The news on Thursday night was that President Goodluck Jonathan would be travelling Friday morning to Germany for a ‘private visit’. The statement gave very limited information. Such limited information about a public officer of the rank of a country’s president, and coming so suddenly, leave much room for speculations and rumours.
But truly, is there or could there really be any such thing as ‘privacy’ for a (Nigerian) president, if virtually every cost associated with the person is borne by the state? It would truly be private if the president did not fly the presidential jet or carry his official passport. It would be truly private if the aides, limited as they may be, who travelled with him were not paid for by the state.
Actually, that would be asking for too much because once elected, a person remains president of Nigeria, wherever he is at any given time. Even if he is on leave, he remains the ‘property’ and responsibility of Nigeria. He carries that responsibility everywhere he goes and is perpetually under the scrutiny of Nigerians.
This really is not about President Jonathan; it is about how and when we draw the line between the official and private activities of public officers at all levels.
Even if we limit such officers to the president, governors, local government chairpersons, leadership of parliamentary houses and heads of the judiciary etc, we still have to draw the line. Drawing those distinctions may often be difficult. This is because the distinction covers responsibilities, rewards and costs.
For one, most of those positions are served by a team of personal aides and officers maintained by the state. There are protocol officers, media aides, security aides and a team of media operatives attached to those offices. They not only cover and report official activities about the officers, but are often bugged down with covering mundane private activities and events of these officers. Sometimes, this coverage goes beyond the officers to their spouses, children and other family members. In such situations, privacy is virtually lost. And what is more, public funds are heavily taken toll of.
While the distinction may be difficult to draw some times, any responsible public official should know when some of their activities are clearly outside official duties and thus do well to save the state the costs for some of those.
It is a no brainer to distinguish state duties from private political interests. Take the case of partisan politics. Why, for instance, do our presidents and governors host meetings and dinners of their political parties in Government House with costs absorbed by the state? Why did the president, vice president and Senate president all travel to Ekiti and Osun states recently to attend campaign rallies for the candidates of their political parties? And for the state governors of the major political parties who regularly abandon their duty posts to attend political party rallies for state level elections in other states, who pays for all those?
Who bears the cost of fuelling and maintaining the aircraft and vehicles? What about the cost of mobilising and maintaining security officers, some of them quite overzealous, during all those non-official events? I observed the gubernatorial elections in Ekiti and Osun states and can attest to the use, misuse and abuse of some of these perks of office by many politicians in public office. I saw armed police personnel sitting by the doors to hotel rooms of politicians. I noticed them sleep away in that sitting position with their arms beside them many nights.
Every day, the threshold of what we tolerate keeps moving because each new occupant of public office comes with his/her own ideas, style and means of doing things, while the institutions we build keep losing their capacity to whip their occupants into line.
How do we begin to stop this madness in the land? One way is through strict application of public service rules or creation of new ones, if the present ones are not enough to cope with present realities. We need to also strengthen the audit of the processes, activities and costs in public offices to ensure that state resources are not squandered by public officials to meet their private ends.
When that happens, most of the costs transferred to the public would be billed on our overly pampered public officers. The president, vice president, Senate president, many state governors of the PDP and the APC should refund or defray the costs they have run up in the last six months doing politics across the country, particularly in relation to the Ekiti and Osun elections. That’s the decency we expect from our politics and it isn’t too much of an expectation.