A CHURCH GIFT AND ITS CONTROVERSIES
An apparently innocuous church renovation gift to President Goodluck Jonathan's home-town of Otuoke in Ogbia Local Government Area of Bayelsa State by an Italian construction firm, Gitto Costruzioni Generali Nigeria Limited (GCG), has stirred lots of controversies. The firm had, as part of its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), renovated the 400-capacity St. Stephen's Anglican Church building and handed it to the Otuoke community.
Since the matter became headline news some days ago, the Presidency has been lambasted by some eminent Nigerians as well as political groups with some arguing strongly that President Jonathan has accepted a bribe and as such, has committed an impeachable offence.
The Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) for instance, has insisted that the president, having admitted openly that he solicited a bribe from a foreign construction company, has violated the constitution that he swore to uphold. According to its spokesman, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, 'to know the gravity of President's self-admission of soliciting the church 'gift' from the Managing Director of GCG, one needs to understand Section 6 of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers embodied in the First Schedule of the 1999 Constitution and the Code of Conduct and Tribunal Act (CAP C15) Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004.
The Act states that a public officer shall not ask for or accept any property or benefits of any kind for himself or any other person on account of anything done or omitted to be done by him in the discharge of his duties. For the purposes of subsection(1) of this subsection, the receipt by a public officer of any gifts or benefits from commercial firms, business enterprises or persons who have contracts with the Government shall be presumed to have been received in contravention…unless the contrary is proved'.
The ACN, therefore, called on the National Assembly to commence impeachment procedure on President Jonathan. This call has been condemned by both the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the Anglican Communion Nigeria. While the PDP sees the ACN call for impeachment of the president as recklessly infantile and the hallmark of a political party bent on destabilizing the country, the Anglican Church Nigeria has regarded the ACN's action as 'barbaric, satanic and godless and capable of causing distraction for the president, which we will not tolerate.'
On its part, the Senate has also stated clearly that it would not impeach the president considering the fact that the church does not belong to the president. Senate Leader, Victor Ndoma Egba said that people are just 'making a mountain out of a molehill for a church renovation that has been ongoing since 2008'.
The presidency has also risen in stout defence of President Goodluck Jonathan over the controversial church gift regarded as part of the Italian firm's CSR. A statement by the Presidential spokesman, Dr. Rueben Abati, insisted that Jonathan has not committed any crime or violated the code of Conduct for Public Officers by being present at the dedication of the 'humble community church building and publicly acknowledging an assistance of a corporate entity in its renovation.' The statement also stated that the presidency regretted that an ordinary corporate social responsibility to facilitate the renovation of the small church in the president's home-town of Otuoke is being used by the Jonathan's political opponents to 'brew up a storm in a cup'
Also, the Gitto Costruzioni Generali Nigeria Limited, the company at the centre of the entire storm has in a statement said that the GCG is a company with a strong Corporate Social Responsibility culture. According to the company, 'We were contacted by the Otuoke Community of Bayelsa State. Our decision to go beyond our contractual obligations and do a thorough work was done in furtherance of our policy of Corporate Social Responsibility.' It also stated that President Jonathan did not solicit any gifts from GCG neither was any gift received by President Goodluck Jonathan or on behalf of President Jonathan from GCG.
In spite of these arguments, the controversy still rages over a church gift that has now assumed the front burner of national discourse and questions the moral fibre of those in power. While companies have the right to discharge their corporate social responsibilities in the way and manner they deem fit, such acts of benevolence should not be done in way that is suggestive of seeking for favours from official quarters. Corporate Social Responsibility projects should be done based on the need of the community the company operates and not necessarily to the community of those in power.
It is not uncommon to say that some multinational companies have in the past being involved in discharging their corporate social responsibility projects just to please those in the corridors of power. The examples of such abuse of CSR by companies handling government projects are well known in the country that it is needless cataloguing them here. It will not be out of place to say that such gestures are likely to be misconstrued by members of the public as it is in the extant case.
Other villages and communities need some of these projects which some of these companies dole out at intervals yet, no one remembers them in the site of such projects. That is exactly the crux of the matter plus its moral burden on those in government. For instance, certain provisions of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria frown at public officers asking or receiving gifts. In fact, paragraph 6 (1) of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers contained in Part 1 of the Fifth Schedule is very explicit on this.
'A public officer shall not ask or accept property or benefits of any kind for himself or any other person on account of anything done or omitted to be done by him in the discharge of his duties.'
Sub-paragraph (2) also offers more explanations. 'For the purposes of sub-paragraph (1) of this paragraph, the receipt by a public officer of any gifts or benefits from commercial firms, business enterprises or persons who have contracts with the government shall be presumed to have been received in contravention of the said sub-paragraph unless the contrary is proved.
But not all gifts are prohibited. Sub-paragraph (3) has provision for acceptable gifts. 'A public officer shall only accept personal gifts or benefits from relatives or personal friends to such an extent and on such occasions as are recognized by custom: Provided that any gift or donation to a public officer on any public or ceremonial occasion shall be treated as a gift to the appropriate institution represented by the public officer, and accordingly, the mere acceptance or receipt of any such gift shall not be treated as a contravention of this provision.'
It is worth recalling that former Petroleum Minister in the 1980s, Prof. Tam David-West, was jailed for receiving a mere gift of a wristwatch and a cup of tea from a government contractor. If such was done in the past, it is now more urgent and expedient in an administration that promises to transform the polity. Reneging on this self-appointed mission is suggestive that some people are, indeed, above the laws of the land. The laws of the land as enshrined in the Constitution and other statutory books should always be respected and obeyed.
All public officers mentioned in the Code of Conduct should be above board in their official conduct. The impropriety of people in government accepting gifts and donations either by themselves or through surrogates should be emphasized. Also companies doing business in the country should be mindful of our Constitutional provisions on offering whatever gifts or donations to those in power or their communities and desist forthwith with such acts that are likely to be misinterpreted as the present gesture to Otuoke community.
Such unsolicited gifts, especially to highly placed officials of government, by contractors handling government projects, are generally seen as easy route to compromise those in power and gain unmerited favour and advantage.