Ethical Responsibility & The Nigerian Public Servant


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October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007



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Ethical Responsibility And The Nigerian Public Servant




Olaewe Ewegbemi




“No agreement today, no agreement tomorrow..

My mama talk, my papa talk…” - Late Fela Anikulapo Kuti




May 14, 2005



Democracy functions at its best when people know and exercise their rights,  get involved and when the servant is not placed over the served. Here below is how the Founding Fathers of American democracy perceived the relationship between the ruler and the ruled on July 4, 1776:


“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it…”


Governments are “instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it” Well put!


The Right of the people therefore to be able to judge every action of their public officials IS a scared and inviolate Right. When this right is taken away by default of the people or when this right is not exercised by the constituents, public servants do as they please. No one tells them what they can or cannot do. They invariably become overlords and treat their constituents as subjects to be exploited at will and abused as they please.


In active and virile democracy, public servants (elected representatives and those who hold public office) are held responsible and accountable for their real or perceived actions and/or inactions.

Appearances or perceptions of wrong –doing alone become ethically important in judging the public servant. Much of the people’s right reside in their ability to insist on the ethical significance of appearances or their perceptions of wrong- doing by their public servants.




In Nigeria, so far, for some obvious reasons such as level of literacy. political awareness and participation, poverty and ignorance etc . the ability of the served to exercise control over the public servant has been almost non-existent. Nor have the  churches or mosques, which boast of their expanding population of followers, been of any help in educating their followers on the need to be politically conscious by demanding their rights to be served by their public servants. Instead, the religious leaders are busy preaching and preparing their flock for the hereafter(Heaven)! Were  the late Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. to divorce himself and his flock from political activism and participation , African Americans would probably still be living today a separate but unequal life from that of their racist white oppressors.


Nigerian educational system is also  yet to do any appreciable work of educating for critical consciousness. What we have by and large from primary to tertiary education is a savings bank approach. The teacher deposits the facts and theories  to the students and expects them to withdraw same and them back to him ..nothing added or subtracted. Nor are students , especially in our tertiary institutions subjected to any rigorous debate or curriculum about Nigerian Government and Politics!




In active and virile democracy like the United States, public servants know that their constituents would judge their actions or inactions , either real or perceived(appearances) . Those who cannot stand the heat, so to speak, must therefore avoid the kitchen. Those who cannot stand the heat of the public’s right to judge do not go into public service.


The Watergate scandal that brought down President  Richard M. Nixon in 1974 is a typical example of how the people’s right to judge cannot be under-estimated by any public servant. In a passive democracy , Nixon would have gotten away with his attempt to turn the American democracy into an imperial presidency or into a monarchy where the King can do no wrong. The American people, through a very virile and aggressive press  said No emphatically to Nixon and he had no choice but to resign with ignominy to avoid impeachment shortly after winning a second term with a landslide.

The present controversies surrounding Tom Delay, the Republican  Majority Leader of the  House of Representatives is another case of the power of the people to judge their leaders, even on appearances of impropriety alone. Arbitrary power? Well, sometimes, but then that is why those who cannot stand the heat should never go into public service.




Even when a public servant is not directly involved in any violation of the rule ,  if those close to him /her are involved in an act of impropriety or appearance of, the public servant in charge is still vicariously liable or responsible for the actions of those he /or she is supposed to manage or supervise.

If as the President, Olusegun Obasanjo is surrounded by  wheelers and dealers even though he might not be directly involved in the wheeling and dealing, he is still responsible for the actions of those wheelers wheeling and dealers dealing in his cabinet or administration. Even the appearance that a member of his family(his wife) is involved in an oil deal or in the purchase of Ikoyi  government landed property , should be and is sufficient ground for the public to  judge him (even if the judging  is arbitrary) of ethical responsibility.


There have been so many scandals under President Obasanjo’s watch that even  the absence of a virile public judgment or condemnation ought not to have deterred the president from bowing out if ethical responsibility were taken seriously by Nigerian public servants.

Firing or dismissing his Ministers ( Education and Housing)the Inspector General of Police  is not enough to absolve the President of ethical responsibility for the actions of those close to him (his cabinet men and women).

“What does the President know and when did he know it?’’ That famous Watergate question is as relevant to President Olusegun Obasanjo  as it was very relevant to late President Richard M. Nixon during the Watergate proceedings in Washington D.C. over 30 years ago.


The absence of ethical responsibility in Nigerian public service due primarily to the failure of the people to exercise their right to demand accountability from their servants  explains why Olusegun  Obasanjo and others  are able to get away with egregious ethical violations and naked abuse of their power.

Remember the Minister under Shehu Shagari who said that Nigerians are  not poor because they have not yet started to pick from garbage bins? An ethically irresponsible statement? You bet. What happened to him for making that statement?  Nothing!


In Nigeria, the servant is placed over the served. No one tells him what he can or can’t do!  In the eyes of the  Nigerian public servants,   Nigerians do not exist. The Nigerian State is theirs and they do as they please with it. Those who don’t like it can shut up or be silenced if they dared to speak up!







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This page was last updated on 10/27/07.