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« The Wabaras: Felicia & Senator Adolphous Wabara; Suddenly Rich? | Main | Ozodi Osuji Lectures #14: State and Local Governments in Nigeria's Politics »

October 21, 2005

Ozodi Osuji Lectures #15: the Bureaucracy in Nigeria's Politics

by Ozodi Thomas Osuji, Ph.D. (seatle, Washington) --- DEFINITION The bureaucracy is an instrument for implementing the policies and laws made by the political decision makers in a polity. Legislators, executives and judges make decisions as to what needs done in the human polity. Those decisions have to be implemented otherwise they might as well not have been made. Laws and policies must be applied or they are no good.

Bureaucracy is that instrument through which society operationalizes its decisions on governing itself. The bureaucracy is a machine, a mechanism through which policies and laws are realized. In theory, the bureaucracy is not supposed to make the decisions and policies it implements, but be a neutral organization through which decisions are actualized in a human polity.


The origin of bureaucracy is long lost in the past. For our present purposes, we know that the Romans had bureaucracy through whom they implemented the laws and rules made in Rome, in Rome’s far-flung Empire. Laws and policies were made at Rome and those were implemented throughout the Roman Empire. Those doing the implementation are bureaucrats.

A person who did not make decisions but merely implements them is a bureaucrat. He is implementing other people’s, not his own personal, decisions. As such, a bureaucrat must be impersonal, objective, impartial, unsympathetic and detached in implementing the decisions he is implementing. Rome gave an order for a general to go to war and conquer yet another territory for it, and the general and the army he leads does as Rome’s political authorities (emperor, Senate etc) asked him to do. It is not for him to decide whether the decision to go to war is right or wrong, that is for political actors to determine; his role is to do as told.

Bureaucracy is a giant wheel through which society rolls its decisions into motion. Each person working in the bureaucracy is a spoke, an object doing what he is told to do and not asking questions why he should do what he is told to do. The day a bureaucrat asks questions and disobeys orders, he is no longer a bureaucrat, perhaps, and he is now a politician, may be. He at that point should get out of the bureaucracy and go to where he belongs, politics, or he is booted out.

A bureaucrat is a humble servant, a machine operated by the decision makers of society. He is not supposed to have opinions of his own, or if he does to keep them, to himself. Just do what your bosses ask you to do or if you do not want to do them you must quit your job. As long as you want to retain your job as a bureaucrat, you must obey orders and do what told to do, it is not relevant whether what you were told to do is right or wrong.

The Roman army and civilian bureaucracy was, perhaps, the world’s best bureaucracy and did what it was told to do. Told to fight and good soldiers fight. Die while fighting for the empire and the good soldier lays his life for his superiors. He does not ask questions.

Rome decides to punish Jews by destroying their temple in 70 AD and gave the order to the local Roman bureaucrat in Jerusalem and he does as he was asked to do and destroyed the temple. He does not ask why he should destroy such a historic monument but just does what he was asked to do.

When the Roman Empire fell in 450 AD, for a while, there was chaos in Europe. Later, the Catholic Church emerged as a universal European Church. The Church replicated the bureaucracy of the Roman army and spread throughout the Roman Empire. It had its headquarters at Rome and the Pope and his cardinals made decisions and the decisions were relayed to the Church’s army in the field: Rules emanated from Rome (from the Pope and his council) and went to cardinals in major population centers of Europe, and from them to Archbishops in major cities and from them to Bishops in medium sized cities and from Bishops to reverend fathers, priests in their parishes.

The Church had monasteries and nunneries through out Europe. Here scholastic monks and nuns lived and, among other things, researched how best to control the local areas where they were located. The monks and nuns practically controlled the lives of every person in their areas of operation. Like the modern secret police, these people made sure that the will of Rome was obeyed and that those who did not were punished. An example is for the offender to be ex-communicated from the Holy Church, hence sent to hell fire…later the Church could not wait for people to be damned in hell fire and subjected them to fire right here on earth, I am talking about the Spanish inquisition that burned heretics on the stake.

