What Happens In The Murky Waters of Nigeria’s Federal Civil Service?


May 14, 2019

To get a better understanding of Nigerian life, we started a series called ‘Compatriots’, detailing the everyday life of the average Nigerian. As a bi-weekly column, a new installment will drop every other Tuesday of the month, exploring some other aspect of the Nigerian landscape.

In this, we checked in with a young Nigerian woman, currently navigating employment in Nigeria’s elderly civil service, and how personal reservations might not be enough to prevent her from slipping into the doldrums, characteristic of government service.

Illustration by Celia Jacobs

Before I started my job as a tier one officer of the federal government, there were three things I never compromised on: punctuality, efficiency and my zeal for self-improvement. These days, 6 months into my employ, you can catch me strolling into the office well past the 8am resumption deadline, freshly bought breakfast in hand; while signing in an arrival time of 7:45am regardless. I’m already counting down till 5 pm.

In the first two months of my employment, breakfast would have been followed with 30 scintillating minutes with the Most High and about 16 of my most zealous colleagues. What better way to begin the work day (one hour post- resumption) than with a well-attended morning fellowship? However, when one or two missed fellowships turned into stony “we missed you todays” and frosty stares from my co-workers, I abandoned communal worship for an early start to the Korean dramas that would keep me company throughout the day.

When you look at the Nigerian Civil Service, a practice like morning devotion or having junior colleagues serve as gofers isn’t exactly untoward, because it is run like one big Nigerian family. Its helm of affairs handled by individuals who vividly remember Nigeria’s struggle for independence, a high premium is placed on the most mundane things, like fawning over the boss upon his arrival (you’ve never seen arthritic joints move so fast!) or using the right title to address co-workers (‘mommy’ and ‘daddy’ is encouraged for junior workers relating with seniors). It’s almost hard to tell where the family meeting ends and the civil service begins.

What’s worse, this ‘family’ comes complete with its fair share of lecherous uncles. You know the ones. As the youngest member of my unit, I’ve had a sizeable amount of older (married) male colleagues, linger a little too long with eye contact and hand-holding, while inquiring how I’m settling in. Or giving downright uncomfortable shoulder rubs while asking if I’m faring okay with assigned tasks. The more brusque ones doggedly chase relationship possibilities and my availability to do so and so after office hours. All done with a flippancy so expert, you’d almost believe they were genuinely unaware of how inappropriate their actions ran. Except they do know, they all do.

Perhaps this familial leaning is also to be fingered for the hiring process favoured by the service. What is a qualification? Of what need is an impressive CV? You’d be hard-pressed to find any worker whose employment wasn’t courtesy some long leg or other. Till this day, I have no idea whether a mere application or an examination process is necessary to become employed by the Federal Government. Thanks to the good graces of a “connected” uncle, yours truly — a computer science graduate is somehow making things work as a glorified (and severely overpaid) administrative assistant.

I want to say I feel bad, contributing my quota to feeding Nigeria’s beast of a nepotism problem, but it’s hard to, when everyone from the tissue-supplier to the unit head, came in through a back door —  it’s an accepted way of life here.

Perhaps as nature’s karma, I did get a temporary comeuppance. Placed in a department that simply had no vacancy or any real need for an additional worker, I was relegated to the very important role of simply observing the process and assisting the workers from time to time. It wasn’t until a colleague’s opportune maternity leave, three weeks after my employment, that I was given more responsibility to handle.

Now speaking of those three weeks, it was during this period I learnt two very important things in the service. One, they carry out transfers, a lot of them! Mostly arbitrary, but they can be punitive. You could be in Ogun State today and receive a transfer notice to resume work in Cross-River for next week. However, for women with the all-important ‘married’ title preceding their stations, there’s always the opportunity to refuse a transfer. But for men, married or no, likewise single people – no such luck.

The other thing I learnt was, the civil service is very much set in its ways. If you’ve ever visited a busy government office, you’d be hard pressed to  miss the staggering amount of paper in use. From file contents, to internal memos and books for signing in customers and workers. It’s ridiculous.

Attempting to put my observation period to good use, I suggested in a carefully worded email to my unit head, simple ways electronic substitutes could save my department bales and bales of paper. This prompted a direction to print out the contents of the email (on more paper!)  and an encouragement to keep up the good work. Last I saw of my plans, they had made the move from desk to a forgotten side-table to his left, gathering the very best servings of the day’s dust.

Ditto my attempt to organise the cavernous hell-hole that is my department’s filing room. When attempts to sort the first couple of files labeled ‘A’ in their right compartments were met with frequent disorganisation from my colleagues, I promptly developed a well-marketed allergy issue and my now problematic love-affair with Korean dramas, to fill up my idle hours.

Despite its shortcomings however, a job in the civil service is likely to remain a highly sought after affair. And it isn’t simply because its workers are prone to throwing professionally catered-to office birthday parties every other week (this really happens!). Or the fact that its salary package allows a way of life that gives a semblance of wealth — as my six-figure salary, complete with 13th-14th-month provisions, added bonuses and allowances have proven.

It’s all of that and a little more. Well, a lot more.

Remember I mentioned transfers being given as a punitive measure? This is sometimes meted out to workers who, using their station, fail to be discreet in cutting back- channel deals with customers. Note the keyword ‘discreet.’ It is a well-accepted way of life in government institutions, to cut deals in exchange for some special service rendered to members of the public. It even has its own name, but I’ll keep mum on that, I’ve been told different agencies have their specific terms for it.

These deals, with their propensity to make one’s monthly salary, from a mere week’s back-channeling, now serve as a driving force for aspiring workers and established employees alike. I’ve had NYSC workers ask me in confidence the best departments to work their entry into, simply on the basis of the best deals to get from their employ.

I’d like to say I’ve never participated in the act, but the service somehow makes you complicit in things you’d otherwise have no part of. I have received the occasional ₦5 000 – ₦ 10 000 in an envelope distributed to everyone in my 14-member department, courtesy a mega-deal struck by my department head, more times than I’d like to admit. I have even come to anticipate them.

However, I want to believe I’ll never actively seek these bribes out, there are limits I am not willing to cross. But then again, if you had told me I’d become a tardy, Korean-dramas-during- office-hours watching worker in just the first half of a year in my employ as a government worker, chances are, I’d have laughed in your face.

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