“The most reliable method yet invented to ensure that governments provide people with social and economic necessities is called politics” – The Economist (London), March 24, 2007.
Drawing on my years of systematic study of politics as a discipline and decades of continuous observation of political practice in Nigeria, I consider the following as the critical ingredients for getting politics right: a devolved federation, good democratic practice, and administrative competence. After discussing each ingredient in turn, including attention to their varying potential contributions towards making Nigeria work for all its citizens, I conclude with four recommendations.
A devolved federation
To ensure that Nigeria functions effectively as a devolved federation, the two core issues to address are political restructuring, and the reallocation of functions and resources.
Reconfiguring the country’s federating units
Three alternatives have been advocated over the past two decades: increase the number of existing thirty-six states by eighteen to make a total of fifty-four states; constitute the six geopolitical zones into the federating units; or maintain the existing thirty-six-state structure. I remain convinced that it was illogical for the 2014 National Political Conference to simultaneously recommend the adoption of a fifty-four-state structure and more functions and resources for all fifty-four subnational governments. Logically, support for significant reduction in the powers and resources of the central government should mean a fewer number of federating units.
In these circumstances, I align with the school of thought that advocates the adoption of the six geo-political zones as the federating units. This would move the country closer to a devolved federation than the alternatives. The equality of three zones in the south and three zones in the north will restore the sensible 6:6 north-south balance of the twelve-state structure adopted in 1967 and put behind us the inequality introduced arbitrarily by successive military dictators that resulted in the current 19:17 north/south sharing of states. When twelve states were created in 1966, the need to maintain balance between the northern and southern parts of the country was explicitly stated. The persistent agitation for an equal number of states among geopolitical zones since 1999 confirms the wisdom of the structural re-organization of 1967.
Next, each federating unit should be free to decide on the number of sub-units (districts/local governments) that are appropriate for its peoples, taking into account cultural, geographical, and developmental imperatives. In almost every other federation in the world, it is the federating units that freely determine the number, size, and functions of their subordinate jurisdictions. Consequently, the subordinate jurisdictions of the federating units will not feature in the constitution that will establish Nigeria as a devolved federation, unlike the 1999 Constitution that contains a list of all local government areas in the country with their headquarters.
It should also be mentioned, in passing, that there are currently, at the extreme, some groups that clamour for separation, notably the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), the Niger Delta Avengers, (NDA) and a motley of Yoruba Self-determination Groups. However, there is a real sense in which the reconfiguring of the country’s federating units advocated here could remove the major raison d’etre of these separatist groups. This assertion of devolution as an antidote to separatism can be buttressed by the experiences of Canada/ “separatist” Quebec and Spain/ “separatist” Catalonia: each country has remained one because it has implemented significant devolution of powers and resources in response to demands by its disaffected constituent part. Thus, Quebec Province was recognised at the national (federal) level as a distinct society in 1995 and as a distinct nation in 2006. And in Spain, Catalonia was granted a measure of autonomy in 1932 (abolished under General Franco, 1938-1975 and restored in 2006).
Reallocation of functions
Subsidiarity principle should be adopted in reallocating functions between the central government and the six subnational governments recommended. As defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, subsidiarity is “the principle that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed at a more local level”. Taking into account this principle and the assignment of functions in the 1954 and 1963 Constitutions, the desirable reallocation of functions in a devolved Nigerian federation should result in a short exclusive federal list including national defense, currency, foreign exchange, foreign trade and external affairs; joint responsibility in respect of some crucial functions that are currently assigned exclusively to the federal government (for example, internal security); and primary responsibility of the sub-national governments in respect of all other state functions.
Specifically, the proposed joint responsibility for internal security would mean the abandonment of the existing poorly functioning unitary Nigeria Police Force: each federating unit would have its police for protecting lives and property within its territorial area. This is likely to ensure improved level of internal security in the country. More details on the desirable assignment of functions in a devolved federal system can be found in three widely cited documents that have examined the subject during the past two decades: the Draft Peoples’ Constitution produced in 2006 by the Pro-National Conference Organizations (PRONACO), the report of the 2014 National Political Conference, and the report of the El-Rufai-led Committee on True Federalism (2018).
It is important to add that the advocacy for the application of the subsidiarity principle to the assignment of functions between the central government and the federating units also extends to the assignment of functions between each federating unit and its subordinate jurisdictions. This would mean that within a federating unit, government functions would be devolved to the level of government capable of performing the functions effectively.
