Nigerian customer service and public official
Last week, President Muhammadu Buhari issued an apology. It was for the abusive dissolution of university councils by his administration. Apologies are unusual for Nigerian presidents in general, and for Buhari in particular. This is why his words are worth noting: “There is nothing wrong with apologizing and reversing your decision. So we said sorry and allowed all universities to continue with their advice. ”
I see this as an example of leadership. Of course, a singular reflection on a decision does not automatically make Buhari a great leader. We will have to wait for the cumulative effect of its policies before we can consider any claim to greatness. But that’s for later. Right now, this openness to correction indicates welcome potential. President Buhari is often at his best when he rejects his ego and empathizes with people and processes.
But this article is not just about Buhari. Rather, it is about the conduct of public officials in Nigeria. It seems difficult for the majority of officials, from governors to special advisers, to act sensibly. They are too ignorant to see the antithesis between public roles and their private biases, too proud to admit misbehavior.
This attitude was present in Mr. Femi Adesina’s interview with TV Channels Last week. Without irony, the spokesperson said Nigerians complaining of a power outage should draw attention to the pipeline vandals. Also consider Ms Abike Dabiri who, in a conversation on Twitter last week, criticized the person who hired her for expressing pessimism about the Nigerian condition. This type of attitude of our public officials is worrying. This is indicative of a mentality that understands neither the complexity of the public nor the representative role of a public servant.
Public service comes with responsibilities. This responsibility implies that decisions cannot be absolute; statements must be weighed; and private opinion should not influence official capacity. Public service in a democracy is designed to be uncomfortable and we need to make the occupiers understand this fact.
The Nigerian Constitution sets out a code of conduct for public officials. However, because there is – and rightly so – a limit to which we can legislate on human conduct, the provisions focus more on financial misconduct. In the Constitution, only the president and the governors (and their second) are subjected to a rather vague concept of “serious fault” which can give rise to a procedure of dismissal.
This does not mean that there are no standards for the behavior of public officials. There is an ethic that necessarily implies a democratic society. This is best understood by considering the nature of “customer service” in business transactions. Customer service is more than the material value of money. We cannot weigh a smile or a courteous greeting in naira and kobo. But we expect decent conduct when paying money for goods and services.
The business world understands that good behavior guarantees customer loyalty. The idea that the customer is always right is less about submission than about self-preservation. This simple reasoning continues to elude the leaders of African democracies.
Good behavior is just as, if not more, important in governance. We pay public officials in cash and in kind, and our lives depend on the sensitivity of their decisions. The effect of an ill-behaved business owner may not last beyond a bitter memory, but a callous public official can generate serious social divisions.
But why is bad behavior so prevalent in our public service? First, we tend to ignore bad behavior because our colonial and military heritage has damaged our social psychology. We don’t expect anything, so we’re not moved when we don’t get anything. But if we are to move this democracy from simple form to substance, then we have to start insisting on good service.
In addition, public officials feel safe because there is no opposition available to take up their duties. A functional opposition party is more than just a nuisance. It is a necessity. Educated Nigerians must push for the existence of a credible opposition party. It is the customer who benefits when the market allows healthy competition.
Credible opposition cannot emerge where sycophancy is prevalent. This servile tendency is a characteristic of our political economy. Sympathy is a consequence of an economic system where access to government is a prerequisite for material wealth. It is not uncommon for those who praise Buhari’s “courage” in his decision-making are likely to be the same ones who praise his “humility” if he reconsiders his decision.
Intellectual dishonesty is the worst type of sycophancy. These are the ones who advance the arguments that a public official is “just to be frank”. Public officials don’t get paid to be frank – that’s what social critics do for free – we pay public officials to serve the public. It is in a sick society that the educated class defends the excesses of officials instead of the rights of citizens. Sympathy is difficult to eradicate in a developing country. However, with mass education and a corresponding increase in the middle class, we can minimize its dangerous effects.
The Constitution stipulates that “sovereignty belongs to the Nigerian people from whom the government, through this Constitution, derives all its powers and authority”. It is a clear statement of the subjugation of the government to the citizens. We have a responsibility to demand good behavior from public officials. It’s bad enough when public officials steal our money, we don’t have to turn around and allow them to steal our dignity as well. Even so, corruption feeds on unworthiness. The corruption of greed begins when someone in society considers that they have more rights than others. A governor who does not hesitate to order the beating of a civilian who blocks his convoy will not hesitate to steal money.
There is a Yoruba saying that a person who lies will certainly steal. I say watch out for public officials who feel authorized to have a right of way: these are very likely to be corrupt.
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