Of Buhari’s cold feet over asset declaration By Eniola Akinkuotu

To match Interview NIGERIA-BUHARI/

President Muhammadu Buhari shocked many Nigerians last October when he announced that he took a loan of N27.5m to buy the All Progressives Congress’ expression of interest and nomination forms for the 2014 presidential primary.

The act endeared the Katsina-born general to many who saw his stance as a departure from the profligacy which characterised the campaign of some of his opponents. It also gave him an edge over his co-contestants in the party who included the then Governor of Kano State, Rabiu Kwankwaso; a former vice-president, Atiku Abubakar; Imo State Governor, Rochas Okorocha, and the publisher of Leadership newspapers, Mr. Sam Nda-Isaiah.

While also delivering his speech shortly before delegates voted at the APC presidential primary which held at the Teslim Balogun Stadium, in Lagos, last December, Buhari said, “I have always served Nigeria to the best of my ability. I have always tried to give more to the nation than it has given me. This is the principle of service that has guided my public life. Thus, I am not a rich person.

“I can’t give you a pocketful of dollars or naira to purchase your support. Even if I could, I would not do so. The fate of this nation is not up for sale. What I will give you and this nation is all of my strength, commitment, sweat and toil in the service of the people. What I can give you is my all.”

Buhari maintained that he was the only former Head of State that does not have a house in Abuja despite also being a former petroleum minister and former military governor.

This emotional speech inspired many of the delegates at the jam-packed stadium, causing Buhari to win convincingly as the number of votes he garnered surpassed those of others combined. Buhari polled 3,430 votes while Kwankwaso, who came second, scored 974 votes. Former vice-president Abubakar got 954 votes to occupy the third position.

In his three months of campaign, posters of ‘Sai Buhari’ and ‘Sai mai Gaskiya’ meaning “an honest person,” and “tested and trusted” littered major cities in Nigeria.

At the climax of the presidential campaign, Buhari stated that he would publicly declare his assets and liabilities, if voted into power.

Buhari stated this in a document which highlights what he would do in his first 100 days in office. He said he would encourage political appointees in his administration to also declare their assets publicly.

Buhari, in the document titled, “I pledge to Nigeria,” also said that all his political appointees would only earn salaries and allowances as prescribed by the Revenue and Mobilisation and Fiscal Allocation Commission.

He said, “I pledge to publicly declare my assets and liabilities, encourage all my appointees to publicity declare their assets and liabilities as a pre-condition for appointment. “All political appointees will only earn the salaries and allowances determined by the RMFAC.”

The promise again gave Buhari an electoral boost because the late President Umaru Yar’Adua was the first and the only Nigerian President to have publicly declared his assets when he assumed office.

Buhari’s promise also threatened the chances of the then President, Goodluck Jonathan, who had said during a live media chat that he did not give a damn about public declaration of assets.

Jonathan, when asked why he had refused to publicly declare his assets as an example for members of his cabinet, said, “The issue of public asset declaration is a matter of personal principle. That is the way I see it, and I don’t give a damn about it, even if you criticise me from heaven.”

However, many Nigerians were shocked when after being inaugurated as the President, Buhari and Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, declared their assets to the Code of Conduct Bureau as required by the constitution but failed to make the contents public as promised.

The development has even been compounded by the fact that 80 days after Buhari and Osinbajo took over, they have not commenced the process of having the CCB verify details of their declared assets.

The Chairman of the CCB, Sam Saba, said the bureau was prepared to commence the verification of assets declared by the president and the vice-president, but said the CCB was awaiting a convenient time for the two leaders to carry out the exercise.

He said a conference verification which involves the examination of the particulars of an asset and the field verification which requires physical validation of a listed property had yet to be done.

He said, “For instance, if you say you have three vehicles, let us see the registration numbers. We don’t have to see all the details. “Once we are able to see the receipts of the purchase of the vehicles or the registration documents, we are satisfied. But we still have to see them physically and that is the second stage which we call field verification.”

