I didn’t pay much attention to it, until Dan Kunle, one of the most versatile and resourceful energy experts I’ve met, asked me where I thought needed change the most.
He did not wait for my response before he answered his own question: the bureaucracy in Abuja! Kunle, who knows Abuja and its power corridors well, described Abuja as “Africa’s largest waiting room.” He believes nothing will change if the bureaucracy remains the same.
“I’m not aware of anywhere else where you go on official appointment and you’ll be told that the same Honourable Minister who gave you an appointment is either not around or is “very, very busy attending a meeting.” You are left stranded with absolutely no idea when this meeting will end or what you’re supposed to do next,” Kunle said.
That came to me as a huge surprise: one, because it came from Kunle, a man whose connections I thought had put him beyond the miseries of the civil service waiting room; and two, because I thought that the incredibly shabby treatment and callous time wasting handed down to visitors by Abuja civil servants only existed in The Meeting, Rita Dominic’s box office parody of Abuja’s ugly side.
I always thought that Dominic’s home video, like most narratives about Abuja, was a bit harsh and, perhaps, overdone.
Not so, Kunle insisted. Like Femi Jacobs in The Meeting, he told me about visitors who come, on appointment, to see some Big Man in a ministry but who spend hours, if not days, pining away in the scruffy visitors’ waiting room as traditional rulers from the minister’s village, party honchos or the girlfriends of the Honourable Minister shunt the queue
I’ve been a victim, once or twice. In Nigeria’s sterile capital, seeing the minister or some top civil servant, even on appointment, is a big deal. On your way to the 10th floor where the Honourable Minister’s office is located, your misery starts at the gate on the ground floor.
You first fill out faded photocopied visitors’ forms which, among other things, require you to disclose who you want to see, why, if you are on appointment, your last known address and phone number, the nature of the business and the name of your grandmother.
Since the guy taking these details can’t go up to the Honourable Minister’s office on the 10th floor every time a visitor fills out a slip (because he has to climb the staircase since there’s no electricity), you’ll have to hang around until he collects enough forms to make his trip worthwhile.
And when the guy finally collects enough forms to take upstairs, you must be prepared to use the stairs, because the only serviceable lift to the 10th floor is the Honourable Minister’s lift, which visitors are not allowed to use.
At the next desk on the 10th floor where the corridor is lined with a shabby red carpet and a transparent rubber mat in the middle, you have just literally arrived at the corridors of power. Here, you may have to go through a metal door or two and endure a fresh set of questions from security men.
If your luck holds, they will smile at you for what they can get. Depending on your response, they will either gingerly fetch a fraying big visitors’ hardcover notebook for you to fill out again, or keep you standing on the corridor while VIPs go in and out.
You may be on the executive floor now, but that does not mean you’re nearer your appointment with the Honourable Minister than when you were on the ground floor.
Whether it’s the Honourable Minister, the minister of state, the permanent secretary, the deputy permanent secretary, the director-general or any of the holders of the assorted nomenclatures, the only reason why they exist is to waste your time and make your life miserable.
In Abuja, the corridors of power are littered with the frustrations of hundreds of visitors. A good number of them with legitimate appointments suffer daily either because power wielders are too afraid to delegate responsibilities, too conceited to get their priorities right or just too feeble minded to say, from the outset, no, we can’t do this.
Abuja ministers and big men think that administration by suspense and disrespect with the attendant crowd and commotion in the visitors’ waiting room confers on them a special status of importance and relevance.
It’s not their fault. Why should we expect better from a bloated and dysfunctional system? With over 420 ministries, departments and agencies, and one million federal employees costing the government N1.8trillion in annual personnel emoluments, what do you expect but ungovernable ministers and overcrowded waiting rooms?
In a damning paper two weeks ago, the Kaduna State governor, Nasir el-Rufai, put the matter squarely: “Our public service is too large. The entire public service in Nigeria is three to four million in size.
“In 2005, we found that public service was ageing. The average age was 43 in a country where 75 percent of the population was below the age of 35.”
If there’s any lingering doubt that the bureaucracy needs a massive shake-up, the Orosanye report settled it: “A stroll around the Federal Secretariat Complex, Abuja, will expose why many people have no business remaining in the service.
“Serving officers have turned their offices to trading posts. The ground floors and the parking lots at the secretariat complex are littered with all sorts of merchandise, either owned by civil servants or their agents.”
Rita Dominic’s movie was obviously an understatement of what the civil service has become; it’s rotten from the head down.
Dan Kunle is right. If Dominic is to find positive material for part two of her movie, change must start from the waiting room on the 10th floor.
The Picture That Kept Me Looking…
It’s amazing how things change. I had to pinch myself to believe that the same military top brass that said President Muhammadu Buhari did not file his certificates with the military and, therefore, not fit to contest the presidency, were the ones tripping over themselves to salute him on Tuesday as their new C-in-C. Amazing Nigeria!