By Chido Onumah
After the first part of this piece appeared last week, I received a couple of emails accusing me of several wrongdoings, from “disgracefully cherry-picking your press statement” to “being an agent of the opposition”. One responder noted that “it is morally wrong to ignore all Okupe pointed out as regards progress in the fight against corruption. It is disgraceful to say the least. You don’t have to kick the president at every twist and turn, just because you hate him”.
Another intervener said matter-of-factly, “the President has complied with the law by declaring his assets, making it public is another thing entirely. There are many reasons it may not be desirable to make same public. One of the reasons is family pressure and the need to protect (his) investments”. I don’t know if the two responders above were speaking on your behalf, but one thing is clear: the issue of publicly declaring his asset is something President Jonathan can’t wish away as long as he lays claim to fighting corruption.
It is true that you said a lot of things during your press conference of Thursday, December 6, 2012. For example, you averred that “since the present administration under President Goodluck Jonathan took charge of the affairs of this country, it has worked assiduously not only to transform the lives of Nigerians but also enhance the image and prestige of the country abroad.
“A lot has been achieved in the intervening period with the transformation agenda of the administration. Despite these achievements, there is unbridled cynicism on the part of some individuals who have taken it upon themselves to mislead Nigerians by making unfounded and baseless allegations against this administration. The purpose of this campaign of misinformation and disinformation is to blind Nigerians to the sure and steady progress President Jonathan’s administration has made in the eighteen months that it has been in power, to improve the quality of governance and deliver on the promises it made to the people.
“We seem to be living in a socio-political atmosphere of cynicism where theatrical actions, showmanship and other grandstanding are misinterpreted to mean political will in addressing a situation. This government does not believe in just arresting people for the sake of drama or playing to the gallery nor does it harbour the idea of deploying the anti-corruption agencies as tools to witch hunt political opponents, which were undisputable familiar practices in the past.”
That was you waxing eloquent about President Jonathan’s anti-corruption effort. Now that I have captured the essence of your message, I can go ahead to critique it. I decided to dwell on the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) as referenced in your speech because, in my estimation, it provides a practical demonstration of the current government’s fight against corruption or the lack of it. And the reason is simple: it touches President Jonathan directly.
You noted, and rightly too, that “all over the world, governments seriously desirous of tackling the menace of corruption usually adopt a holistic strategy which encompasses some or all of the under-listed benchmark: Enacting enabling laws, which clearly define what corruption is and spell out punitive measures; creating by law, the enabling environment for whistle blowing (FOI)”.
It is on the strength of this that the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) should comply with the request by the African Centre for Media and Information Literacy and other organisations asking it to make available the asset declaration of the president. It is convenient for you to talk glibly about creating the enabling environment for whistle blowing, but nothing is more convincing than walking the talk. I am not being frivolous when I insist that the public needs to know what our transformative president is worth.
I have written about this before, but it is worth repeating. In 2007, President Jonathan, as vice president, declared his asset after much pressure from his boss, the late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. In the intervening period (2007-2011), he did not do any other job (constitutionally, he is not allowed to) apart from being vice president, acting president, and president. So what could the president have acquired in four years that he doesn’t want Nigerians to know about? In a sentence, what is President Jonathan hiding? If the president doesn’t care enough about Nigerians to make his assets public, why would he care about steady power supply or good roads?
Of course, there is no law that says President Jonathan should declare his asset publicly. But for someone who preaches transparency and accountability, he has a moral obligation to do so. Beyond this, however, it is important to emphasize that there is a law that says those who want access to public information (including asset declarations of public officers) can request such information. It is called the FoIA. The president himself assented to it a year and half ago. On this issue, the CCB which is the custodian of asset declarations is under obligation to make available the president’s asset declaration and those of other public officials on request. That is what the law says. There can’t be any excuses or exemption. Nigeria is what it is today because we think the law is only applicable to certain people.
As the president’s adviser, beyond laundering his image, it is also important that you give him genuine feedback and tell him the truth. The truth is that Nigerians (the much touted happiest people on earth) are not happy. When I say Nigerians are not happy, I know am speaking the mind of millions of ordinary people, not those who are queuing to take the president’s job or those you refer to as “cynics, ‘latter-day saints’ and emergency activists”. I am talking about the millions of Nigerians who are paying the price for the grand corruption and wanton pillage that have become the hallmark of the Jonathan administration; those Nigerians that do not have the luxury of going to die in India or Germany because of the comatose state of healthcare in Nigeria.
If it is unpardonable for President Jonathan to say he doesn’t “give a damn” about publicly declaring his asset, it is disingenuous for the CCB to say it is not in a position to act. It is equally contemptible for Labaran Maku, Minister of Information, to ask Nigerians, as he did recently during a workshop organised by the Federal Ministry of Information on the FoIA, “to examine the efficacy of the Freedom of Information Act in the fight against corruption by demanding for information on governance from public institutions”.
Nothing typifies the impunity in Nigeria than the CCB’s obfuscation on President Jonathan’s asset declaration. Sam Saba, chairman of the CCB, claims protection under the 1999 Constitution for his organisation’s refusal to accede to public request for the asset declaration of President Jonathan. He argues that the FoIA conflicts with the Constitution and has requested “the National Assembly to enact an Act prescribing the terms and conditions under which the CCB could make assets declared by public officers available for inspection by Nigerians” as provided for in Section 3(c) of the Third Schedule of the 1999 Constitution which empowers the CCB to “retain custody of such declarations and make them available for inspection by any citizen of Nigeria on such terms and conditions as the National Assembly may prescribe” (emphasis added).
I thought that was exactly what the National Assembly did when it passed the FoIA. What else does Mr. Saba want the legislature to do? Make another law specifically for the asset declaration of President Jonathan? To think that it is the same CCB that wants the public to act as whistle blowers. I have spoken to some legal scholars on this issue and the consensus is that the aim of Mr. Saba and the CCB is precisely to subvert the objective of asset declaration.
Since the CCB that is legally bound to act won’t do so, it is important that we look to the president to lead by example. I know the president is a good man at heart and that he aspires to be the most liked president, as opposed to his current status as the most abused, when he leaves office. His likeability will, however, depend on how he deals with the cancer of corruption which has made any form of progress impossible. And that begins with him publicly declaring his asset.
Nothing you say or do will convince us to the contrary.
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