President Muhammadu Buhari has made a singsong of fighting corruption, but his failure to declare his assets publicly as he promised on the campaigns is casting a shadow of doubt on his sincerity. The President and Vice- President Yemi Osinbajo reportedly declared their assets and liabilities but none of them made it public as most Nigerians expected. Their joint action has understandably generated some heavy weather.
The controversy is understandable because, although the Nigerian Constitution does not stipulate public declaration of assets and liabilities, Buhari and Osinbajo rode to power on the wings of integrity. They were marketed to Nigerians as Messrs Integrity of some sort. And to whom much is given, much is expected.
While campaigning round the country, the president had promised to do things differently, including declaring his assets and liabilities publicly. That he failed to do so as promptly as possible would amount to reneging on that solemn promise.
To argue as some of his defenders have done, that the Constitution does not require the president to make a public declaration of his assets, is to miss the point which is that exceptional leaders must go beyond the threshold of the ordinary. Clearly the reason why the president’s failure to declare his assets publicly has become a talking point in both the traditional and social media is that change includes doing things differently, and in a manner that places the president above board.
It may seem unfair to hold the president to a higher standard of transparency than the Constitution requires. However, these are unusual times. The All Progressives Congress (APC) swept to power on the grounds that it would run the government on a higher level of public morality and integrity. Its change mantra carries with it an inherent readiness to operate several notches above the traditional and the routine. There is no better place to begin to demonstrate this than in the president’s public declaration of his assets. For a duo that have been sold to Nigerians as people of great integrity and moral probity, the failure to publicly declare their assets and liabilities could erode in no small measure their credibility.
For ill or good, the emergence of Buhari is one that has raised fresh expectations among Nigerians. It must not be mired so early in such avoidable controversy. Let the president take a cue from the late President Umaru Yar’adua who made no bone of declaring his assets and liabilities publicly. It earned him much respect among Nigerians and has today made him a reference point in matters of transparency.
The framers of the Nigerian Constitution might not have considered it necessary to make public declaration of assets and liabilities mandatory. But the times have changed. The high level of political venality and official graft has made it expedient to insist on nothing less than public declaration of assets. For one, it makes it easier for the public to not only know the material status of their leaders prior to assuming office but also upon quitting office. It is to help monitor the integrity of public officials who manage our national wealth that the provision for assets declaration was made in the Constitution in the first place. How much easier that duty will be performed if such officials make the exercise a public one! Transparency is easier to monitor when the public is in the know. It is an argument that effectively counters anything to the contrary.
The cavalier manner in which assets declaration has been handled in the country must be reversed in the new dispensation. We believe that change must entail doing things differently and in a manner that promotes greater public good. Leaders who steal from the public till do so often because they know that the public have no real access to their assets. Public declaration of assets takes that secrecy away and will in all likelihoood promote greater probity on the part of public functionaries. We urge both the President and Vicepresident to make public without further delay, their assets and liabilities. All the governors and indeed every senior public office holder must also do that. That way it will be easier for Nigerians to assess their integrity. That is part of what change is about.