John Edozien as Federal Permanent Secretary served in many government agencies and ministries. He was also deputy governor of the old Bendel State and later Delta State. In private sector, he became the Group Managing Director/CEO of Afribank Nigeria Plc as well as Chairman of Afribank International Ltd (Merchant Bankers) from 1993 to 1999. He also served as the Chairman, Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) from 2005 to 2008. He is now on the board of a number of companies. In this interview with Festus Akanbi, he regrets the poor perception of the Civil Service, which he said is being relegated to the background by the harvests of committees and taskforces set up at huge costs to handle certain government’s responsibilities and tasks…
In spite of a harvest of civil service reforms in Nigeria, why has it been difficult to raise the standard in the civil service to meet the reality of our nationhood?
Successive governments have tried to introduce some reforms in the civil service and some of those efforts fell short of what was needed. Others were quite useful in solving some of the problems identified especially specific problems that were supposed to be addressed. I believe everything revolves around the perceived role of the service and this has been with us for a long time. I always refer to the service as the engine room of government and you can imagine what happens to your car when the engine knocks! You get stranded. So the civil service as the machinery that is available to government for the articulation and implementation of its programmes needs to function at all times at the highest level of effectiveness and efficiency if government is to deliver on its programmes. I believe part of what has plagued the service and what is yet to be addressed is the issue of the overall role and perception of the civil service relative to other employment cadres and opportunities in the country.
In the past, the civil service was the employment destination of choice for graduates and it is a fact that the vacancies were open only to those who made first class, second class upper and second class lower degrees. However, overtime, the standards got compromised and lowered at the same the standards imposed by the private sector were rising. It was as if, the civil service was going down while the private sector was going up in terms of employment attractiveness.
Also note worthy was that in the past, the public service was a respected service. Those working in the public sector were convinced that if they worked diligently hard they could make a satisfactory career in the service. All these changed. Conditions of service at the civil service were getting worse while those of the private sector were getting better. Private sector has since become the employment destination of choice while the public service has become a place where people go when they do not have any other choice. So it has gotten to a point where those who go to civil service are those who do not have other options and if they have options they just go there to mark time until a better employment opportunity comes. I think the whole thing has to be addressed holistically. We have to get the civil service back. It must have respect. There is this habit of demonising the service, giving it a bad name in order to deny it its functions. For example, with the political class, the civil service is practically groping for relevance. The political class comes with all manner of aides, and they take over career functions. You have to allow the service to play its own role in governance. If there are some people within the service that are not following performing, there are rules within the service to deal with such people. There are General Orders of Financial Instructions as revised from time to time. These rules were sufficient in the past to deal with any non-performers in the service and they are still available.
What is your experience?
I rose through the ranks from the entry point after graduation to become a Permanent Secretary in the Civil Service. I was also privileged to play it at the top in the private sector. To tell you how the perception of the civil service and even the position of the permanent secretary has gone down, when you go to a function, nobody recognises the permanent secretary but they will recognise the politicians, the bankers, captains of industry etc. They will introduce the military, the police and other uniformed services but don’t forget that the permanent secretary is the highest career position you can get in the public service and it takes a lifetime to get to that position! When you get it, nobody recognises you, so the service has gone down seriously in terms of public perception, in terms of the performance of those traditional roles for the government.
What are the roles of taskforces usually set up by government to undertake some roles traditionally assigned to civil service?
You cannot govern by committees and taskforces. There are MDAs working under political heads. For each problem that confronts government, there are MDAs responsible that could deal with such challenges. Take for example the banks, the police etc, it is not usual to inject people from outside those organisations to undertake career functions. In the case of the civil service however it is a no man’s land! Anybody can just come and be thrown into the service to perform career functions. It’s like anybody can do the job. But that is wrong! Working in the civil service is a calling, a deliberate choice of a career. You have to be committed and have the right temperament to go into the service and function properly. So let’s go back and do it right. The civil service is a service with its own norms and ethos. It is not possible to bring people from other services and expect them to conform and gel with the service overnight. It is simply not possible. This is why we now have different loyalties within the service. There is no espirit de corps. People no longer gel. Let people go into the service together at the entry point and grow together, and develop a sense of oneness.
Is this the reason why we have the high level of corruption in the civil service today? There are arguments that the perm secs are the ones telling politicians how to loot the treasury?
I don’t think it is true. One will not however say that there is no corruption in the service. But the service is also a mirror of the society. The service does not exist in a vacuum. People want to see the service get back to its former glory. Any talk about that time, should also talk about the society. You will find out that the society at that time was more disciplined. The society then was not as corrupt as it is today. But while we recognise that there is corruption transmitted from the society, there is the overriding need to deal with serious corruption endemic in the service itself. The service, as an organisation has rules and regulations that should be enough to deal with errant civil servants. Why are those rules no longer being stringently applied? I do not see how civil servants will hold the politicians’ hands and guide them to loot the treasury. I think it is a societal problem and it has to be dealt appropriately. We have the laws, we have the regulations to deal with corruption but this is not being done. In the absence of adequate sanctions for corruption, impunity holds sway! People engage in acts of corruption and say nothing will happen and nothing indeed happens! You know what is going on. How many corruption cases have been successfully concluded?
