by Eze Onyekpere
Leadership and followership are two sides of the same coin. In a democracy, leadership emerges from the choice of the following with a mandate to improve the society in all its ramifications. This mandate is a sacred trust and forms the basis of the social contract. While leadership should provide direction, show the light and inspire society towards good values, human and material development, the following should be discerning to appreciate when they are poorly led. The following should also be in a position to call the leadership to account when it is evidently going astray. The foregoing provides the background to this analysis of President Goodluck Jonathan’s “I don’t give a dam” statement on the public declaration of his assets during the last presidential media chat. To me, the President has gone astray and needs to be cautioned. The Nigerian ship, of which he is the captain, is threatened by lack of accountability and transparency, and if this presidential mindset goes unchallenged, he may finally capsize the ship and off-load us into the depths of the sea.
The President stated as follows in the media chat; “The issue of assets declaration is a matter of principle. I don’t give a damn about it, if you want to criticise me from heaven. The issue of public declaration of assets, I think, is playing to the gallery. You don’t need to publicly declare any assets. If I am somebody who wants to hide, it is what I tell you that you will even believe.”
The constitution declares in Section 140 that a person elected to the office of the President shall not begin to perform the functions of that office until he has declared his assets and liabilities as prescribed in the Constitution. What is the purpose of assets declaration? Is it to light a lamp and hide it under a bushel? Is the declaration for the consumption of the President and the toothless Code of Conduct Bureau? Who does the President report to and to whom does he owe allegiance? Should he report only to himself and his family or to Nigerians? Where are the citizens, the masters who entrusted their servant, Jonathan, with power in this assets declaration equation? It is a fundamental aphorism that he who must lead must understand that he is the servant of all. It is also imperative to recall that the Constitution declares in Section 14 (2) (a) that sovereignty belongs to the people of Nigeria from whom government derives all its powers and authority.
The concept of a declaration is incompatible with secrecy. It is a contradiction in terms to talk about a declaration and yet keep the information away from the public. If the law envisaged that an individual should keep some information secret or known only to himself and those who ordinarily should know about it, then there would be no need for a declaration. Part of the definition of a declaration in the Black’s Law Dictionary (Centennial Edition) is to make known, manifest or clear. It also includes to signify, to show in a manner either by words or acts; to publish, to utter, to announce clearly some opinion or resolution. In these days of the Freedom of Information Act, it is absurd to canvass such a funny idea as a secret declaration of assets by public officers in one of the most corrupt nations on earth.
Apparently, the only President that has publicly declared his assets is the late President Umaru Yar’Adua. This was the high point of leadership by example and not leadership by mere sermonising. President Jonathan’s statement hinging his refusal to publicly declare his assets on principles is confounding. Which principle(s) is he talking about? Pray, is it the principle of transparency and accountability or a principle only known to him? Permit me to state that if there is any such principle, the President has failed and refused to educate the majority of Nigerians who are “ignorant” about this wonderful principle. Why is the President who barely a year ago promised us fresh air and transformation standing logic on its head? This is a desecration of a legacy, a great and higher value left for us by Yar’Adua and substituting the same with base values. It was already in bad faith that he did not publicly declare his assets but to publicly defend the same with all his presidential might shows a clear misunderstanding of the spirit of our age and the reality of our time.
The spirit of our age emphasises the need to strengthen accountability and transparency. Transparency and accountability are like twins and you can hardly separate them. Any accountable government must therefore be transparent. Access to information (transparency) is the currency of accountability and transparency allows accountability to be more effective. Transparency is about a state of openness, non-opaque transactions and ability to let the public know about the process, activities and output of assets declaration transactions. The whole idea is for the public to know how much their leader is worth at the beginning of the tenure and also at the end of the tenure. This puts the public in a position to judge whether the leader has accumulated resources beyond his legal and legitimate remuneration. Pray, if you do not know the opening balance and you are not informed of the closing balance, how can you effectively comment or make input into such an asset declaration?
The reality of our time is that leadership sets good precedents. It is the position of the President that his public declaration would compel other public officers to follow suit. Would this be a wrong precedent? What would Nigerians lose by knowing how much their leaders are worth? We are witnesses to the daily looting of the treasury and corruption in high places and the leadership has not demonstrated the strong political will to tackle corruption. Indeed, public access to assets declarations is the real beginning of the fight against corruption.
There are many reasons for public officers to publicly declare their assets. First, the officers will be entrusted with public funds running into trillions of naira. The resources are not part of their personal estates but belong to all. The media reported that Jonathan’s party, the Peoples Democratic Party, in its Manifesto, Programme and Policy Thrust for 2011-2015, stated that assets declaration will substantially reduce corruption in Nigeria and will develop and promote mechanisms and institutions for preventing, detecting, and bringing offenders to justice. It identifies the public declaration of assets and a legal backing for compulsory open declaration of assets as one of the initiatives to reduce corruption. It is further reported that the joint communique of the Nigeria-United States Bi-national Commission in Washington DC held between June 4 and 5 in the fourth paragraph stated that both countries recognised and reaffirmed commitments to transparency and accountability from local to national levels that include strong community efforts. To support those commitments, Nigeria intends to widen its budgetary transparency efforts to include public asset declarations by parliamentarians and other senior public officials.
Finally, Mr. President, it is not too late to retrace your steps. It will be a sign of the strength of your character if you should reverse your earlier ill-advised position and begin to lead us by example in matters of accountability and transparency. If you ‘don’t give a damn’, Nigerians definitely do. It is not about you. It is about Nigerians and Nigeria.
*This piece was first published in The Punch