A highly informal economy has inspired tech innovators to find tailored solutions, and investors are responding.
- Nicholas Norbrook and Mark Anderson
The time is 6:02AM, the year 2026, the location Lagos Financial City. Fatima Abouzeid flails at her digital personal assistant to silence the alarm, which in return flashes her a miffed/not-miffed emoji and starts to warble the main news headlines of the day.
- Charles Idem in Abuja and Patrick Smith
After President Muhammadu Buhari halved the number of ministries and sacked several permanent secretaries, he told civil servants he was determined to reform the bureaucracy and stamp out corruption.
Fulfilling the grand hopes for prosperity and security that greeted Muhammadu Buhari’s accession to the presidency last year will rest as much on his ability to galvanise the civil service as on high-table political deals with the bumptious national assembly and 36 state governors. The grim landscape of crashing oil prices and approaching recession has made the government all the more dependent on effective public administrators to eke out scarce state resources.
From the start, Buhari warned his officials that he would insist that the government’s more than 500 ministries, departments and agencies – which employ more than 250,000 Nigerians – are fully accountable in terms of implementing policy and managing its finances. One of Buhari’s first decisions as president was to cut the number of ministries from 42 to 25; he also dismissed all but two of the permanent secretaries that he had inherited from the previous government. According to an insider in the presidency, Buhari’s imperatives for civil service reform could be summed up as “lean, mean and effective”.
But those reforms have to be implemented amidst stark economic conditions, complicating the government’s planned shift to capital and development spending. Federal and state officials have been petitioning Buhari this year over funding; within months of coming to power last year, Buhari had agreed to a bailout for cash-strapped state governments.
But now is the time to hang tough, according to Lamido Sanusi, the Emir of Kano and former central bank governor: “Nigeria must drop the habit of borrowing to pay salaries and service recurrent expenditures.” On a visit to Kaduna on 25 August, Sanusi argued the current economic tribulations were more about government failure than market conditions: “We are not being sincere when we say we are in a recession because of the oil prices. What happened to the other sectors?”
All of the talk about the impact of the oil price crash highlights the country’s crude dependence. One of the ministers involved in economic diversification plans is solid minerals minister Kayode Fayemi, a close associate of power, works and housing minister Babatunde Fashola. “The President made it clear that he wanted constructive debate about policy,” says Fayemi. “But that once it’s decided, it was the minister’s task to implement it and [he/she] would be held to account accordingly […]. It’s a systems approach to government.”
Buhari’s view is that good government, like good armies, depends on robust systems and rules. Officials say he also expects all policy proposals to be backed up with fully researched position papers before they are scrutinised by the presidential secretariat at Aso Rock in Abuja.
For example, Fayemi, a former governor of Ekiti State and a security expert, has spent much of this year developing plans to boost gold and iron ore mining, and to reboot the country’s troubled steel industry. He is looking for $5bn in investments for the country’s mining industry, which he argues will diversify the economy away from oil dependence and speed up industrialisation at the same time.
In late August, Fayemi was due to present a mining plan to Buhari and proposals to set up an independent regulatory agency to oversee the licensing and monitoring of mining operations. It will be a tough case to argue under present financial constraints, but the plan fits with the government’s commitment to switch the emphasis to capital and development spending and prune recurrent budgets.
Senior civil servants in Abuja look nervously skyward when asked about the prospects of state projects getting financed despite the target budget of N1.75trn ($5.6bn) for capital spending this year. That budget is to be financed by a mixture of loans from the African Development Bank and the World Bank, while finance minister Kemi Adeosun is leading a team to float a $1bn eurobond on the international markets.
The civil service is key to the Buhari project, and the man running his civil service reform programme is Joe Abah. Abah likes to quote a glowing assessment of Nigeria’s civil service in 1960 by departing Western Region premier Obafemi Awolowo. This prompts him to ask where it has all gone wrong over the past half century. Currently director-general of the Bureau of Public Service Reforms in the presidency, he takes the long view.
Reforms and purges
Certainly, 33 years of military rule had played a big role in undermining the civil service. “The arbitrariness and command and control nature of military rule doesn’t lend itself well to a cautious, measured bureaucracy that seeks to ensure impersonality, predictability, accountability and due process,” writes Abah.
Some say the rot set in when military leader Murtala Mohammed sacked 10,000 civil servants in 1975 as part of a wider purge of the predecessor military regime under Yakubu Gowon. Others say it was the Dotun Philips reforms under Ibrahim Babangida’s military regime, which made ministers chief executives and accounting officers of their own ministries and tied the tenure of permanent secretaries to the government that appointed them. Other top civil servants say that with this Babangida irreversibly politicised the civil service.
Abah quotes from a federal government document of 2008 that reports that the public service had “metamorphosed from a manageable, compact, focused, trained, skilled and highly motivated body into an over-bloated, lopsided, ill-equipped, poorly paid, rudderless institution lacking in initiative and beset by loss of morale, arbitrariness and corruption.”
At the other end of the telescope, the picture is worse still according to governance activist Hamzat Lawal. As chief executive of Connected Development, a non-governmental organisation that runs the Follow the Money initiative, tracking government and aid spending, Lawal spends much of his time with civil servants in the ministries of education, health and environment as well as agencies under them.
