By Johnson Momodu
There’s a sense in which the larger chunk of what has been written about the use of a chartered jet by Minister of Petroleum Resources, Diezani Alison-Madueke, mirrors the challenges affecting public discourse in Nigeria. The matter is being pursued by all sides more with emotion than substance and a clear grasp of the crux of the issue. Even among the commentators, very few have done the homework needed to understand the matter fully. The fallout of this unwillingness to properly interrogate the issue is that we are all in danger of failing to draw the most pertinent lesson presented by the matter.
To be clear, issues of official conduct in public affairs cut across two aspects. There is the ethical aspect, which involves the use of sound judgement and questions of morality. There is the legal aspect, which, as implied, regulates lawfulness, the lack thereof, and applicable sanctions.
Under the ethical aspect, questions of social good and financial prudence are routinely raised. Equally, the ethical aspect is where queries concerning public sensitivity, standards and best practices are addressed.
On the other hand, the legal aspect governs operational acceptability according to the law, the quality of conforming to existing rules and guidelines, or “due process” as we like to say in these parts.
Now that we have set out the variables of assessing official conduct in public affairs, let us turn fully to the matter at hand.
It has been reported that the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) spent N10 billion over the last two years in chartering a jet for the use of the Minister of Petroleum Resources. While this amount is certainly mind-boggling, the best way we can approach the issue is to leave out the emotion and subject it to the two variables of assessing official conduct in public affairs.
Considering that Nigeria, by all indices, is a developing country, does it show financial prudence to spend such an amount on official air transport for the Minister? We should also ask if such expenditure brings about social good, takes into consideration public sensitivity, meets acceptable standards and best practices.
To call a spade a spade, the connection between spending such an amount on official air transport for the Minister and social good is virtually nonexistent. Moreover, it fails to take into consideration the highly emotional factor of public sensitivity.
On the other hand though, aviation industry practitioners say that global best practice for busy business executives and high-ranking government officials overseeing time-sensitive industries such as oil is to lease or charter aircraft rather than buy outright. As such, on that count, there is nothing ethically wrong in chartering the aircraft.
We may now consider the matter under the legal count. The question here is straightforward: Did the NNPC conform to existing rules and guidelines in leasing or chartering the aircraft under discussion? The NNPC has provided statutory evidence that its establishment Act grants it the authority to lease and or purchase aircraft. The corporation has also submitted that it chose to lease the aircraft because it is a more cost-effective option. Therefore, on the legal count it is clear that no laws have been broken.
However, the crux of the issue—and we are back to that again—sidesteps the legal aspect and lands in the ethical aspect. And it is therein that we must draw the most pertinent lesson of this matter. For, even though no law has been broken, the matter has raised the ire of the people and if democracy has anything to do with “we the people”—as we are forever being told that it has—then the people cannot be ignored.
The people are right in expressing anger. And the expression of the anger is sufficient censure. But those demanding the Minister’s head are out of line. You do not throw away an experienced and capable administrator because of what is clearly a legal deed even if not a popular one. Moreover, we must apply the rule of law across board and not selectively, otherwise the whole point of democracy would be defeated.
Setting aside all the emotions raised by this matter, it is clear for all to see what the most pertinent lesson of this matter is: Having the law on your side in the actions you take does not necessarily guarantee a peaceful coexistence with the people whom you have been called upon to serve. It is also a worthwhile strategy to consider the connection between that which is legal and its ethical implications before embarking on a course of action.
In conclusion, it is not for nothing that Alison-Madueke was named alternate president of the Organisation of Petroleum-Exporting Countries (OPEC). It shows that her minister-colleagues across the globe believe sufficiently in her abilities as an administrator, and since she has broken no law at home, we are best served by allowing her to continue in service.
*Momodu, a public affairs commentator, sent in this piece from Benin City.