Tenure policy and the future of civil service in Nigeria

RECENTLY, the news about the tenure policy in the federal civil service silently burst into the public sphere, and rather silently seems to have fizzled out like most significant issues that concern the progress of the Nigerian state. I however consider the issue one of rather immense significance, especially to the reform and transformation of the civil service in Nigeria, and so deserving of protracted debate and discussion that affects policy about how the civil service can perform and hence fulfil its mandate as a cornerstone of national development in Nigeria. My concern with this issue is, of course, not far-fetched. I have been a civil servant all my life; and my brief revolved around the reform of the civil service system in a way that backstopped Nigeria’s burgeoning democratic governance. For me, therefore, what is at issue is not the appropriateness of removing or retaining the tenure policy, but rather situating it within the overall well-being and performance capacity of the civil service.

There are so many things that are wrong with the Nigerian state. And the civil service system is one of the focal point of the inability to transit into a developmental state with the capacity to empower its citizens in terms of a democratic service delivery that concretises democratic dividends. And the civil service system in Nigeria has been the focus of more than six decades of active reforms that targets almost every dimension of its operational modalities, from wages to staffing. Yet, these reforms have had ambivalent effect on the progress of the system. Let us cite one cogent instance. By the time the massive purge of the civil service by the Murtala/Obasanjo regime was completed in 1975, the system had been so eroded that civil service professionalism was effectively compromised, and the critical performance that would capacitate the system was effectively lost. It was therefore most appropriate that the Phillips Report, which undergirded the Civil Service Reform of 1988, would essentially be concerned with restoring and enhancing professionalism and performance. Unfortunately, this Report politicised rather than professionalised the civil service elite corp. The wastage which ensued from this politicisation was the result of making permanent secretaries political appointees who mark time on a position for as long as the lifetime of the government which appointed them, and effectively ensured the erosion of cooperation and motivation.

When the tenure policy was established under the Yar’Adua government, one positive purpose it served was as a check against systemic demotivation to career progression officers who have always been in the Federal Service. No one civil servant would have the opportunity of sitting at the helms of affair in a ministry until s/he attained to managerial level through rigorous pipelining and tested career progression. The reversal of this policy simply demonstrates the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which politics oftentimes trump policy and reform in Nigeria. I doubt if anyone would be able to seriously fault its significance as a plank in any effort to take the civil service, and especially its senior level cadre, to the next level in terms of productivity and performance.

Let us put the discourse in a new light. The tenure policy is not a stand-alone administrative policy; it does not exist or cease to exist for its own sake. On the contrary, its effectiveness or lack of it, in global administrative best practices, it tied to its specific function in the performance record of the civil service. All across the globe, from USA and the UK to the Netherlands and France, the tenure policy issue goes beyond the career progression of the civil servants; it has often been tied to the urgency of achieving a result-oriented civil service that is lean, economical, effective and efficient. Countries which have confronted the tenure issue have done so, therefore, within the context of a larger smart practice which performance management imperative actualized through the deployment of numerous human resources toolkits like flexible employment policies and performance accountability systems that draw any civil service into the service mandate of producing tangible results.

When Nigeria lost the golden opportunity presented by the Udoji Report of 1974, the Nigerian civil service system has been in a race against time to constitute the civil service into a policy implementation hub that efficiently delivers development outcomes through the effective circumvention of the policy execution trap which choke visions, development plans and policy outcomes. Since 1974, in other words, the civil service system has failed to achieve a shift from a system which manages input processes to one which supervises output outcomes. Mr Oronsaye cannot be blamed for his valiant effort at laying the foundation of the tenure policy. The real issue is why successive heads of services have failed to deepen the administrative implications of that policy as a performance game changer which not only tenure civil servants but ask for price of the tenure in terms of accountability for results and outcomes within the context of rigorous and continuous annual assessment metrics. With the politicisation of the issue, and its eventual reversal, it becomes clear that we have on our hand a case of the system protecting its own top management in a manner that precludes accountability and results.

The tenure policy must be placed within the larger issue of cost of governance and the overbloatedness of the civil service in Nigeria. The reality in the civil service today is not only the existence of many deadwoods and ghost workers who shoot up the overheads of the service. This reality is complicated by the fact that government pay through its nose for the outsourced services of policy consultants and analysts. There is also the obscene surplus of special/personal assistants and special advisers as well as the frameworks of over-reliance on technical assistance from development agencies. All these have become the unfortunate dynamics by which the civil service cope with its own deficiencies, compromised by skills deficits, nepotism, lack of any re-professionalisation programmes that bring the civil servants up to date on current administrative skills, and wrongheaded industrial actions.

The civil service in Nigeria has a tough choice to make between remaining a lumbering bureaucratic contraption that circumvents Nigeria’s democratic governance and a lean, efficient and professional system girded around by values and procedures that compel performance and results. This is the dilemma that the adoption or reversal of the tenure policy places on us. While the objective of the civil service, according to the National Strategy for Public Service Reform (NSPSR) is fast moving, intelligent, professional, information-rich, flexible, adaptable and entrepreneurial world class civil service that is performance-focused, accountable and capable of creating the policy climate that will instigate a new productivity paradigm in the national economy, there are obviously many options that could take Nigeria to this objective. One of these numerous options is the concept of the Senior Executive Service (SES). This refers to a small, professional, non-political career civil service that would not only enjoy career protection, but would also enjoy a compensation package that serves as adequate incentive, especially in the face of private sector recruitment.

But the task of the SES goes beyond being retained in the public service. Specifically, it constitutes the nucleus of reflective innovation, leadership core and skills repository of the civil service. It is around the SES that the reform of the civil service can be achieved. Those recruited into this top echelon will be distinguished by a different pay package which is inevitably tied to a performance contract scheme. Thus, the SES is more about administrative leadership, performance outcomes and accountability than about security of tenure. More significantly, the SES option ensures that the civil service system is constantly kept in check within the purview of the administrative requirements of the knowledge society and its reform imperatives. The Senior Executive Service becomes critical in its mandate to increase the intelligence quotient of the civil service at the strategic, tactical and operational levels.

According to the French ecclesiastic, Cardinal de Retz, “Nothing indicates the soundness of a man’s judgment so much as knowing how to choose between two disadvantages.” The present administration is faced with the weight of public opinions on the rightness of removing the tenure policy or not. The way out, I submit, is to insert the retention of the tenure policy within a larger framework that not only allows the civil service to press its top management into performance management, but also gives the civil service system a firmer footing within the comprehensive change agenda of the government. Tenure by itself makes no sense except within the context of how it facilitates the performance of the system. Or fails to do so.


  • Dr Olaopa, the Executive Vice Chairman of the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP), Ibadan, writes via [email protected]