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The asset declaration debate

Published by Tribune on Tue, 10 Jul 2012

During the media chat with President Goodluck Jonathan on Sunday 24, June, 2012, a very sensitive issue was raised by Is'haq Modibbo Kawu, the renowned columnist of Blue Print Newspaper. Kawu carefully established a premise for his question in which he tried to recall a submission that 'perception is everything.' But the President clarifying explained that perception though crucial, was not everything. And that sets the tone for the question by Kawu which was on corruption and the need for the President to allow public perception of government to lead the crusade against corruption. President Jonathan was asked if it is not right to consider public declaration of assets because of perception. To my mind, the greatest misunderstanding of the issue of declaration of assets came from some opposition political parties who plainly accused President Jonathan of not being honorable by not declaring his assets. However, that criticism failed to clarify if his assets should have been declared to the Code of Conduct Bureau, CCB, or to the general public. They argued that the President is thus feathering the nest of unending corruption in Nigeria.If such critics have not been informed by the CCB that President Jonathan had not declared his assets, it follows that they did not get their facts right and were only on a wild goose chase along a dark alley. Such view did not understand the clear difference between declaration of assets as prescribed by the constitution and publishing of assets declaration as chosen by the individual public officer. Unfortunately, they also quoted eloquently from the Nigerian Constitution which they grossly misinterpreted in media releases.One could ask the question, was this exercise embarked upon out of ignorance or deliberate attempt to confuse political observers' I think it was deliberate because the position was used also to raise some posers which amounted to accusing President Jonathan of flouting the law and engaging in selective compliance with the Constitution he had sworn to protect. These are very grievous allegations indeed which respected political party bureaucrats should not glibly mention or paper over without proper findings or conclusive investigation.As a matter of fact, the issue of public declaration of assets bordered more on law, personal discretion and the safety of the public officer. But in criticising President Jonathan, since the end of the chat, many have tucked away the salient legal issue and personal discretion given to the public office holder to publish his declared assets. Neglecting these important aspects obviously had made the arguments of antagonists very sweet, but giving curious and intelligent minds avenue to raise posers on why our Constitution was crafted to give discretion to office holders. The option left for us to adopt is it to review the provisions of that Constitution by setting up a powerful lobby that will effect a change in our law as against isolating for political bashing those on the other side for crimes that are not in our statutes. Some observers have also noted that the law that gave personal discretion to a public officer to publish his assets had presumed he is in office for public good and not for self. And if that is the case, until the officer proves otherwise, it was only rational for the law/constitution not to place heavy burden on someone who has 'come to serve and not to chop'. The altercation that ensued between late Chief Michael Afolabi and Chief Bola Ige few years ago over the purpose of public service could be recalled here. The intention of the Constitution to protect the good guys in office against the mischief of bad guys in and out of government is very noble. Unfortunately, the ranks of the good and the bad guys have been swelling astronomically at every passing minute in Nigeria. This is witnessed in public thefts, embezzlement of pension funds, scams in the legislature, fertilizer/fuel subsidy scams, kidnappings, bombings and assassinations by militants and religious fanatics. One would like to agree with the view that exposure of monumental scams in recent time is an indication that existing law on assets declaration is functioning though it was erroneously seen as protective of the office holder.Why' Secret declaration of assets did not prevent investigators from doing their jobs. Even categories of officers with immunity who seem to be above the law and others have been made to face the music after their tenures.Readers would recollect the cases of former governors of Delta State, James Ibori and Lucky Nosakhare Igbinedion of Edo State. And just few months ago, the celebrated trial of Senator Ahmed Bola Tinubu by the Code of Conduct Tribunal, seven years after he had left office as the governor of Lagos State. If the clamor for public declaration of assets is to institute probity, as agitators have made us to believe, why are clamors not generalised and directed at all levels of governance' To what extent have the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), and the All Nigeria People Party (ANPP) been able to convince their own categories of public officers to publish their assets declaration in the newspapers' The truth: there are minimal evidences to show that such progressive advocacy that will enthrone probity and accountability is gaining adherents in the opposition camp. We are confident that success in this sphere would be a trailblazer and also a compelling reason for the ruling political party, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), to follow the good examples.Laniyan, policy analyst, wrote in from Abuja.
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