Aruma Oteh’s recall: An avoidable liability for GEJ

Under our system of government, President Jonathan, in his capacity as the head of the Executive arm, is at liberty to hire and fire any person in the federal public service, subject, however, to some constitutional due process requirements. It is therefore not contestable whether he has the power to hire Ms. Aruma Oteh, at the time he did, into any of the numerous positions in his government which include the headship of the Security and Exchange Commission.

A president who has the clout and is willing to pay the requisite political price can appoint even his own wife, girlfriend, children and other related individuals into his government. There was the case of JF Kennedy who appointed his brother, Robert Kennedy as the Attorney-General of the United States, against strong opposition by some members of Congress and the general public alleging nepotism.

JFK went ahead and placed his brother on a one-dollar salary in order to forestall possible congressional denial of funds for the position. Robert went on to serve as a very successful Attorney-General, but the political bad blood and the general hatred it generated for the Kennedy family remains a matter for historical analysis.

What is, however, not clear is if a president has the power or the moral confidence to “recall” a once suspended state official over whom the public and an equally empowered arm of government, the Legislature, have come to a damning verdict of unsuitability.

The reality, however, is that political appointments are usually carried out in ways that would secure for the appointing authority, which in this case is Mr. President, some political and strategic advantages beyond merely putting people to job in the “service of the nation;” or, as it is actually viewed in this country, providing opportunity for favoured or connected people to access the “national cake” and plunder it.

There was a palpable relief when she was asked to leave her controversial office. Now, she is said to have been cleared of all her sins and, indeed, recalled to her post! This is the same lady who we all watched with awe on live TV during the infamous House of Representatives probe on the “near collapse” of the capital market.

It was a laughable reversed engineering of Nollywood. Recalling her to the position of Director-General now is bound to generate considerable controversy, the kind which I think this administration, already weighed down by a very weak public esteem, cannot afford. Looked at from all rational perspectives, the opportunity cost of her recall is not worth the projected benefits to the administration in general, and to Mr. President in particular, beyond the naked “bold face” that such an unpopular action suggests.

It is clear that in taking this decision, the President did not think of the industry-wide implications; it is even doubtful if he factored into his thinking how such would affect his overall lingering image as a feeble leader in the battle against corruption. If he really thinks that Ms. Oteh is such an indispensable item in his calculus of political success, he is free to appoint her as a minister or, more fashionably, as a Permanent Secretary, following in the lofty footsteps of his wife’s appointment as a Permanent Secretary in absentia by the Dickson administration in his homeland Bayelsa State.

I have heard of the reasons adduced by the President for reabsorbing her into the office, the same reasons that have since generated negative reactions from key stakeholders of the market, including the staff of the Commission and, of course, the general public. The greatest damage done by that recall is to the capital market itself that must have earnestly been looking forward to a fresh hand to help steer it out from the present doldrums.

Even if she was the last available person qualified in Nigeria to fill that position, for the sheer respect for the demands of the investing public who are mired in endless worries that their hard-earned investments are being eroded through incompetent managers at the SEC, the government would have been better placed to look elsewhere for a new person because even if Ms. Oteh is cleared by God of the weighty allegations that were openly leveled against her, the shaken confidence of the market has not been restored and cannot be restored by her acrimonious return to work.

The probe carried out by the House of Representatives was very revealing about the negative operations and shortcomings in her style of administration, apart from the huge moral questions that were pasted on her personal profile. No matter the clearance that the government-appointed auditors may have given to her, it remains the case that the public verdict on her remains an issue and it is therefore irrelevant that government, an interested party in the matter, would now be issuing her with a dubious acquittal.

What is more, the House of Representatives, the body that is constitutionally charged with the responsibility to check the Executive, especially with respect to public accountability, has maintained its verdict of guilt — a fact that a democratic president would ignore at great costs to his political convenience.

While it is true that the President has the constitutional powers to hire and fire, the constitutional power to give assessment of probity on the conduct of these appointees is, however, the prerogative of the Legislature. Herein lies the danger that is associated with this recall. If she was being recalled to a job that has nothing to do with the economic wellbeing of the investing public, say as a Special Assistant to the President on House-Keeping, there would have been some questions as to the locus standi of those who are now quarrelling. But what is at stake is the economic interest of millions of Nigerians whose investment SEC was set up to safeguard.

Her recall, after the drama in the House probe, cannot produce the needed confidence that will energise the sick capital market and, to that extent, it could be said that the President has goofed even while exercising his powers. I think it is a waste of presidential esteem and credibility to appoint an individual who, in all material particular, does not enjoy the confidence of an industry noted for its calculated sobriety and unbridled professionalism.

Prof. Ikhariale was a Visiting Fellow, Harvard Law School, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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