Reallocation of resources
In the discussion of the reallocation of resources within the Nigerian federal system over the last two decades and longer, “fiscal federalism”, “fiscal autonomy”, and “resource control” have been used as synonyms for: (a) autonomy of subnational governments over a more significant proportion of the revenues accruing from resources within their respective territorial areas and (b) sharing of federation account funds to reflect the new reallocation of more functions to the subnational governments. The fiscal autonomy provisions in the 1954 and 1963 Constitutions are most often cited, especially the provision on 50 percent derivation principle regarding the proceeds of any royalty received by the Federation in respect of any minerals extracted from a federating unit and any mining rents derived by the Federation from within the unit. It is also provided that the Federation shall credit to the Distributable Pool Account (renamed Federation Account in the 1999 Constitution) a sum equal to thirty per cent of the proceeds of any royalty received by the Federation in respect of minerals extracted in any unit and any mining rents received by the Federation from within any unit. The goal is to ensure that states achieve fiscal self-reliance that will enable them to function effectively as poles of development. It is important to point up the huge difference between the 50 percent derivation principle and the provision in the 1999 Constitution for “not less than thirteen percent” of revenues accruing from natural resources to be allocated to the resource-rich states.
Regarding the sharing of the Federation Account, the revenue allocation formula that was skewed in favour of the central government under military rule and inherited at the inception of civilian rule in 1999 has been maintained: the federal government maintains a 52.68 percent share and only 26.72 percent and 20 percent goes to the state and local governments, respectively. To date, efforts of the Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) to revise the formula have all been aborted, due to the inaction of the legislative and executive arms of government. For obvious reasons, the revenue allocation formula applied to the Federation Account should reflect the proposed reallocation of functions, and be consistent with the imperatives of fiscal federalism and fiscal autonomy as already elucidated above. Consequently, I would propose a two-way 35:65 sharing ratio, that is, 35 percent for the central government and 65 percent for the governments of the federating units. The 65 percent for the six federating units should be shared equally among them; each federating unit should be free to decide on the proportions to share among its respective subordinate jurisdictions, as well as on the formula for intra-unit revenue sharing.
Advantages of a devolved federation
Notwithstanding the affirmation of Nigeria as “indivisible and indissoluble” in Chapter 1, Part 1, Section 2 (1) of the country’s 1999 Constitution, the necessity of a devolved federation to assure the country’s unity asserted by Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa in 1957 must be accepted. He said: “The federal system is, under the present conditions, the only basis on which Nigeria can remain united.” The prime minister was referring to the devolved federal system enshrined in the country’s 1954 Constitution. The “conditions” he referred to are the ethnic and linguistic diversity in the country that informed the extensive devolution in the 1954 Constitution. The argument for a devolved federation presented above also takes into account the religious, regional, and geographical divisions within the country. Concretely, then, a devolved federation is critical to keeping Nigeria one; it is indisputably a fundamental condition for making our multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and multi-religious country work.
I would add that a devolved federation enhances the ability of central and subnational governments to deliver goods and services to citizens. Following the adoption of a devolved federal system in 1954, the central and regional governments (at varying paces) recorded decent levels of socio-economic development and the public enjoyed, in varying degrees, quality public services.
Professor Ladipo Adamolekun, Iju, Akure North, Ondo State.
Examples included roads that were regularly maintained by functioning public works departments (PWDs) with a network of maintenance posts across the
country; train service that was predictable; quality primary and secondary/technical education; and a premier university (at Ibadan) that was among the best in Africa and was widely regarded at home and abroad as a world-class institution. Furthermore, stable government policies, a framework of order, and serious attention to implementation ensured the vast majority of the population lived above poverty level; those below were estimated at about 25 percent by the mid-1960s.
In contrast, the centralised federal system under military rule for close to three decades between 1966 and 1999 was characterised by the concentration of power and resources at the centre through military fiat. Although there was noticeable economic growth (spurred largely by oil and gas), it was essentially a case of growth without development; there was an increase in the poverty level, estimated to be about 65 percent by 1998. The maintenance of a centralised federal system in the constitution that ushered in civilian rule in 1999 has meant that power and resources remain concentrated at the centre as was the case under the pre-1999 arrangements.
Most observers of the post-1999 Nigeria state would agree that the challenges of insecurity, deepening poverty resulting from low socio-economic development (the country became the poverty capital of the world in 2018), and the threats of separatism are due, to a considerable extent, to the country’s over-centralised federal system. The governments that will emerge through a devolved federation with the characteristics recommended above are almost certain to be better equipped to tackle these challenges.
