KWENU: Our Culture, Our Future

THE IMPARTIAL OBSERVER

Matters of the Moment

  

Respect for public office and its confines

 

HANK ESO

hankeso@aol.com

hankeso@aol.com

 

 

 

                                                                                                            Wednesday 8 August, 2007

 

 

  

President Yar’Adua will do well to distance himself and his office,

from indicted and convicted politicians.  We do not ask this of him as a favor,

we demand it as a matter of probity, propriety, and national interest.

 

Political happenstances in Nigeria never cease to boggle the mind!  Similarly, our public policy making continues to be erratic, ad hoc and therefore, sometimes befuddling.  Since perception drives everything in the realm politics when government business becomes habitually murky, the Nigerian public is often left to connect the dots or speculate on why there is a policy shift.  Inevitably, they are forced to add one and one and come up with three instead of two.  Here is a case in point.

 

ASO VILLA AND SCOFFLAWS

Reportedly, President Yar’Adua recently received at Aso Villa, the seat of the Nigerian government at different times, ex-governors Diepreye Alamieyeseigha and Orji Kalu; the former a convicted felon and the latter, an indictee facing charges for grand larceny and money laundering.  It was absolutely wrong of Mr. President to do so.  His aides, especially his legal and political advisers should have told him as much.  Such meetings, regardless of the reasons behind them, diminish the presidency, scoff at the law, and undermine public confidence in due process.  Moreover, public office confines are not personal fiefdoms and should not be treated as such under any circumstance.

 

A few hypothetical examples will suffice to buttress the point made afore.  How would the president and his aides react, if they found that the PPA Governors in Abia and Imo States were playing host at the Governors’ Lodge at Owerri and Umuahia to the leadership of the MEND and MOSSOB militias?  Had Diepreye Alamieyeseigha and Orji Kalu been convicted or charged with felony of being involved in a coup plot against the present government, and were being received by members of the opposition parties or a serving state governor at his official quarters, how would the Presidency react?

 

Also, what would anyone, including the presidency have said, if was revealed that Orji Kalu while on bail, had gone to visit Chief Justice Idris Kutigi at his home in Abuja and had been openly received and entertained by the CJN for two hours?  How also, would we as Nigerians have reacted, if it is revealed that ex-Governor Jolly Nyame, an EFCC indictee, had been seen at the residence of the EFCC boss Nuhu Ribadu, and had spent two hours there?  Would we have equally made it a non-issue, if ex-governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha had been seen playing golf at the Ikoyi Club of the Ikeja Country Club with Justice Mohammed Shuaibu of the Federal High Court in Lagos, just before the latter sentenced him to a two-year suspended sentence?  These are all different scenarios and parallels, but the critical import is the same.  More often than not, perception mirrors reality!

 

Whatever be the case, the two ex-governors in question are criminally at odds with the Nigerian State.  Stripped of their office and immunities, and considering the gravity of their alleged crimes, they are no longer part of the run-in-the-mill private citizens, until they are pardoned or cleared of the charges facing them.  So, the ex-governors being met in a public residence owned by Nigerians, by the president who is not a private citizen raises a fundamental question of conflict of interest and propriety.  After all, President Yar’Adua is the only one who can offer clemency to the ex-governors now on trial, once they are convicted.  Even if he had met Alamieyeseigha and Kalu at his private home in Katsina, there would still be issues, but the affront to the Nigerian public may have been of a lesser degree.

 

What is more mind boggling is that less than one week after the meetings, the Presidency announced:

 

That all agencies involved in the prosecution of Criminal Offences such as the EFCC and ICPC should report and initiate Criminal Proceedings with the consent and approval of the Attorney-General of the Federation as specified in relevant sections of the Constitution.

 

That the Attorney-General of the Federation exercise powers conferred on him pursuant to Section 43 of the EFCC Act 2004 to make rules or regulations with respect to the exercise of any of the duties, functions or powers of the EFCC.

