By Okey Ndibe
Most big Nigerian politicians encounter no law – divine or secular – they feel tempted to observe. In fact, to be a prominent politician is to be above all laws, God’s and man’s alike.
Last week, a Nigerian daily, Thisday, wrote an editorial to scold President Goodluck Jonathan for reportedly accepting the gift of a church in his hometown from an Italian construction firm by the name of Gitto Construzioni. The editorial began: “At the recent dedication of a 2,500-seat church building in Otuoke, his village in Bayelsa State, President Goodluck Jonathan said the edifice was donated to him by the Abuja-based Italian construction company, Gitto Construzioni Generali Nigeria Limited (GCG). According to the president, the managing director of Gitto made him a promise to build and donate the church to Otuoke community after he (the president) had complained of the ageing structure of his church, which apparently no longer befits the status of the president’s village.”
The paper categorized the gift, rather aptly, as “very disturbing” and wondered how Mr. Jonathan “could openly justify this sort of gift from a private company, whose various activities in the country have been marred in controversies.” Surmising that the president had peddled the influence of his office to obtain the favour, the paper noted that such an act was “unacceptable for a president anywhere in the world and the code of conduct for public officials in Nigeria expressly forbids such.”
Thisday continued: “Gitto is one of the major contractors to the federal government yet the manner in which the president spoke at the church thanksgiving service conveyed the impression that he actually solicited for the edifice since he openly voiced his concern to the hearing of the company’s managing director who apparently got the message. Of course there is the argument that it is only a church building but Gitto is not known to be a missionary outfit; it is a construction firm that bids for and wins contracts in Nigeria. Against the backdrop that the record of the company with regards to performance has left much to be desired, it becomes more obvious that the president goofed in accepting the questionable gift and worse still, that he would seek to justify it.
“We note particularly that corruption thrives in Nigeria today because public officials do not know how and where to draw the line. It is therefore no surprise that some of these foreign construction companies do things they dare not try in their home countries. Gitto is surely no Santa Claus; it is a profit-seeking company accountable to its shareholders. When the company therefore spends millions of dollars on a ‘gift’, its management would expect returns so it is easy to understand why the costs of contracts in Nigeria are the highest in the world.”
It was a blistering rebuke, and surprising because of the quarters it came from. Thisday is by no means a rabble rousing opposition medium. In fact, some would suggest that the paper is as close to the political establishment as it is possible to get. So when such a paper chides the president on account of a serious ethical lapse, bystanders are bound to take notice. It is a sign that something really, really stinky has transpired.
In delivering its rare but altogether appropriate censure, the paper’s instincts were excellent. As the editorial noted, the contractor has been the subject of several complaints. Let’s once again quote Thisday: “We particularly recall that the N58.6 billion contract for the construction of the second Niger Bridge was awarded to Gitto Group in a manner which recently prompted the South East Legislative Caucus in the National Assembly to petition President Jonathan, asking him to review it. There are also protests against Gitto from Akwa Ibom stakeholders on the way it is handling the Eket/Oron section of the East-West Road project while the Bodo-Bonny Road in Bayelsa State awarded the company in 2003 is today abandoned.” Given the company’s image troubles, the paper concluded, “The Italian firm cannot whitewash its incompetence by building churches. And it is patently inappropriate for President Jonathan to have accepted the Greek Gift and proceeded to make a light show of it.”
Well, the paper quickly recanted. Hours after issuing its pointed criticism, it wrote a penitent correction. Invoking “fresh facts,” the paper was now certain that the Otuoke community, not Mr. Jonathan, had contacted Gitto “to renovate the worship centre.” It added that “it has now emerged that during the burial of the president’s father in 2008 – by which time he was still vice-president – the officiating ministers had asked the friends of Jonathan and the community to come to the aid of the church and assist in renovating its ageing facilities.” The church elders had done the solicitation, wrote the now wizened paper, without consulting then Vice President Jonathan. Finally, it was important that readers know that the church was merely renovated, not new, and that its capacity was 400 persons, not 2500. Then the paper sought to educate its readership by drawing attention to precedents: “It would be recalled that during the building of the National Ecumenical Centre and the National Mosques, several commercial concerns donated money, materials and services at events some of which had in attendance the then President or Head of State.”
