Waiguru may well be as personally blameless as she claims, but that isn’t the point, is it?

Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Devolution Ann Waiguru, whose ministry is embroiled in a multimillion-shillings corruption scandal, has resisted pressure from elected officials and the public to resign or at the very least step aside to allow for investigations.

She aances two reasons in defence of her stance: (1) She is not the accounting officer of the ministry, so did not know anything about the missing millions and (2) she does not, as per law and practice, participate in the procurement process.

Now, by all reasonable accounts, Waiguru is one of the better officers in a Jubilee government that Kenyan economist David Ndii has labelled as mediocre.

It is also quite possible that she herself has not dipped her fingers into the till, and, yes, her legalistic defence may be technically accurate. But are these enough grounds on which to argue against resignation?

Granted, she may not be the accounting officer, but surely, when close to a billion shillings goes missing, a CS should naturally want (or even feel duty-bound) to see how a significant portion of the budget vote she lobbied for in parliament or Cabinet was spent.

A few thousand shillings could disappear through the innumerable accounting loopholes, but an amount running into hundreds of millions is hard not to notice. And if it is true that she never asked to be shown where a sizeable portion of her ministry’s budget vote had gone, then she is simply not competent to head a ministry, let alone such an important one.

Her second line of defence, namely that she is not involved in procurement, is also undermined by the arguments above.

Additionally, as a person well aware of widespread corruption in government, and one who is presumably keen to keep her ministry from being painted with the same brush, a sense of personal integrity, or just wariness about corruption coming to her ministry, should have prompted her to conduct a quick informal audit of her ministry’s spending.

That she did not do this, raises questions about her commitment to the concept of zero-tolerance for corruption.

Put another way, if a parent were aware of widespread drug use among teenagers in schools, it would be dereliction of parental duty not to be concerned whether her children could be affected by the vice and, therefore, take precautionary action.

But that be as it may, Ms Waiguru, like so many public officers in Africa, misses a fundamental point. Resignation is more a moral than a legal concept. It is not an admission by a public officer of personal criminal culpability for sins of commission or omission.

Resignation is intricately tied to the concept of public duty as envisaged in modern constitutional governance. As per this model, a public officer, especially one in charge of an important office, undertakes to perform to the highest possible standards. So when, whether in reality or perception, a public officer’s performance does not meet this high threshold, he or she is obliged to resign.

This understanding and practice, or lack thereof, is the factor that determines development or underdevelopment. There are two main reasons for this.

First, when there is a tradition of resignation for failure to meet public expectations, public officers are obligated to perform to very high standards sometimes going beyond the call of duty to ensure that all persons and all functions in one’s duty station perform to the highest possible standards.

The spectacular rise of Asian economies can be directly traced to this attitude towards public office and duty.

Second, resignation allows for fresh blood — in thinking, not necessarily chronologically — into the system. In a situation where misappropriation of funds or dereliction of duty is the case, resignation allows for unfettered criminal investigations or administrative reorganisation. These actions are necessarily impeded by the presence of the officer in charge. Resignation, therefore, eventually results in increased efficiency.

Ann Waiguru must resign or even just step aside if we are serious about bringing our medieval concept of public duty in line with modern constitutional governance.

Tee Ngugi is social commentator based in Nairobi