The Roman Church was a far-flung bureaucracy for controlling Christendom. It worked well. For our present purposes, the Church was part of the roots of modern bureaucracy.

The Church exists to the present except that its power has been weakened. In 1517, Martin Luther challenged the authority of the popes of Roman and precipitated wars that lasted over 130 years. At the end of those religious wars, the Catholic Church failed to bring back Protestants to the Church. The treaty of Westphalia of 1648, which ended the religious wars, essentially saw the creation of the modern nation states.

The Catholic Church was further weakened by the rise of secularism and scientism. Today, very few educated persons really pay much attention to the doctrinal policies emerging from Rome. In the past, the Popes encyclicals ruled the Christian world. Today, folks see them as just another superstition that they have to tolerate until religion is done away with from human society.

The various kings of Europe had their own bureaucracies for governing their kingdoms. They had officials spread out in their kingdoms making sure that folks obeyed the kings’ divine rights to rule, to make laws for them. Those who did not obey the king were arrested by the sheriff, judged, and if found guilty, sent to jail or even killed. Bureaucrats enabled the monarchs of Europe to control the people and maintain law and order.

The above past bureaucracies contributing to the modern bureaucracy were exactly that, antecedents, for none of them remotely resembles the modern bureaucracy.

The modern bureaucracy is a 19th century phenomenon. Throughout the Western world efforts were made to professionalize the bureaucracy. Prior to that movement, in America, for example, winning presidents used to sweep into town and appoint their cronies into most government offices. This was called the patronage and spoils system. You won the presidency and you came to Washington and kicked out whoever was working for Uncle Sam and replaced them with your own people, those who worked in your campaign.

In 1887, Congress passed the first civil service law requiring that civil servants be hired on merit and not just be the cronies of the president. A Congressional Act established the Civil Service Commission to hire and supervise a professional civil service. Ultimately, Congress passed laws that civil servants are employed by Uncle Sam, not by the president, and that they be recruited on the basis of merit and promoted on the basis of merit. Thus, it came to pass that a professional civil service was established in God’s own country, thanks largely due to the efforts of Woodrow Wilson, the scholar President of Princeton University who later became an idealistic president of the United States (remember his 14 points proposals to make the world safe for democratic?)

While America was turning its corrupt civil service into a professional civil service, other European countries were doing the same thing around the same time. In Prussia, the Kaiser’s chancellors turned their civil service and army into a marvelous machine for carrying out the will of their emperor. The German civil servant and soldier did exactly as he was told to do, no questions asked. He was the quintessential bureaucrat, a machine for carrying out the will of politicians. Max Weber wrote admiringly about these Prussian machine men.

With those machine men, the iron fisted chancellor, Von Bismarck, smashed the French army in 1870 and made Germany a united country.

The modern bureaucracy came into being in the late 19th century. By the 1920s we essentially have the bureaucracy we have today. Max Weber described this new type of human organization so well that we just have to summarize what he said. As he sees it, the bureaucratic organization is hierarchical in structure, is a pyramid with fewer persons at the top, many at the bottom and few in the middle. Those at the top giving orders to those at the bottom. Those at the bottom obey what they were told to do without asking questions. Those at the top, in turn, are told what to do by the civilian leaders of society and they obey without asking questions.

For example, Congress passed laws/policies and gave them to the right bureau to implement. The top bureaucrats in that bureau write procedures on how to carry that order out and go about doing so in an impersonal, objective manner. There is nothing personal about the bureaucrat’s behavior; he is just doing his duty.

Bureaucrats are recruited on the basis of merit. Generally, they are required to take examinations and qualify for the positions that they are applying for.

The jobs that bureaucrats do are not their personal jobs. Rather, those jobs are roles in an organization, and any one could be hired to perform the job specification described for each role. Indeed, it would be better if machines could do the jobs, so that we did away with human sentimentalities and emotions.

There is a job description and one is hired to do that job. If one can do it one stays, if not one is fired. That is all there is to it. A bureaucracy is not a charity house. The employee is used by the organization to achieve goals others set, that he did not set. His job is to help the organization accomplish the goals the decision makers of society set for it.