Good democratic practice
A country with good democratic practice is one where the conduct of public affairs is in accordance with the following four core democratic principles that are widely accepted worldwide: free, fair, and transparent elections; respect for the rule of law and equality of all before the law; respect for human (individual) rights; and freedom of speech and association. Chapter II, Section 14 (1) of Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution affirms the country’s commitment to democratic principles: “The Federal Republic of Nigeria shall be a State based on the principles of democracy and social justice.” What is Nigeria’s scorecard with respect to the measures of good democratic practice since 1999, and how has this impacted on the health of the polity?
The six election cycles completed in the country since 1999 (1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015, and 2019) only respected the principle of “free, fair and transparent elections” to some extent. Normally, a government that emerges through free, fair, and credible elections is expected to be accountable to the citizens that have entrusted the exercise of political authority to it. In turn, the citizens who, through their votes, have determined who governs them (this includes using their votes to remove non-performing governments) are also expected to demand accountability from their rulers. The combination of rulers who are accountable to their citizens and citizens that demand accountability from their rulers is generally considered as one of the key ingredients for accelerating national development. Because the periodic elections held in Nigeria to date have only been partially free, fair and transparent, rulers have not been sufficiently accountable to citizens and citizens’ demand for accountability has been rather limited. This low score on democratic accountability is one of the key explanatory factors for a Nigeria that most citizens consider is not working for them.
Other illustrations of the partial respect for the principle of free, fair, and transparent elections include varying degrees of violence during elections, allegations of rigging and vote-buying and excessive number of election petitions against election results that involve the interventions of Nigerian courts to an extent that is arguably unparalleled elsewhere in the world. In particular, relevant laws should be amended to bring to a definitive end the phenomenon of the judiciary superseding the ballot box in the selection of political leaders. Transformation toward an electoral democracy where elections are free, fair, transparent, and accepted by all is the obvious challenge to be tackled in order to assure the full benefits of electoral legitimacy, as highlighted above.
It is important to add that the country’s low score on democratic accountability is also due, in part, to the limited effectiveness of legislatures across the country. In particular, legislators at the central level, arguably the highest paid worldwide, are notorious for the low impact of their legislative oversight functions and for so-called “constituency projects” that are, in most cases, thinly disguised avenues for additional corrupt earnings. (Each of the 469 lawmakers has fourteen projects inserted into the 2022 Budget Act!) The obvious remedial measures are scaling up of legislative oversight functions at both the central and subnational levels and significant reduction in legislative salaries and sundry allowances at the federal level; it is indefensible for a country that is the world’s poverty capital to be paying the highest emoluments to its legislative politicians.
Political participation and party system
A critical underpinning of electoral legitimacy is political participation, notably through political parties. Given the broad agreement in studies of democracies that a viable party system is an indispensable pillar of democracy, it would make sense for countries to formally regulate the establishment and functioning of political parties. In contrast to the United States, where the word “party” is not mentioned in the Constitution, there are provisions on political parties in Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution in Part III, D – Political Parties (Articles 221–229). They include rules of party organisation and functioning, transparency and accountability in party finance, and “powers of the National Assembly with respect to political parties.”
Contrary to the intendment of the Constitution, there is strong evidence that Nigeria’s post-1999 party system is weak and unviable. The country’s two major parties (Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, and All Progressives Congress, APC) that have ruled at the centre in succession since 1999 (1999-2015 and 2015 to date respectively) are focused almost exclusively on winning power by all means possible, but with no aims other than securing the spoils of office. They are virtually indistinguishable: neither is committed to clearly articulated political principles and ideals. And neither of them focuses on citizen mobilisation as they compete for fake membership registrations and vote buying – actions that are antithetical to promoting participatory democracy.
For Nigeria to achieve a strong party system that would enhance electoral legitimacy and political participation, the provisions on political parties detailed in the 1999 Constitution should be radically pruned. All matters that fall more appropriately in the domain of law should be removed, thereby avoiding the tedious procedures for amending constitutional provisions. For example, while Article 224 that requires congruence between the aims and objects of political parties and the provisions in Chapter II of the Constitution (on Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy) should be maintained, Article 223 on the constitution and rules of political parties is inappropriate in a Constitution. The unenforceability of the constitutional provisions on democratic practices within parties, as well as on transparency and accountability in party finance further underscores the need to expunge them. Furthermore, after two decades, there is no evidence that the constitutional mandate for nation-wide party organizations in order to promote national unity has contributed meaningfully to the achievement of this objective – Article 222 (e) formally prohibits the creation of political parties that “are confined to a part only of the geographical area of Nigeria”.
