TALKING CONSTITUTIONAL DEMOCRACY BY MIKE OZEKHOME,SAN
Last week, I commenced our discourse of this vexed national issue of asset declaration. Who are those Nigerians who must declare their assets? Under what conditions or laws? What powers, if any, do anti-graft agencies and other monetary financial regulatory bodies have, in compelling such group of Nigerians to declare their assets? I shall dwell on this topic for some time, and do a global comparative analysis.
Assets Declaration: The Nigerian Example
When Yar’Adua Broke the Jinx
Late President Umaru Yar’ Adua was the only President ever in Nigeria, to have publicly declared his assets on June 28, 2007, less than a month after assuming office as Nigerian President. President Yar’Adua made public photocopies of his duly and honestly completed assets declaration form, through his Special Adviser on Communications, Mr Segun Adeniyi.
In an unprecedented step by any Nigerian President since independence, Yar’ Adua declared N856.4m (which included N19m belonging to the then First Lady) Hajia Turai Yar’ Adua.
His total liabilities being outstanding loans secured with the Unity Bank Plc, Imani Estate Branch, Maitama, Abuja, was put at N88,793,269.77
The bulk of the President’s assets included remunerations, savings, campaigns, post-campaign contributions, buildings and vacant plots of land, farms and orchard, cash at hand and vehicles located in his home State and Abuja. The President disclosed that, he had no foreign accounts or assets.
On September 3, 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, SAN, declared their assets before the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB). According to the report, details of the President’s assets declared included less than N30m cash; one Union Bank account; shares in Berger Paints, Union Bank and Skye Bank; five homes in Daura, Kaduna and Abuja; two plots of land in Kano and Port Harcourt; Farms, an orchard and a ranch; 270 head of cattle, 25 sheep, five horses, birds, trees; Cars, two of which he bought from his savings, and the others supplied to him by the Federal Government in his capacity as former Head of State.
We did not get to have a glimpse of his 2019 assets (assuming he did declare). The CCB never told Nigerians. Nor did the President and his megaphones, who had made integrity his mantra. On the other hand, in 2015, the Vice President’s assets included N94m and $900,000 in his bank accounts; 4-bedroom residence at Victoria Garden City, Lagos and a 3-bedroom flat at 2 Mosley Road, Ikoyi, a 2-bedroom flat at Redemption Camp and a 2-bedroom mortgaged property in Bedford, England; Law firm, known as SimmonsCooper; Shares I Octogenerium Ltd., Windsor Grant Ltd., Tarapolsa, Vistorion Ltd., Aviva Ltd., MTN; Infinity SUV, Mercedes Benz and a Prado Jeep.
Public declaration of assets by President Buhari and the Vice President Osinbajo, was very significant for so many reasons. Both they and their party, APC, had made the issue a subject-matter of campaign, during the build up to the 2015 Presidential elections.
Nigerians could swear on their ancestors’ graves that Buhari was going to declare his assets publicly, at least to follow the worthy precedent set by Yar’Adua, his predecessor in office. This is because having made eradication (or at least, curtailment) of corruption one of his tripodal cardinal campaign promises (I do not know if he has fulfilled any of them at all, or do you?), it was expected that he would lead by example by declaring his assets publicly.
Indeed, asset and interest disclosure has become a key front burner global anti-corruption issue, that engages the attention of the whole world. It was expected that once the number one and number two citizens declared their assets publicly, nothing prevented any other public official from following suit. All categories of public officials, would then have a heavy moral and legal burden to publicly declare their assets. Assets declaration represents a veritable tool for transparency in governance, and important hallmark of the democratic tradition in all civilised nations of the world.
The international community considers asset declaration, as a tool for transparency. This is evidenced by its inclusion in the UN Convention Against Corruption.
The Buhari Scenario
There was later to be a clash, between fiery Catholic Bishop of Sokoto, Most Rev. Matthew Hassan Kukah, and the Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, over the reluctance of President Buhari to publicly declare his assets and liabilities upon taking the oath of office.
At the launch of a book in which he was guest lecturer, Bishop Kukah had queried: “People have asked how is it that the President used Justice Onnoghen’s asset declaration form to prove his corruption and proceeded to sack him, yet the President himself has not publicly declared his own assets as he promised during his campaigns? Kukah was the guest lecturer at the launch of a book, “Farida Waziri: One Step Ahead: Life as a Spy, Detective and Anti-Graft Czar.” In reaction to Kukah’s remark, Adesina as usual had defended his principal, by stating that Buhari never promised Nigerians he would declare his assets publicly. Buhari had therefore, not broken any law by not doing so, he argued, tongue-in-cheek.
But, unlike Buhari, his Vice, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, had in 2015, followed Yar’Adua’s footsteps. He expressed solidarity with Nigerians, when he publicly declared his assets and liabilities. He even desired that his salary be slashed by half. At that time also, Buhari had rejected a proposal to purchase five customised armoured Mercedes Benz S-600 (V222) cars at the cost of about N400 million. Nigerians had embraced this tokenism, as showcasing a man of seeming frugality and simplicity. The unsuspecting public believed then that he was a man with a high sense of moral probity, and one who would kick corruption by the ass. Nigerians had therefore. assumed that Buhari would publicly declare his assets. But, he failed them. His being welcomed back to Nigeria by Kaakaki (flute) trumpeters at the presidential wing of the Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport, Abuja, on many occasions after his several foreign medical trips did not help matters. It worsened them. Nigeria saw a President, undergoing incredible metamorphosis.