Bureaucratic organizations must follow procedures. They must rigidly adhere to procedures, policies, how things are done there and should never deviate and do their own things. It does not matter whether the person in front of a bureaucrat is a family member or friend or foe, he is supposed to treat him or her according to the rules of his bureau. No favoritisms allowed and no nepotism permitted.

Bureaucrats are required to do their jobs without enthusiasm and feelings of rightness or wrongness, but to just do what the job descriptions call on them to do or they are sacked from the bureau (French for office…bureaucrats, office workers).

Bureaucratic organizations are not democratic organizations where all members gather and collectively make decisions regarding what to do. Instead, they are machines used by the decision makers of society to accomplish their goals and objectives. Bureaucratic organizations are non-democratic for employees cannot be democratic when the decisions that they are implementing are not theirs in the first place.

Bureaucratic organizations are excellent instruments for those who formulate political policies to implement them.

Max Weber’s abstractions not withstanding, the real world is a bit different. In the real world, top bureaucrats tend to possess a lot of information and expertise on their line of work. Therefore, the decision makers of society often rely on their expertise in making decisions.

Consider the British minister. He is assigned to a ministry. He may or may not know much about the ministry he is supposed to rule. The permanent secretary in the ministry and his assistants probably has spent upwards of thirty years running that ministry. Who has more knowledge about how the ministry works? The permanent secretary, of course does. Therefore, the minister, if he is a sensible chap, must ask the opinions of his top civil servants before he makes any decision. Nevertheless, the minister does not have to rely on the opinion of civil servants.

The minister, prime minister and the rest of the cabinet was elected by the people to implement certain policies and do not need to rely on the opinion of civil servants to do so. He just needs to take the views of civil servants into consideration, particularly on how to implement his policies, but not the policies themselves. In the final analysis, the minister is the decision maker and if the public deems his decisions inappropriate he may not be reelected during the next election, while the stiff and proper bureaucrat retains his job.

In the real world, civil servants do influence public policy because they have information that politicians may or may not have. Some observers, indeed, argue that we are in the age of technocracy, that experts now rule our governments. This view seems a bit exaggerated for we all know that technocrats/bureaucrats tend to lack vision. As Max Weber correctly pointed out, there are differences between the political personality and the bureaucratic personality.

The politician is a force of nature with ideas and visions of what society should look like. Bureaucrats, on the other hand, tend to be doers who do what they are asked to do and may not have innovative ideas. Thus, it is highly unlikely that technocrats would soon rule society. What is true is that experts in the various ministries do provide useful information to their civilian leaders.

If the ministry of transportations is going to build a road from Port Harcourt to Onitsha, for example, it is the technocrats in the ministry, the civil engineers, that will draw the plans, and the accountants in the ministry will cost those plans out. These technicians would bring their plans and expenses to the minister of transportation. His job is to study the plans as given to him and take political equation into calculation before he makes a decision to build the roads or not.

We live in a world of scarce resources and there is such a thing as opportunity cost. If you spend money on one project, you may not have money for other projects. Thus, perhaps, instead of building that road what is needed is to build elementary and secondary schools in Alaigbo? The minister is supposed to make such tough choices.

Decision making entails evaluating several alternative courses of actions and choosing a few and letting go of others. The decision maker takes the consequences of his choice. It may mean being thrown out of office come the next election.

The technocrat, bureaucrat has a secure job and is, therefore, not qualified to make risky choices…unless he is ready to loose his job if his decisions do not pan out and prove a winner to the public.

The modern bureaucracy began in the 19th century. Even then, bureaucracies remained small affairs. Governments until the twentieth century were small affairs. It was after the 1929 depression when it was accepted that governments ought to be playing a role in the economy, largely due to the influence of socialists and John Maynard Keynes economic views that governments grew in size. In the United States, the New Deal polices of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt expanded the United States government from a few thousands to million employees. Today, over two million employees work for Uncle Sam, plus another two million in the military. The various states, counties and cities in the United States have their own civil servants. Today, many Americans work for the government or government related employers. The bureaucracy is now a humongous affair, touching just about every citizen’s life.

