The reported resignation last week of Patience Jonathan, wife of President Goodluck Jonathan, from her contentious position as permanent secretary in the Bayelsa State public service, has raised once more the public debate that erupted soon after her appointment was announced in July 2012. At the time of her appointment, many Nigerians wondered justifiably how a permanent secretary in the government of Bayelsa State could be domiciled in Abuja and still perform her official duties in Yenagoa.
That appointment also brought up other questions. How, for instance, was Mrs Jonathan expected to perform her public service role in Bayelsa State to the best of her abilities when her responsibilities as the wife of the president would hardly grant her the time to serve another state in a senior capacity. Some other people have wondered why she accepted the appointment in the first place when she knew it would be impossible for her to shuttle between Abuja and Yenagoa on a daily or even weekly basis.
At the time of Mrs Jonathan’s appointment in July 2012, the Bayelsa State government mounted meaningless arguments in the public sphere to persuade everyone that the appointment was irrefutable, sound, justified and well deserved. In defence of Mrs Jonathan’s appointment, the Bayelsa State government said on 14 July 2012 that the appointment was made in recognition of Mrs Jonathan’s valuable services to the state and the nation. The government also said public agitation over the appointment was unnecessary as the president’s wife was already a directorate level officer in its public service.
The statement signed by the Senior Special Assistant (Media and Public Affairs) to Bayelsa State Governor, Daniel Iworiso-Markson, said: “Unknown to a number of people, the First Lady, Dame Patience Jonathan, joined the Rivers State Civil Service in the 90s, and upon the election of her husband as Deputy Governor in 1999, transferred her service to the civil service of Bayelsa State. She rose through the ranks of the public service of Bayelsa State and was last appointed into the directorate cadre as a Level 15 officer in 2005.”
The specious statement was clearly designed to justify the appointment of Mrs Jonathan. The statement carried little if any unassailable line of reasoning. The senior special assistant said: “… the Governor of Bayelsa State, Hon. Henry Seriake Dickson, is convinced… that wives of governors, vice presidents, Presidents and all other spouses whose positions are not recognized by the laws of the country and are not funded by the government should be encouraged and supported to pursue and maintain their independent careers… His Excellency believes that wives of such public officers should not suffer prejudices or deprivation merely as a result of the positions occupied by their husbands.”
I am not sure the senior special assistant understood the meaning of the word “deprivation”. If he did, he would not have used it loosely in his statement and certainly not in the context he implied. For clarity, people who suffer “deprivation” are disadvantaged or poor people who lack many basic things to survive the hardships of life. The president’s wife and indeed the wives of state governors cannot in any way be described as less privileged women. They are not dispossessed of, or denied access to, material and financial resources. If anything, they have an abundance of these resources, courtesy of the political positions their husbands hold.
The weakest point in the Bayelsa State government’s argument was the notion that Mrs Jonathan had worked as a career public servant since 1999. She certainly wasn’t working as a career public servant when her husband was Deputy Governor in 1999, or when Jonathan was Governor, Vice-President, Acting President and President. How did she combine both roles to rise swiftly in the public service? In any case, how could the combined total of Mrs Jonathan’s services in the Rivers and Bayelsa states’ public service had elevated her to the position of a permanent secretary? This is mind boggling but it is the kind of crass argument with which gullible Nigerians are easily fooled.
Here is a permanent secretary who was appointed to superintend the implementation of government policy relating to a ministry even when she was residing so far from her ministry. How would she keep up to date with developments in her ministry? How would she manage the day-to-day affairs of her ministry? Did Mrs Jonathan work by delegating responsibilities to her subordinates while she stayed in Abuja to earn her salary for a job she did not do? The argument didn’t make sense and never will.
One question that has been asked about the mystifying aspect of Mrs Jonathan’s appointment concerns discipline. Who will sanction Mrs Jonathan if she committed any act contrary to the civil service code of conduct? Neither the governor who appointed her nor the head of the civil service would dare to query Mrs Jonathan for infringing on the civil service rules. A permanent secretary should not be above the law but Mrs Jonathan was and still is more than a super permanent secretary. She was and still is above the law because no one could sanction her if she contravened the law. Mrs Jonathan not only sees herself as above the law, those who serve her also believe she is the law. That’s why Rivers State Governor Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi continues to accuse her of threatening him and his government. Perhaps that is true. Perhaps it is not.
I have heard Mrs Jonathan’s defenders say that nothing in the Nigerian law precluded her from accepting her appointment in Bayelsa State. Her supporters also add rather sheepishly that, in the electronic age driven by technological transformations, it is possible for Mrs Jonathan to do her job for Bayelsa State from anywhere around the world. After all, the argument went, many people are already telecommuting on a daily basis.
I am not in any way persuaded by the flimsiness of the arguments put forward by the defenders of Mrs Jonathan. In Nigeria, it is common to see obsequious presidential servants or palace attendants say things that not only embarrass those they are defending but they also say things that expose their lack of capacity to engage in informed debate. These are people who have developed a track record for their fawning adulation of the president and his wife, as well as other senior government officials. In their eagerness to demonstrate their reverence for their bosses, they turn reason inversely even when the logic is wobbly and unsound.
My position has always been and remains that, by accepting that appointment, by arguing that she did nothing wrong by accepting it, and by insisting that she did not ask for that appointment as it was bestowed on her as a mark of Bayelsa State government’s appreciation of her contributions to the state’s public service, Mrs Jonathan showed she was excessively ambitious. That ambition may have cost her a lot of goodwill and respect from the public. People who held her in high regard prior to her appointment as permanent secretary have also renounced their support for her.
Now that Mrs Jonathan has resigned her job as permanent secretary, it is perhaps time to ask Bayelsa State citizens to identify the remarkable achievements for which the First Lady should be remembered as permanent secretary? In what ways did she ennoble the ministry or indeed the citizens of the state? When Bayelsa State citizens look back at the period Mrs Jonathan served as permanent secretary, they will see empty space filled with hot air. There is nothing tangible to point to.
Public service appointments should never be politicised. Jonathan angered the public the more when he kept mum and refused to comment on the appropriateness or impropriety of the Bayelsa State government appointing his wife as a permanent secretary. Many people believed that if Jonathan had expressed his objection to that appointment and therefore called a halt to that move, the Bayelsa State government would never have proceeded to make the appointment. And if it did, it could have found another face saving excuse to withdraw it. The president’s opinion mattered the most in this case.
Whether we like it or not, Jonathan is the symbol of leadership in Nigeria. Unfortunately, his silence over his wife’s appointment as permanent secretary has disappointed too many people. Worst still, the public took it as axiomatic that the president’s silence suggested his approval of his wife’s appointment as permanent secretary. Whatever happens, Jonathan’s silence over the appointment of his wife as a permanent secretary in 2012 did not help to uplift his wife’s profile in the public domain.
Surely, Jonathan could have stopped the appointment even before it became public. The Bayelsa State government could not have appointed the president’s wife as a permanent secretary without seeking the consent of the president. Jonathan’s posturing over his wife’s appointment simply opened the space for the press and the people to deride his wife’s appointment as a permanent secretary.
Article written by Levi Obijiofor
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