It is safe to assume that many Nigerians showed little or no concern towards the declaration of assets by elected and appointed public officials prior to the emergence of Ummaru Musa ‘Yaradua as Nigerian president in 2007. This is probably due to the facts that the declarations are made in secret or because many Nigerians share the opinion that with or without assets declarations, our politicians are not just trustworthy. The trail blazing public assets declaration by the late president sparked into life the interest of many Nigerians on this matter.
Another issue that further accelerated public interest on assets declaration was former President Jonathan’s (in) famous ‘I don’t give a damn’ comment on public assets declaration. It is still unclear whether Jonathan said that deliberately or it was a gaffe, but to many Nigerians, this meant that, not only was Jonathan hiding something from them, he also had some sinister moves and doesn’t care what the public thinks about it. To be a bit fair to Jonathan, he probably meant assets declaration doesn’t effectively and significantly prevents anything and as such, he doesn’t care to publicly do so.
If willingly and publicly declaring one’s assets upon assuming office is to be translated as incorruptibility, then we can easily conclude the Late President Ummaru is arguably the most incorrupt president’s in Nigeria’s history, whereas former President Jonathan is the most corrupt. However, when we critically examine the issue, we can come up with many unanswered or even unanswerable questions that will make us have a massive rethink about our conclusions.
For instance, Ummaru’s assets were made public, but did he direct the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) to reveal to the public the processes it followed in verifying those assets? How rigorous, thorough and transparent was the verification exercise? If at all, the whole process was to convince the public that they indeed have an honest president in place, what provision was made for independent public verification? Is the CCB empowered by law to continue monitoring the acquisition and disposal of assets and liabilities of those public officers or it can only fold its arms and watch? Upon his death, did Ummaru’s family declared his assets? If yes, did they make it public so that Nigerians can have a basis for comparism with his earlier declared assets upon assumption of office?
By the time, one starts seeking for genuine and convincing answers to the above questions, one may find out that the whole issue about asset declaration in Nigeria is more of a myth rather than a reality. Prior to Ummaru’s voluntary public declaration, the whole issue was kept as a secret from the public and few or no people ask any questions. One fundamental thing we need to look at is that, no public official is required by law to make his assets declaration and liability-if any-public, he is only required to declare his assets to the Code of Conduct Bureau.
May be, we can say the Freedom of Information Act can now be used to inquire and have access to information on politicians’ declared assets. Though CCB is a federal agency, what if state public officers who declare their assets in the state chapters manipulate this and mischievously use it to deny access to information from the bureau? The declaration of assets is as politicized as the politicians themselves. Upon assuming office, one hears about declaration of assets everywhere, especially in the media, but upon leaving office, what one hears is a deafening silence. Hardly will you hear of any public official prosecuted for acquiring additional assets more than his total legitimate earnings while in office. The very few ones that come up usually have some obvious semblance with witch hunt. If this whole process is meant to stop public officers from using their offices for self-enrichment, then asset declaration upon leaving office should be more emphasized than declaration of assets while assuming office. However, the reverse is the case.
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The 1999 constitution supposed to be the legal instrument with the highest capacity to stop corruption and impunity by public officers, especially those elected and appointed. However, it ironically appears to be the highest one promoting or encouraging impunity and corruption. It was from this constitution that the issue of assets declaration comes up, but the same constitution went ahead to give unrestricted immunity against prosecution to those who are the main actors and are therefore the ones most likely expected to violate the code of conduct rules against using public office for illegal self-enrichment. What the 1999 constitution did was akin to protecting someone for four years to do all the damage he wants to do before making him available to a weak and largely compromised judicial system. If he escapes justice-which he is very likely to do, he then finds a safe haven to enjoy his loot. The authors of the 1999 constitution probably did not take into consideration the weaknesses of our checks and balances mechanisms involving our legislature and judiciary before inserting the controversial immunity clause. They also appeared not to have considered the general untrustworthy reputation of Nigerian politicians in allowing for the clause.
Even though Buhari is yet to fulfill his promise, but it is good that he has promised to make his assets and liabilities public and also ‘encourage’ all his appointees to make theirs public. However, the president should move a step further by making sure the CCB does a thorough job of not only verifying the authenticity of all submissions by the declarants but also conduct thorough searches on the sources and legitimacy of these assets. Without a proper verification, declarants have various tricks of cheating their way through. Declarants can declare much more than the own, so that during their time in office, they can steal enough to cover for what they over declared. The CCB should also be empowered to monitor the acquisition of assets by friends, families, associates and cronies of those in office as mostly public funds are being diverted through these people. The president should make sure that the CCB asks outgoing public officials to promptly declare their assets and those with questions to answer must come forward and give satisfying explanations. Meanwhile, Nigerians themselves are the ones who must make sure that public officers properly account for all their assets. It is before the eyes of all Nigerians that many politicians come to office as poor and humble people and leave as stupendously rich and arrogant elites, but they still go ahead to support them on ethnic, religious and other partisan affiliations.
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