In Africa, there were really no bureaucracies, not as we know them in the West, until the twentieth century. Oh Hausa and Yoruba states had some bureaucrats working for them, but these employees, by and large, were not really impersonal bureaucrats ala Max Weber. It was when the European colonialists established their rule in Africa that the modern bureaucracy began to take roots in Africa.

In Nigeria, the birth of the modern bureaucracy can be traced to the Royal Niger Company. The British Government took over from the Royal Niger Companying in the early 20th century and formed the Southern and Northern protectorates of Nigeria in 1906. In 1914, the British amalgamated the two protectorates into one Nigeria and began the enterprise called Nigeria. The colonial officials raided the personnel of the Royal Niger Company and used them to start the first Nigerian civil service.

Frederick Lugard was made the first Governor General of Nigeria. To help him govern Nigeria, he established a small secretariat at Lagos and appointed lieutenant governors for the North and South, along with district officers. He sent out the district officers to work all over the country. He established the famous indirect rule system whereby he used already existing Afriocan leaders to rule the people. One white district officer would work with the emir of a large area and through the emir ruled the people. In Alaigbo where there was no king or bureaucracy for controlling the people, Lugard created Warrant Chiefs and superimposed them on the Igbos and used them to impose his will on the people.

By the 1940s, it could be said that there was a rudimentary bureaucracy in Nigeria. But at no time were there more than five thousand British administrators governing Nigeria. So we are talking about a small bureaucracy here.

Nigeria gained her independence from Britain in 1960. Thereafter, Nigerian leaders expanded the role of government in society and began expanding the bureaucracy.

If you create a new function for government, you must also form a new bureaucracy for it to accomplish that function. For example, if you accept the function of supervising environmental matters as appropriate role for government, then you must have a civilian bureaucracy to make sure that the government’s rules regarding protection of the environment are implemented.

Modern society, and Nigeria is not an exception, is giving governments a lot to do and, as such, is creating bureaucracies all over the place. Today, governments are the largest employers in Nigeria.

The Nigerian bureaucracy is essentially like the British Bureaucracy. It is structured like this: At the top is the secretary to the Federal Government. This man supervises the various permanent secretaries.

A permanent secretary heads each ministry. Below him is the under secretary, then the deputy permanent secretary, the principal assistant secretary, the senior assistant secretary, and at the bottom of the administrative ladder is the assistant secretary. Assistant secretaries are hired from university graduates. Candidates generally take and passed written examinations, are then interviewed and recruited by appropriate ministries. They are recruited into the administrative class and work their ways to the top. It is expected that they would get to the top at the tail end of their public service, after thirty something years of service in the government. The typical civil servant works for the government for about forty years and mandatorily retires at age 65.

Beneath the administrative class are clerical persons. These are usually hired from secondary school graduates; clerks work their way to junior executive positions and do not make it into the administrative class (except in exceptional cases).

Each government ministry is a functional area and requires different training. To work in the foreign ministry, for example, may require studies in political science, history and law. To work in the ministry of finance may require training in finance and or economics. To work in the ministry of transportation may require training in engineering. Each ministry thus hires those trained to do what it exists to do and promotes them upwards. Hopefully, the best employees get to reach the permanent secretary positions.

Believe it or not, the Nigerian civil servant is as good as any civil servant in the world. The typical Nigerian permanent secretary tends to be as good as the typical British permanent secretary.


Nigeria is a federation. That means that there is a federal government, state governments and local area governments. These various levels of government have their own bureaucracies. They generally follow the same British format.

The British themselves have attempted to modify their stiff civil service and borrow from the more flexible American model. In America, there is something called lateral entry into the civil service. Non civil servants, say those in the private sector, can be hired into any level of the civil service ladder, if they are deemed qualified. Any citizen can apply for positions in the civil service that he believes himself qualified to perform, including the director of government departments. A CEO of a medium sized cooperation can be hired to run a government department without prior experience in the civil service. This could not happen in the British system where folks are hired for positions at the bottom of the administrative class and work their way upwards.

