By Uche Onyebadi
THE downside to being in public office in the U.S. is becoming an object of intense, and often irritating, highly intrusive and critical, media and public scrutiny. Your action and inaction invariably become subjects of serious debates, even from uninformed quarters and from people with less than noble intentions. What choice do you have? None.
Especially when it comes to the question of public officers being accountable for their deeds and misdeeds, it can at times be frightening how far the media can go to microscopically examine the balance-sheet of public officers. And, woe betide any of them who falls short of maintaining a clean slate. Ask a man called Bob McDonnell.
Mr. McDonnell left office at the dusk of 2014, having served his term as the governor of Virginia State. He was even being put forward as a possible flag-bearer for the Republican Party in the 2016 presidential election. But, all that have to be on hold for now, because Governor McDonnell walked out of state house and on January 24, 2014 walked into the dock in a court of law to answer a 14-count charge of inappropriate behavior while in office.
This is how the New York Times (January 21) described the charges: ‘The indictment accuses the McDonnells of accepting some $135,000 in cash from Mr. Williams, thousands of dollars in golf outings, designer clothing and a Rolex watch engraved “71st Governor of Virginia” on the back. It accuses the former first couple of lying about the gifts on loan statements and to government investigators.’
The loan and gifts came from Mr. Jonnie R. Williams Sr., who is the chief executive of Star Scientific, a company that makes dietary supplements. The quid-pro-quo was that the governor and his wife would use his position to promote the company’s products. The central theme in the allegations and indictment was that the governor and his wife indeed used state facilities and influence to promote his friend’s dietary products. But, of course the couple denies it.
Late last year, Governor McDonnell returned the gifts and refunded the loan. That is not in dispute. The question is: why accept them in the first place to support his friend in return? Why lie about the loan and gifts? The governor and his wife Maureen are now in the dock facing justice, and if found guilty, both of them will surely end in prison for some years.
Governor McDonnells is not alone in the league of ex-governors and public officers who have been called upon to answer queries regarding the abuse of their oaths of transparency and good governance. As I write, Rod Blagojevich, the former governor of Illinois, is serving a 14-year jail sentence for official corruption while in office.
He was sentenced on December 7, 2011. Blagojevich is just an example of how public officers who fail the accountability test are treated in the U.S. He followed the examples of two of his predecessors in office by getting involved in some fraudulent and corrupt activities. And, like those predecessors, he is now in prison to atone for his misdeeds.
When I look at Governor McDonnell’s case and juxtapose it with the flagrant abuse of power and office that goes on practically in all countries in Africa, Nigeria perhaps leading the pack, I shudder to think in which direction the continent is headed. We are talking about the paltry sum of $135,000 which is even a loan, and which the former governor has returned. We are looking at gifts of all sorts including designer clothes and a Rolex wristwatch which, again, the man has since returned. But, more importantly, is the act of abusing his position as governor for personal reasons. That is the crux of the matter.
If Governor McDonnell had been in similar position in Nigeria, wouldn’t he be an object of uproarious laughter for being caught over a loan of some nonsensical sum of $135,000? And, for receiving golf equipment and a Rolex watch? In fact, my satirical sense tells me that his indictment in Nigeria would not be because of what really happened but because of cheapening and disgracing the exalted office of governor by stooping so low as to be involved in such ridiculous sum of money. When our governors crush accountability, they do so with the sound of billions of Naira or millions of dollars.
But, isn’t there a lesson in Governor McDonnell’s fate? Zero-tolerance of official misdemeanor is the way to sustain the soul of any nation and move the country forward on the path of good governance and nation-building.
You may argue that America is afflicted by venoms of all types, but on this score of accountability for public officers, they got it right. When you pledge to serve the people in any public capacity in the U.S., you better keep to the spirit and letter of your oath of office. The system does not tolerate public officers shortchanging and hoodwinking the people they swore to serve. Whoever fails the accountability test goes to jail, cikena!
Is there any chance that Nigeria and other African countries can philosophically and practically adopt this position?