I would argue that there should be room for parties that might choose to seek to win power in one or a combination of federating units as is the case in India, a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual federal state like Nigeria. Parties that choose to operate nationwide would, in most cases, find it necessary to forge alliances with parties that are strong at subnational levels. This could herald the emergence of some parties with shared ideas and principles. And as in India, the establishment, organisation and functioning of parties should be regulated by law. This recommendation implies that the regulation of political parties should be on the concurrent legislative list as is the case in almost every federal system. Significantly, the abandonment of a constitutionally-mandated national political party system is also very likely to enhance both political participation and democratic accountability through parties that operate close to the citizens.
Rule of law
In addition to the constitutional provision on Nigeria’s commitment to democratic principles that includes respect for the rule of law and equality of all before the law and respect for human/individual rights, Chapter II Section 17 (2e) of the Constitution provides that “the independence, impartiality and integrity of courts of law, easy accessibility thereto shall be secured and maintained.” In general, the rule of law, underpinned by an independent court system and judicial efficiency, implies a predictable legal order that helps to ensure settlement of conflicts between the state and individuals, on the one hand, and among individuals or groups on the other. It also helps to ensure respect for property rights and contracts, as well as respect for human/individual rights.
Furthermore, there is strong evidence that judicial independence and judicial efficiency help to enhance socio-economic development. The main points usually highlighted are the following: judicial inefficiency is bad for litigants and for economic prosperity; inability to enforce and protect legal rights (especially property and contractual rights) undermines economic growth, while effective enforcement tends to attract both domestic and foreign direct investment (FDI). And it is widely acknowledged in the development literature that an economy in which people have rights is more sustainable than one in which individual rights are denied.
Given these attractive advantages to be derived from making Nigeria a functioning law-based state, to what extent has the rule of law been respected in the country since 1999? Overall, Nigeria’s performance has been below average. For example, the country’s scores and rankings with respect to the rule of law in the Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) that is used to assess African countries from 2000 to date has been consistently below average. Specifically, in the 2020 report, Nigeria scored 44.3 percent and was ranked thirty-fourth out of fifty-four countries in the category that assessed the rule of law. And according to the World Justice Project (WJP) Rule of Law Index that measures how the rule of law is experienced and perceived across countries, Nigeria recorded a low score of 41 percent in 2015 and ranked ninety-sixth out of 103 countries; 43 percent, ranked 108th across 128 countries in 2020; and 39.7 percent, ranked 121st out of 139 countries in 2021.
The obvious challenges are how best to enhance judicial efficiency and predictability as well as improve respect for the rule of law in Nigeria. The National Judicial Reform Programme embarked upon in the country in the 2000s with the following components was aimed at tackling some aspects of the challenges: (i) improving the efficiency of the court system as well as citizens’ access; (ii) re-building/rehabilitation of infrastructure and renewal of equipment; (iii) strengthening the capacity of judicial and para-judicial staff; (iv) enhancing professionalism and integrity of judiciary personnel; and (v) creation of a judicial database. Because the programme was only implemented half-heartedly, the country’s judicial system has remained weak with respect to almost every component highlighted for reform close to two decades ago, especially judicial efficiency, citizens’ access, and the integrity of judicial personnel. In particular, the country’s judiciary is reputed to be corrupt.
Finally, it is important to stress that the low perception of the rule of law in Nigeria is also due to the failure of successive executive power holders at the federal level since 1999 to respect judicial independence and obey court orders. The only exception was President Umaru Musa Yar’Ardua who formally committed to governing Nigeria as a law-based state. But his rule was short-lived as he died without completing one four-year term in office. Two notable examples are: (i) President Obasanjo’s disobedience of several court orders including withholding for about five years the transfer of allocations from the Federation Account to local governments in Lagos State directed by the Supreme Court in 2002; and (ii) President Buhari’s strange assertion in 2018 that the rule of law must be subject to “national interest” (presumably, as determined by him).
To make Nigeria a functioning law-based state and ensure that the rule of law is perceived and experienced as effective and efficient would require: faithful implementation of a revamped Judicial Reform Programme; tackling the problem of corruption in the judiciary; and an end to executive power holders’ disrespect for judicial independence and disobedience of court orders.