The American system has a tendency of bringing in new blood into the bureaucracy, whereas the British system tends to perpetuate the same old ways of doing things. The American system is a bit more innovative than the British. I said a bit more innovative because despite his non civil service background, once a chap comes into the bureaucracy, he is quickly socialized to its ethos and becomes unproductive and lacking in creativity. The job of bureaucrats is to have jobs, not to do anything worthwhile. It actually takes ten of these folks to change a light bulb.

The British is experimenting with hiring non civil service folks into the middle echelon of their bureaucracy rather than rely on dead wood that worked their way to the top. If an individual spends all his career life in one ministry, he may have zero ideas of what leadership is all about, taking risks? America itself is quietly relying on internal promotions than it did before. This tends to reduce the amateurish nature of the American civil service.

Nigeria is mix of the British and American systems, with heavy tilt towards the British system.

As we have observed, the primary function of the bureaucracy is to implement the policies made by the political sector. Parliament passes a law, policy and it is given to bureaucrats who then write regulations regarding how they intend to implement it. They hire the right people and implement the law. They set up internal administrative judicial systems to offer all opportunity to contest how bureaucrats applied the law. For example, a bureaucracy regulates the Airline industry. If a member of that industry thinks that it was treated unfairly by the agency regulating it, it could appeal to the administrative judge regarding such complaints and have a hiring. If he wins he gets redress, if he loses he is punished.

In the West, modern bureaucracies tend to do what they were set up to do. However, it is a well known fact that bureaucrats once hired want to keep their jobs even if what they were hired to do is no longer needed done. To deal with this issue, some governments now pass sunset laws requiring agencies to go out of existence when their agency objective is accomplished. But government agencies, by and large, tend to find something else for them to do, even if it means duplicating other department’s jobs. They seldom go out of existence.

Government agencies tend to be inefficient. What a few persons can do in the private sector takes many persons to do in the public sector.

Government agencies tend to duplicate each other’s jobs. Several agencies doing the same line of work. This costs government a lot of money.

We can go on and on pointing out some problems with government work but, by and large, they tend to do what they are supposed to do.

Obviously, we need the public sector. If you assign functions to government to perform you must be willing to pay for civil servants to help it do what you want it to do. Thus, the bureaucracy is a necessary part of modern life. As long as you expect your government to provide the people with education, health insurance, public transportation, electricity, water, garbage removal, you must have bureaucrats performing those tasks. The most we can do is make sure that the bureaucrats are a bit efficient and cost conscious.

We can have citizen oversight committees scrutinize bureaucrats and make sure that their budgets don’t just grow but that they do so only when necessary. We must make sure that only necessary personnel is hired, not personnel to fetch coffee for the permanent secretary.

With regards to the tendency for bureaucracy to be full of red tape and procedure bound that seems inevitable for only persons assigned jobs should do them. We must have a bureaucracy where folks pass the bucks and get others to do jobs that they could do but that are not in their job descriptions. This is how we maintain accountability.

Our job is to make government responsive to the peoples needs, to have policies that serve people and recruit civil servants that serve the people. Those asking for reduced bureaucracy are not going to get their wishes satisfied. We live in a modern world; our lives are interconnected; we need government workers to perform services for us. We cannot go back to the past when less government was needed. If any thing, there will be more governments in our future.


We have talked about Bureaucracies in general. Is there anything to say about the Nigerian bureaucracy? In so far that there is anything unique about the civil service in Nigeria, it is the tendency for public officials to demand bribes before they do their jobs. But this is not unique to the civil service; bribery permeates every aspect of Nigeria’s life.

If a policeman stops you for routine traffic violations, he expects kola money from you or else he delays your business. To pick up a form from a ministry often requires bribing the clerk handing out such forms or suddenly there are no forms available, come back next week, you are told. Fork out the required sum and the form appears.

