Nigeria's Vice-President Tells Civil Servants to 'Stop Praying and Start Working' as President Buhari Recovers

Yemi Osinbajo
Nigeria's Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo in Ogoniland, Nigeria, during the start of an exercise to clean up pollution in the area, June 2, 2016. Osinbajo has been Nigeria's acting president for more than two months in 2017, as President Muhammadu Buhari receives treatment in the U.K. for a mystery illness. Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

As Nigeria faces an economic malaise and President Muhammadu Buhari is out of the country on sick leave, the country's vice-president has a clear message for civil servants: Stop praying and start working.

Yemi Osinbajo, is a Christian pastor himself, and currently the acting president of Africa's most populous country while Buhari recovers from illness in the U.K. In an address to civil servants in the capital Abuja Wednesday, Osinbajo urged Nigeria's public workforce to rely on their own efforts, and not their spiritual supplications, to improve the state of the country.

"Great economies and great nations, prosperity and abundance of nations and communities are created by men and not spirits," said Osinbajo, 60, who was a pastor of a church in Lagos before taking public office.

"No matter how much you pray or fast our country cannot grow without some of us deciding to do the hard work that makes nations work."

One of Africa's biggest oil producers, Nigeria is currently in an economic slump, hit hard by the global downturn in commodity prices. That was compounded by resurgent militancy in 2016 in the Niger Delta, the country's main oil basin, which slashed production by half and forced several international oil companies to temporarily cease operations. The country has also experienced a crippling shortage of foreign exchange: The current official exchange rate is $1 to 304 naira, but black market rates can be much higher.

Nigeria has an embedded culture of corruption: The country is ranked 136 out of 176 countries in Transparency International's annual index of corruption perceptions. The civil service has been tarnished by accusations of widespread graft. In February 2016, the Nigerian government said it had saved $11.5 million by removing 24,000 ghost workers from the civil service payroll, after an audit found that many civil servants receiving a salary did not respond to names on the accounts and some were receiving salaries from multiple sources.

But workers in the public sector have also suffered due to the country's economic malaise, with government bodies regularly failing to pay civil servants on time. Civil servants threatened to go ahead with an indefinite strike earlier in May over unpaid promotions, salaries and death remunerations totaling 200 billion naira ($635 million).

Osinbajo, a former government adviser and attorney general, said he sympathized with civil servants not receiving their salaries on time. But he urged the workers to cut down on inefficiencies and work together to build up Nigeria.

"I understand the law of sowing and reaping. It is a spiritual law that has tremendous physical implications," said Osinbajo. "Every time that we delay, or frustrate what we can do today leaving it till tomorrow, we hold back the future, we too must reap what we have sown by experiencing delays."

President Buhari left Nigeria on May 7 to return to the U.K., where he had stayed for almost two months earlier in 2017 to receive medical treatment for a mystery illness. His absence has coincided with rumors of a potential military coup in the country and has caused many Nigerians to speculate about Buhari's long-term health.