Horse of Caligula – First Lady Dame Patience Jonathan appointed permanent secretary Bayelsa State

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There is nothing in the Constitution that says Bayelsa State Governor Seriake Dickson should not appoint the First Lady Dame Patience Jonathan to the position of a permanent secretary in her husband’s home state. But that was because the Constitution did not envisage that a state governor here would use his power to appoint key government officials the way the Roman emperor Caligula exercised his absolute powers.

At the swearing in of Mrs. Jonathan and 17 other new permanent secretaries in Yenagoa last week, Governor Dickson said there was nothing wrong or illegal about her appointment and that it was done on merit. The men and women he appointed were the most senior civil servants from the various local governments in the state, he said.

That is all very good, except that certain things Mrs. Jonathan said soon after her swearing in as a perm sec tended to undermine the governor’s claims on her behalf. Speaking to reporters soon after the ceremony, the First Lady said as a civil servant in Bayelsa State, she had not been promoted for 13 years!

The question is, if she had not been promoted for 13 years, how did she become the most senior civil servant from any local government, as the governor said? Thirteen years is nearly half the maximum 35 years that anyone can legally put into the service of a Nigerian state. A civil servant who goes for half the length of his entire career without promotion can hardly be described as meritorious, such as the governor now painted. Ideally, an officer who was not promoted for 13 years should be shown the way out of service.

Remarks made in Abuja last week by the First Lady’s spokesman Ayo Osinlu also set me wondering whether the new permanent secretary knows her service onions. Osinlu said, among other things, that Mrs. Jonathan will not receive a salary as a permanent secretary. That shows fundamental unfamiliarity with the General Order [GO], the bible of the old civil service.

In 1977, when I was doing a student temporary job at the Public Service Commission [PSC] in Sokoto, I overheard a conversation between the Principal Assistant Secretary [PAS] Alhaji Abdullahi Abarshi and the Staff Officer, Mr. B. A. Kolade-Jah. It was about some temporary staff who offered to continue working for free because the budgetary vote for temporary staff was exhausted. The PAS however said, “You cannot work for the government free of charge. Section 130 [I think that’s what he cited] of the General Order says there shall be no unpaid labour.” It was a revealing statement for me because when we were growing up in the village, we often heard teachers and other small civil servants say “bature ya hana aikin banza.” That is, “the Whiteman [synonymous in those days with ‘officer’] has banned working for free.”

If Madam is not familiar with such fundamental provisions of the General Order, how effective could she be as a perm sec? t The rule about no unpaid labour operates in the United States too, which was why during the two World Wars, many wealthy businessmen who opted to work for the US Government as their contribution to the war effort but who had little need for the salary were put on a pay of $1 a year. They were called “a dollar a year men.” Among such men was Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, father of President John Kennedy. So as a seasoned civil servant, I expected the First Lady to at least propose to receive N1 a year salary as a perm sec.

If she is not very familiar with the General Order, is she familiar with the Financial Regulations, “FR” as the old timers called it? Don’t forget, a perm sec is the accounting officer of his ministry, a very serious matter because he is responsible to the Public Accounts Committee of the State Assembly for every kobo spent by his or her ministry.

This matter became the subject of an interesting exchange at the very top back in 1988, when the Babangida military regime embarked on civil service reforms. As part of those reforms, directors-general replaced permanent secretaries as the administrative heads of ministries. Another aspect of the Babangida reforms proposed to make ministers, instead of the DGs as accounting officers of their ministries. This proposal was strenuously opposed by the then Head of the Federal Service Alhaji Adamu, Wazirin Fika. In the course of a frosty exchange, IBB retorted that civil servants were not the only Nigerians who were patriot enough to safeguard public funds. The HOS however said it was not a matter of patriotism but of training, because “any civil servant who rises in the service to the position of permanent secretary would have internalised the Financial Regulations” which were at the heart of being the accounting officer.

Obviously, Wazirin Fika was referring to the situation where a person joins the civil service as an Administrative Officer Grade II of Grade Level 08 and steadily rises over a minimum 27 year period to become a perm sec. Don’t forget, that’s the same premise for the Oronsaye reforms of 2008 that a person should not be a perm sec for more than 8 years, because if he became a perm sec after a minimum of 27 years in service, he has only 8 more years to serve anyway.

It was in the Wazirin Fika’s private library in Kaduna that I first saw a copy of the FR in 1992. It was an old grey copy from the 1950s, neatly packed together in a shelf alongside annual budget estimates and civil service circulars dating back to colonial times and the First Republic. I wanted to ask to borrow a copy so I could go home and read it, but the way I saw Waziri handling the books like so many fragile eggs, I decided against asking.

Now, I am not saying that the Nigerian civil service has not changed since those days [mostly for the worse]. Still, I cannot help but wonder if a teacher and community bank marketing officer who has been on a leave of absence for 13 years knows enough about FR to be made the accounting officer of a ministry, perhaps one drenched in derivation money. Quite alright, the new perm sec has probably seen more money than there is in the Excess Crude Account, but the operating financial rules of the First Lady’s office, a mixture of politics, philanthropy, grandiosity, pompousity and personal generousity are not the same as those of the civil service.

Then there are other small matters of service etiquette. At the swearing in ceremony last week, Governor Dickson told the new perm secs not to involve themselves in politics. This rule was immediately violated by Mrs. Jonathan. Speaking to reporters just outside the reception hall, she chided critics including the Governor of Lagos State for saying that the First Lady’s office is not in the Constitution.

She also called on the National Assembly, which is currently reviewing the Constitution, to insert her office into it. She said, “We the wives of political office holders, if our name is not in the constitution and our husbands will retire with full benefits then they should find a role for us when they are amending the constitution. They should look into our own affairs.” That makes her the only civil servant in Nigeria who has the authority to lecture the National Assembly on a hotly political topic.

You see, Governor Seriake Dickson was probably right that in making this appointment, he was exercising powers conferred upon him by the Constitution. The Roman emperor Caligula was also exercising [absolute] powers conferred on him when he had his favourite horse Incitatus attended to by many servants. Incitatus had a stable of marble with an ivory manger, purple blankets and a collar of precious stones. It was fed with oats mixed with gold flakes. One day, in a fit of exercising power, Caligula appointed Incitatus a consul.

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