In his compilation of over 80 of Buhari and APC’s campaign promises and what the then candidate Buhari would do in his 100 days if he became President, as published in The Cable, Buhari had maintained his commitment not only to publicly declare his assets, but that he would encourage his political appointees to do same publicly.
Even months after Buhari became President; Adesina had admitted that this promise was made. Surprisingly, he was later to argue that it was made by the President’s party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), and not Buhari as a candidate. Hear! Hear!! Hear!!! A political party cannot be separated from its candidate. They are Siamese twins. That is why under Sections 65(2)(b), 106 and 131 of the 1999 Constitution, a candidate must run under the platform of a political party. He cannot run alone.
Buhari himself had however, firmly stood by his campaign promise roughly a month before Adesina made his weird, illogical suggestion. Through a statement released by his senior spokesman, Garba Shehu in June, 2015, Buhari had maintained that details of his declaration would be made public soon after the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) had completed verifying them. Said Shehu:
“In the circumstances, it is only after this verification exercise, and not before, that the declaration can be said to have been made and validated; and only after this, will the details be released to the public.
“There is no question at all that the President and the Vice President are committed to public declaration of their assets, within the 100 days that they pledged during the presidential campaign.”
Buhari’s Later Public but Partial Disclosure of Assets
In September, 2015, bowing to intense pressure from and national hoopla by watchful Nigerians, the Presidency very reluctantly publicised only some of Buhari and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo’s assets.
In May, 2019, before his second-term inauguration, President Buhari submitted a second set of asset declaration forms to the CCB, not to the public. According to Shehu, they “showed no significant changes in assets as declared in 2015 by him”. Oh, really? Could he swear on the Holy Quran, that Buhari of 2015 was exactly the same Buhari of 2019? With even his wife, Hajia accusing his security guards of stealing humongous sums from her?
In the polemics between Kukah and Adesina, the issue at stake was whether the law should only be seen in the letter, and not in the spirit also. To me, public declaration of assets goes beyond mere routine legalism and intellectual gymnastics. It is even more so, an issue of moral rectitude, transparency and accountability in leadership. It is not only captured in fixed Hamurabi’s tablet, it is better demonstrated in the spirit of the law, through actions and deeds. After all, actions speak louder than words. Leaders must walk the talk.
I had maintained this stance as far back as June 6, 2015, barely one week after Buhari took oath as President of Nigeria. In a write up by New Telegraph of that date, titled, “Sagay, Ozekhome fault Buhari, Osinbajo on Assets Declaration…… Lawyers split over Buhari, Osinbajo Assets Declaration”, the paper had written:
“Constitutional Lawyer, Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN, urged President Buhari to declare his assets publicly, in conformity with his campaign promises of breaking away from the old order. He reminded the President that Nigerians now have a long memory, and would watch him closely. “I think President Buhari should realise that all the promises he made with his party, the APC, constitute a check list that Nigerians are keeping closely with a biro at hand ready to tick either performed, or not performed. I wouldn’t want to believe that some of the promises he made were empty words customised to get votes from Nigerians, and then refrains from them later.”
Yar’Adua was Refreshingly Different
Though he died prematurely in office, Yar’Adua would still be remembered for five major thrusts in the Nigerian polity, for which his name is inerasable from Nigeria’s annals. He termed himself the (“servant leader) when he launched his Presidential campaign in 2006. And this humble son of Alhaji Musa Yar’Adua, first Republic Minister for Lagos Affairs, lived his promise, maintaining a very low profile till he died in office in 2010. Secondly, Yar’Adua publicly declared his assets, because he said he had nothing to hide after being a two-term Governor of Katsina State between 1999 and 2007. Thirdly, Yar’Adua set up the Justice Muhammadu Uwais Electoral Reform Panel, whose white paper indeed, led to some electoral reforms.
This is because he had publicly acknowledged, during his May 29, 2007 swearing-in ceremony, that the election that threw him up as President was flawed. This man must be resting in Aljannah Firdaus.
Fourthly, Yar’Adua, in fulfilment of one of his seven-point-agenda (the others were critical infrastructure, the Niger Delta Food Security, Human Capital Development, Land Tenure Reform, National Security and Intelligence, and Wealth Creation), gave amnesty to the then restless Niger Delta militants. The politicians had literally grounded exploration and exploitation of oil, in their agitation for a just economic order and fair treatment on matters concerning oil and gas, their God-given wealth.
Lastly, Yar’Adua excelled in his Rule of Law practice, as the bedrock of democracy. Although Rule of Law is presumably a given in any constitutional democracy, Yar’Adua came out clearly and made it his mantra. Under his predecessor, President Olusegun Obasanjo, rule of law meant different things to different people and classes of citizens. A court judgement was only obeyed, as interpreted by imperial President Obasanjo. Due Processes were seamlessly bypassed in impeachment of Governors, such as Fayose and Dariye. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) had become a law unto itself, contrary to its motto, “No one is above the law”. This was later ignited under President Buhari. But, Yar’Adua distanced himself from these ugly anti-people practices. He promised to uphold the rule of law, at all times. He actually started implementing court judgements. He swiftly restored Peter Obi to office as the Governor of Anambra State in 2007, after a court judgement. He stuck to due process, in his governance template. Yar’Adua is gone. But, he remains in our hearts. (To be continued).
THOUGHT FOR THE WEEK
“Fighting corruption is not just good governance. It’s self-defence. It’s patriotism”. (Joe Biden)