Presidential Public Asset Declaration: Matters Arising

Presidential Public Asset Declaration: Matters Arising

By Taju Tijani

President Mohammadu Buhari’s recent declaration of his public assets has given him more mileage in his political journey. Though belated, it is nevertheless an action so widely favoured by all Nigerians.  In Nigeria where popular expectations of enthroning  integrity and transparency in governance have been raised high, the pain of inaction may have been most intolerable. And this is where we have to commend  both the President and the Vice President for keeping faith with Nigerians in their demand for a clear, thorough and comprehensive  public declaration of their material possessions. What is at play by this public declaration of assets is to inform Nigerians that we can now celebrate a return of hope and optimism in our ongoing experiment with western democracy.

Asset declaration is a strategic political victory and a pointer to a future of open, accountable and transparent democracy as practised in the developed world. It is agreed, regardless of class or political affiliation,  that Nigeria is confronted today by contested struggle and the challenge of hyper corruption which is fuelled by our loose commitment to prosecution, probity, integrity, honesty, transparency and accountability. In fact the sheer paucity of knowledge of the assets of our public officers has systematically encouraged corruption and stripped our democracy of the values of transparency and accountability which this administration has vowed to change.

Both President Mohammadu Buhari and Vice President Yemi Osibajo have done something heart warming through their asset declaration to shift the irritating paradigm where Nigerians are kept in the dark of the worth of their public figures who, in turn, exploit this political aberration to loot unredeemable public money. What the President and his VP have done is to bring reform to our democracy; win the trust of Nigerians, encourage hope and enthusiasm and the introduction of a new template for future public office holders.

However, the euphoria of the asset declaration aside, we note also some loopholes in the handling and delivery of the exercise. Section 140 (1) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria states, “A person elected to the office of President shall not begin to perform the functions of that office until he has declared his assets and liabilities as prescribed in this Constitution and he has taken and subscribed the Oath of Allegiance and the oath of office prescribed in the Seventh Schedule to this Constitution.”  Going by the wording of the constitution, the president and his vice have obeyed this section of our Constitution in the breach.

The language of the constitution has no hidden obfuscation. Further, paragraph 11 (subsection 1) of the fifth schedule of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) require all public officers including President, VP, Governor, Deputy Governor, Ministers, Commissioners not only to declare their assets before performing the functions of their offices but also to redeclare same after 4 years or upon completion of their offices. Therefore, the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) must gird their loins and make sure that the verification exercise which they did at the commencement of the public officer’s terms of office must be repeated when their tenure of office ends and must be made public. So far the CCB has been docile in this function. The CCB must be up and doing and be seen to be enforcing compliance.

How then can the president and his vice turned a blind eye to this provision of our constitution? Without any irony, this action is unsettling. Further, the president promised to declare his assets in March ever before his inauguration but this promise was not kept. We may commend him but we would refrain from applauding him because President Buhari once declared himself insolvent and had to borrow money from his bankers to pay off the prescribed sum of N27million naira  for the APC Presidential nomination form.  Now, and almost suddenly, President Mohammadu Buhari has suddenly escaped bankruptcy and has N30million naira to his name.

There is also President Mohammadu Buhari’s ungallant hesitation to declare his assets publicly. He initially  declared his assets to the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) but when opposition pressures began to mount up, he then did the needful. It was alleged that his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Mr Femi Adesina, had to remind the president of his civic covenant with Nigerians before action was taken to go public with his assets. These are regrettable actions from a president whose affirmation of moral conviction  has endeared him to the highest estimation from majority of Nigerians.

We accept that President Mohammadu Buhari is driven by a strongest sense of purpose to bring sanity and good governance to our desecrated polity and that he is no saint, but when our constitution is not followed to the letter, we as gatekeepers have to call him to order. In taking account of the complex economic, social, political and cultural exertions occurring within the space of change, we may overlook some fault lines but in the matter of constitutional procedure we would not.  President Mohammadu Buhari and Vice President Yemi Osibajo may have made a public declaration of their assets, but their timing and open disregard to constitutional procedure and provision have both open their symbolic gestures to charges of undemocratic illegalities.

Nigerians are restating again that the public declaration so far made by the President and his VP are not constitutionally compliant. It now behoves the National Assembly to amend that part of the constitution that says ‘you have to declare your asset’ to read ‘you have to declare it publicly’.

President Mohammadu Buhari’s administration may be articulating what millions of Nigerians are thinking – fighting corruption  and dissolution of business as usual in government –  but the immediate task is to puncture this illegal orthodoxy  where our elected President and other public servants assume office before declaring their assets. This constitutional oversight has to be corrected and full compliance must  now guide future appointments – declare your assets publicly before the assumption of your national assignments and duties.