A Half-Empty Set of Rusty Cabinets

On minimal inspection, the rationalization of the state which the bureaucracy is invented to instigate is, in Nigeria, a dismayingly disorganised set of rusty filing cabinets.

Photo: File cabinets. Credit: redjar
Photo: File cabinets. Credit: redjar

The classical image of administrative bureaucracy is a clean room. The workers, human outside, have become automatons in grey clothing. Their badges may bear their names but all that these are intended to signify to laypersons is that the robot in front of you is armed with the authority of the state to carry out strict regulations according to law and state-mandated policy. Though there are countries in which this Weberian understanding of bureaucratic rationality is a common derogatory employment, in Nigeria it would be a welcome, and presently illusory, compliment.

Established under the colonial administration, the Federal Civil Service Commission sees itself as an integral part of the effort to ‘Nigerianise’ aspects of the public sector that began with the 1948 Report of the Foot Commission on Nigerianisation. Yet, as civil servants lobby to increase their minimum wages, with many also embroiled with federal and state governments over the late payment of salaries, the Nigerian civil service continues to be plagued by charges of waste, corruption, the existence of workers on the government’s payroll who are either dead or no longer working, and inefficient and ineffective output.

On minimal inspection, the rationalization of the state which the bureaucracy is invented to instigate is, in Nigeria, a dismayingly disorganised set of rusty filing cabinets. It is likely that many of its compartments are half empty and those that have anything in them, are filled with the remnants of ad-hoc decisions whimsically made with little basis in official regulation.

Recently, the South African telecommunications company, MTN, was fined N1.04trillion ($5.2 billion) for failing to register subscribers to its Nigerian operations. Despite explanations by the regulator, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), that the fine was meticulously calculated to reflect a charge of N200,000 for every customer that MTN failed to register, many continue to disbelieve that the fine was levied in accordance with proper regulatory stipulations.

What MTN is currently experiencing is merely a more high profile and more expensive version of what many Nigerians who come into contact with the country’s bureaucracy experience all too frequently.

In the MTN case, there is no doubt that valid regulatory, and common sense, reasons do in fact exist to warrant a hefty fine against the South African company; national security concerns not being the least of them. Yet, both within and outside the country, most are agreed that $5.2 billion is not only excessive but possibly as damaging to Nigeria as it is to the survival of MTN.

MTN is not the only company operating in the Nigerian mobile phone market to be slammed with heavy fines for the same offence. In late August, both Etisalat and Globacom were respectively hit with a N7 million($35,000) and N7.4 million ($37,000) fine, under the same 2011 telecommunications regulations regarding subscriber registration. The regulation stipulates that phone SIM cards that are activated prior to registration will incur a N200,000 fine.

Yet, in the immediate aftermath of the NCC’s announcement against MTN, foreign business and Nigerians alike raised eyebrows at the extent of the fine. With the largest mobile phone subscriber base in Nigeria, recording 61.1 million users in the first quarter of 2015, it is feasible that MTN did, indeed, fail to register 5.2million of its users. At least for those who do not own shares in MTN, whether the company was appropriately disciplined for its failure to register phone users is now, however, beside the point. What MTN is currently experiencing is merely a more high profile and more expensive version of what many Nigerians who come into contact with the country’s bureaucracy experience all too frequently.

“a bureaucracy is sure to think that its duty is to augment official power … rather than to leave free the energies of mankind; it overdoes the quantity of government, as well as impairs its quality.”

That ordinary Nigerians would immediately question the actions of their own civil service in a case against a foreign company is an indication of the extent to which the public distrusts the civil service. Historically, such a level of mistrust could be brushed aside by the political leadership; after all, many Nigerians have spent the better part of the last 55 years quietly labouring under governments they thoroughly despised. The robustness and impatience of the youth who now compose the majority of the country’s population means that the old game of suffering and smiling can no more be played.

To the extent that Nigerians do not trust the competency of the country’s bureaucracy, so also do many officers of the Nigerian civil service operate with a distinct disdain for the general public. It is rarely clear that, from high to low ranking officials, the Nigerian civil service is trained to imbibe a fundamental respect for the public that it is paid to serve. Large parts of the public lack even the most minimal levels of confidence in the civil service; and in turn significant parts of the national bureaucracy operate with a distasteful scorn of the public interest.

That a country’s bureaucratic administration is established to facilitate the organised and effective function of the society by which it is employed seems an idea irrevocably lost on many parts of the Nigerian civil service.

In the words of the British essayist, Walter Bagehot“a bureaucracy is sure to think that its duty is to augment official power … rather than to leave free the energies of mankind; it overdoes the quantity of government, as well as impairs its quality.” The fault that Bagehot identifies may apply to countries where the bureaucracy bears the resemblance of actually functioning. In Nigeria, on the other hand, the fault of the bureaucracy is not to extend the inefficiency of government into hampering the inventiveness of the individual, but to give the appearance that there is, here, no government at all. That whatever minimal administrative operation does exist, exists haphazardly and with the express intention either of deceiving the population or of working hatefully against it.

For every Attahiru Jega and Zainab Ahmed, there seem to be a thousand officious servants who would seize a sculpture in honour of the late Ken Saro-Wiwa for no other stated reason than that it is of “political value”. The sculpture in question was sent as a gift to Nigeria 2 months ago by the Platform art group and is in the form of a steel bus that has Saro-Wiwa’s words “I accuse the oil companies of genocide against the Ogoni” emblazoned on its side. The artwork is still being held by customs. That a country’s bureaucratic administration is established to facilitate the organised and effective function of the society by which it is employed, seems an idea irrevocably lost on many parts of the Nigerian civil service.

There is a growing restlessness on the ground among many ordinary Nigerians who have become less and less willing to accept mistreatment from a mediocre ruling elite. It is slowly and steadily dawning on many that one of a handful of things keeping Nigeria afloat both domestically and abroad, is ordinary Nigerians making an entrepreneurial name for themselves. It is under the glow of the distinctions being made by private citizens that the country continues to bask. There is an urgent need for the political and bureaucratic administration to understand that few Nigerians are any longer willing to keep the public purse open to those who fail to conscientiously earn their keep.

~EAMS

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