Minister and Civil Servant – the story of Dominic Raab, Deputy Prime Minister
By Femi Olugbile
On the of March 2023, the Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom resigned from office` over accusations that he had bullied Civil Servants in some of the Ministries and Departments he had worked with. His name was Dominic Raab.
What was remarkable about the case was that a serving Minister in an elected government in a democracy had been pressured into resigning from office, not for embezzling public funds or committing some other act of gross misconduct, but for ‘bullying’ Civil Servants who worked with him. The offence of ‘bullying’ is an omnibus, imprecise misdemeanour which would probably not stand up in a court of Law. Raab was the second highest officer in the UK cabinet, next only to the Prime Minister.
The original structure of governance of the Nigerian nation was copied from the Westminster model of the United Kingdom. At its best, it involved a strong, robust, efficient Civil Service, made up of some of the best educated brains in the realm, working as an engine-house behind the scenes to provide ideas and policy options for government, and to implement the various policies of government. Civil Servants, and the Civil Service, are required in this scheme of things to be insulated from party politics. Governments come, and governments go, but the Civil Service is always there, providing assurance of continuity.
The security, self-confidence, and insularity of the original model of Civil Service in Nigeria can be illustrated by several anecdotes, some of which may be apocryphal. In the aftermath of the bloody ‘revenge coup’ of 1966, it is said that some officers of Northern extraction declared ‘Araba’, convinced Nigeria was at an end. It was the ‘Super Permanent Secretaries’ of the ilk of Asiodu and Ayida, who, the story went, accosted them as they were about to board their planes and depart Lagos for the North, and convinced them Nigeria was still real, and still attainable.
At another juncture, when military Head of State Yakubu Gowon came back home with the Aburi Accord in his hands, the Civil Servants took a look, shook their heads, and sounded the death knell to the accord.
Yet another story had to do with Murtala Mohammed who, as Minister of Communication, became furious with his Permanent Secretary and decided, with military despatch, to sack him. He marched to accost Mr C.O. Lawson in the Cabinet Office and told him his intention. Lawson is said to have sat the soldier down and asked:
‘Did you employ him? Does he work for you?’
Murtala was at once mystified and incandescent with rage.
The story, as recounted by your friend PDC, one of the grandees of the Nigerian Public Service and a Historian to boot, did not end there. When Murtala went to Gowon the Head of State, to report the impertinence of the Civil Servants, Gowon is said to have thrown up his hands in a gesture of helplessness.
The form of governance in Nigeria changed from the UK model to a ‘Presidential’ system from the Second Republic. But the requirement for a continuous handshake between career Civil Servants and elected or politically appointed federal or state cabinet members has remained much the same. Two things happened to the Nigerian Civil Service in the interregnum. There was the Murtala-Obasanjo purge which disembowelled and permanently emasculated it, in the process destroying its ethical core. The Nigerian factor also happened to it, as it did to everything else in the nation, subverting its recruitment and advancement processes.
Back to Dominic Raab and his problems with British Civil Servants. In every part of the world where a democratic system operates, it is necessary that that politicians and Civil Servants interface with mutual respect. The Civil Servant, in most places, is the ‘Accounting Officer’, while the Minister or Commissioner is the ‘Decision Maker’, ‘the Boss’. All too often, though, the relationship is tetchy. Ego and insecurity come to a head in the interface between Minister and Permanent Secretary. The Minister may believe the Civil Servant is incompetent or obstructionist. The Civil Servant may believe the Minister is a brash, ignorant upstart from whom the system needs protection.
The long-running British Television series ‘Yes, Minister’ is a hilarious illustration of how the cultures mesh. It is, of course, a caricature. Often, the two characters get along, each respecting the other’s boundaries. Unfortunately, just as often, personal flaws come to a head. The Minister, or Commissioner, has the ear of the President, or the Governor, and can, so to say, ‘do and undo’. And, unlike in the days of the Lawsons and the Ayidas, even people in ‘Permanent’ offices in the Civil Service may find themselves out of the door if they step on powerful toes.
In the UK, it would seem, Unions are a potent weapon of fight-back for aggrieved Civil Servants against all-powerful Ministers.
The Unions have been instrumental in Dominic Raab’s downfall. He shouts, he throws tantrums, he bangs the table, several petitioners alleged, backed by their Unions. Sometimes he would fling an object – though he never hit anyone. He’s disrespectful. Dominic Raab denies it all, but agrees he loses his temper because he can’t tolerate incompetence, and because he’s in a hurry to get the people’s work done.
A fellow Conservative has described the accusations against Raab as ‘snowflakes’. Many people outside the UK would agree, especially because they have seen worse outbursts from Ministers, and worse displays of ego and irascible temperament, and still managed them, and got the work done.
But the UK is in the grip of a movement for human rights and equality, and a pervasive atmosphere of ‘Woke’. It frowns at discrimination whether based on race or gender or sexual preference, or – being a voiceless Civil Servant. In addition, the Conservative Government, facing tough post-Covid times in a country bleeding financially from the war in Ukraine, is having to take unpopular measures, some of which many Civil Servants may disagree with. This is despite the fact that Civil Servants are supposed to be apolitical.
The foreigner may scratch his head, mystified. But Dominic Raab, table pounder, goal-getter, and aspiring Prime Minister, is gone, at least for now.