BusinessDay

Integrity is critical in politics: It is in Britain; sadly, not in Nigeria

Charles Dickens famously described a Tale of Two Cities. Well, let’s talk about a tale of two countries.

One, Britain, puts integrity at the heart of its politics and severely punishes any departure from it, as evidenced by the recent toppling of its prime minister, Boris Johnson.

The other, Nigeria, lacks integrity in its politics and tolerates acts of impunity, as proven by the prevalence of vote-buying and other dishonest practices in its elections.

The contrasting stories of both countries and the implications for Nigeria’s democracy are instructive and deserve our attention. Let’s start with Britain!

In December 2019, Boris Johnson secured a landslide victory for his party, the Conservative Party. He won an 80-seat parliamentary majority, the party’s biggest for 40 years.

Yet less than three years later, he was brutally defenestrated by Members of Parliament, MPs, from his own party.

Ironically, last week, the same Tory MPs gave Johnson a standing ovation at his final prime minister’s questions, PMQs, after a barnstorming speech, which he ended with the words: “Hasta la vista, baby,” a catchphrase meaning “bye for now, see you later,” associated with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the action film Terminator 2!

It is worth noting that Johnson was toppled by his own MPs, not by the whole parliament, as the opposition parties took no part in his removal. This clearly shows that, in the UK, safeguarding integrity in politics is not a partisan issue…

So, within three years as prime minister, Boris Johnson was ousted from the job he has coveted his entire political life. The question must be: Why? Well, the answer is simple. Although Conservative MPs admired Johnson’s charisma and electioneering skills, they strongly detested his personal flaws, his perceived lack of integrity, and the latter feeling trumped the former.

As one Conservative insider put it, “the principal reason for removing Johnson was to restore honesty to public life.”

In Britain, public life is governed by core principles called “The Seven Principles of Public Life” or “The Nolan Principles.” They are selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.

Over the years, many MPs have been found guilty of breaching some of these principles, especially those bordering on openness, honesty and integrity, and forced, often by media and public opinions, to resign from parliament.

For instance, last year, a prominent MP and former minister, Owen Paterson, was found by the Independent Standards Committee to have abused his position by undertaking paid lobbying for two companies. He was suspended, and later resigned, from parliament.

The common view is that Johnson fell afoul of those principles. From accusations of personal impropriety, such as having parties in Downing Street, against Covid-19 regulations, to allegations of “lying” to protect close allies from sanctions against serious misconducts, Johnson was believed to have trampled on the conventions of his office.

In June, he narrowly survived a vote of confidence triggered by his own MPs. But, in early July, as nearly 60 ministers resigned from his government, led by Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, Johnson announced his own resignation in two stages, first as the leader of the Conservative Party and later, following the election of a new leader, as prime minister.

It is worth noting that Johnson was toppled by his own MPs, not by the whole parliament, as the opposition parties took no part in his removal. This clearly shows that, in the UK, safeguarding integrity in politics is not a partisan issue; it shows that the political cost of ignoring ethical standards is high, and that the political class, the media and the general public are willing to uphold those principles, regardless of their political leanings.

Now, what’s the contrast? I mean, what’s the situation in Nigeria? Well, here’s the first question: Are there standards or principles of public life that require holders of public office, either elected or appointed, to act solely in the public interest, act in an open and transparent manner, submit themselves to public scrutiny and be truthful?

Then, the second question: if such standards and principles exist, is there any political will and/or public pressure to make them work in the public interest?

Of course, the truth is that even if there are ethical standards governing public life in Nigeria, the political cost of violating them is non-existent. Everyone hides behind the technicality of the law.

If you challenge a politician about the source of his wealth, he will swiftly respond: “I have not been convicted by any tribunal or court of law.” With that response, he believes he owes the public no further explanations; it is his private affairs!

Recently, Atiku Abubakar, a leading presidential candidate, was asked about perception of corruption and the source of his wealth in his recent Arise TV interview. He said: “I have challenged the people of this country over and over again, ‘if you have got any corruption case against me, please bring it up,’” adding: “I was investigated, and nothing was found.”

But why does perception of corruption linger on? First, because the source of his stupendous wealth is not known or satisfactorily explained. Second, because everyone knows that the investigation and prosecution of corruption cases are utterly shallow in Nigeria; that prominent politicians are often acquitted of corruption charges not on substance, but on technicalities.

Take the case of Bola Tinubu, another leading presidential candidate. Some years after his corruption trial, the then chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, Danladi Umar, said he regretted freeing him.

“We have since realised that we acted in error in discharging Mr. Tinubu on the ground that the Code of Conduct Bureau, CCB, failed to fulfil the condition precedent,” the CCT chairman said in 2016, adding: “We have since departed from that error.”

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Yet, technicalities are still preventing convictions. Recently, Abdulrasheed Bawa, chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, expressed frustration that high-profile corruption cases are still being lost “on technical grounds”.

According to him, “defendants who obviously have stolen our commonwealth and those who have aided and abetted them have been allowed to go home to enjoy their proceeds of crime on technical grounds.”

Sadly, politicians with unexplained wealth are using their slush funds to buy votes at party primaries and during general elections, thereby corrupting politics and democracy in Nigeria.

Surely, there’s vital public interest in ensuring that politicians whose sources of wealth are questionable are not able to hide behind technical rulings and send threatening letters to media houses to avoid explanations of the nature and source of their wealth.

The situation is different in Britain. For instance, in the early stages of the ongoing leadership contest to elect Boris Johnson’s successor, the tax affairs and business dealings of the contenders became a critical issue, as the candidates were under intense pressure to publish details of their finances.

Is that happening in Nigeria? Are political aspirants being held to account about the nature and sources of their wealth and business dealings? Are they acting in an open and transparent manner and submitting themselves to public scrutiny? Sadly, the answer is no! But that poses real danger to democracy, which thrives on honesty, truthfulness and trust.

Think about it. For the first time, Nigeria may have a multibillionaire as president whose business dealings and source of wealth are utterly questionable. For the first time, Nigeria risks having a president whose pedigree is, as someone put it, “shrouded in a miasma of dubiety”, with little known about his early life.

For the first time, Nigeria risks having a president on whom international sources have damaging dossiers. Any of these would be disastrous for Nigeria and expose the country to huge national and international embarrassment.

Well, here’s the point. Nigeria must not sleepwalk its way into having a president with acute integrity deficit without as much as intense media and public scrutiny. Which is why Nigerians must borrow a leaf from the Brits and make integrity a critical issue in next year’s presidential election!

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