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Buhari and public assets declaration

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The clash, the other day, between Catholic bishop of Sokoto, Most Rev. Matthew Hassan Kukah, and the Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, over the reluctance of President Buhari to publicly declare his assets and liabilities, is quite unfortunate. It exposes two sad circumstances about this administration. Whilst on one hand it reveals the mutating body language of the president from an anti-corruption crusader to a shrewd politician, it also raises the question about the deeper import of public declaration of assets. 
 
At a public event in which he was guest lecturer, Bishop Kukah had queried: “People have asked how is it that the president used Justice Onnoghen’s asset declaration form to prove his corruption and proceeded to sack him, yet the president himself has not publicly declared his own assets as he promised during his campaigns? Kukah was a guest lecturer at the launch of a book, “Farida Waziri: One Step Ahead: Life as a Spy, Detective and Anti-Graft Czar.” In reaction to Kukah’s remark, Adesina defended his principal by stating that Buhari never promised to declare his assets publicly, and as such had not broken any law by not doing so.

 
Following his kinsman, the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, who publicly declared his assets and liabilities, the then newly elected President Muhammadu Buhari with his Vice Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, in 2015 expressed solidarity with Nigerians, when he publicly declared his assets and liabilities, and even intended to have his salary slashed by half. Then too Buhari rejected a proposal to purchase five customized armoured Mercedes Benz S-600 (V222) cars at the cost of about N400 million. All this made sense then in the face of searing economic downturn.
 
This public image exuded by President Buhari years ago was one of trust. In his seeming frugality and simplicity he tended to have made overtures to the unsuspecting public that he was a man with a high sense of moral probity; one who would not brook any odour of corruption around his sphere of influence. It is this trust, this frugality and supposed uncompromising stance against corruption that well-meaning Nigerians invoke when they assume that Buhari would publicly declare his assets. 
 
However, many public office holders, past and present, have argued that the declaration of assets and liabilities should be viewed in the light of current provisions of the law. According to the Constitution as amended, civil servants and public servants are required to declare their assets and liabilities and those of their children above 18 years before the Code of Conduct Bureau, which will archive the same. For proponents of the status quo, what makes the declaration ‘public’ is the accessibility to the information by any member of the public.
 
This position is hinged on the grey areas surrounding what may be termed ‘public declaration of assets’. One of these grey areas concerns the silence on the manner by which assets and liabilities may be declared as public. As some informed analysts have stated, the provisions of the Constitution on assets declaration do not stipulate the manner of the declaration. Furthermore, contrary to the thinking of some rights organisations, and despite the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act, the bureau is not required by law to allow public access to the declaration of assets deposited at the bureau by public officers. Given this situation, any public officer who has filled in the form of the Declaration of Assets and Liabilities and has submitted the same to the bureau would argue that having fulfilled what the law stipulates, he or she is not compelled to make any other public declaration.
 
Moreover, there is the argument that local and cultural factors impede public declaration of assets. Undue attraction from relatives and kinsmen, who may exploit the public declaration of assets to invade privacy, abuse data protection, make unnecessary demands or plot evil against the declarant, are also adduced as reasons for opposing public declaration of assets.
 
This leads to the question: what use is the declaration if it is shielded from the eyes of the public? Contrary to the fears of those opposed to public declaration of assets, public access to declarations intensifies the premium for anti-corruption.  When spearheaded by journalists and civil society groups, public access to declaration becomes a stimulus to workers at the bureau to carry out diligent verification of declarations. Besides, public disclosure of the private assets of public officials is not inconsistent with the rights to privacy and data protection. The greater import of public disclosure of assets lies in the fact that prevention of corruption and exposing unexplained wealth of public officials are serious and legitimate public interests.
 
As it is today, assets declaration is just a routine. As the name bureau suggests, the Code of Conduct Bureau is just a desk on which papers are lumped and filed. That it is just a big name for a sleeping bureaucracy is an attestation of its impotence, at least until you are blacklisted by some powers in government. The impotence of the bureau would be better appreciated when one recognises that the bureau seems not to have the capacity to investigate what is submitted to it. Even if it does, it may be unwilling to do so because of the lack of resources it needs to deploy personnel to accomplish anything meaningful.
 
In the argument between Kukah and Adesina, therefore, what was at stake was the broader issue of whether the law was sufficient for leadership. Although this newspaper promotes what just laws uphold, it insists, as it has always done, that public declaration of assets and liabilities transcends routine legalism. It is also an issue of moral leadership. Transparency in leadership is not only captured in fixed form on paper, it is also, and better still, demonstrated in the spirit of the law through actions and deeds. In this regard, the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act ought to empower members of the public to have access to declarations made by public officers. Beyond the letters and spirit of the law, President Buhari would be sending a strong message of moral leadership if he publicly declares his assets. And that will destroy a growing perception that the president’s integrity has been overrated, after all.


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