal gain when majority of the citizens were poor was a tragedy a nation should never endure.

According to him, “the power to do great good or evil lies with a few people who form what we refer to as our civil service. When some of such elite see the opportunity as one for self-enrichment by corrupt practices, then the nation faces a monumental tragedy.
“There is no excuse anywhere in a nation where the majority are still poor and are struggling to make a living that anyone who has the benefit of good education and good fortune of a job in the civil service should subvert that service for personal gains, I think it is the greatest tragedy that a nation can experience.”

Reminding civil servants that they are sometimes “described as evil servants,” Osinbajo urged them to see the service as one of the most important factors in national development.

The reasons for the corrupt civil service, which in turn has given room to ineffective service delivery, are not too far to seek: these are the weak institutional structures, cumbersome administrative procedure, negative attitude of the civil servants to work and individuals’ insatiable appetite for wealth at all costs. Public policy researchers have since discovered that the culture of accountability and ethical behaviour, for which the service was once noted, has been thrown overboard.

The civil servants are part and parcel of the executive arm of government. There is no modern government that does not depend on a virile civil service to make input into the policy making process and the implementation of such policies. By definition, civil servants are permanent government officials. They are embedded in the three arms of government through the extant laws that establish the regulatory frameworks including the federal and state judicial and assembly service commissions. They enjoy continuity of service and are protected by the Public Service Rules (PSR), which specify the conditions for appointment into the Federal Civil Service under PSR 02205 and 02206, and situation under which an officer may leave the service particularly, officers in the pensionable establishment under Section 8 of chapter two of the PSR. These are replicated in the state public services too in Nigeria very convoluted federation.

In recent times, most Nigerians have been worried about the level of corruption and sluggishness in the Nigerian civil service. The rules of the service have been subverted and the service has been given various nasty and dirty names. Just as Vice President Osinbajo noted, civil servants are now being derided as “evil servants.” Two factors responsible for this are psychological and the sociological.

The psychological factors include greed, drive of an individual to exploit, insatiable appetite and crave to have more, and the fear of the unknown. The culture of ethical behaviour and accountability in service is no longer adhered to as different researchers and commentators have noted at different times. The other reason for corruption in the service include weak institutional structures, cumbersome administrative procedure, negative attitudes of the civil servants, non-disclosure of information unless someone pays for it, the destruction of civil service rule of impartiality and political neutrality which obtain in most government establishments. All these have made it easier for the procedure not to be followed.

As some studies have shown, other critical failure factors of the service include non-application of modern techniques of management, absence of performance emphasis, systematic evaluation and lack of emphasis on accountability.

The lack of efficiency and effectiveness in the civil service is built on corruption and has prompted various reforms proposal. One of these attempts to reform the civil service was in March 2004 which came as a result of corruption and inefficiency noticed in the service. According to former President Olusegun Obasanjo, in his address at the service compact retreat in 2004, “Regrettably, Nigerians have for too long been shortchanged by the quality of civil service/public service delivery by which decisions are not made without undue influence and files do not move without being pushed with inducements. Our public offices have too long been shown cases for the combined evils of ineffectiveness, inefficiency and corruption, whilst being impediments to effect implementation of government policies.”

There is no doubt that corruption, whether political or institutional, destroys the socio-economic life of any nation, makes economic planning difficult, if not impossible, stifles implementation of infrastructural project, while it concentrates wealth in the hands of a few individuals. It equally promotes widespread poverty and large scale unemployment, inflation, destruction of efficiency in public institutions, destruction of ethical, moral, religious and domestic values and foster an environment in which unfairness and inequity thrive.

At independence in 1960, when Nigerian leaders took over the civil service, no attempt was made to restructure the civil service to suit the new nation’s own developmental needs; hence the inbuilt corruption in the system has continued till today despite the series of reforms that have taken place by successive regimes in Nigeria.

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Several reforms carried out after independence include the Adebo Commission (1971), Udoji Public Service Review Commission of 1974, Dotun Philip Civil Service Reform of 1988, Allison Ayida Committee on Civil Service of 1995, etc. Despite all these reforms the same spirit of inefficiency and corruption has continued unabated.

That is why over the years, policies designed to improve the quality of life for the poor and to spur economic growth have often failed despite reforms.

As a nation, we need to note that a beautifully designed policy that seems to have high benefits may fail in the face of weak institutions that can’t deal with impurities and cankerworms in the system. One response is to urge a crackdown by law enforcement authorities, but that strategy will seldom be sufficient. That is why fighting a few caught officials as Nigeria often does hardly addresses the root of corruption, which is in the civil service. Those seeking to further economic development need to understand the institutional origins of corruption and take them into account in designing polices. Certain policies may simply be unfeasible because they are riddled with incentives for illicit self-dealing.

Others may need to be combined with programmes explicitly designed to reduce the incentives for corruption built into existing institutions. Which is why the presidency is hereby urged to move from rhetoric to action on corruption in the civil service.

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