Protection of human rights and freedom of speech and association
These two remaining core principles of democracy are covered in the provisions in Chapter IV of Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution on Fundamental Rights. Of the eleven (11) fundamental rights protected under the constitution, freedom of speech and association is covered by two: “Right to freedom of expression and the press” and “Right to peaceful assembly and association.”. The remaining nine (9) are: “Right to life”; “Right to dignity of human person”; “Right to personal liberty”; “Right to fair hearing”; “Right to private and family life”; “Right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”; “Right to freedom of movement”; “Right to freedom from discrimination”; and “Right to acquire and own immovable property anywhere in Nigeria.”
On freedom of speech, assembly and association
It is important to note that during close to three decades of military rule in post-independent Nigeria (between 1966 and 1999), citizens’ rights to free speech, peaceful assembly, and association were disrespected to a considerable extent by successive military governments. It is against this illiberal backdrop that periodic threats to press freedom and citizens’ right to peaceful assembly and association in post-1999 Nigeria can be regarded as a carry-over of inherited bad habits.
Three recent examples would suffice; two relate to press freedom and freedom of expression and the third is an illustration of disrespect of citizens’ right to peaceful assembly. Regarding press freedom, two anti-media bills introduced in mid-2021 in the National Assembly that sought to intimidate and stifle the press were only abandoned after the stout opposition of the print and electronic media, with support from civil society organisations. Freedom of expression was infringed in the country by the central government’s ban on Twitter for 222 days between June 2021 and January 2022. In October 2020, a series of peaceful #EndSARS mass protests by youths in many cities across the country against police brutality was viciously suppressed. (End SARS was a slogan that called for the disbanding of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, SARS, a unit of the Nigerian Police with a long record of abuses). The widely reported murder of some protesters by soldiers at the Lekki tollgate in Lagos engendered mindless arson, looting, and killings over several days in the city before security personnel restored order. The subsequent clampdown on several #EndSARS protest promoters – arrested, detained and prosecuted – was strong evidence of the curtailment of the freedom of assembly and association in the country.
On other human rights
Overall, the other fundamental human rights listed in the 1999 Constitution have not been adequately protected. Evidence of human rights abuses abound: arbitrary detention without trial; brutality by security agencies against civilians; religious discrimination; extra-judicial killings; forced disappearances by the government; unlawful interference with privacy; trafficking in persons; child labour; and violence against women. According to the Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI) report (2021) Nigeria’s human rights record is “very poor” and is “worse than [the] average in sub-Saharan Africa.” The metrics used in the HRMI report comprise eight civil and political human rights, covering broadly the same eleven fundamental rights listed in Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution and five economic and social human rights. Although Nigeria only has non-justiciable social and economic “objectives,” spelled out in Chapter II of the 1999 Constitution, it is important to highlight HRMI’s finding that Nigeria’s score for economic and social rights falls within a “very bad” [low] range.
An important measure of whether or not Nigeria is working is the extent to which governments at the federal and subnational levels provide citizens with social and economic services. Worldwide, governments depend on a public/civil service (or bureaucracy) with requisite knowledge, skills and capacity to bear the primary responsibility for service delivery to their citizens. Administrative competence is used here as a short-hand for this instrument that helps governments to deliver services to their citizens.
The experience of Western Region of Nigeria in the 1950s is a good illustration of how administrative competence helps to ensure effective and quality service delivery. By the end of 1959, Western Nigeria had recorded giant strides in the fields of agriculture, education, health, housing, transportation, industrial development and communication. And the most notable of the achievements was the introduction and successful implementation of the “First in Africa” Universal Primary Education (UPE), that was launched in January 1955. The following testimony on the crucial success factor for the accomplishments was provided by the out-going regional Premier, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, in his valedictory address to the Western Nigeria House of Assembly in November 1959:
Our civil service is exceedingly efficient, absolutely incorruptible in its upper stratum, and utterly devoted and unstinting in the discharge of its many onerous duties. For our civil servants, government workers and labourers to bear, uncomplainingly and without breaking down, the heavy and multifarious burdens with which we have in the interest of the public saddled them, is an epic of loyalty and devotion, of physical and mental endurance, and of a sense of mission, on their part. From the bottom of my heart, I salute all of them.
Awo. Autobiography of Chief Obafemi Awolowo (1960).
There are similar success stories of civil service institutions at specific historical periods in some countries across the continents. I would cite as examples Botswana in Africa, Japan and Singapore in Asia, and France in Europe. Botswana’s civil service has been acknowledged by both its political leaders and outside observers as one of the key factors that made it possible for the country to emerge as one of only thirteen (13) countries worldwide that recorded sustained high growth (seven percent and above) for twenty-five years or longer during the second half of the twentieth century (Commission on Growth and Development, 2008).