Why is the problem of bureaucracy becoming endemic in the public service?
There is bureaucracy in every organisation but you can shorten bureaucracy and you can cut it lengthwise! The truth about this is that the function and the work of the service by definition should entail a slower process than decision making in a private company. In the case of the Service you are dealing with a decision that affects a whole country and requires wider consultations that may be time consuming compared to a decision by a private firm on what affects its profitability! So by definition, decision making in the private sector is faster than decision making in the public sector because of the nature of the issues that are being handled. But that is not to defend a situation where issues take unduly long time to be resolved in the civil service. What do you expect when duties traditionally meant for the civil servants are transferred to taskforces and committees who do not have the experience and historical records at their disposal to see how similar situations have been handled previously. The past informs the present and the present conditions the future. What we have consistently done in this country is to ignore the past as if we don’t have a past. But these things matter. So, these committees and taskforces tend to complicate matters. And you know that there is this saying : “When you do not want to act, set up a Committee”! Perhaps we should rather take the time to develop, train and motivate civil servants who are hired to do the job than to go outside, hire people on a temporary basis at huge cost, give them the responsibility of preparing the task and then hand it over to the same civil servants to implement.
Having operated in both public and private sectors, what will you say is wrong with our youth development programmes?
I joined the service in 1967 and left in the 90s. I think it was in 1989 that the first Ministry of Youths and Sport was created by the Ibrahim Babangida Administration and I was privileged to be the pioneer permanent secretary of that ministry. The whole idea was to look at youth development holistically. There is need to educate the youths; create skills in order to adequately prepare them for paid employment and self-employment. Not everybody is happy to seek paid employment in regular organisations. That is what small businesses are all about. You empower the youth to be able to set up small businesses of their own and become employers of labour rather than seek employment. These are the issues and most importantly, we also need to focus on technical education. Today, as a result of serious neglect of technical education with emphasis on a good certification system, we now have houses built with perpetual artisan problems. These days we have to import people from Togo, Benin and Ghana to do these things. People are establishing universities everywhere but not enough emphasis is being given to technical education and youth development. The reasons for establishing the ministry are not being met and this may partly explain the high incidence of youth delinquency in our country today.
Between 2005 and now, the banking sector has gone through two major reforms, what will you say are the problems with the industry that led to the rot that warranted the two reforms?
It was the absence or breakdown of good corporate governance and inadequate risk management. There might also have been a regulatory failure. However after the problem in the banking industry, a whole lot of reforms have been put in place. We now have a robust risk management system that has been put in place and if effectively applied will ensure that the problems that led to the banking crisis will not happen in the future. In addition the industry regulators have issued corporate governance codes that effectively guide management and Board behaviour in Banks.
What advise will you give the regulators in the nation’s capital market to improve the market?
Like they say, the capital market is as good as the companies quoted in it. That is the truth about the markets. So what the regulators have to do is basically to effectively carry out the core functions of regulation and market development. Under regulation, you have the issue of investigation, enforcement and compliance. If those issues are very well taken care of, you will be able to achieve a zero tolerance for market infractions. When infractions occur they affect investor confidence. Our market has been on the rebound and will continue to do so as the performance of quoted companies improves and confidence in the market grows. The SEC and the NSE must be prepared to take the hard decisions. They must regulate the market with firmness and keep transactions transparent in order to attract investors. And not only for domestic investors, but more importantly, for foreign portfolio investors and there is a whole lot of them out there. There are huge equity funds all over the place looking for good investment destinations. We cannot therefore afford to encourage anything that will create problems for our market and lead to the diversion of investment inflows to other jurisdictions. So regulation is very important and I hope that SEC will be equal to the task.
How do you see the recent calls for the regulators to compel multinationals to list on the Nigerian Stock Exchange?
This is why we talk about market development. I don’t believe in forcing the people. I believe in creating the enabling environment that will motivate people to take actions on their own. That way the action is sustainable. I think we should continue to develop the Nigerian capital market to make it more attractive. When it is sufficiently attractive, I’m sure the listing will come. There are so many Nigerian businesses that are not yet listed. That is another area of challenge. We should encourage them to list. It is even in their best-interest to list. The idea of force should be viewed with a lot of caution.
What do you think about the 2013 budget now that we have entered into the third quarter of the year?
I like to see a budget anchored on development programmes. When this is done you can relate the budget to a longer term objective. It ties in with the saying, Proper planning prevents poor performance. The budget has been approved and we hope that the budget will be respected and implemented as approved.