Buhari still on the lonely path
Sometime in the early days of the Buhari administration, I wrote two columns for the Trust group in which I raised two fundamental questions. The first was: Should Buhari publicly declare his assets? The Second was: Should the ministers publicly declare their assets?
You would recall that both Buhari and Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, surprised the public by declaring their assets before they formally stepped into their new, exalted offices. The public welcomed the step they took but wanted more. They wanted them to make the declaration public. A good number of individuals and groups demanded that the two men should publicly declare their assets. One group even applied to the Conduct of Code Bureau through the Freedom of Information Act, to lay its hands on the forms submitted by the two men.
Buhari and Osinbajo fulfilled the requirement of the law as it stands. The law does not require them to publicly declare their assets. They do not want to go beyond the basic requirement of the law.
I wrote: Section 11 (1) of Part II to the Fifth Schedule of the 1999 constitution makes it compulsory for all public officers in the country to declare their assets and liabilities within three months of their assumption of office – and on leaving office. The generals, who inserted the clause in the 1979 constitution and in all the other constitutions midwifed by them, saw it as part of the anti-graft war in high places. Its objective is to keep itchy fingers in check.”
The late President Umaru Yar’Adua was the first president, perhaps to fully appreciate the relevance of the constitutional provision. He was the first man to publicly declare his assets and liabilities. Vice-President Jonathan would not even follow his leader. He said: “I didn’t even want to declare my assets as VP” but was forced by Yar’Adua to do so. Unlike Yar’Adua, he never made it public.
Buhari and Osinbajo caved into public demands and made their declaration of assets public. One could think of a million reasons why, as indeed I argued in my column under reference. I pointed out that this was not about the law but more importantly about moral leadership. In his 2007 manifesto, Buhari asserted: “Nigeria today, more than ever is in need of a serious and sincere effort at nurturing a culture of transparent governance” (emphasis mine).
And that, Mr. President, is the point.
The president’s public declaration of his assets and liabilities may be a small step but it is a significant step towards replacing the opaque culture in our governance with a new and transparent culture in governance. It would be a change we could see and a change we could believe in.
When Yar’Adua declared his assets publicly, he certainly wanted to make an important personal and political point: you can expand the frontiers of the law by embracing its spirit. I am sure he gave some serious thoughts to the culture of transparency in governance. The snag was that he cut a path that he alone walked on. Sadly so. His ministers did not publicly declare their assets, if they declared them at all. It was not enough for Yar’Adua to act alone. One honest man cannot make a forest of honest men and women, let alone a country.
The change that swept Buhari and his party into power last year was not just change. It was a watershed; a boundary between yesterday and today and even tomorrow. We expect the administration to be the watershed in all that we wish for our country. We expect every action of this administration to breathe that change and spell that change. Anything that suggests, even if inadvertently, that it is still business as usual robs us of our hope, our fervent hope in a great present and a greater future for us and our country.
The letters of the law are important but in some respects, the spirit of the law trumps the letters of the law. Law becomes sterile legalism if it is not vested with the moral authority derived from its spirit. Going the extra mile to vest this law with the respect it deserves should serve notice to our public officers that the eyes of the small people are watching them.
I would expect Buhari to go even further and compel all his ministers and other aides affected by the constitutional provision under reference to publicly declare their assets and liabilities on assumption of office. Let us see the change; let us feel the change.
I admit that the constitutional provision on the declaration of assets as it stands does not offer much help. It seems entirely impotent. It prescribes no penalty for a public officer who refuses to declare his assets. When a law prescribes no consequences for its breach, it begs to be roundly breached.
When all is said and done, if you would excuse a sweet cliché, only honest men and women would tell the truth, the whole truth, about their assets and liabilities. Some of the declarations I saw in the past were laughable. But Buhari can invest this impotent law with the moral authority, even as it stands, to compel obedience by our public officers. It is a challenge he should not ignore.
It is in the natural order of things that people follow their leaders in matters of exemplary leadership. But all this time, no APC governor and none of the ministers has condescended to stand shoulder to shoulder with the president. The APC governors made it clear they would no follow their president’s example. I felt sorely disappointed. I raised two questions about their rickety stand on an equally rickety logic. One: Do these people buy into the change promised by their party? Two: Do they feel part of the president’s effort to replace the culture of opaqueness with the culture of open and transparent governance?
I can offer only one good reason: these men and women are not bothered about raising the moral tone of governance in our country. I know they are all big and wealthy men; and given their general antecedents in public offices, no one would dare to accuse anyone of them of nursing itchy fingers. They can savour that for now. Remember the lorry owner’ earthy wisdom? No condition is permanent.
So, let Buhari and Osinbajo walk the long and lonely path of moral crusade. Makes you wonder what leadership is all about if your integrity does not guarantee you followership from your staff officers? Is this about us or is it in our stars?