In Asia, Japan’s post-war civil service with widely-acknowledged honest and competent upper professional levels is reputed to have played a critical role in the country’s post-war economic miracle. In the case of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, a former prime minister, highlights the contribution of the civil service in the country’s rise “From Third to First World”. In 2008, the country’s Prime Minister, Mr Lee Hsien Loong, asserted that Singapore’s civil service has remained critical to the country’s good development performance: “(Singapore’s public service) is our most sustainable competitive advantage. The investments in Singapore’s future are only realizable with a first-class public service.” Regarding France, the impressive recovery of the country from the devastations of the Second World War within a decade (between 1946 and the mid-1950s) is widely attributed to the country’s civil service with a critical mass of competent technocrats (technical and administrative professionals) in its upper echelons.
There are four key issues in the literature on civil service systems that the success stories highlighted above got right, in varying degrees: (i) career (permanent) civil service; (ii) civil servants and service delivery; (iii) education and training programmes for civil servants; and (iv) ethical standards in public life. I would argue that it is through serious attention to these four issues that governments in Nigeria can regain the administrative competence that was lost between the late 1970s and early 1980s, and has remained elusive to date. Evidence of this persistent lack of administrative competence is provided by the continuing complaints of political leaders at both the federal and state levels about the weak implementation capacity of their civil services since the return to civilian rule in 1999. And it is noteworthy that President Buhari confirmed Nigeria’s lack of administrative competence in his speech marking the sixty-first anniversary of the county’s Independence anniversary on October 1, 2021. He said: “For far too long we have neglected the centrality of the civil service as the engine of governance and this has manifested in ineffective service delivery. There is widespread discontent and disillusion about the efficiency and probity of our civil service. It is for this reason that we are refocusing the Nigerian Civil Service to provide World class service to run our country.”
The major explanation for Nigeria’s persistent lack of administrative competence is that the reform programmes adopted by federal and state governments from the mid-2000s to date, covering varying combinations of the four issues highlighted above, were only implemented half-heartedly. Indeed, an ambitious administrative reform strategy that was prepared at the request of the federal government in 2009 (updated in 2011 and 2015) – the National Strategy for Public Service Reform (NSPSR) – has remained largely neglected. Furthermore, there have been varying degrees of confusion and contradiction regarding the imperative of merit-based recruitment and promotion in a career civil service and the challenge of ethical standards in public life. Brief comments are provided below on each of the four issues, including actions that can contribute to regaining administrative competence.
Career (permanent) civil service
There is broad agreement in public administration literature on the following four salient features of a career civil service: recruitment and promotion based on merit, security of tenure, fixed decent salary, and political neutrality. By 1999, all these features that had characterized Nigerian civil services in varying degrees from the 1950s to the mid-1970s had been abandoned. In particular, arbitrary purges of civil service personnel during military rule in the 1970s and 1980s resulted in the abandonment of security of tenure. Furthermore, merit-based recruitment and promotion has been subordinated to the Federal Character principle introduced in 1979 to ensure representativeness in the civil services but interpreted in practice as a crude, opaque, and sometimes blatantly unfair, quota system. Today, the federal civil service and almost all the civil services at the subnational level no longer function as career institutions.
Restoration of civil services as career institutions would require governments to commit to the primacy of the merit principle in recruitment and promotion; accept to respect security of tenure for civil servants (with only transparent and rule-bound exceptions); provide for decent salaries; and adopt and implement guidelines for enforcing the political neutrality of civil servants.
Civil servants and service delivery
The primary purpose of government in the modern state is the delivery of goods and services to the public. Because the primary instrument of governments for service delivery is the civil service, it is the capability of the civil service that determines the extent of public satisfaction with the services delivered – the scope, quality, accessibility and timeliness. In each of the success stories cited earlier (Western Region of Nigeria, Botswana, Singapore, Japan, and France), a well-performing civil service made the difference.
It is important to stress that some aspects of the three other selected features of civil service systems contribute to the capability of civil servants to deliver services efficiently and effectively to the public. Merit-based recruitment and promotion, security of tenure, and fixed decent salary are strongly linked to quality service delivery. It is through relevant education and training programmes that civil servants are equipped for ensuring effective and efficient service delivery. And fair and impartial delivery of services is best assured when high ethical standards are enforced in the civil service.