 

Is the president meddling with due process?  Perhaps not; but the perception may suggest otherwise.  It may well have been that this new policy, which on its face value seems harmless and proper may have been in the works since the president took office.  However, its implementation just after the president met with two ex-governors who may be affected by the policy is bound to raise eyebrows.  Already, there are public insinuations that the president is inclined to protect his erstwhile colleagues, some of who may have bankrolled his election to the presidency.

 

Let’s get the facts right and straight.  Our dear and respected Mr. Olusegun Adeniyi, the President’s Media Adviser, was exceeding wrong -- damn wrong too -- when he recently, as reported in The Vanguard, said

 

“Yes I am aware Chief Kalu was at the Villa in the morning to see the president …but you must be aware the man has no problem with either the president or the presidency.  He has issues to settle with the law and the EFCC.  As a former governor, he must naturally have access to the president and his visit had nothing to do with his on-going trial on charges of corruption.

 

Wrong!  Wrong!!  Wrong!!! 

 

President Yar’Adua is the CEO, Chief Security and Law Officer, Chief Custodian of the Nigerian Constitution and Chief Probation Officer of the nation; which is why he is an Executive President and not a Prime Minister.  The buck stops with him.  Therefore, his dalliance, under any pretense, with anyone who has committed a crime against the Nigerian State is wrong.  It opens up the presidency to ridicule.  As I said earlier, the president is no longer a private citizen.  So long as he is in that office, his words, his action, his business, and his interaction with people must be predicated on the mandate he has accepted to hold in trust for the Nigerian people.  When elected or appointed public officials cavort with scofflaws, be they criminal elements, 419ners, convicted and indicted felons, or just persons known to be hostile to or non-compliant with extant Nigerian laws, they undermine the essence and integrity of their office, their constitutional responsibilities and oath of office.

 

THE SANCTITY OF PUBLIC OFFICE MUST BE UPHELD

As Nigerians, we frequently sell ourselves short and still expect others to take use seriously.  If we must be taken seriously, then, the sanctity, the holders must respect decorum and integrity of our public offices.  Public officers must also not create situations or enabling environments that would allow their friends or associates to unduly exploit their position and office for personal gains.

 

I recall an incident once at Murtala Muhammed airport after a brief visit to Nigeria.  At the check-in counter, an American of Indian descent was also checking in.  At the Customs desk, he was queried by an official about several boxes of hard wood samples he was exporting out on Nigeria.  At issue, were the quantity and their not having been declared as exports?  The American said the hard wood pieces were all samples, but the Customs Officer insisted that having more than ten pieces of the same material went beyond his understanding of what constituted samples.  “Samples,” I recall him saying to the man, “was a few of each; one, two or three at most, but not ten to fifteen pieces.”

 

The American was livid.  Rather than respond to the fact that he had not declared the materials he was taking out of the country, he started berating the Customs Officer in the vein that he ought to be happy that he was bringing some valuable business to Nigeria.  We the Nigerian onlookers watched, bemused and irritated at the same time; perhaps in the full awareness that the Customs Officer, who would easily shake down a fellow Nigerian, was totally dumbfounded by this foreigner.  Then the impossible happened.  Beyond flashing his American passport, the man reached into his briefcase and produced not his customs export declaration form, but an 8 by 10 glossy photograph he had taken with the then Nigerian Finance Minister, Mr. Anthony Annie.  With that proof in hand, he warned the Customs Officer that his friend, Finance Minister Annie would be utterly offended by his actions, thus implicitly threatening a public officer with official reprisals for having the temerity to query him.  My fellow Nigerians watched this ugly development, but it was my turn to be livid.

 

I walked up to the American, tapped him on the shoulder, and told him politely, but very firmly, to put the photograph away.  I also told him (though I was not so certain of it) that Mr. Ani would be utterly embarrassed at his attempt to exploit their relationship, which in actuality, I did not presume to know what it was.  Finally, as my fellow Nigerians watched, I told the man that as a Nigerian who lived and worked in the United States, I knew only too well that it would be foolhardy of me to attempt telling a US Customs or Immigration official how to do his job, which was exactly what he was doing with the Nigerian official.  I also reminded him that it was bad enough that many Nigerians carrying their green national passports were being unnecessarily hounded across the globe; it would, therefore, not do for them to also be hounded and berated by his likes while in their home country.