Recently, Follow the Money submitted a freedom of information (FOI) request to Nigeria’s health ministry about a $500m grant received from the World Bank for primary health care in rural communities. Two weeks after the seven-day deadline for FOI requests to be honoured, Lawal was informed by officials at the health ministry that the letter bearing the FOI request had just arrived via the department of planning and statistics to the health minster’s office for further action.
Pillar to post
“It’s really frustrating because each time we go there, we are directed from one office to the other,” says Lawal. “They will tell you: ‘Go to the 3rd floor, it’s in this department.’ And when we go there they say: ‘It’s not here, go to this other department.’” The officials seemed to enjoy the confusion, he adds, partly because it was strange to them that citizens should dare ask for such information. Some of the officials claimed to have no knowledge of the FOI Act and even suggested that the ministry would be happy to meet Follow the Money in court if they chose to sue for its failure to respond within the deadline.
Standards of public service do not seem to have improved despite a succession of reform efforts. One such programme was Servicom – the ‘Service Compact for all Nigerians’ – introduced in 2004 under President Olusegun Obasanjo. Each ministry, department and agency would have a Servicom unit within it to monitor performance.
A decade after its introduction, Servicom units are barely functional. A civil servant who works in a ministerial agency in Abuja confirms this and adds that the quality of service is inconsistent because the system fails to enforce performance standards. The official, who requested anonymity, tells The Africa Report: “One of the rules here [in the ministry] is that a file shouldn’t spend more than two days on your table, regardless. But nobody pays attention.” He observes that the problem is not a lack of rules but the recruitment of incompetent individuals due to endemic nepotism.
Although President Buhari’s reputation raised hopes last year of a tough attack on corruption and nepotism, opposition critics have accused the government of cronyism. They point to the new head of the civil service, Winifred Oyo-Ita, who worked closely with Buhari during his time as head of the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF) in the 1990s. The head of the Federal Internal Revenue Service (FIRS), Babatunde Fowler, is the former chairman of the Lagos state internal revenue service and is believed to be a nominee of Bola Tinubu, an influential leader in the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC).
To the customs agency, Buhari appointed a retired army colonel who had been his chief of staff, Hameed Ali. And more recently, he picked Hadiza Bala Usman, an activist leader of the Bring Back Our Girls movement, who was chief of staff to Kaduna State governor Nasir El-Rufai, as the managing director of the country’s ports authority.
While it is early days, the appointees have delivered some success. Fowler’s FIRS has shown progress at increasing the tax take. In June, 70% of the N500bn revenue received by the government came from tax and non-oil sources. The customs service was instrumental to this, as it increased collections by N12bn from the previous month. At the ports agency, Bala Usman has been mandated to transform the agency, which is widely regarded as a cesspool of corruption. She had barely been in office for a month following her appointment in July when reports emerged that she had discovered N11bn of the agency’s funds stashed away in a number of banks, in contravention of the government’s treasury single account policy.
Ongoing reform efforts
Unquestionably, the civil service reform efforts are still on. A national council on reform was established with the President as the chairman, while Joe Abah’s Bureau of Public Service Reforms reports to the secretary to the government of the federation. Abah, who has worked on administrative reform in the office of the British Prime Minister, concedes that Nigeria’s civil service is a reflection of the worst aspects of the society.
Abah says the bureau uses technology to make government more accountable and efficient. It launched Nigeria’s first FOI portal, where requests can be submitted electronically and responses are issued within two hours of the request being lodged. The bureau is also working to cut bureaucracy and speed up business processes.
But the bureau’s main job has been piloting a performance management system for the six ministries that were merged at the inauguration of Buhari’s cabinet. Abah used the opportunity with the restructuring to pilot the system, which involves clarifying the roles of the ministries and linking these to job descriptions of officials within the respective ministries to measure performance more accurately.
To tackle poor service culture in agencies, the bureau has developed an agency improvement system with three components: a guide on how to run a government agency; a web-based self-assessment tool for agencies to rate themselves against good practices; and rapid institutional assessments, a diagnostic tool used to measure key organs of agencies to obtain a current state report.
An assessment of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), an agency under the Niger Delta ministry, revealed a contractual exposure of almost N1trn for uncompleted projects. The bureau subsequently recommended to the federal executive council that the agency be stopped from awarding contracts for two years.
Abah is optimistic that the government will root out corruption, particularly the widespread payroll fraud through which senior civil servants have found ways to collect pay cheques for thousands of fictitious workers. He tells The Africa Report: “We’ve computerised the payroll. We’ve computerised the accounting system. We’ve computerised the whole financial management system. And it’s now easier to track money.”
Before, it was difficult to discover who was collecting the ‘ghost workers’’ salaries, but that has changed, he said: “With the bank verification numbers, you know who collected the money. Technology is key for us to fight this bureaucratic corruption beyond the grand corruption of the politically exposed people.”
- Nicholas Norbrook in Harare
The Africa Report takes a road trip across Zimbabwe, from Harare to Masvingo Province and Mashonaland East – to see the long-term impact of the country's early-2000s land revolution.