Education and training programmes for civil servants
Nigeria, like many other African countries, has paid attention to the provision of education and training programmes for civil servants from the immediate pre-independence years through the first decades of independence to the present. Today, the federal government seeks to provide education and training for its civil servants through the Administrative Staff College of Nigeria (ASCON), established in the 1970s, and the Public Service Institute of Nigeria (PSIN), established in the mid-2000s. At the subnational level, many governments have established or strengthened Staff Development Centres/Institutes/Colleges for building the capacity of their civil servants (for example, Cross Rivers, Edo, Jigawa, Kaduna, Kwara, and Lagos States).
However, for these efforts to contribute significantly to the regaining of administrative competence, they need to be scaled up and sustained. For example, there is need for the two federal education and training institutions (ASCON and PSIN) to focus more sharply on capacity development of the senior ranks of civil servants (directorate level), drawing on the experiences of similar institutions in four “older” Commonwealth countries (Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand). In the early 2000s, three institutions were established in these countries (Australia and New Zealand jointly established one) to assume primary responsibility for capacity development efforts focused on the senior ranks of public servants in their respective countries – Australia and New Zealand School of Government (2002), Canada School of Public Service (2004) and UK’s National School of Government (2005). In the case of the UK, the school’s mission is “to develop leadership in the public service, increase professionalism, deliver outcomes, and improve efficiency.”
At the subnational level, the existing institutions (and those to be established) should seek to enhance the quality of their capacity development programmes through partnerships with universities in their respective geopolitical zones, as regional/state governments did from the 1950s through the 1960s to the 1970s.
Ethical standards in public life
In Chief Awolowo’s praise for the Western Regional Civil Service, cited earlier, he pointedly asserted that the institution was “absolutely incorruptible in its upper stratum.” With an incorruptible upper stratum, it is logical to expect that high ethical standards would be enforced throughout the service. Taking corruption as a proxy for measuring ethical standards, low corruption would mean high ethical standards while high corruption would mean low ethical standards. According to the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) published by Transparency International since 1996, Nigeria has consistently recorded high corruption. In contrast to Nigeria’s consistently high corruption, all the countries cited as having administrative competence (Botswana, France, Japan, and Singapore) have consistently recorded low corruption. In other words, there is a positive correlation between low corruption and administrative competence. Therefore, for Nigeria to achieve administrative competence, it must progress from high to low corruption.
Faithful enforcement of the corruption-related provisions in Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution is a prerequisite for achieving the required progress from high to low corruption. For example, enforcement of the constitutional “prohibition of foreign accounts” by public officers would ensure that corrupt public officers would not be able to stash the proceeds of their corruption in offshore accounts. Sadly, evidence of enforcement failure was revealed in two recent international investigative reports on corrupt practices – the Panama Papers (2016) and the Pandora Papers (2021) – that feature some serving Nigerian public officers.
Conclusion and recommendations
To get politics right and make Nigeria work, I proffer the following four recommendations: a devolved federation is a necessity, not a choice; good democratic practice matters; administrative competence is a critical success factor; and a development-oriented political leadership is key. The first three recommendations are based on the preceding discussions of the three ingredients of getting politics right. The fourth recommendation, the imperative of a development-oriented political leadership, is an important lesson learned from the literature on post-colonial countries with well-performing governments that deliver social and economic necessities to their citizens.
A devolved federation is a necessity, not a choice
The devolved federation that Nigeria needs will have the following characteristics: six federating units (the existing six geo-political zones) instead of the existing thirty-six states, of which only a few are viable; assignment of functions between the central government and the federating units based on the principle of subsidiarity similar, to a considerable extent, to the assignment of functions in the 1963 Constitution; and allocation of resources that is consistent with both the imperative of fiscal federalism and the proposed increased functions for subnational governments.
Adopting and faithfully implementing a devolved federation is critical to keeping Nigeria one; it is a fundamental condition for making our multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual country work. In particular, a devolved federal system is very likely to enhance the ability of central and subnational governments to more effectively deliver goods and services to citizens. In my considered opinion, the certainty that the pace of socio-economic development would vary among the federating units is a better outcome than the poor development performance recorded nation-wide under the prevailing over centralization and uniformity.