It was as if, having ventured to an unaccustomed terrain by castigating Mr. Jonathan, the paper felt compelled to remind us all that facts can be sliced in several different ways – and also that, this being Nigeria, there was nothing amiss in how Otuoke, the president’s hometown, got a new (or refurbished) church.
With the paper on retreat, the field was cleared for Reuben Abati, the president’s spokesman, to launch a fiery offensive of his own. In a statement issued April 4 and titled “Otuoke Church: President Jonathan Committed No Crime,” Mr. Abati told us the Presidency had “noted with surprise and some amusement, the patently laughable attempt by political opponents of President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan and their collaborators to brew up a storm in a cup over the alleged ‘gift’ of a church to the President.”
It was, as many statements from the Presidency tend to be, a formulaic and effete response. Pray, what did the president and his handlers find amusing in press reports that portrayed the president as trading the influence of his office to secure a church for his hometown? Did the spokesman fail to realize that “amused” is the last thing he or the president should be, and that to profess such a reaction is tantamount to expressing disdain for the people and laws of Nigeria?
Next, Mr. Abati’s fire-breathing response continued: “It should be clear to all knowledgeable and discerning Nigerians that these allegations are nothing other than another mischievous attempt to denigrate President Jonathan, cast unjustifiable aspersions on his personal integrity and distract him from the serious business of governance.” The foregoing contains no morsel of argument or rebuttal, being merely a desperate manipulation of sentiments. In it, Mr. Abati contrives to divide Nigerians into two implicit camps: the “knowledgeable and discerning” who must intuit “mischief” in reports of the president’s abuse of his office and the ignorant and blinded who dared to entertain the belief that, perhaps, the president acted improperly.
Then, throwing in a token third group – the “unwary who might be taken in by the antics of an unscrupulous opposition that has little or no regard for the truth in the pursuit of their self-serving agenda” – the spokesman stated “emphatically that President Jonathan never solicited or received a church as ‘bribe’ from any contractor.”
In the epistle according to Mr. Abati, what happened was that “a contractor who has worked and continues to work in Bayelsa state and other parts of Nigeria thought it fit, in fulfillment of its corporate social responsibility, to facilitate the renovation of the small church in the President’s home town of Otuoke.” Having offered this kernel, he added: “It takes a lot of desperation to translate this act of social responsibility for which there are innumerable precedents in our country into a crime for which the usual suspects are now calling for the ‘impeachment’ of President Jonathan.” Then the Presidency spelt out what lesson we must take – not about its commitment to ethical principles but about corporate behaviour in Nigeria: “It is indeed ironic that the groups and individuals now castigating the President because a company freely chose to fulfill its corporate social responsibility by helping to renovate a communal place of worship, are also amongst those who constantly berate companies doing business in the Niger Delta for not doing enough to support the development of their host communities.”
The Presidency ought not to be allowed to get away with such wooly thinking and tattered conception of ethics. Does anybody seriously believe that a major construction firm would invest in renovating a church in the president’s hometown, without the president knowing? And even if it’s true that Mr. Jonathan played no role in soliciting the favour, he should have been alert to the appearance of wrongdoing? Is it so hard for the Presidency to grasp that it looks (to say the least) suspicious when the federal government awards major contracts to a firm that has handed a church to the president’s town?
Since when did the refurbishment of churches fall within the purview of “corporate social responsibility”? If the firm’s motives were altruistic, why did it choose to rehabilitate the one church where President Jonathan worships? As an international construction firm, can Gitto Construzioni disclose any other country where it has built or renovated a church for free? Has it ever donated or renovated a church in its home base of Italy?