The public declaration of assets by President Muhammadu Buhari last week has continued to attract mixed reactions from the members of the public. The President is said to own N30m in cash, five houses in Abuja, Kaduna, Kano and Daura, 270 cattle, 25 sheep, five horses, farms, orchard, ranches and assorted birds. He probably did this after he came under heavy criticism by the international media. In a recent commentary, the Economist magazine described the President as the leader of the nation’s slow coach whose promises to fight corruption is vague, whose approach is lethargic and further confirmed that the initial confidence in him is surprisingly waning.
Although the President’s effort at the public declaration remains very symbolic in line with his promise not to condone corruption, the timing of his action has watered down the impactof that action. Why should he allow himself to do after 100 days, what he should have done in his first 10 days? Even section 11(1) of the fifth schedule of the 1999 Constitution that makes it compulsory for public officers to declare their assets specified that it must be done within the first three months. Let us even assume that the President did so as required by the Constitution, why will he wait for this long before releasing it to the Nigerian public? What does he want to achieve? Must he wait for international pressure to be applied for him to take such a symbolic action?
Many Nigerians were under the impression that our President was a very poor man before he ran for office – at least that was the picture that was created. He was seen as someone who symbolises the interest of the poor and the peasant talakawas. That was his unique selling point that endeared him to many followers over the years. There was this gist at some point that his landlord ejected him from a rented apartment in Abuja because he could not afford his rent of N20m. It was said that the landlord even slashed the rent down to N15m but when the former Head of State could not still pay, he had to forcefully evict him. Although General Buhari at that time did not confirm or deny that story, many of us believed it. We were even also told that the retired General could not afford to pay for his presidential nomination forms of N27m only. He was said to have collected a bank loan prompting many Nigerians to contribute financially to his campaign. Was that a prefabricated dummy sold to an unsuspecting public or what? How come the same person now has huge investments in shares, farms, livestock and orchards?
While I struggle to place such stories behind me, let us even look at the content of what was put out in the public domain by the President himself. Is our President really poor? For someone who has five houses in various locations of this country, I will be very cautious to describe him as such. This is a country where more than 46 per cent of the population are poor (however you define it), where 112 million persons do not have access to adequate sanitation – where 97, 000 children die yearly from common diarrhoea caused by unsafe water and sanitation. I have an idea of the location of the President’s house in the highbrow Asokoro area of Abuja. From my own naïve estimate, that house will be worth more than N500m, which is about $2.5m. Regardless of which parameter you are using, such a person cannot be described as poor with the prevalent conditions in our country today. Is owning one house too much for someone at the level of a former Head of State? Is he not entitled to such?
Before I forget, it is important to ask the President to clarify the source of his earnings – his salaries in the army or during his stint as the Chairman of Petroleum (Special) Trust Fund, his pensions, accruals from investments or from donations. It will also be helpful to know when those houses were built, allocated or purchased. It may well be that they appreciated in value. The whole essence of asset declaration is to ensure that such assets correspond with what could be described as legitimate and verifiable earnings of the owner. On this we shall need additional explanation from our President. Many analysts will like to make those mental notes now that he has decided to come open.
There is another brewing controversy that some of the President’s assets were omitted. Media reports allege that the President owns about 90,000 units of shares in the global logistics company, PanalpinaWorld Transport (Nigeria) Limited which was not in the list of assets he declared to the public last week. As I write there has been no official response or clarification on this from the Presidency. If this is true, should we consider it as an omission or a deliberate under declaration?
Before you rush into any comparisons; no one knows the worth of any of our former Presidents. It has all been curious speculations. All we hear is that they are stupendously rich in billions, probably trillions of naira. Even their spouses have been rumoured to own large expanses of real estate littered all over major cities like Abuja, Lagos, Kaduna, Kano, Port Harcourt and other parts of the world. Someone like former President Goodluck Jonathan bluntly refused to declare his own assets in public.
There are those who consider the President as a slippery politician who gave an erroneous impression of himself before and during his campaigns. I may not agree with those who hold this view but they too have a right to be heard. Someone like the former Governor of Kaduna State, Alhaji Balarabe Musa, insists that the number of assets listed by the President confirms that ‘he is a multibillionaire and cannot be seen as a peasant committed to the welfare of the less privileged’.
Now how does the public declaration of assets by the President affect other politicians in his party especially governors and senators in the ruling All Progressives Congress. After setting the tone, does it mean that APC governors will follow suit? I heard that Senator Shehu Sani has already followed suit. What of others? Nigerians are watching keenly whether the party that has openly canvassed for transparency and accountability will suggest to their members to take a cue from President Buhari.
For now, whether President Buhari is poor or rich is no more relevant to many of us. That conversation is slightly overtaken by events. What we now want is action that will positively impact on Nigerian people across ethnic, political and religious divides. Some of us, who supported him, one way or another, are more interested in his performance in key sectors of the economy. For now his policy direction still remains blurred forcing both investors and the international community to remain indecisive about any prospective partnership. If for nothing, we want to return back to our various constituencies holding our head high that the change we supported is bearing fruits.