 

The American was visibly incensed by my audacious meddling and told me so.  However, the high din of supportive murmuring filtering from the crowd behind us must have convinced him that I was at home and on solid grounds.  He backed down.  But before then, to my utmost astonishment, some other Customs officials present started pleading with me on his behalf.  Typically Nigerian!  Here I was, sticking out my neck in the national interest and trying to protect the sanctity and decorum of a public officer from humiliation and having the rug pulled from under me by the very people I was trying to defend.  This brings me to the core aspect of this piece; the disappearing discretionary line between those politician and other public servants under investigation or already convicted felons and the seat of the Nigerian presidency.

 

When in 1976, it was made public that Gen. T. Y. Danjuma, whilst in London had met with Gen. Yakubu Gowon; there was a groundswell of public and media protestations.  At that point, Nigerians believed that Gen. Gowon, a deposed head of state was linked to the botched February 1976 coup that led to the assassination of Gen. Murtala Mohammed.  It was only after Gen. Danjuma disclosed that his meeting with Gen. Gowon had been officially sanctioned by the Supreme Military Council, and was aimed at telling Gowon “not to embarrass Nigeria” by standing tray-in-hand at the student’s cafeteria at the Warwick University, did the public protest abate.

 

Likewise, when it was made public that Andy Young who was the US ambassador to the United Nations had secretly met with officials of the PLO, he promptly lost his job.  In 1987, when our own Foreign Minister Bolaji Akinyemi met secretly in New York with members of the Israeli delegation, his job was on the line, and many Nigerians, especially northerners, demanded his head.  His saving grace as it turned out was that President Babangida himself was already inclined towards Nigeria’s rapprochement with Israel.

 

I also recall once hearing an account from a reliable insider, of how in the early 1980s, former Senate President Dr. Joseph Wayas, routinely broke protocol during the Shagari administration, by routinely taking the then US ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. Thomas R. Pickering, his tennis partner, to the State House at Ribadu Road to visit with President Shehu Shagari after their tennis games.  Ambassador Pickering, being the quintessential diplomat, had capitalized on such visits to discuss important state and bilateral matters over evening tea with the president, but in the absence of senior Nigerian advisers and bureaucrats and without proper official records being kept.  While clearly, President Shagari and Dr. Wayas had not intended to do so, they had compromised the sanctity of their respective offices and Nigeria’s interests, by giving Ambassador Pickering unfettered and privileged access to the Nigerian presidency.  The after-tennis forays to Ribadu Road continued for months and only ended after chagrined Nigerian Foreign Ministry brass became aware of it and summoned Pickering for “cease and desist” dress down, for knowingly circumventing customary and accepted protocol related to such high-level diplomatic contacts.  Ambassador George Dove-Edwin reportedly did the honors.  If there was any blame, surely and squarely it did not belong to Ambassador Tom Pickering as it did to the Nigerian officialdom.

 

Finally, one can readily recall the visible nervousness around Washington, DC in early 2006, when it was made public the lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who eventually pled guilty to felony charges of fraud, public corruption and tax evasion, had made well over 400 alleged contacts with the White House. Regardless of whom he met or spoke to at the White House, it was generally felt that such contacts were inappropriate and may have violated the sanctity and high decorum associated with the US Presidency.  This same concern and standard should be applicable to the Nigerian Presidency.

