by Ian McCall

Chapter 40 - THE VOTE

Each government officer with responsibility for a geographic area controlled his own expenditure. Each year he was allocated a ‘vote’ which was a given amount of money to cover the costs of running the area. The biggest item on the vote was that for transport and travelling. In preparation for the following year every officer with responsibility for expenditure had to make an estimate of financial requirements covering all aspects of his work from the erection and maintenance of permanent and semi-permanent buildings e.g., accommodation for members of staff in remote outstations where appropriate housing was not available, to calculating the annual salary bill, reckoning the mileage covered by officers with cars to determine the cost of running them and estimating the cost of sending staff on leave and transfer. Staff salaries were easy. Every grade had a scale on which a staff member’s salary could be identified. The greatest trouble was in getting the transport and travelling right. First the leave entitlement had to be established, then who was to cover for the staff member on leave or who was to be transferred in his place, then the estimates made on the basis of the transport costs - a long and tedious process for which the officer in charge was responsible even if he had not personally made the estimates. Each head of expenditure had to be correct, for the principle of virement was not applied, that is, there was no transfer of money between heads. Any officer exceeding his vote was liable to be required to make good the amount overspent, even if it meant a monthly deduction from his salary over a number of years. Knowledge of that concentrated the mind wonderfully.

My first estimates in Warri coincided with the regionalisation of Nigeria into three regions with their own Secretariats in 1955 just prior to my transfer to Ibadan. These were sent off on the basis of actual requirement and in my covering letter I had noted that this was the absolute minimum consistent with the maintenance of a satisfactory oversight of the area. These were sent to the new Ministry and were returned approved subject to an arbitrary reduction of 15% which I was quickly able to translate into what I might have to pay back. Representations to my director were followed by a visit to him. He was convinced by my need for further funds based on the integrity of my original estimates and the economies in transport and travelling I had earlier introduced.. Together we went to the Secretariat where officials in the Ministry were already getting delusions of power and refused to countenance any increase. My director then went over their heads to the Permanent Secretary whom he persuaded to overrule a particular official under the Old Pals Act. In government service, I came to realise, minimum funds needed were the subject of negotiation and anyone who included his actual financial needs was naïf in the extreme, the more so if they had been based on earlier economies. A contingency had to be added to take account of the negotiation that would likely take place. As the year goes by, this year’s vote becomes the basis for any negotiation that takes place on next year’s when the staff situation is likely to be different as local economies change and area officers muster their statistics and calculations to reflect it. All is well if they can live with the fact that rationality does not apply. It may be rationalised because we like to dress up any subjective decision in rational argument. It is difficult to complain about something if it is shown that it is going against ‘rationality’, even if that rationality has been firmly based on gut feeling.

Other office work included the production of reports of tours of inspection where problems had to be highlighted and the action taken indicated and whether actions taken on previous visits were producing the desired results. Benin was always a difficult station particularly during the period of high rubber prices in the mid 1950s. Problems ranged from attempts to pass off inferior rubber as of higher quality to claims by buyers that inspection staff were deliberately holding up the inspection of rubber. The upshot of such problems was the production of working instructions that provided little room for interpretation and a visit of the Minister of Trade and Industry, R A Njoku, to Benin to reinforce the message of the importance of quality. A photograph of myself taken with him in Benin appeared on the front page of the Daily Times. It was a pointer to the increasing influence of ministers in affairs that until then had been the prerogative of officials and the hidden message of the photograph was presumably that ministers were now controlling the shots.

Once a year an annual report had to be produced which was incorporated in a report for the whole region at headquarters. It included all kinds of statistics on such details as produce graded, the quality, marketing problems, amount of produce graded per member of staff and prosecutions taken and won. I remember thinking I was doing quite well in my first report when I stated in the body of the document that the 26 appendices ‘were not inappropriately lettered A to Z’. This arrogance prompted a reply drawing my attention to certain lacunae in the report, this being a device it took time and labour to respond to and ensured that as objective a report as possible was sent in future unencumbered by personal views and clever comments. What did not appear in the annual reports were these little incidents that constituted learning like when I went out one night when adulterated cocoa was being burned in Calabar. It had been slowly burning for a few days within sight of the office and I decided to cast a nocturnal eye on it. In the process I thought I would see how watchful the nightwatchman was. I found him asleep and called out roughly ‘Watchnight!’ Immediately he leapt to his feet, machete over his shoulder ready for the blow when he recognised me. I was taken aback but noted that he was alert. I recalled the recent story of the five watchmen employed by the United Africa Company who were found guilty of murdering two men and eating their fingers to acquire more strength. I would be more circumspect in future.

It was pretty obvious to me then that judging performance on the basis of the number of prosecutions taken and won was a pretty poor method of evaluating the implementation of the law. It encouraged the pursuit of the petty criminal rather than the people who were egging them on. In Olympic diving, points are awarded on the difficulty of the dive as well as its execution. In a similar way, prosecution could be considered on the basis of a ‘heinosity index’ which would bring about a focus on the more serious contraventions of the law if the more serious crimes prosecuted successfully had, say, ten times the weighting of a petty offence.

Before departing on leave and probably transfer, the ground had to be prepared for your successor, who would not necessarily arrive to provide an overlap, to introduce him into the ways of the area. It was therefore necessary and mandatory to make out comprehensive handing-over notes. These were to provide the incoming officer with the ‘feel’ of the area together with some useful detail on Licensed Buying Agents of the Board, on issues specific to the area, on staff and on inspection and touring problems. For the new incumbent good handing over notes could be invaluable as they accelerated the learning process about the area. It could add to physical as well as mental comfort. One set of notes gave me all I needed to know and more (all forty pages, presumably my ‘newness’ implied I had to be given every assistance) by advising how to keep mosquitoes at bay with instructions on when to use DIMP and where to smoke like a chimney. Like everyone else I formulated my own rules based on experience. If there was an overlap in handing over, the notes were enriched by insights given as a result of talking into the night over a dram.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003