‘Democracy has Elevated Civil Servants to High Pedestal’ – Anthony Obuh, Permanent Secretary, Government House and Protocol

He has experienced both – the military and democratic governments and is in a better position to say the difference. In this interview with Adekunbi Ero, executive editor, Tony Manuaka, senior associate editor, Stella Sawyer, associate editor, Tony Akaeze, senior assistant editor and Adewale Adelola, senior photojournalist, Anthony Obuh, Permanent Secretary, Government House and Protocol, says “Delta State is a state where civil servants should continue to celebrate”. Obuh notes that under the military, training programs were rare to come by “but now, regularly, it does happen”. He says provision for equipping the offices, the work environment, “we have enjoyed what can be described as a tremendous facelift”.

Anthony Obuh……JPG

Anthony Obuh

 You are somebody who has been in the system and worked closely with the governor since 2003 as a civil servant. How would you describe the journey so far especially how the civil service has fared?

Like you said I have been around for some time now. I started my career from the old Bendel State before the creation of Delta State. So I have had a taste of what it was under the military before the advent of our present democratic dispensation. Looking back, I think that the civil service has a lot to be happy about in the sense that at the time we entered, it was as if politics was made for one person. We did not stand a chance to raise any voice against the decisions taken by the leader of the government as it was then. And even when you have good reason to object, one will only be lucky to get a listening ear. We had the executive councils who were mainly officers elected by a military officer who had unlimited powers over decisions and actions of council.

Coming to the democratic dispensation, I think a lot has changed. People, even civil servants can stand up to raise objection to issues introduced into their ministries and departments by the commissioner, the head of service, or anybody. We have had occasions where small unions within the civil service had been able to organise successful actions against government, in protest against policies and programmes of government. Those are the things we could not do those days. If you come to the area of training, I think some of us still in the civil service worked for close to 10 years without the benefit of training; it could only happen if, maybe a consultant had the opportunity to market programmes to government, like a governor, who will now take interest and sell it to the secretary to the government, or head of service.  But now, ministries, departments on their own can organise training. We have provisions made across the ministries. And we have enjoyed trainings both locally and internationally. As a person, I think that in the last 10 years, I have had the opportunity to travel outside Nigeria about four or five times on trainings sponsored by the state government.

Having been in the civil service for about 32 years now as a graduate, all the trips I made outside the country for training, I got within the present dispensation. I think the same goes for a good number of officers, particularly at the higher level, except maybe those of them who are professionals who, along the line, had the opportunity to enjoy from international interventions where  it was just coming more or less like a free gift;  or people who went outside on training programmes through study leave, with or without pay. But that the state government would send officers outside for short programmes, training programmes, diploma programmes; it was something rare to come by under the military. But now regularly, it does happen.

Provision for equipping the office, the working environment, we have also enjoyed what can be described as a tremendous facelift. We were able to key into the computer age because of the willingness of government to let it happen. I know how it was when the democratic administration came in Delta State. Many of us came from Benin using the manual typewriter; if you are working and you have the unfortunate experience of committing any blunder, you have to destroy all the papers and start all over. But I think all that now is history because the advent of the computer age, with the support of government, has helped. A good number of us have trained and acquired the facility for use. Work has improved. Work environment has improved.

 

What about retirement and benefits for civil servants?

Yes, if we look at the number of civil servants that are now out of employment on account of retirement, the number is enormous. If you want to look back to how it was before, we had fewer persons drawing pension. Then it was smoother. I want to say maybe because the number of persons who were benefitting from it was less. Now, we have issues from state to state delaying the pensions and the need for regular update in terms of correction in pension records. It was not as difficult then as it is now. But I think that, you know as our society grows, so many things come along with it, some negative, some positive. The experience of government in trying to monitor good documentation has revealed that if you do not take your time to do certain things over and over again, you are carrying the unnecessary burden of paying ghost pensioners. So, a number of things have evolved to ensure that we reduce to the minimum the issue of ghost pensioners. And in trying to implement all of these, some discomfort may come along the line. The number of persons to go on the payroll by way of pensioners has also grown. So it is easy to say now, it was not as easy as it was for pensioners to get their benefits; but in terms of value of pension benefit, I think we have grown from what it was then.

 

Anthony Obuh..

Anthony Obuh

What is the situation in terms of payment of salaries?

For Delta State, it is a state where civil servants should continue to celebrate. I will not forget my experience as a worker under the military. It was not easy to negotiate for worker’s wage increase. Then, it was as if anytime you want to agitate for an enhancement of your working condition, you have something waiting on the other side, that is, the threat of downsizing. Under the democratic dispensation, nobody or no political leader would want to toy with the idea of downsizing. Even when we complain that wage bill is high, it is enormous, overbearing, downsizing is the least to be considered in trying to think of comedown level. If I think back to the other dispensation, like the time of Ambrose Ali, some of us stayed for months on end without salary. I had that bitter experience as a teacher. In fact, I left my teaching job without collecting my three months salary. I just resigned and abandoned my job with the salary to take up a job in the civil service as a fresh appointee because of the embarrassment some of us were going through. Democracy in Delta has actually elevated us to a very high pedestal.

 

How large is the workforce in Delta State?

Here in the state I am sure of something between 45,000 to 50,000 now. But then, I don’t think we were up to 15,000. Talking about Delta State, we came to Delta and met a situation where there was barely anything on ground. As pioneer workers, we found a situation where a small office accommodated seven to eight persons; people sharing tables, just managing to work. That was under the military. What was provided by way of facility depended on the priority of the head of government. So then, at the foundation level, we had serious challenges which were natural. So, the military administrator then did what it could to stabilise; but then, government was centered around a couple of buildings, nothing much in terms of physical expansion.

Ibru came and did some foundation work, like the quarters and estate we have, he built that. That accommodated the first set of legislators and commissioners. The size of government then was small but there was some level of stability. Unfortunately, it didn’t last because of subsequent military intervention. If I look back then, the civil service was stable. But the polity had some form of recession about the various ethnic groups, the Urhobos, the Itsekiris, and even up this place, not much in terms of harmony in the polity under the military until Chief James Ibori came. When he came, the issue of disharmony was still there, very serious, particularly between the Urhobos and Itsekiris, and the Ijaws, So a lot of efforts were concentrated then on trying to manage this crisis. So if you judge the activities of government along that line, there is the temptation that we may derail. You will deceive yourself and deceive people who listen to you.

So, in the time of Ibori, politically, he was able to manage the political class. The challenge of infrastructure development was still there but the resources available to him would not have been enough, but certain things were started – infrastructure by way of roads, provision for the ministries. Even the issue of political enlightenment among the various ethnic groups grew within that period. People began to understand how much communities and societies can benefit from democracy. A good number of persons got interested in being active participants or promoters of democracy. When we got to the point of 2007, I think there was some shift, maybe from paying attention to politicians, politics and political harmonisation. There was now a shift, maybe in trying to consolidate on administration, good governance and development of infrastructure.

So we have grown from one stage to the other trying to manage histories as they were then. Our experience now shows we have really grown. We have had some leap in terms of quality of lives and in terms of facilities we are providing.

 

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