There are many ways to fight corruption. Here is one. This one is about raising the moral tone of governance in our country. As part of its efforts to curb blatant corruption from the inception of the Second Republic on October 1, 1979, the Obasanjo military administration set up and incorporated the Code of Conduct Bureau into the 1979 constitution under part one of the Fifth Schedule. It has been retained in all the constitutions midwifed by subsequent military administrations.
The law requires public officers to declare their assets and liabilities within three months of their assuming office. Just to make sure they did not help themselves to what belongs to all of us while in office, they must also declare their assets and liabilities at the end of their tenure. The difference between the first and the second declarations should tell us something about a particular public officer. If a man went into a public office looking like a spaghetti with a meatball stuck to its end but comes out at the end of his tenure looking like a bloated toad, he provides instant self-evidence say e don chop.
But the import of the law goes far, far beyond knowing what each man makes of his time in public office. It is intended to lift the moral tone of governance such that our public officers think more of their moral responsibilities than the lining up of their pockets for life after public office. An elevated moral tone in governance is part of sanitising the polity and turning our public officers away from the crooked path of corruption.
The law does not require a public officer to publicly declare his assets and liabilities. It is enough for him to submit his declaration form to the Conduct Bureau – and he has fully complied with the law. A good law but one full of loopholes. The cynical exploitation of these loopholes now renders the law impotent in the long-running anti-graft war. Nearly all our public officers have taken advantage of these loopholes. The framers of the constitution did not intend that the submission of the asset’s declaration form was all that was required to make the law meaningful and effective.
One gaping hole here is that the bureau lacks the capacity to investigate and ascertain that the declaration submitted to it is factual in all particulars. The bureau tends to shield the assets declaration from the prying eyes of the public and the news media. No one can therefore contest these declarations, most of which are false and deceitful.
President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo declared their assets and liabilities before they formally stepped into their new, exalted offices in 2015. It was a surprise. The public applauded them but wanted them to make the declarations public. One group even applied to the Conduct of Code Bureau through the Freedom of Information Act, to lay its hands on the forms submitted by them.
Buhari and Osinbajo fulfilled the requirement of the law as it stands. They did not want to go beyond its basic requirement. But the public wanted them to do better than that because doing so is an important symbolic gesture the public could identify with.
The late President Umaru Yar’Adua appreciated that fact. He set an example the public expected Buhari and his vice-president to follow. Yar’Adua was the first president and the first man to publicly declare his assets and liabilities. Vice-President Jonathan would not even follow his leader. He said: “I didn’t even want to declare my assets as VP” but was forced by Yar’Adua to do so. Unlike Yar’Adua, he never made it public.
Buhari and Osinbajo later caved in to public demands and made their declaration of assets public. A symbolic gesture is not about the law but more importantly about the tone of moral leadership in governance. In his 2007 manifesto, Buhari asserted: “Nigeria today, more than ever is in need of a serious and sincere effort at nurturing a culture of transparent governance” (emphasis mine).
The importance of a symbolic gesture in the president publicly declaring his assets and liabilities is that it is a significant step towards replacing the opaque culture in our governance with a new and transparent culture for which the public can hold our public officers accountable. It would have been part of the change Buhari promised; it would have been a change we could believe in. He lost the chance.
When Yar’Adua declared his assets publicly, he certainly wanted to make an important personal and political point, to wit: you can expand the frontiers of the law by embracing its spirit. What is badly lacking in our governance is the moral tone. Its lack fuels corruption. Yar’Adua cut a path that he alone walked on. His ministers did not publicly declare their assets. It was not enough for Yar’Adua to act alone. One honest man cannot make a forest of honest men and women in a country of more than 200 million people.
The expected change that swept Buhari and his party into power in 2015 was not just a change in personnel in the presidential suite. Buhari was touted by his aides as the new sheriff in town. He did not just come in to catch treasury looters. He came in to clean up the mess he said the country was in and set a new moral tone in governance in all the three tiers of government. We expected every action of his administration to breathe that change and spell that change. Our expectation was not quite rewarded.
The public expected Buhari to go even further and compel all his ministers and his other aides affected by the constitutional provision under reference to publicly declare their assets and liabilities. Buhari could invest this impotent law with the moral authority, even as it stands, to compel obedience to it by our public officers. It is a challenge he should not have ignored. But it was a challenge he ignored. His failure took something away from the moral tone of his governance and sabotaged his legacy in the anti-graft war.
It is in the natural order of things that people follow their leaders in matters of exemplary leadership. But all this time, no APC governor and none of the ministers has condescended to stand shoulder to shoulder with the president. and the vice-president. The APC governors made it clear they would not follow their president’s example in publicly declaring their assets and liabilities. Thus, Buhari’s public declaration of his assets and liabilities became a non-event and so treated.
The president missed the import of a symbolic gesture in political leadership. If the state governors elected on the platform of his party, his ministers and aides publicly declared their assets and liabilities, his legacy would have been the elevated moral tone of governance and leadership. The public would then require succeeding presidents and public officers to walk along that path towards transparency and accountability. But Buhari forgot that raising the moral tone of governance in our country would accord with his preachments about good leadership and a country different in every way from Bangladesh.