When the Bauchi State Governor, Senator Bala Mohammed, announced that he was going into self-isolation because he had made contact with a person who had tested positive to the COVID-19, the attention was, as usual, erroneously focused on how that came about, instead of the leadership lesson embedded in his action. Of greater significance is that by that singular act, the Governor had set a new paradigm in transparency and accountability, among public officers, especially those of the political class.
It goes without saying that in climes that place higher premiums on the conduct of public officers, the emphasis should be on the decision to go public with his situation. For, at the end of the day, his action is bound to redefine the social contract and compel those in power to submit to the electorate, as servants and not masters.
Hitherto, the norm was for public office holders, of his status, to conceal their health status or at best, allow their spokespersons to engage in obfuscation; making laughable efforts, all in the attempt to conceal the health status of their principals. Why any public servant would want to deceive the public about his or her health status is left to reason; though the uncharitable tendency for certain people to wish death for others, could be a reason to be circumspect. At any rate, it is high time me started rethinking the retrogressive deification of mortal leaders on the presumption that it is un-African to divulge their health status: in today’s digital world and with the peeping eyes of the social media, insisting on secrecy can only create greater problems of transparency for all, in the information value chain. To that extent, accountability demands that a public officer owes it a duty, to the electorate, to be honest about his or her health.
The rationale for full disclosure spans the broad gamut of social relations: economic, political, administrative and more. For one, it guards against unhealthy speculation by members of the public about the state of health of the leader. This point becomes critical in societies where speculation about the health of the leader can throw the economy into distress by disrupting the capital market. For another, as we saw during the period of President Umaru Musa Yar’Ardua’s illness, lack of transparency over the health of a leader can snowball into unmanageable political crisis, verging on instability or systems collapse.
In retrospect, Nigeria should remain grateful to those patriots who stood by the constitution and whose principled commitment to due process paved the way for Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, who was Nigeria’s vice president at the time, to take over the reins of government, as President. By some interesting coincidence, it was the same Governor Bala Mohammed who, as Senator representing Bauchi South Senatorial District, who moved the motion that led to the smooth transition in 2010 thereby averting the looming anarchy.
Considered from that standpoint, Bala Mohammed can be said to be acquiring a strong reputation as a man of history. By announcing that he was going into self-isolation, he opened the door for his colleagues and others who probably would have demurred, to confidently announce that they were also going into self-isolation.
To underestimate the significance of Governor Bala Mohammed’s openness with his health predicament could mean ignorance of the posture of official secrecy, in matters of this nature. On the other hand, it could also translate to a repudiation of the ethical demand on public officers, to lead by examples, by holding themselves accountable to the electorate.
No matter one’s perspective on the matter, official secrecy over the health of public office holders has always either backfired or had dire consequences for the society. I recall the embarrassment faced by the media and the larger Nigerian society when, sometime in 1990, the news made the rounds about the health of the legendary “Zik of Africa”, the Rt. Hon. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, first President of Nigeria. Unable to confirm the exact situation before going to Press, many newspapers reported that he had died; a story that turned out to be false.
In retrospect, many of the media houses were plain reckless, both professionally and traditionally. But that is a matter for a for another day. The important point to take away is that, had the office of the revered statesman or the hospital issued a daily bulletin on his health, much of the speculation would have been averted. That public office holders whose every need is provided by us, the people, should be accountable to us, even in their state of health, goes without saying.
Let us now return to Bala Mohammed’s handling of the situation. By promptly submitting himself to global protocol of self-isolation, once he became aware that he could have been exposed to the virus, he espoused the epitome of good leadership; a conduct that, many will agree, is not typical of Nigerian leaders. By placing the health and safety of the people above any other consideration, he demonstrated admirable sense of patriotism.
No scrutiny of Bala Mohammed’s posture will be complete without recognising the underlying commitment to the principle of team work and the confidence he reposed in the Deputy Governor, the urbane Senator Baba Tela and other key players of the Administration such as the Chief of Staff, Dr. Ladan Salihu and the Principal Private Secretary, Professor Kurfi. Little wonder, therefore, that the wheel of administration has been rolling seamlessly, howbeit with the Governor’s guidance, thanks to the Digital World!
Without a doubt, Governor Bala Mohammed has exhibited leadership at its best; to set a clear example to his colleagues and the general populace, on the responsibility they owed the society, in a period of crisis. Going forward, I want to see this as a message, in accountability, from Bala Mohammed, to public office holders: that the electorate is entitled to know the health status of their leader(s) and that if, for any reason, the person is hospitalised, such a development should attract the issuance of official bulletins.
His posture is a reassuring departure from the trend whereby, due to official silence, members of the public speculate wildly, over the state of health of their leaders, with mischief makers, trying to make political capital out of serious issues of life and death. Such controversies not only diminish the office in question but erode the fundamental principle of the sovereignty of the electorate and that elected leaders, being public servants who are sustained by the taxpayers, owe the public, their masters, the duty of transparently accounting for their actions and inactions. It is within this context that the Bala Mohammed example stands out, not just as a commendable deviation from the norm but one action that should be imbibed as a national benchmark if, and only if, we sincerely want to run a government of laws and not of men.
The earlier we begin to align with global standards of transparency as people in other climes have also shown, the better for our society. That was the point the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau made when his government promptly told the world that his wife was coronavirus positive; the same leadership point that Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of Britain, made when, penultimate Friday, it was announced that the flamboyant politician had tested positive for COVID 19. In the face of this pandemic, and as Nigerians look forward to the end of this global nightmare of grotesque proportions, the leadership point eloquently made by Governor Bala Mohammed of Bauchi State must not be lost.
. Agu, a fellow of both the Nigerian Guild of Editors and Nigerian Union of Journalists, was Chief Press Secretary to the Head of the Interim National Government in Nigeria in 1993.