The existential in the crisis of Nigerian public service

All across the world, the public servant is usually the butt of crude and violent jokes that bother on the bureaucratic ineffectiveness and inefficiency of the public service and of the government of the day. This is so easy to understand—the public service is the most functional arm of the government; it is the institution that the citizens relate with and encounter on a regular basis. The experience of this encounter varies from one administrative context to another. In the highly industrialized countries where the government respects the social contract between the government and the governed and thrives on the strength of its performance, the government and its public service have become highly efficient and hence highly responsive to the infrastructural demands of their citizens. Indeed, it is the public service in these countries that determine the dynamics of good governance. The opposite is the case in the underdeveloped countries, especially in Africa and in Nigeria, where the state is neither developmental and is therefore still struggling with the reform of the public service to bring it up to the level of reform efficiency and capability readiness that will transform the infrastructural framework of those states and make democratic governance empowering to the citizens.

The encounter between the citizens and the public servants in, say, Nigeria is a much more volatile one. And it is volatile precisely because the public service is not optimally efficient, and hence the infrastructural framework is not empowering to the citizens. We visit the PHCN office, we encounter the police and the road safety marshals on the roads and highways, we are forced to renew our car license and international passports regularly, we meet health officials at the general hospitals, we confront education officers at the ministries of education, and so on. All this comes at a specific quantum of disempowering frustration and impotence. For example, the PHCN collects tariff and yet there is no sustainable electricity supply to justify the money collected. When we get to the passport office, we pay an inordinately huge amount of money that is way beyond the official amount in the book. At every point that we encounter the bureaucracy in Nigeria, we are compelled to service its corrupt system.

The picture I have painted above cast the citizens as the victims of the corrupt and domineering bureaucracy. Unfortunately, the dynamics is much more complex than this. It is much more appropriate to say that the citizens and the public servants are both the victims of a dysfunctional institutional framework that undermines both. The received wisdom which fuels the hatred of the average public servant in Nigeria is that he or she is the recipient of corrupt largesse which the average citizen is forced to pay against his or her will. The policeman or road safety official catches an erring motorist and collects bribe rather than booking the offender. The bureaucrat asks for money before taking an urgent file upstairs to the boss, and so many other corrupt enriching instances involving the public service. I bid us think about a different scenario in which the public servant him or herself is caught in a grip of misgovernance and the existential dilemma in which the average Nigerian is also trapped.

Peter Enahoro, that intrepid gadfly of the Nigerian society, gives us a graphic explanation that seeks to dissect the existential meaning of “civil service” within the context of the Nigerian society. According to him, the status of the Nigerian civil servants should be regarded as that of those trapped by the complex dynamics of their own institution. They are neither civil, nor do they provide any meaningful service. Rather, “Civil servants are…a compromise between incivility and servitude. They are inherently uncivil and economically servile. The civil servant is underpaid, which makes his service equivalent to servitude. On the other hand, the civil servant takes a razor-sharp tongue to work with him and will snap like the jaws of a crocodile at the least provocation. Thus, while he is not civil, he is a servant. It is a rare compromise.” In this piece, I am interested in the concept of servitude as an existential state within which the Nigerian condition has trapped the public servant, and has therefore made him or her incapable of living a good life without having to cut corners, much less of achieving a capability readiness that will enable performance and the transformation of Nigeria’s productivity.

Servitude is a pathetic state in which a person is held as a slave and contrary to such a person’s own desires and preferences. In such a state, the person under servitude has lost all sense of autonomy that enables him or her to determine the condition for his or her own existence. In other words, the being of a person in a servile condition has been taken over by another. This is essentially what Enahoro was gesturing at. It takes little reflection to see how uncivility would be the consequence of servitude for the public servant. When we say a hungry man is an angry man, we immediately capture Enahoro’s public servant as a victim of existential deprivation. Hunger takes away all the cultured finesse of civil interaction, and basically turns the hungry person into a similitude of a beast.