 

RISING ABOVE AND BEYOND THE PEDESTRIAN

Felons are not national heroes and will never be.  Felons don’t vote and don’t count as upright citizens; and once a felon always a felon.  Hard words and choices?  Yes; but also the hard reality.  We may gloss over it, but the line that separates the law abiding citizen from criminality or being a felon is a thin one.  Not crossing that line requires playing by the rule and respecting the laws of the land both explicitly and implicitly.  Those who do otherwise must be made to pay the price, which includes being stripped of their real and presumed privileges.  It is indeed a privilege and honor for any Nigerian to visit the Aso Villa and to meet the President.  That privilege does not extend, in any sense or by any stretch of imagination, to convicted felons, criminal indictees and persons who are criminally at odds with the State.

 

Ex-Governor Alamieyeseigha may have served his time, but he remains a convicted felon.  No questions asked.  No debate.  He cannot run for office and should not vote or be voted for.  That is the price to pay for the breach of public trust.  For now, Orji Kalu is just an indictee and therefore enjoys the benefit of being presumed innocent.  If, however, he is eventually convicted, the same rule should apply to him.  Ditto ex-governors Saminu Turaki (Jigawa), Chimaroke Nnamani (Enugu), Jolly Nyame (Taraba), and Joshua Dariye of Plateau State, and other public officials being presently tried on grounds of corruption allegations brought by the EFCC.  Those of them, who have received national awards, ought to be stripped of such honors and the privileges they confer, following their conviction.

While we respect the efforts of President Umaru Yar'Adua to reach out to Nigerians and solidify his government by uniting the country, a clear distinction needs to be made between that goal and his cavorting with indicted and convicted politicians.  There are thousands of Nigerians who languish in jails for petty crimes, merely on account of not being able to post bail.  They have no lesser right or privilege to see and meet with President Yar’Adua than does his erstwhile political associates.

 

If it is ever perceived, that the president is inclined to mingle and continue any form of dalliance with these convicted corrupt officials, then the message he would be sending out to us and the rest of the world is that he sanctions impunity and official malfeasance.  Another sorry message would be that, he is willing to politically short-circuit the law.  In that context, I fully subscribe to the views so ably rendered by Dr. Rueben Abati of The Guardian, to wit, “When the President holds audience with a convicted man, with such a historically significant burden, and receives him with so much ceremony, he is unwittingly rubbishing the cause of justice.” 

 

Finally, we would not like it said, that our president is abating criminality!  It is such a deposition that emboldens the likes of Oprah Winfrey to conclude that “every Nigerian” regardless of their class or status “is corrupt”.  Yes, just like any other nation, we have criminal elements among our 140 million people.  But criminality is not constitutionally sanctioned nor, a national or hereditary trait for Nigerians.  By and large, we find corruption and other forms of criminality repulsive and as a nation, continue in our efforts to root out corrupt public officials.  It will take us long to do so, but every conviction is a positive step forward. 

 

The value of the conviction of corrupt public officials, which hitherto has been rare in Nigeria, ought not to be diminished by the presidency, through its wittingly offering rehabilitative credibility to those convicted.  For the record, I have no reason and I suppose Nigerians don’t, to doubt the President’s sincerity or his personal commitment to upholding the rule of law.  However, public awareness of his meetings with convicted and indicted politicians threatens all ongoing credible law enforcement efforts and stands especially, to undermine the much acclaimed anti-corruption campaign being waged by the EFCC.  Also, such contacts create a paradigm for tolerance and acquiescence to impunity.

 

President Yar’Adua should lead by example and must, therefore, rise above the pedestrian in these matters.  He will do well from this day forward, to distance himself and his office, both of which are insuperable as long as he is president, from indicted and convicted politicians.  We do not ask this of him as a favor, we demand it as a matter of probity, propriety, and national interest

 

With neither anger nor partiality, until next time, keep the law, stay impartial, and observe closely.  

 

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Hank Eso, is a columnist for Kwenu.com (New Jersey).  His commentaries on Nigerian politics and global issues have appeared in The New Times (Lagos), African Profile International (New York), The Nigerian And Africa Abroad, (New York), African Market News (New Jersey) and in Gamji.com and Nigeriavillagesquare.com

© Hank Eso, Wednesday 8 August 2007. 

 

Email: hankeso@aol.com

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