MAKING PUBLIC DECLARATION OF ASSETS AN EFFECTIVE ANTICORRUPTION TOOL
After 100 days of assuming office, President Muhammadu Buhari( PMB) and his deputy Professor Yemi Osinbajo( PYO) have published the details of their assets and liabilities. Many people had expected them to do so, on the day they were sworn into office. Indeed some people were beginning to cast aspersions on PMB's anti corruption credentials just because of the perceived delay in doing so. From the public interest and comments on this matter of public declaration of assets by Public servants, it is evident that many Nigerians regard this as a very important and critical step in the ANTICORRUPTION war. Looking back, President Good luck Jonathan must have realized that one major reason his government was perceived as being 'pro' corruption, was his surprising refusal to declare his assets openly. Since he did not do this despite strong prodding, people felt, he had something to hide, especially as he only did so reluctantly as Vice President, following President Yardua's example. Naturally his deputy, Namadi Sambo and his ministers followed his example and did not see any justification for openly declaring their assets. For me this was a big error of judgement.
It may be true as some argue that openly declaring assets may not necessarily stop corruption, nor does it show that the one declaring the asset openly is not corrupt, or may not be corrupt in future, just as it true that not openly declaring your assets does not mean that you are corrupt or may be corrupt in the future. It is common Knowledge that many corruptly acquired assets are held in third party names. Most 'smart' corrupt officials do their utmost to cover their tracks, hide their loot from the eyes of the law and even from the public and only a small proportion of their corruptly acquired assets are connected to them. Many use their wives and children like Abacha was said to have done. Others use 'trusted' friends, allies, surrogates, attorneys, proxies, phony names and companies to hide their assets. And this is not a new phenomenon. We hear of First Republic politicians who acquired large swaths of landed properties, in the names of their 'trusted' allies, some of whom turned around to appropriate the properties or some of them to their own use or ownership. Some big families have not forgiven some other big families because of this alleged
Evidence abounds in our Country of some really smart Alec's who have held offices and whom many Nigerians perceive as very corrupt while in office, but after several years of leaving office, no one has been able to link them to corruptly acquired assets-liquid or solid and perhaps that's why no one has been able to prosecute them. Indeed the EFCC and ICPC have hardly laid their hands on any assets of officials accused of corruption. The most they have often been able to do, was to charge them with Money laundering, deriving mostly from the utilization of security votes and sundry bank transactions.So those who say open asset declaration is not a strong ANTICORRUPTION tool may have a point.
Personally, I believe that it can be made a strong weapon if we can do things differently. The truth is that public declaration of assets serves a major psychological purpose. First it gives the public a psychological satisfaction that whoever declares his asset openly is transparent and has nothing to hide. The trust factor between the official and the public is enhanced. But the more important psychological impact is the fact that the official has laid himself bare and would from that moment be conscious that the public will have their focus on him for good and for bad. This consciousness of the prying eyes of the public, could be a major deterrence to him and make him sensitive to anything that will suggest corruption or wrongful acquisition of assets. It is akin to the psychological impact on a man who openly condemns smoking or drunkeness or who announces openly that he has given up a particular bad habit. The shame of being cut in the act he has openly decried becomes a major impetus to resist temptations when they arise, as they often would. If he did not make such open declarations, it will be much easier for him to fall back to his old habits, since nobody will hold him to anything. So let us encourage all public servants to declare their assets openly. Those who can not should not be given public offices. They should be left alone in their private lives where they are free to keep their assets and networth secret. I have been reading statements by APC Governors that they would not follow PMB's example. I pray that they would change their minds soon as it would serve them better to have this voluntary restraint placed on them. Indeed all public servants included the PDP governors and local government chairman should follow suit.
In addition to the psychological restraints and impact identified above, we can make the Public asset declaration become a more effective anti-corruption tool by doing the following. First, when officials declare their assets openly, there should be a mechanism to verify them. The Code of Conduct Bureau( CCB) says they do so or 'pretend' to do so as one commentator described it. To remove the 'pretence', they should publicly certify that they have done so. Second, they should publicly invite those who have any contrary or additional information to supply such data with proofs and if they find any valid discrepancies, such officials should be openly indicted. Third, this exercise must be carried out at entrance and exit to every public office. For example PMB has held previously at least three public offices - Minister of Petroleum, Head of State and Executive Chairman of PTF. In which case he should have declared his assets six times before becoming President on May 29th this year. That is to say that as today, he should have declared his assets seven times. But as he himself announced from Accra recently, he has done only four times, leaving a deficit of three. So what do we say to CCB? Thank you for a job well done?. It must be an article of faith, that the declaration of assets is enforced at least as currently prescribed by the constitution and hopefully we will make public declaration compulsory someday, if moral suasion will not do it.
Fourth, public officials must state how they got the money to acquire the assets. It is not enough to declare that somebody has six houses or 800,000 dollars in his account, he should be made to declare how he earned the money or how he raised the funds to acquire the assets. This is critical to justify ownership of such cash or houses. Those who worked for their monies and wealth honestly should have no qualms showing how they made their money,even if it will entail some inconvenience. I do not need to be told what conclusions some people would come to if the sources of the declared cash are not disclosed. Fifth, we should develop a genre of investigative journalists and NGOs who will dig in to confirm or contradict such declarations. These investigative journalists will go beyond the openly declared assets to scoop the ones that were not declared and the ones held in trust by close allies. And such officials should be quickly prosecuted and dis graced. Since we do not have death sentences for corrupt officials as they have in China, the minimum should be open disgrace and the return of such assets to the national treasury.
I have made the above suggestions in the belief that we are truly determined to wipe out corruption in the public space, and not just seeking escape goats or just playing to the gallery. When Nzeogwu and his team carried out the first coup in Nigeria in 1966, they used corruption as one of the major reasons for disrupting our normal democratic evolution as a Nation. When Olusegun Obasanjo returned as President in 1999, he found that corruption had grown wings and now that Buhari has returned in 2015, he has said that we must kill corruption or corruption will kill our Nation. It will be a shame if Goodluck Jonathan or Ibrahim Babangida decides to return in 2019 or 2023 and we will still be talking about corruption in high places in Nigeria. Let us all unite to kill corruption in Nigeria now!
Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa OFR