Good democratic practice matters
As already mentioned, the combination of governments that are accountable to citizens and citizens that demand accountability is widely acknowledged as an important factor for enhancing national development. For Nigeria to benefit from accountable governance, the improvements needed for strengthening electoral legitimacy must be introduced and implemented. They include making elections more credible through elimination of rigging and vote buying; ensuring that political leaders emerge through the ballot box and not through court orders; and enhancing the scope of political participation within a strengthened party system. There is also need to improve the functioning of legislatures by ensuring the effectiveness and focus of legislative oversight and reducing the burden of financing legislatures on governments’ budgets.
The strong linkages of effective rule of law to socio-economic development, settlement of conflicts and protection of human rights constitute a compelling argument for serious attention to tackling the challenges of Nigeria’s judicial system. There is need to introduce and implement appropriate measures for enhancing the independence and efficiency of the judiciary. Crucially, to enhance the credibility of the judiciary and earn it greater public respect, the National Judicial Council needs to do more to promote attitudinal re-orientation of judicial personnel and flush out the corrupt judges and magistrates who pervert justice for personal enrichment.
Finally, low respect for freedom of speech (notably press freedom) and association in the country under successive governments undermines societal peace and citizens’ national pride and redounds negatively on national development. Turning this around would require the abandonment of illiberal attitudes by legislators and political executives as well as appropriate training and equipment for the police and other security personnel.
Administrative competence is a critical success factor
President Buhari’s testimony in his Independence Day speech (October 1, 2021) to the pertinence of this recommendation that was already highlighted deserves to be repeated:
For far too long we have neglected the centrality of the civil service as the engine of governance, and this has manifested in ineffective service delivery. There is widespread discontent and disillusion about the efficiency and probity of our civil service. It is for this reason that we are refocusing the Nigerian Civil Service to provide world class service to run our country.
To reverse this lack of administrative competence would require rapidly updating and implementing the existing National Public Service Reform Strategy, NSPSR (2009) which has the following vision: “A world-class public service delivering government policies effectively and implementing programmes with professionalism, integrity, excellence, and passion to secure sustainable national development.”
It is important to stress that effective strengthening of the country’s civil services would also require joined up efforts of both the leaders of the civil service institutions and the political leaders who would need to provide continuous and adequate nurturing for the institutions. As demonstrated by the examples of well-performing civil services elsewhere (for example, those of Australia, Botswana, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore and United States), inputs of carefully selected outside experts enhance the prospects for success.
Development-oriented political leadership is key
As used here, a development-oriented leader is one under whose watch his/her country records good progress in growing its economy, reducing poverty, assuring security, and moving towards prosperity for all its citizens. This interpretation is broadly similar to the criterion for the Mo Ibrahim Africa Leadership Prize that was introduced in 2007. The Prize “recognizes and celebrates African leaders who have developed their countries, lifted people out of poverty and paved the way for sustainable and equitable prosperity.” I would add the following leadership attributes to the characterization of a development-oriented political leader: integrity, intelligence, competence, and vision.
Strikingly, neither of Nigeria’s two post-1999 presidents who could have been (or were) considered for the Mo Ibrahim Leadership Prize – presidents Olusegun Obasanjo (1999–2007) and Jonathan Goodluck (2010–2015) – qualified for the Prize. And incumbent president Buhari who has ruled for six and one-half years (2015 to date) will almost certainly not qualify for consideration for the Prize at the end of his tenure because of the persistent stunted development of Nigeria under his watch. For example, Nigeria is simultaneously the world headquarters for extreme poverty (since 2018) and the world capital for out-of-school children (by 2021, one of every five children in the world out of school lives in the country). Furthermore, in the Fragile States Index 2021, Nigeria ranked twelfth most fragile country, out of 179 surveyed. (The survey took into account social, economic and political factors such as ethnic and religious conflicts, corruption, economic inequality and decline, and widespread rights abuses.)
Whilst maintenance of the good practice of producing political leaders through the ballot box must be maintained, political parties should, henceforth, agree not to adopt former military leaders as party leaders, or as presidential/gubernatorial candidates. The two recycled military leaders who have served as presidents during the post-1999 era have demonstrated clearly that military culture trumps democratic culture: a “civilianized” Nigerian military leader cannot be a democrat.
Furthermore, I would recommend that, henceforth, every aspiring Nigerian political leader at both the central and subnational levels should undertake a rigorous self-assessment – based on the above characterization of a development-oriented political leader and four selected leadership attributes – and determine whether she/he is fit to contest for the position of president or governor. It would also be desirable for Nigerian voters to always take into consideration both the leadership attributes of contestants for president and governor as well as the development policies and programmes they advocate before casting their votes.
Professor Ladipo Adamolekun, Iju, Akure North, Ondo State.