Sometime last week, President Muhammadu Buhari gave an apology. This was for his administration’s improper dissolution of university boards. Apologies are uncharacteristic for Nigerian presidents in general, and for Buhari in particular. This is why his words are worth noting: “There is nothing wrong in saying sorry and going back on your decision. So, we said sorry and allowed all the universities to continue with their councils.”
I think of this as an example of leadership. Of course, a singular rethink on a decision does not automatically make Buhari a great leader. We will have to wait for the cumulative effect of his policies before we can consider any claim to greatness. But that is for later. Right now, this openness to correction indicates a welcome potential. President Buhari is often at his best when he discards ego and engages people and processes with empathy.
But this article is not just about Buhari. It is, instead, concerned with the conduct of public officials in Nigeria. It seems difficult for the majority of officials—from governors to special advisers—to act reasonably. They are too clueless to see the antithesis between public roles and their private biases, too proud to admit mistakes of conduct.
This attitude was present in Mr. Femi Adesina’s interview with Channels Television last week. Without irony, the spokesperson stated that Nigerians complaining of power failure should direct attention to pipeline vandals. Consider also Ms Abike Dabiri who, during a Twitter conversation last week, snapped at the person engaging her for expressing pessimism with the Nigerian condition. This type of attitude in our public officials is worrisome. It is indicative of a mentality that neither understands the complexity of the public nor the representative role of an official.
Public office comes with responsibility. This responsibility implies that decisions cannot be absolute; statements have to be weighed; and private opinion should not influence official capacity. Public office in a democracy is designed to be uncomfortable—and we need to impress this fact on the occupants.
The Nigerian Constitution outlines a Code of Conduct for public officials. However, because there is—and rightly so—a limit to which we can legislate human conduct, the provisions focus more on financial misconduct. In the Constitution, only the president and governors (and their seconds) are subject to a,rather vague, notion of “gross misconduct” that can be cause for impeachment proceedings.
This does not mean there are no standards for the behaviour of public officials. There are ethics necessarily implied by a democratic society. This is best understood by considering the nature of “customer service” in commercial transactions. Customer service is much more than the material value of money. We cannot weigh a smile or a courteous greeting in naira and kobo. But we expect decorous conduct when we pay money for goods and services.
The business world understands that good behaviour ensures customer loyalty. The idea that the customer is always right is less about subservience and more about self-preservation. This simple reasoning keeps eluding the directors of African democracies.
Good behaviour is equally—if not more—important in governance. We pay public officials in cash and kind, and our lives are dependent on the sensibility of their decisions. The effect of a bad-mannered business owner may not last beyond a sour memory, but an insensitive public official can generate serious social divisions.
But why is bad behaviour so widespread in our public service? First, we tend to ignore misbehaviour because our colonial and military heritage has damaged our social psychology. We expect nothing and so we are unmoved when we get nothing. But if we are to evolve this democracy from mere form to substance, then we have to start insisting on good service.
Also, public officials feel secure because there is no available opposition to take their posts. A functional opposition party is more than just a nuisance. It is a necessity. Educated Nigerians have to push for the existence of a credible opposition party. It is the customer that benefits when the market allows healthy competition.
Credible opposition cannot emerge where sycophancy is widespread. This servile tendency is a hallmark of our political economy. Sycophancy is a consequence of an economic system where access to government is a pre-condition for material wealth. It is not unusual that those who praise Buhari’s “courage” in making a decision are likely to be the same ones to praise his “humility” if he reverses the decision.
Intellectual dishonesty is the worst type of sycophancy. These are the ones who proffer arguments that a public official is “just being frank”. Public officials are not paid to be frank—that is what social critics do for free—we pay public officials to serve the public. It is in a sick society that the educated class defends the excesses of public officials instead of the rights of the citizenry. Sycophancy is hard to eradicate in a developing country. However, with mass education and a corresponding increase in the middle class, we can minimise its dangerous effects.
The Constitution states “sovereignty belongs to the people of Nigeria from whom government through this Constitution derives all its powers and authority”. This is a clear statement of government subservience to citizens. We bear the responsibility of demanding good conduct by public officials. It is bad enough when public officials steal our money, we don’t have to roll over and allow them rob our dignity as well. Even so, corruption feeds on indignity. Corruption of greed begins when someone in the society considers that they are more entitled than others. A governor who is not hesitant to order the beating of a civilian who blocks his convoy will not be hesitant to steal money.
A Yoruba adage says that the person who lies will certainly steal. I say look out for public officials who feel entitled to a right of way: those ones are very likely to be corrupt.
Originally published here in my weekly column for Sunday Punch.
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