If you desire to have a contract from a ministry, well, be prepared to pay ten or more percent of your gross income from the said contract to the awarding committee.

We do not need to repeat the obvious. In Nigeria, you bribe to get what you want. Even the custom and immigration officer examining your passport at the airport expects you to slip a few dollars into the passport as you hand it to him or else your name is suddenly not spelled right, as he thinks that it should be spelled, and he delays your entry into the country.


African civil servants generally tend to see their positions as their personal offices and their work as their personal work. They do not detach from their jobs and do them impersonally. They do not seem to recognize that they are supposed to be machines doing what they are told to them. They fancy that they are important because they are occupying government positions. They want the public to treat them as very important persons. This illusion probably explains much of the nepotism and corruption in Nigeria.

The civil servant uses his job to do favor for those close to him, his relatives and tribal people. In doing so, he fancies that they see him as a very important person in their community.

Many Nigerian civil servants are nepotistic and will give jobs to their relatives and friends before they do so to other Nigerians. Moreover, they want you to bribe them before they do what they were hired to do. That is to say that they personalize their offices.

I have given this phenomenon some thinking. I think that it has something to do with importation of African cultures into an otherwise impersonal civil service.

In African societies, we are our brothers’ keepers. Therefore, when folks obtain jobs with the government they feel obligated to use their positions to help their relatives. This desire to help sometimes goes beyond merely helping them obtain jobs to stealing from government coffers to have the money to help a coterie of siblings and town’s people that are dependent on the official for help.

Much of the corruption that exists in Nigeria is motivated by goodwill; officials desire to obtain money to help their people. Very few persons can rely on their official salaries if they want to help their people. Indeed, most government officials cannot even rely on their salaries to be able to train their children in school.

If Nigeria had good elementary, secondary and university systems, all paid by the public, it would reduce the burden on officials to take bribes so as to have the money to pay for their children’s fees. The policeman taking bribes is often doing so to obtain the money to train his children and be useful to his people, not because he is a bad person.

Whereas we must improve the pay structure of Nigerian officials, yet it is not for them to steal or take bribes. One cannot rationalize their thieving behaviors. I just wanted to point out that our extended family system and its burden on the few persons with jobs may play a role in the high incidence of corruption in Nigeria. If folks were individualist and did not expect to be helped by any one else once they are eighteen years old, they would not have to depend on others who would feel the pressure to take bribes so as to be able to support them.

It seems that Nigerian cultural variables contribute to the corruption in the Nigerian civil service. To reduce that corruption those cultural variables have to be addressed. Of course, we must also address socialization of civil servants, training them to have high ethics so that they no longer think that the degrading behavior of taking bribes is something that they could do. You see, the moment you give a policeman bribe, he has lost his authoritative position in your eyes; he is, as Nigerians’ say, nwabugger, a nothing.


Bureaucracies are really a modern phenomenon. Though they existed in the past, such as in the Roman Empire, what we now regard as bureaucracies are inventions of the 19th century Europe and North America. We had Chinese mandarins, who took examinations to obtain their jobs, but they were not quite what we mean by modern bureaucrats. The emperor, for example, could hire and fire the Chinese worker. In a modern bureaucracy, even the president cannot fire the government worker. Given their union contracts, it often takes years to fire a bureaucrat and it costs more in money and effort to fire them than it is worth. Once a bureaucrat is hired and he passes probation, he is difficult to let go.

Modern bureaucrats are hired to do their jobs in an impersonal manner and, by and large, do so. In Nigeria, there is a personal quality to the civil service. If you know somebody working in a government ministry, he is more likely to serve you first and well before others on the line (what line, since when did Nigerians started queuing up to be served?).

This lecture is designed to be basic and not graduate seminar material so we shall not get into debates as to what to do to fix the Nigerian bureaucracy. Put your energy to figuring out a way to make the Nigerian civil service less corrupt and that would be enough improvement for the time being.

Ozodi Thomas Osuji

October 19, 2005

Next lecture, #16, The Nigerian international relations, October 20.

Posted by Administrator at October 21, 2005 12:10 PM


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