The condition of servitude is one that is not strange to the third world, to Africa, and indeed to Nigeria. Underdevelopment derives from a governance disequilibrium in which there is a disconnection between government policies and the empowerment of the citizens. Governance is ‘good’ to the extent that the policy making processes and the institutions are tied towards making and implementing decisions that leads, in the final analysis, to the betterment and empowerment of the citizens. But when governance fail, the public servants themselves are thrown into a condition which the existentialists see as anxiety. In existentialism, anxiety goes beyond the condition of nervousness that comes from apprehension. On the contrary, anxiety as the existentialist uses it speaks to a state where the very existence of the anxious person is challenged by the possibility of death. Anxiety, that is, confronts a person with the impotence of his or her finitude. You feel a sense of helplessness when you are confronted with existential anxiety.

This is one of the consequences of the institutional dysfunction that characterize the public service in Nigeria. I will take just one instance of this dysfunction, and it is an instance that strikes deep to the heart of the existence of the public servant—pay and incentive, and importantly, in the absence of social security. When pay is not empowering for the public servant, anxiety becomes immediate. This is because pay and incentives are what lowers the existential pressures and tensions under which most of us labour. In a condition of anxiety, the first thing that is affected is motivation. The relationship between pay and performance in the Nigerian pubic service system undermines all the assumptions in motivation theory. Consider first Frederick Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory. Similar to Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs, Herzberg explains that at the workplace, workers should not be seen as being just amenable to the satisfaction of lower-order needs like receiving minimum wage. Rather, what matters for deep satisfaction is the gratification of higher-order needs ranging from achievement and advancement to recognition and responsibility. Herzberg’s two-factor theory of motivation therefore postulates that different sets of work features lead either to job satisfaction or dissatisfaction. In other words, satisfaction and dissatisfaction are not issues that are inversely proportional.Managers and administrators must therefore attend to the two sets of conditions simultaneously if performance and productivity are to be achieved.

This understanding of motivation and pay only just goes to show that the relationship between pay, motivation and the existence of the public servant is a complex one which the institutional reform in Nigeria has not yet addressed sufficiently. Or, we should rather say that the government has not shown the political willingness to grasp the bull of public sector reform by its stubborn horns. This assertion is true to the extent that Nigeria has been battling with the reform of the pay and productivity correlation in the public service since the Udoji Commission Report of 1974. This was the first reform effort, since the Nigerian civil service system was inaugurated in 1954, to see right through the relationship between Nigeria’s low productivity profile and the urgency of the need for a performance management reform. But the reform recommendations were essentially politicized to the extent that its wage component became the high points of its implementation. The result of this myopic implementation by the military was the overburdening of the workforce structure of the civil service. Quantity overcame quality to the extent that government neglected the performance principle that demands that thirty expert and professional public servants could be recruited and appropriately incentivized to perform and increase productivity over a hundred mediocre public servants who are simply occupying space.

When the 1975 purge of the civil service finally happened, it was not only the inevitable consequence of the over-bloated workforce, it was also the occasion for the aggravation of the existential crisis of the public service. With the purge, the civil service lost its ethical compass and the culture of deferred gratification which ensured that even with low pay, the public servant achieved the satisfaction that Herzberg insists comes with achievement, respect and recognition. On the one hand, the public servants immediately recognized that since the government has no essential post-retirement package for him or her, it is better to ensure existential survival through backhanded corrupt means. And on the other hand, industrial relations dynamics took on an adversarial posture that ensure that government will not be able to reduce the workforce and make it sufficiently lean to achieve performance and productivity.

This all goes to show that consecutive Nigerian government have not paid fundamental attention to how the existential crisis of the average public servant in Nigeria has led to inversion of the logic of performance and productivity. The public servants are not deriving deep satisfaction from their vocation. Most do not even any longer see the profession as a vocation but rather as a means of livelihood that could be subverted and undermined as long as they can survive their existential anxiety. As a way out, the institutional reform of the public service must commence from the urgency of making the public servants in Nigeria existentially fulfilled human beings who are motivated to do great things for the public service, even beyond the satisfaction of compensation.


Tunji Olaopa


Professor Olaopa is Executive Vice Chairman, the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy ISGPP

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