Nigerian Service: Dan Rogger on Public Vices, Hidden Virtues and Silent Voices in the Civil Service
I vividly remember the afternoon I was told I would be going to work full time for the Nigerian Civil Service. I received a call in the courtyard of the college I was studying for my Masters in. ‘Congratulations’, I was told, ‘you are going to be a Nigerian civil servant’. I gulped.
The reputation of my then future employer was, and still is, not good. I envisaged a culture of universal greed and frantic corruption. This is how many people describe to me their perception of the Nigerian civil service today.
I now have almost a decade of experience working within the Nigerian Government, and I know the picture to be quite different. There is certainly some grain of truth to my first response. But the greater truth is that the Nigerian civil service is stage to one of the world’s most important struggles. The struggle is waged between those fighting to provide services to some of the poorest people in the world on one side, and the mismanagement and corruption of resources on the other. Sometimes this struggle is across organisations, and at other times it is within a single person.
This dynamic and passionate struggle has fascinated me over the past decade. I think of the heroes I have met, and also those heroes who turned out not to be so heroic. I think of the funny moments, such as when a colleague hesitated to inform me that my laptop was on fire in the other room so not to offend me. And I think of the huge sadness, of the potential the Nigerian civil service has to do good if it was allowed, and allowed itself to.
However, my most significant reflection is that mine is not the voice I most want to hear. Every so often I meet a researcher who has been working on Nigeria their whole lives, and the richness of their experience puts in to context how partial my understanding is. Rather, I want to hear what it is like to work in the civil service from civil servants themselves. What is it like for them to face this struggle, and to be an integral part of it?
My first response was to set up the largest survey of Nigerian civil servants ever undertaken. In collaboration with the Presidency and the Head of the Civil Service, I worked with a group of trusted civil servants to travel to 100 organisations across Nigeria’s government. At each institution, we interviewed a representative set of officials on life in the civil service as they experienced it.
The aim of the exercise was to inform the Head of the Civil Service as to the key challenges that his civil servants were facing, and what their solutions were. This report disappeared somewhere into the bowels of the bureaucracy, and is only occasionally heard of as a whisper of dissident opinion.
The exercise afforded an opportunity, however. The resulting interviews give a fascinating picture of life from within the civil service, as told by officials. And it’s an even more fascinating story than I had imagined.
Politicians intervene in service life to a startling extent, with some officials showing me written threats to them from national politicians. Some managers are incredible leaders, inspiring their staff to perform on a shoe-string budget, whilst others are controlling disrupters, complicating the efforts of their staff. Many nurses we talked to were swamped by the number of patients they had to look after, and were very aware of how this could make them frustrated and angry in their service.
I regularly meet policymakers or academics who characterise the civil service as simply a means to employ and enrich bureaucrats. “Any other achievements,” I was recently told, “are simply an accidental by-product of those aims.” And then I think of those nurses. I remember spending the day watching them sweat and stress to give the best care they could in their constrained conditions. Rather than hear their story, the rest of the world has typically simply dismissed them as corrupt. It’s because they are corrupt, I’ve heard, that they provide such poor care. Or because of some other one-liner that tries to capture the myriad textures of their working lives. A much more interesting perspective is the richer story that is typically hidden from view.
Telling their Stories
Telling this story properly would come from creating a platform in which Nigerian civil servants themselves can explicitly respond to the accusation that they are simply in the service to enrich themselves, or that their lives are simply a game among themselves of sharing the revenues of government. By collecting their thoughts and opinions, and helping a group of officials present those views, I would be doing something hopefully useful.
The result is an ongoing book project, in which I am working with a small group of my civil service colleagues, to edit the reports from the Civil Servants Survey into a civil servants’ perspective on the civil service. That is the research-in-progress that I will be presenting at the Nigeria Research Conference 2014, which I am co-organising with Bala Liman, a PhD student at the School or Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).
The conference aims to share new research on Nigeria, and build a stronger community of Nigerian research. It will be held on Saturday 21st June at SOAS. All are welcome, and should e-mail their interest in attending to firstname.lastname@example.org. Those working on Nigeria may also be interested in the Nigerian Research Network that underlies the conference, more information about which can be found at https://groups.yahoo.com/nigerianresearchnetwork.
Writing a book with my civil service colleagues has its own unique challenges, some of which reflect the issues highlighted in its content. I am therefore very keen to hear the thoughts and opinions of anyone with an interest in the civil service, and the struggle it represents, particularly officials themselves. Come to the conference and experience the rich variety of research on Nigeria we have to offer, or e-mail me at email@example.com For me, the louder the debate within and outside the service about what really goes on in there, the better.