The possibility of Buhari declaring his assets public might have further dimmed as his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Mr. Femi Adesina, has said Buhari never promised to make his assets public. He said rather, it was the APC that made the promise during the campaign.

While speaking with a social commentator, Kayode Ogundamisi, during an interview, Adesina said, “You need to get his words right. Go and check all that the President said during the campaign. In no place would you see it attributed to him as a person.

“But then there is a document by his party, the APC, saying he would declare publicly. So, we need to set that right; it was a declaration by his party. The law requires public officers to declare their assets and he has done that.”

Adesina added that after the CCB had verified the assets, Buhari could choose to make it public or not.

The Nigerian constitution states in Chapter VI , Section 140, that a person elected to the Office of the President shall not begin to perform the functions of that office until he has declared his assets and liabilities as prescribed in the constitution.

Although Buhari has committed no crime by failing to declare his assets publicly, many see it as a betrayal of trust as well as a setback in his ferocious war against corruption.

Also, separating the promises Buhari made from those his party made during the electioneering seems to be an ominous sign of what to expect of APC’s promises such as free meals for pupils, allowance for unemployed youths and N5, 000 for every poor family.

A civil society group, Stop Impunity Nigeria, invoking the Freedom of Information Act, applied to the CCB to request copies of the completed assets declaration forms by Buhari and Osinbajo.

However, the CCB declined the request. The CCB cited the absence of a prescribed law by the National Assembly authorising the release of such information to the public, thereby making it impossible for anyone to know Buhari’s assets.

Responding to the development, the Socio-Economic Right Accountability Project, argued that the declaration before the CCB alone fell short of the commitment to publicly declare assets.

The group said Buhari’s public declaration of assets would boost his fight against corruption.

The Executive Director, SERAP, Mr. Adetokunbo Mumuni, said, “SERAP recalls that the President had said before the election that he would publicly declare his assets and liabilities, and encourage all his appointees to publicly declare their assets and liabilities as a pre-condition for appointment.

“Public disclosure of assets will give the general public a true picture of the assets of the President and the Vice-President and will send a powerful message that it is not going to be business as usual with this government.

“This will also follow the best practice by former President Umaru Yar’Adua, boost this government’s fight against corruption and impunity.’’

SERAP stated that public disclosure of assets provided a baseline and means of assets to identify assets that might have been corruptly acquired and for which a public official might legitimately be asked to account for.

SERAP also “urged the President to urgently take measures to seek amendment to the law relating to declaration of assets to include the requirement of public disclosure so as to bring it in line with international standards and best practices such as the United Nations Convention against Corruption.”

Another group, Civil Societies Legislative and Advocacy Centre, said Nigerians were requesting that the president and the vice-president make public their asset declarations to increase transparency.

Its Executive Director, Awual Musa,   said even though the two top government functionaries had fulfilled the constitutional requirement of submitting their asset declaration forms, they needed to take it a step further by making it public.

“What Nigerians are saying now is that making it public will take it a step further because when they make their declaration public, other public officers will have no excuse not to follow suit.”

Another   human rights activist,   Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, said that it was unfortunate that the assets were not made public.

“Government is run on trust and integrity; and this was one of the selling points for Buhari during his campaign when he made a solemn covenant with Nigerians. There is no reason to turn away from that path of honour which he has promised Nigerians,” he added.

According to Transparency International, most countries expect their top leaders to publish information about their assets. “When they don’t, or if the figures don’t seem to add up as it is happening in both Argentina and Nigeria, this can lead to both public unrest and political instability.”

The organisation noted that the United States’ approach to asset declarations is often considered a model because it is both comprehensive and transparent. Although there is no requirement to audit declarations in the US, they are available to the civil society on request.

As Buhari continues his raging war against corruption, Nigerians looking forward to September 7 when the 100-day deadline for the public declaration of his assets will lapse. Needless to say, Buhari’s public asset declaration will boost transparency and give credence to his anti-graft campaign. After all, he who comes to equity must come with clean hands.

PUNCH