Making millionaires at Aso Rock and the White House
By Ogaga Ifowodu
ACTUALLY, the title is misleading though only by half. Unless he was already a millionaire, a president of the United States must perish the thought of becoming one while in office.
Any dream of converting political power to capital gain, or, in plain terms, plenty of money, must wait until the door to the White House has been shut behind him. But whether or not the doors to big money will be opened for a former American president as the doors of power close on him depends on his performance in office and his continued relevance to the socio-political process.
The president of the richest and most powerful country in the world earns a fixed annual taxable salary of $400,000 and a non-taxable allowance of $50,000 for expenses. And that’s it, no penny more: no food, newspaper, furniture, car, entertainment or other allowance. No security vote, even, though you would think that, as “policeman of the world” and chief pacifier of the universe for capital, the United States has security concerns enough to justify a special vote for its president.
But, no, he has no such vote, and, somehow, the country remains powerful and more peaceful than security-vote-loving Nigeria. Yet, that is not all. A president of the United States, as other top functionaries, cannot keep for himself any gifts given to him. This would include the gift of a church to his holy hometown, were that ludicrous scenario possible in “God’s own country”.
The stringent control of the US president’s emolument enshrines a fundamental principle of state: that public office is a duty, not a passport to riches nor a licence for all manner of charges on the commonwealth. For, any dollar falsely taken by a government official is a dollar less for some public need: a school, a street lightbulb, a road, a library, a museum, a park, a sewer, etc.
This ethic of governance embraced by every civilised polity is the very opposite of the “come and chop” philosophy famously enunciated by General Olusegun Obasanjo. In Nigeria, public office is not a call to duty, not the privileged opportunity to serve the common good, but an invitation to self-enrichment.
Tellingly, Obasanjo announced this amoral idea of government in rebuke of a public servant who dared to be critical while still in office. It was delivered with all the wisdom and experience of a two-time head of state, for, after all, who should know better? And it is Nigeria’s shameful contribution to statecraft.
I said that my title is partly misleading and here’s why. Although Bill Clinton left the White House nearly penniless, mostly as a result of costly legal suits that arose from his hitherto uncontrollable philandering, he has since become a multi-millionaire.
But the change in fortune began with his best-selling memoirs, My Life, published five years after he had left office and for which he got a $10 million advance from his publishers, the biggest for a presidential autobiography.
As the Monica Lewinsky affair dimmed and his semen-soiled image was laundered by time, Clinton’s undisputed intellect and political savvy — in particular, his reputation as the saviour of the Democratic Party in the post-Carter years — led to huge speaking fees. It didn’t hurt, either, that his post-presidency platform, the Clinton Global Initiative, keeps him in the limelight.
Nor that in the epoch of image and personality worship, he is as much a celebrity as he is a statesman. So that in the US and around the globe, corporations and causes are prepared to break the bank to hear him speak. Ironically, a Nigerian establishment, Nduka Obaigbena’s ThisDay, holds the record of the second highest speaking fee of $700,000 paid to Clinton.
But what is most interesting about Clinton’s pre- and post-White House careers is its stark contrast to our heads of state’s corresponding careers before and after their Aso Rock tenures.
Before the White House, Clinton had been attorney-general and a two-time governor of Arkansas. But neither as governor nor as president of the richest country in the world did he become a millionaire; for that, he had to wait till he had left office.
It is a fact he acknowledges with some satisfaction thus: “I never had any money until I got out of the White House, you know, but I’ve done reasonably well since then”.
Last year, Clinton earned $13.4 million in speaking fees. We know this because his wife, Hillary Clinton, is obliged to disclose his earnings in her annual financial disclosure report as Secretary of State. This is to guard against conflict of interest, against influence peddling to the benefit of her spouse.
All of this, of course, is incomprehensible to Nigeria’s so-called leaders. They not only enter office as paupers and become princes the next day but leave wealthy beyond fantasy.
The “come chop” philosophy of manic and primitive accumulation blinds them to any distinction between self and state: they are the state and the treasury their personal property to do with as they please.
Which is why elections are do-or-die battles fought for the singular goal of control and distribution of petro-dollars as spoils of war. Consequently, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for government officials to publicly declare their assets.
Try telling our I-don’t-care president that in the US he and his aides are fond of citing when it suits their fancy, he couldn’t escape the duty of disclosing his wife’s finances in his own assets declaration with the claim that Mrs Jonathan is a private citizen.
Aso Rock and the White House: two seats of government, the one a monument to duty, service and probity, and the other a shrine to monumental corruption.