Integrity in government
As a journalist, politicians have, over the years, regaled me with narratives of superlative ideas about governance. They always paint beautiful pictures of what they want to transform the society into if they are voted into power. Unfortunately, none of my interview subjects, who ended up in public office, was or has been able to walk his or her talk.
To be sure, nothing is new in the different ideas that are canvassed and romanticised in or outside government. Most times, the ideas are essentially the same; whereas, lack of integrity is the problem that bedevils governance in our nation. Integrity has the capacity to redefine officialdom’s work ethos and guarantee transparency and accountability in the management of public finance.
But, sadly, the contrary has been our lot. A vast majority of our public office holders have failed the critical integrity test. They mindlessly plunder the public treasury; and, this has made our nation and people the butt of international ridicule. Consequently, Nigeria has continued to feature in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index as one of the most corrupt countries in the world.
This, indeed, explicates the urgent need for a new change since the All Progressives Congress (APC) that capitalised on this national sense of urgency to dance its way into power would appear to have derailed. It has failed to appropriate and approximate the strength of President Muhammadu Buhari’s anti-corruption persona around which the APC change mantra was constructed and construed during the 2015 electioneering.
One had expected that Buhari’s followers would build on the new paradigmatic effects that his body language had created against corruption at the outset of his presidency. Unfortunately, the APC apparatchik and the government that the party controls have lost the willpower to do that. The president himself only needed to have reined in his appointees who are corrupt to prove that the fight against corruption is sincere. He is yet to do so.
The government’s critical anti-corruption stand has become questionable on the grounds of alleged selectivity and witch-hunt of members of the main opposition party. This misstep is not too late to correct. It must be done if government is sincere about cleansing the Augean stables, without minding whose ox is gored. Buhari can do it.
This will inspire people’s confidence in the ability of its government to spearhead genuine, responsive, responsible and meaningful governance in our nation. It is least about the preponderance of ideas and more about honesty. This is the major difference between management of public finance in underdeveloped or developing and developed nations of the world. Public officers in advanced democracies effortlessly resign from office once their integrity is called to question. Here, they would fight to retain their positions, not because they are innocent or committed to serving the public interests but because they will lose access to the public treasury once they are out.
Because integrity has become so scarce, anywhere I catch a whiff of it, I become overly excited. In 2003, I voted for Buhari in the presidential election because of the story that my godfather, the late Chief Sunday Bolorunduro Awoniyi, the Aro of Mopa, told me of how he, as federal permanent secretary in the ministry of petroleum and Buhari as federal commissioner in charge of the ministry, negotiated downward a contract for the building of pipelines and tankages for the nation’s refineries with some foreign contractors.
Wait for it: it was not their commitment and ability to bring down the high contract cost that blew my mind; it was their outright rebuff of the suggestion by the foreign contractors that they (contractors) should be furnished with a foreign account number into which the amount negotiated off the high contract could be paid, because they thought Awoniyi and Buhari wanted the amount negotiated off as their own shares.
I was filled with a sense of pride the night Awoniyi told me that story. I wished many public officers would be so disposed. Nigeria would have been better for it. Awoniyi impressed on me the Buhari persona and the weight of his integrity: incorruptible, straightforward, and uncompromising in financial matters. He said he wished he could, single-handed, enthrone Buhari as president in 2003. I did not find it difficult to believe Awoniyi, given his own ascetic lifestyle, which bore striking resemblance with Buhari’s.
The totality of Awoniyi’s narratives about Buhari was positive, and inspiring. I have no evidence, as of now, to come to the conclusion that Buhari has parted ways with integrity in the area of management of public finance. Anyone can, arguably, accuse him of something else ranging from nepotism, ethnic irredentism to religious bigotry but not deficient moral fiber in money-related matters.
Just as the Buhari story was sweet music to my ears, so also was the story of the former Ekiti State Governor Segun Oni, who is deputy national chairman (south) of the APC. In the three years or thereabouts that he was in office, he was reputed as prudent with public funds. He was said to be shrewd, following the trails of approved funds to targeted purposes.
Oni was derisively said to be financially austere, even to himself. Credible reports said he did not build a house anywhere in the world, not even in his Ifaki home-town, while in the saddle as governor. According to reliable scuttlebutt, it was after he was ousted from office that through the magnanimity of friends, he was able to own a modest bungalow in his town.
But, the particular narrative about Oni’s integrity that still amazes me, if true, was told by a close aide of his. The aide told me a long time ago that on the day the Court of Appeal in Ilorin delivered the judgment that ousted him and emplaced Kayode Fayemi as governor, there was a sum of N100 million security vote in the safe in his office.
The aide said he asked what should be done to the money and Oni replied him, point-blank, that it belonged to the state government and should not be touched. The aide, who thought the money could become a parting gift of sorts, confessed that Oni’s decision angered him. Is it surprising, therefore, that while he was in the PDP before he finally moved to the APC, the Fayemi government could not justifiably point a finger of guilt at him? That is what integrity can do. It is far better than filthy lucre. There is an urgent need for moral renaissance in public office in our nation.
Ojeifo is a journalist and publisher.