Beyond propriety and civility; professionalism, ethics and law dictates that Nigerian public servants in appointive positions – statutory and non-statutory – serve at the pleasure of their principals; the President or the Governor. Yet, they enjoy no immunity. Like every Nigerian citizen, they are bound by extant statutes. Accordingly, they are obligated to respond positively and respect the three arms of government, which are separate but equal. This is more so for the public servants, whose appointment require senate confirmation. It is beyond debate that such appointees, must comply fully with court orders and summons as well as summons from the Senate, House of Assembly or Special Tribunals.
Nigerians are increasingly witnessing with dismay, presidential aides and appointees refusing to comply with Senate and House of Assembly summons. Some at the risk of contempt also ignore court orders. Such deeds are dangerous in a young democracy. Such conducts are wrong, no matter how trivial the summons may seem. It connotes impunity, diminution of the rule of law or lack of awareness of the law. Contextually, it reflects the attendant risks of an over-indulgent Senate that merely ask public office nominees to ‘bow and go’ instead of thoroughly grilling them during senate confirmation and screening exercises. Senate authority and imprimatur not duly asserted from the outset, consequently becomes an albatross.
If during a confirmation process a nominee is asked: “If confirmed by this senate, will you always respond to our invitation of summons to address issues within your purview?” A negative answer will be grounds for non confirmation. A positive response under oath will be sufficient basis to hold the officer to account later on. Every nominee must at that point unequivocally affirm his or her subordination to and cooperation with the Senate or the House of Assembly.
Naturally, the senate in inviting public officers to appear before it, must follow laid down procedures. The senate for its part must not be frivolous with its summons, which is part of its constitutional powers. That done, every public servant who refuses to appear before the senate or the court, should be forced to resign or be dismissed. It is that simple. It is thus troubling that progressively, presidential aides and appointees are being disrespectful to the legislature and the judiciary. This is simply wrong. Those who engage in such conducts should be shown the way out. They complicate our democratic processes and compound the governance challenges confronting President Muhammadu Buhari.
Nigeria is a democracy, and as such, we ought to borrow from universal best practices. It is worth recalling a notable case involving a member of the U.S. senate, Senator Gary Hart and Gen. Alexander Haig, a public office nominee, who was also a retired ranking military officer. The recount in the New York Times of January 9, 1981, ran thus:
”Let me refer to an exchange you and I had about a year and a half ago in a hearing before the Armed Services Committee on the SALT treaty,” said Senator Hart, a Colorado Democrat.
”You said: ‘I am no longer at your beck and call in uniform. I’m a private citizen now, Senator.”’ Mr. Haig nodded.
”Since I have never in six years beckoned or called you personally, I assume you were referring to the Senate as an institution,” Mr. Hart continued. ”Now you are no longer in uniform; you will be Secretary of State. I’m interested in knowing whether that statement in any regard casts any shadow on the commitment you made in your opening statement about cooperation with the Senate and with the Congress.”
With a smile, Mr. Haig replied, ”Senator Hart, I think it means that I’m back at your beck and call.”
The upshot of the narrative afore, is that every Nigerian public servant has a ‘beck and call’ status. This might not be the case for a private citizen. In the Nigerian context, for an incumbent secretary to the government of the federation (SGF) to demur on an invitation from the senate is most troubling. Similarly, for senate confirmed public officers like the Attorney-General or the Comptroller-General of the Nigerian Customs Serviced to refuse to appear before the senate under whatever pretext, simply undermines our nascent democracy and is a diminution of value of our constitution and powers and authority that derives therefrom. Ironically, it is from the same constitution that these officers respectively derive their official authority.
Some may see these unsavory developments as academic or mere politics. Yet such conducts portend clear and present danger. They are analogous to military leaders refusing to submit to civilian authority. To head an agency and yet refuse to wear its uniform is simply wrong. Col. Hammed Ali (rtd.), the Comptroller-General of the Nigerian Customs Service refusing to appear in uniform at work and before the senate on the premise that the constitution and rules does not say so, is vacuous. The constitution does not say so, but elected civilian presidents wear military uniforms occasionally for ceremonial duties and activities. In the U.S. for instance, the surgeon-general wears a naval uniform and rank as accoutrements of the office. Successive Corps Marshalls of the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) wore the Corps uniform throughout their respective tenures; this included a ranking retired military officer, Maj-Gen. Anthony Haladu Hananiya (rtd.) – a fine officer and gentleman.
Unfettered respect for the three arms of government by public servants across the various arms will be a towering achievement in the governance of Nigeria. Meanwhile, those who refuse to respect constitutional dictates ought not to hold public offices statutorily designated by the constitution. The presidency will do well to address these vexatious issues expeditiously and if need be, through agonizing reprisals. Mr. President needs to set an example by dismissing a non-complying senior public servant– thus compelling others to toe the line. Not doing so, means turning a blind eye to impunity.
Obaze is MD/CEO, Selonnes Consult Ltd.