Zaria, Ribadu, Jonathan And The Question of Public Ethics, By Adeolu Ademoyo

Adeolu Ademoyo

Beyond the so-called ethnic identity, Nigerian citizens, in a broad sense, belong politically to the liberal, progressive and social democratic views on one hand and conservative and anti-democratic, anti-social justice, unprogressive political views on the other hand. This kind of difference in social vision  among us is healthy for our democracy and should be consciously cultivated so that the bearers of  each vision present their vision of the country before Nigerian citizens. So last year, when Mr. Nuhu Ribadu was called upon by the Nigerian state to serve as the Chairman of the petroleum task force, many Nigerians who belong to the broad liberal, progressive and social democratic spectrum opposed his acceptance of the task. I hold social democratic views but I wrote to defend Mr. Ribadu’s participation (See PREMIUM TIMES  February 12, 2012 and November 12, 2012).

 I argued my case from a moral point of view, which is that at each critical juncture in human history moral agents are thrown up and they are called upon by their society to serve the public. In our society, I gave the examples of moral talents like Tai Solarin who taught some of us in the 1960s and 1970s but who remain evergreen. Solarin once said and I quote “I will take money from even the devil in order to be able to educate the Nigerian child”. If it is about education, I have this strong hunch and gut feeling that most morally inclined public agents will act exactly like Tai Solarin.  The Tai Solarin example is the ultimate moral paradox that often explains the moral dilemma of moral agents’ call to serve the public. For moral agents, the question always is –a moral hesitation-to serve or not to serve the public. Eventually, they do serve knowing fully that we are in the world of the devil and the deep sea.

When Mr. Nuhu Ribadu was in Zaria in conversation with Nigerian students in Ahmadu Bello University recently, I became interested. Some of my reasons are historic.  This used to be and is the university of some of Nigeria’s finest Professors, decent and honourable citizens-the late Ntiem Kungwai, late Bala Usman, late Mahmud Modibbo Tukur, Yusuf Bangura, Jubrin Ibrahim, Raufu Mustapha, Ayeesha Imam, Isa Aremu who is serving the public through the trade union (we cannot name them all, my apologies to those we do not name). Committed to the humanist intersection between academic research, society and public life, these scholars and others built the progressive tradition in scholarship of the famous ABU FASS-Faculty of Arts and Social Science noted in Nigerian scholarship for putting the voice of the working people at the center of research in the social sciences and humanities. Together with some of these fine scholars, some of us – in quest of social justice for Nigerian working peoples –were-embedded with Nigerian workers and working women in the Zaria –Kaduna axis in the 70s and 80s.

Thus, when a public moral agent like Ribadu goes back to Zaria in 2013, we get positive and historic goose flesh. We recall. We remember. We are historically and morally obliged to inform.

In remembering Zaria, we recall the presidency’s response through Mr. Reuben Abati to Ribadu’s Zaria speech and Ribadu’s insightful remark that Nigeria is an immoral sinking ship. Doing his job on behalf of President Jonathan, Abati wrote to disagree with Ribadu. But rounding off, Abati said,  “Ribadu is ethically challenged.” With Abati’s remark, it is fair to say that given his job he wrote on behalf of and in defence of President Jonathan.

Mr. Reuben Abati would never cease to amuse Nigerian citizens with his dour and poor ethics for shortly after his implausible remark on Ribadu in June 2013, history came calling. Through history, we learnt of Abati’s critical panegyrics on Ribadu and his public works in 2010(see PT of June 11, 2013) which stands in contrast to his presidency induced response to Ribadu Zaria speech in 2013. I am presently in search of the moral theory that will explain this Reuben Abati moral duplicity and moral faux pas. But this is not the only most recent issue.

 A while ago, Nigerian citizens got to know of the Presidency’s secret deal with an Israeli company Elbit to monitor Nigerians’ cyber space outside Nigerian laws. Reportedly, it would cost Nigerian taxpayers $60m but the Israeli company claimed it was being paid $40m. The bad thing about Abati was that while Abati came out denying that the contract existed, the security chiefs at the presidency were affirming that it existed because they put the blame on Elbit for going public with a deal that was supposed to be a secret!

Reuben Abati was once a journalist. It would be interesting for him to tell Nigerian citizens what he was doing in these two cases. Was he lying both in private and in public? Was he “informing” on what he knows nothing about? Or was he simply doing a paid dirty job-something we will call an immoral act in an elementary ethics class?

