Chief Olabode George did not ‘steal’ – at least, no one has proven that he has. Yet, social media is still warm from the fiery fumes of righteous anger burning from the Nigerian online community. We are convinced that the former chairman of the Nigerian Ports Authority was convicted for theft of public funds. We have then taken to Facebook and Twitter to share our disgust at the advertorials and live broadcast of politicians in aso-ebi and the hero’s welcome given to a ‘thief’. Of course, there are the ubiquitous warnings to #RSVP and choose wisely (read as ‘non-PDP) during the April elections.
Ex-convicts should not be shunned and made pariahs merely because they made mistakes. It is perhaps prudent to rehabilitate former offenders and reintegrate them into society – or so theories go. Even so, despite our disdain for convictions and supercilious pretentions, ex-convicts have played significant roles in their post-jail lives. The revered Obafemi Awolowo was an ex-convict and any of the members of the pre-kidnap era MEND would fit his toes in Mandela’s shoes. The stigma isn’t as strong as we assume and it sometimes depends on who tells the story.
Chief George, along with five former members of the NPA board, was convicted in 2009 for ‘contract splitting’, abuse of office and disobedience of a wilful order. The charge of contract inflation was not proved as the prosecution failed to show a price list which would validate an unjustifiable increase. The honourable judge of the High Court of Lagos State held that the defendants deliberately and ‘arbitrarily’ divvied up the contracts to bring them within limits that could be approved by the board. So, there were no allegations of wilful conversion or theft; ‘merely’ conspiracy to award contracts that shouldn’t have been awarded. The court held that these men were ‘responsible corporate officers’ who had a duty to scrutinise contracts before approving them. Therefore, they could not claim that they were board members who should not be responsible for actions carried out by their subordinates.
There lies the reason for our anger: public officers are responsible for their offices. They don’t even have to steal to get us mad about circumventing due process or abusing our trust. Public office holders are responsible to the public whose taxes (and rights to money received from natural resources) pay their salaries. They should not act in a manner that is prejudicial to public good. This dog already has a bad name.
We have a right to be mad at the aso-ebis that welcomed Chief George because some of them hold or aspire to hold public offices. We should be infuriated that abuse of public positions isn’t seen as despicable or dishonourable enough so that we avoid people who indulge it. We must be angry because it is enough to influence government contracts or act in an unlawful manner. We should throw our hands in the air and mourn the loss of the deterrence that the conviction brought in 2009 and the acceptability of abuse of public office.
Perhaps this has come from being accustomed to low expectations from our leaders. This is the time to move away from satisfaction at leaders that ‘do something’ to a demand for integrity, knowing that performance of one’s duty is to be taken for granted. It is important that we remember that public officers must act right. So that when we decide to #Select and vote, it would be because we expect – and deserve much, much more.
YNaija kindly put up a slightly different version here