By Hakeem Baba-Ahmad
“If you don’t like my opinion of you, you can always improve.”- Ashleigh Brilliant
Among the many vital requirements for good governance, the existence of openness and transparency in the manner Nigerian leaders manage our affairs is the most visible by its absence. An accountable leadership with a capacity to submit to the highest moral standards is absolutely essential as a requirement for the growth and development of our democratic system.
In the last two weeks, those among us who had hoped that the massive shocks from revelations of the existence of unprecedented levels of corruption will nudge our leaders towards improving the manner they manage our affairs will be bitterly disappointed by insistence from both the legislature and the President that what they earn or own is none of our business as citizens.
President Jonathan stepped up first and told a national audience that it is no one’s business what he owns or owes, since he has satisfied the law in declaring his assets. He was responding to questions over why he has not declared his assets publicly, as he did when he was deputy to President Musa Yar’Adua. Using un-presidential words, he said even when he made a public declaration as Vice President, his reason was that Yar’Adua himself had done it. Even then, he said, it was not proper, because it is not public declaration of assets by the President that will change the country. After all, he can always be investigated when he leaves office.
Really, Mr President? Should we assume then that you operate on two different moral standards? One, when you publicly declared your assets because Yar’Adua did so, even though it was improper and not a legal requirement. And the other, when you are fully in charge of the affairs of the nation, and choose not to declare publicly. Were you wrong then, or wrong now?
The issue has little to do with the law, and everything to do with the moral standards by which our President chooses to be judged. The inconsistency between his position as Vice President and now as President is damaging to his standing, and the President should have realised that backtracking from his earlier declaration will do him serious damage. Even if he could have gotten away with this damaging inconsistency, his corruption-ravaged watch should have been a major motive for sustaining a largely symbolic but profoundly moral gesture of making his assets declaration public.
And he is wrong in assuming that the public declaration of his assets will not change the country. Everything presidents do, or fail to do, or refuse to do can and do change the country. Nigerians do not want to wait until President Jonathan leaves office before he is investigated. Nor are they particularly concerned with his wealth, unless he has something to hide. But they do want to know that he is insulated from some of the earth-shaking scandals around the fuel-subsidy scam, the pension scam, the Malabu Oil scandal and the serious damage which the absence of openness and transparency can cause to the integrity of leaders. Simply put, President Jonathan, under the circumstances, can only be accountable to Nigerians if he makes his assets public. If he does not give a damn over their feelings over the matter, he needs to know that they give a damn.
But even before President Jonathan assesses the full impact of his unfortunate outing on national television, a Federal High Court in Abuja dealt another serious blow to efforts to keep a sealed lid on the income of our legislators. Justice Bilkisu Bello Aliyu ordered the Clerk of the National Assembly to disclose details of the salary, emoluments and allowances collected by members of the Senate and House of Representatives between 2007 and last year. A non-governmental organisation, Legal Defence and Assistance Project had gone to court, using provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 2011 to demand the details of the fabulous take-home-pay of our legislators, saying that the issue affects public interest, since payments to the legislators are made from public funds.
The National Assembly had objected to an earlier request for the details from the NGO. The law makers who passed the F.O.I Act after massive pressure had, even more amazingly, hired a Senior Advocate to argue before the judge that the NGO had no locus standi to make such a request. The technicality involved in the matter is not the issue. The real issue is that people elected to represent our interests do not want us to know how much we pay them or if they pay themselves more than they should.
The assault on open government which President Jonathan and the National Assembly are leading will encourage the damaging perception that our leaders are dipping their hands in the till. This resistance against openness and accountability will fail, because more and more Nigerians will demand that our leaders live above board, and that we see them do so. Perhaps it is time to amend the law, and compel presidents and at least governors and legislators to declare their assets and liabilities publicly. All good friends of our legislature should also advise it to resist the temptation to appeal the ruling of the Abuja High Court on their emoluments. Its image right now can do without further damage.
Last week I referred to N. Machiavelli as a Greek philosopher. A few readers such as Ayo and Vita drew my attention to my error. He was Italian.