Hence,  it is morally shocking that Mr. Reuben Abati on behalf of the presidency left the substance of the Ribadu Zaria speech to pursue a shadow. The Abati bad act is called red herring and a straw in basic thought.  We must therefore re-center the issue. So given that Ribadu Zaria’s challenge raises question of public ethics in our lives and the fact that the modern state creates the enabling environment for the cause and growth of poor ethics in a nation’s public life, of corruption or its end, the Nigerian presidency’s response to Ribadu through Abati inclines us to ask this simple question: who is ethically challenged between Ribadu and Jonathan?

As we all look back into the future, at no other time in the history of Nigeria is the question of public ethics in governance more crucial. Why? Because even when this is only visible to the ethically discerning eye, the collapse of most civilizations and societies starts with a moral decay.  President Jonathan does not seem to conceptually and practically understand this. On public ethics, he simply does not grasp it nor does he get it because he has a history of always missing   the moral point. He holds and wields state power, but despite this he sits comfortably on a cesspool of corruption, of unethical acts. These have been documented. We will re-do a public disclosure if asked to.

For example, while President Jonathan is able to use a personalized awesome state power to hound and ground state governors who stand on his way to the 2015 elections, and is behind the agenda of a Governor –Governor Jang-who lost an election in a peer group election (the NGF election) but who arbitrarily made himself the “winner”, President Jonathan has not been able to use the same awesome state power to hound, round up, and ground corruption in our public lives.  President Jonathan’s support for Governor Jang’s barefaced immorality raises serious ethical question because President Jonathan openly turns a “consensus” of a section of the NGF for Jang to an “election” of Jang! Even a high school student in a civics and government class will know the difference between consensus of a section of a larger body before an election and the actual election within the enlarged body. But when bad ethics trumps knowledge, basic common sense is endangered as it is with the Nigerian presidency. Yet, no society makes progress without an improved ethics. Hence the view that President Jonathan is not just one of the most ethically challenged presidents Nigeria ever had, Nigeria is ethically endangered under his presidency for Nigeria’s ship sinks ethically under his watch.

In contrast, here is a Ribadu whose call to serve is without armor and the awesome power of state. Ribadu’s last moral call to duty which Reuben Abati, in his response to Ribadu’s Zaria speech, ought not to forget was as Chairman of Presidential Petroleum Task Force on the petroleum Industry. For accepting to serve the public through this task  – which is basically dining with the devil in the presidency-Ribadu got the angst of his moral and liberal social democratic and progressive constituency. The objection of Ribadu’s broad progressive, liberal and social democratic constituency is legitimate even when some of us split and supported Ribadu’s decision to serve on moral and public service grounds.  I do not know how much of Tai Solarin Mr. Nuhu Ribadu is aware of, and he does not need to know before he acts and serves the public correctly as he does.  But following Tai Solarin’s example, Mr. Ribadu was ready to “dine” with the devil to serve the public. Mr. Ribadu finished his task and gave the result to President Jonathan.

But what has President Jonathan, the man with the awesome power of state, done with a moral document that ought to serve as part of an ethical cleansing of the Nigerian Petroleum Industry? President Jonathan with “his own hands”(my apologies to Governor Akpabio the author of this morally dubious phrase) tossed this moral document into the dustbin of history by ignoring it. A moral document designed to shame and ground corruption and; cleanse an oil industry seething with corruption under the watch of President Jonathan and his oil minister Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke, gathers mould and dust in the presidency.

So the question is: who is ethically challenged between a president-President Goodluck Jonathan- who has awesome state powers behind him to squelch corruption in our public lives but refuses to do so and a private citizen-Nuhu Ribadu-who made a sacrifice to dine with the devil against the moral intuitions of his own progressive moral and political constituency, who finished serving, gave the report-the Petroleum Task Force Report- to same president whose administration set up the Task Force, but who saw the report to the presidency’s dustbin?

Fellow citizens, you own the republic, only you can answer this question. The moral question for all of us as genuine moral agents-which Mr. Nuhu Ribadu exemplifies- will always be to act or not to act to serve the public?

But in failing to see the moral question and challenge to our nation in Ribadu’s Zaria speech, Mr. Reuben Abati is only doing his job as he always does defending bad ethics. Mr. Reuben Abati will do it again until he has no job to do in a presidency with lean, poor and impoverished ethics.

Adeolu Ademoyo ( is of Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.

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