In recent years, the aura of honour and respectability attached to employment in public service has regrettably faded and is now replaced by popular perception of greed, insensitivity, corruption and impunity.  

The stability and exciting career prospects in public service attracted the brightest and the best of our youths and the prevailing culture of discipline, integrity and commitment was supported by our traditional value for a good family name!

Consequently, in spite of the meagre revenue base of both the regional and federal governments, huge strides were made to promote the social welfare of increasing number of our countrymen.  For example, Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s 1955 budget speech, indicated that,  laudable achievements were made possible from the very modest returns from the agricultural produce of these regional governments.

In retrospect, the political leaderships were not victims of their own greed, and public service was also not seen as a means to odious personal wealth accumulation.

Sadly, despite the explosion in government revenue, in the last three decades, with surplus reserves currently in excess of $50bn, Nigerians have continued to decry the rapid decline in their social welfare.  Curiously, while increasing number of Nigerians now live below the poverty line, cabals of public servants in the three tiers of government enjoy a nauseating opulence and show total disregard for the sufferings of the masses.  

Furthermore, the civil service is no longer seen as a safe career haven, or indeed, as a system where merit and hard work are recognized. 

So, the relevant question really, is, where did all the good men and women in public service go?  Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the service of songs organized as part of the usual rite of passage for a noble gentleman, who was once the first Director for Town Planning in Lagos State.  

One of the tributes paid to the late gentleman was by an accomplished Medical Doctor, (a nephew) who had earlier spent part of his formative years in the residence of his late uncle.  In his tribute, the physician narrated how he came home one evening only to confront the agitation of his uncle’s wife, that all hell would be let loose, if her husband returned from work to meet the robust live turkey, which had been delivered by somebody who legitimately benefitted from the town planning office.

The ‘young man’s  entreaties to assuage the concern of his auntie fell on deaf ears; as rightly predicted, on his return from work, the Town Planner, without a second thought, instantly ordered that the ‘fleshy’ turkey be returned immediately to whoever brought it.  The public servant insisted that he was properly paid to do his job, and he did not need any encouragement or gratitude from any quarter for doing so!  Ultimately, the turkey was returned that same evening, to the consternation of the donor, who, nonetheless, insisted that the turkey should never have been construed as an inducement, but rather as a show of gratitude!

I am certain that most of us, throughout the length and breadth of this country, will know uncles and aunties, who gave their 100% to their jobs without asking for even a thank you.  These noble civil servants were satisfied with their official salaries, and several of them built their personal houses from official loans and mortgage facilities, which were available at that time.  In addition, their children's school fees, wherever education was not free, were also fully funded from their regular salaries.  

Regrettably, the current culture in public service radically contrasts with above narrative.  It is now not unusual to find that several lower cadre civil servants in the three tiers of government nationwide, in spite of their modest incomes own up-market housing estates and businesses and pay school fees, which may exceed their total annual salaries for one or more children in educational institutions abroad.

Sadly, this obscene reality is played out in full glare of media and public consciousness.  The lives of politicians and civil servants are magically transformed within months of taking up lucrative positions in government.  Government officials unbelievably, openly commit to inappropriate luxury consumption in the face of deepening poverty, without giving a damn.  Indeed, even serving senior ministers and commissioners, who should know better, publicly accept gifts couched in benign appellations to obscure the inappropriateness of such largesse.

Undoubtedly, the arbitrariness of military rule and the abject disregard of merit in political and administrative appointments contributed to our current predicament; but, in truth, the reckless devaluation of the naira and the attendant deflation of the purchasing power of all income earners was equally a disenabling factor!  Inevitably, nominal salaries at all levels could no longer support the needs of income earners, particularly those in the civil service, where wages were relatively static!

Ultimately, public officials welcomed or indeed, actively collaborated to create avenues for revenue leakages to supplement their impoverished incomes.  Thus, also began the unfortunate plague of brain drain as respected professors and lecturers in the academia, who could not reconcile or trade off their ingrained value system of honesty and integrity in such circumstances, took flight to greener pastures!  The rapid decay in our educational institutions thereafter was only a matter of time!

Consequently, it would be an uphill task to reengineer the virtues of integrity, commitment and selfless service in public office, if merit and proven ability do not predicate the rules of engagement!  Furthermore, contentment and dedication to duties will also be equally elusive, so long as salaries do not cover the basic family needs of civil servants, as was the case in our ‘glorious’ past.

Instructively, such cultural turnaround will not be satisfactorily addressed with nominal wage increases; however, increase in the purchasing power of current incomes would be a more plausible route; undoubtedly, a stronger purchasing power of the naira in the context of a social environment with prompt and severe sanctions for corruption will do the trick!