The President-elect, Muhammadu Buhari, ran for office a record four times chiefly on a moral basis: to purge Nigeria’s soul of corruption, a national malaise that has become a culture and now seems intractable.
For a man regularly hailed as incorruptible, and therefore the best candidate for an anti-corruption blitz, there could be the need to believe that the General has a grand plan which he proposes to unveil on May 29, 2015. The belief is that he will not fritter the goodwill lavished on him by the masses but will do the unimagined.
But given his recent interview where he talked of “forcing” his cabinet hirelings to declare their assets, he perhaps underestimates how blunt Nigerian judicial institutions are; a consequence of decades of deliberate weakening of these agencies to enable acts of corruption to proceed unhindered.
The core of his anti-corruption agenda cannot be asset declaration, definitely. That will be too simplistic and a miscalculation of a complicated problem that has become calcified on people’s bodies. And no, I disagree with the President-elect, asset declaration — on its own, anyway — will neither boost accountability nor reduce corruption. Asset declaration as a corruption-fighting tool will be as effective as using an Okada to tow a trailer.
For starters, asset declaration — on assumption and while leaving office — is a mandatory exercise expected of any public office holder whether elected, appointed, recruited, or contracted and Buhari does not need to “force” his hirelings to toe this line. Perhaps, what he means is that the details of the declaration would be shared with the public — a step taken by the late President Umaru Yar’Adua and which several politicians mimicked although their hypocrisies betrayed them, exposing them as insincere frauds who forget the public is critical enough to process a lie.
Asset declaration is supposed to be done in good faith but anyone who expects Nigerian politicians to willingly share the details of what they own must either be naïve or self-deluded. I came to this conclusion some years back when a certain governor-elect, whose private circles I was privy to, declared he was worth a whopping amount of money. Just months before, after he emerged his party’s candidate, he was so broke that his close friends — some of whom I knew personally — had to donate money to him to save him a monumental embarrassment. So, where did his huge wealth suddenly spring from?
The open asset declaration exercise in Nigeria has been attended by occasional controversies. I remember when ex-governor Kayode Fayemi did so on assumption of office in 2010. He documented assets worth N750m. His predecessor, Governor Olusegun Oni, termed the amount a hoax saying, “How on earth can the same Fayemi, who was quoted in an interview published in The Nation of November 11, 2010 that there were days in the struggle that he could not boast N5,000 in his account and had to depend on his wife for sorting out family challenges now claim to be worth N750 million?’ Tellingly, I do not recall seeing Fayemi’s response to this accusation. Another public official who declared his asset was the ex-governor of Ogun State, Gbenga Daniel. When he was sworn in for his first term in 2003, he was worth N5.96bn but by the time he resumed for the second term, he claimed his wealth had gone down to N4.46bn.
There are problems associated with asset declaration, forced or not. Any criminal who finds himself in government can overvalue his assets as groundwork to embezzling public funds and still look good while at it. You “overvalue” before swearing-in and “undervalue” at the end of tenure so your constituents can see how your “chief servanthood” has impoverished you. It is a classic deception that fools none other than the declarant himself who is protected by various state apparatuses actively used to endorse the corruption of their political actors.
In more just countries, a number of government officials — past and serving — have been impeached, tried in courts of law and jailed for false asset declaration. In Nigeria, asset declaration pre- and post-service to the nation is routine but can be turned into an opportunity for self-aggrandisement by narcissistic leaders.
The cardinal question is, who verifies these claims? Is it a Presidency bloated by sycophants and primordial sentiments? Or the anti-corruption agencies that are peopled by political appointees, and mostly used to bait political opponents? Who will therefore apply the existing sanctions against those who contravene the law?
My fear is that Buhari’s promise of “force” will end up as another spectacular show of force like the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission was in the days of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. Things fell apart when Obasanjo left office and Nigeria barely advanced in his wake largely because the efforts were personality-driven. Institutions and laws that can reduce corruption already exist, they just need activation. Pandering to populist sentiment will do nothing other than micromanage Nigeria.
There is also the question of sincere falsehood: people who overvalue their own assets because they imagine it worth more than it does. Take the example of a South-West governor who declared in 2011 he had a mansion in Ibadan worth N250m; a building in the same city worth N150m, another one with the value of N300m in Lagos, as well as a detached house worth N300m in Abuja. I genuinely wondered what exactly was valued that makes a house in a semi-urban city like Ibadan worth a whole N250m! Typically, it is the land on which the house stands on that is valued; so, how could they have arrived at such an amount if not in Lagos, Abuja or maybe even Port Harcourt? And the governor’s asset declaration of 2011 does contain some items that make the eyes pop. I look forward to another open season of his asset declaration this year.
Asset declaration is only worthwhile where state agencies are empowered to probe people’s claims diligently. Buhari should not imagine that there is any mystique to a rather mundane undertaking that can touch even the edges of corruption. The culture of corruption is so embedded that existing provisions of the law need to not only be enforced, but also demand constant devising of creative means of reshaping people to conform to collective morals. People will always try to beat the system; politicians anywhere they are found will always game the system. There is no country in the world entirely free of corruption. The places that have made progress have done so because the checks and balances of social contracts are operated to the hilt.