There comes a time when a public official must resign. Nothing captures this essence more lucidly than Sunday’s resignation of the South Korean Prime Minister, Chung Hong-won, over the government’s fumbled response to the Sewol ferry disaster in which over 300 people are believed to have either died or are still missing. The ferry, with about 476 passengers – mostly schoolchildren – was on sail from the port of Incheon in the north-west to the southern resort island of Jeju, when it suddenly started listing and went under. In spite of elaborate rescue efforts, no fewer than 204 people were confirmed dead, while about 100 others are still missing, though believed to be dead.
The Korean tragedy had nothing to do with the government directly, but the Prime Minister was booed and pelted with water bottles when he visited the grieving parents the following day. For this reason, he tendered his resignation, which was promptly accepted by the President, even though he was told to hold on till the mess of the sinking ship was cleared. While announcing his resignation, Chung vicariously took responsibility for the national tragedy by tendering an apology to the victims’ families and saying, “The right thing to do for me is to take responsibility and resign as the person who is in charge of the cabinet.” In a society where leadership comes with responsibility, and premium is placed on service over personal aggrandisement, the prime minister has demonstrated that there is decency in resigning.
Besides, all the 15 sailors that were in charge of the ship have been taken into custody for their roles in the disaster. Quite strikingly, the school vice-principal, Kang Min-kyu, committed suicide because he felt guilty to be alive while 200 of the 323 Danwon High School students he led out on the ill-fated trip were missing.
Resigning from public office after failing the people is not just a Korean affair; it is the accepted standard in civilised societies, the membership of which Nigeria claims to belong. But here, public officials hang on like grim death to their posts even amid scurrilous allegations of corruption, breathtaking incompetence, unconscionable waste and even deaths.
That is why the Petroleum Minister, Diezani Alison-Madueke, can still sit tight when her performance in office has been adjudged to have fallen far short of expectations. When under her watch, Nigeria lost over N2 trillion to a subsidy scam, she decided to set up committees to investigate the fraud, when the right thing to do should have been for her to resign. It is for the same reason that the Minister of Interior, Abba Moro, is still holding on to his position after his direct actions led to the death of 19 Nigerian youths in an Immigration job recruitment scam. These cases represent reckless and breathtakingly irresponsible dereliction of leadership for which the people who run this government ought to be ashamed of themselves.
But there is no escaping the fact that as the head of government, the greatest failure of leadership should be pinned on President Goodluck Jonathan. In July 2011, just after he was sworn in, Jonathan had pledged on his honour that there would not be any hiding place for corrupt ministers. “This is in a nutshell (what) I expect from you,” he reportedly told his ministers. “Public funds are meant for good and I am quite pleased to note that this administration’s fidelity to the rule of law is common knowledge because neither the Vice-President nor I will offer protection to anyone in government whose integrity is called to question.”
Three years on, our President has kept the solemn promise only in the breach. His government is not only thick with ineptitude, vice and corruption, the Presidency has become a refuge for ministers that even our spineless National Assembly tries to make accountable. Though Moro claims to have apologised, the damage has been done. It is dismaying enough that the Petroleum Minister apparently sees nothing inappropriate in issues surrounding a N10 billion wasteful expenditure on jets, but what is even more troubling is that the President has not thought it fit to fire her.
Now, Alison-Madueke is latching on to every straw to stave off a parliamentary inquiry into her profligate lifestyle. This is nothing but a lack of respect for the Parliament and, by extension, Nigerians.
But our government and sundry petty oppressors ride roughshod over us because we are weak, complacent, cowardly and careless of our responsibilities. That is why Moro sits tight at the Interior Ministry and Jonathan appears at weddings, and political rallies while over 200 teenage girls are in Boko Haram’s captivity.
Writing in the influential Journal of Democracy, scholars at the Johns Hopkins University, Maryland, said democracy is effective only when it is truly a government of the people, not “mere electoral democracy in which the elites hold elections but the citizens have little real influence on their actions.” As long as Nigerians are content to watch from the sidelines while politicians and their allies rape their wealth and values, impunity, such as the brazenness of the Petroleum Ministry and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation in mismanaging oil revenues will continue.
To break this vicious cycle, the populace must shake off its lethargy and key into what researchers call “effective democracy” that emerges “when ordinary people acquire resources and values that enable them (to) put effective pressures on elites.” Termed “human empowerment,” the process results in “self-expression values” like activism, which experts say are crucial to the emergence and survival of democracy.
The critical factors in ensuring that public officials are forced to subscribe to minimum standards of civilised conduct are insistence on human dignity and the courage to openly confront those who use public office to devalue our rights to dignity and the good life. Bangladeshis have been demanding just that for over a year since the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed, killing 1,138 persons. Protests swept through India in 2011 and 2012 in response to pervasive corruption. Started by activists with hunger strikes that eventually brought over 3.2 million ordinary people out on the streets in several cities, they forced legal reforms and pushed corruption forward as the major electoral issue.
Public anger over the Korean ferry tragedy will keep the government on its toes for years to come. Nigerians will never have good governance until they learn to protect their rights through legal means of protest and agitation. Citizens of Ukraine, Thailand, Russia, Turkey and South Africa utilise such legal means to demand accountability from public officials.
Perhaps most compelling is the realisation that even in the advanced democracies, the people remain perpetually vigilant and never leave the conduct of their affairs exclusively in the hands of politicians.
Chung has indeed behaved with commendable honour in quitting his post with so little fuss.
Jonathan’s drifting and dithering on his ministers who fail to serve with honour and distinction show neither vision nor firm leadership. Since they will not resign, the President should fire Moro and Alison-Madueke immediately. Failing to do so will push the country further on a slippery slope.