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COVID-19: An honourable minister in Turkey

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A resignation offers the other day by Turkey’s Interior Minister, Suleyman Soylu, amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, shows an individual with a strong personal character in a system that values honour and integrity. These virtues are lacking in our broken Nigerian system where no public official would opt to resign no matter the gravity of impropriety.

The minister’s action is exemplary although President Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned down the resignation over his handling of an abrupt nationwide lockdown that led to panic buying by the people. Authorities had declared a 48-hour curfew in dozens of cities shortly before 10:00 p.m. on a Friday, thereby giving millions of people just two hours’ notice and prompting a wave of desperate last-minute buying. 

According to the minister, “the incidents that occurred ahead of the implementation of the curfew were not befitting the perfect management of the outbreak.” The development, which in this clime, would be deemed to mean nothing, was what provoked the minister to offer to resign. But in a swift response, President Erdogan said it was not “appropriate” for Soylu to resign and the minister would continue in his position. This is remarkable from a developing country that once applied to join the European Union, though it is in the periphery of the Middle East. 

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Reports said offers of resignation by Turkish cabinet ministers were quite rare and could explain Erdogan’s prompt rejection of Soylu’s offer. 

“In Turkey, the attitude is ‘Stand fast. Resignation shows government failure, therefore, don’t resign.’ You can see that stand fast mentality in Erdogan refusing to accept the resignation,” said FRANCE 24’s Turkey correspondent Jasper Mortimer.

The resignation offer came as a shock to Turkish political circles. Soylu is the second-most powerful minister in the cabinet after the president’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, who is the finance minister. It is also well known that Soylu is a power in his own right and is seen as a possible successor to Erdogan. Soylu is also an arch champion of Erdogan’s crackdown on dissenters, on opposition parties, the Kurds and so on. So if he had stepped down, Turkish liberals would have been happy to see the back of him.

There was a groundswell of opinion that the way the lockdown was announced had undermined efforts to contain the coronavirus outbreak in Turkey, which has registered more than 50,000 cases. A decision that needs to be taken for public health became a threat to public health due to lack of planning. More than 1,100 people have died of COVID-19 in Turkey, many of them in Istanbul where CHP Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu said municipal authorities had no advance warning before the move. “Decisions taken without common sense and cooperation will only cause confusion and panic,” he said.

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The weekend lockdown came on top of existing curbs under which people under the age of 20 and over 65 have been told to stay at home. Ankara, like most capital cities in the world, had also halted all flights, restricted domestic travel, closed schools, bars and cafes, and suspended mass prayers. But people were still seen going to work to sustain economic activity.

The mere fact that Soylu offered to resign despite being such a highly favoured cabinet minister speaks volume about his character. Character creates sense of value and responsibility. It is remarkable that the minister did not look for a scapegoat or blame the press or anybody for the shortcoming. He did not attribute the government’s failure to some factors he had no control over. Above all, he did not deny that he failed in his duty on that occasion, although he was not the head of the government that took the decision. 

In a way, how people perceive issues of life depends on the prevailing culture. Government systems that make public office so rewarding create sit-tight public officials who are more interested in the reward than the quality of service.

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Furthermore, a system that does not function according to the rule of law or where the legal system is flawed creates sacred cows who act with impunity. Impunity goes hand-in-hand with not obeying the rule of law. And such culture is sustained by lack of appropriate sanction for committed offences.

Some of the critical factors that make people opt for resignation include a sense of shame. Individuals who value their reputation would be willing to opt for resignation once they feel that they have failed in their duty and the only honourable option left is resignation to save their reputation.

Also, it takes courage for a highly placed public official to decide to walk away from high office. It requires a mindset that focuses on doing the right thing always.

Sadly, in Nigeria, the prevailing situation is entirely different. There is low integrity quotient in public office. Besides, any sense of shame is rare. There is no patriotism for the fatherland. Ethnic interests and desire for self-enrichment won’t allow any public official in Nigeria to resign when it is necessary. That is why a report of voluntary resignation from Turkey’s cabinet is newsworthy in Africa’s most populous and richest country. It is a sad commentary in that Turkey should be looking up to Nigeria as a tower of strength at such a time as this. 

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