Bola Tinubu

CALL it a tale of two countries. One, Britain, puts integrity at the heart of its politics and 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 during his final prime minister’s questions, PMQs, after a barnstorming speech, which he ended with the words: “Hasta la vista(goodbye; see you later), baby!”

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So, within three years as prime minister, Boris Johnson was ousted from the job he coveted his entire political life. The question must be: Why? Well, here’s why. Conservative MPs admired Johnson’s charisma and electioneering skills, but 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.

Well, Johnson fell a foul 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.

The fact that Johnson was toppled by his own MPs, not by the whole parliament, 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 views.

Now, what’s the situation in Nigeria? First, are there standards 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? Second, if such standards exist, is there any political will and/or public pressure to make them work in the public interest?

Well, truth is, 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 court of law,” as Atiku Abubakar, a leading presidential candidate, said when asked about perception of corruption and the source of his wealth in his recent Arise TV interview.

But that’s not a satisfactory answer in a country where the investigation and prosecution of corruption cases are utterly shallow, where prominent politicians are often acquitted of corruption charges not on the substance, but on technicalities.

Take the case of Bola Tinubu, another leading presidential candidate. Some years after his 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.” But according to Abdulrasheed Bawa, chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, high-profile corruption cases are still being lost “on technical grounds”.

Yet, 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.

In the early stages of the ongoing leadership contest to elect Boris Johnson’s successor, the tax affairs and business dealings of the contenders were a critical issue, as the candidates were under intense pressure to publish details of their finances. Is that happening in Nigeria? Sadly, no! But that poses danger for 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 questionable. For the first time, Nigeria risks having a president whose pedigree is, as someone put it, “shrouded in a miasma of dubiety”.

That’s why the NGOs that are raising the issue of probity and even testing the integrity of the presidential candidates through the courts deserve commendation. The media, too, should raise the salience of the issue. Nigeria must not sleepwalk its way into having a president with acute integrity deficit without as much as intense media and public scrutiny.

Of course, policies and manifestos matter, but integrity matters too. The credibility of policy or manifesto commitments is inextricably linked to the character and integrity of those behind them. So, if you ask me, I will say: borrow a leaf from the Brits, make integrity a critical issue in next year’s presidential election!

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