Close Watch By Bolaji Adebiyi

Obi’s non-disclosure of his foreign assets has weaponised his opponents, writes Bolaji Adebiyi

It is like: Yes, he has been caught finally. That’s what the Premium Times’ story on the Pandora Papers, which reveals that a couple of Nigerian public officials and politicians have been fingered to have starched away parts of their wealth in tax havens, including the British Virgin Islands, sounds like. One of them is Peter Obi, the outspoken former governor of Anambra State. Since he left office in 2014, he has been a vocal critic of the Muhammadu Buhari administration, particularly its management of the economy, which has remained in distress since it took over in 2015.

Obi has been part of the motley crowd of critics that has made heavy weather of the regime’s perceived inability to curb the raging corruption that it had promised to cage. He speaks loudly about accountability and transparency as hallmarks of good governance.

For the online news medium that is noted for its thorough investigative journalism, therefore, such a transparency agitator as Obi, must like Caesar’s wife be above board. This perhaps underlines its story that outlines the former governor’s mention in the leaked papers showing that he used shell companies to hide part of his wealth abroad. To be fair, Obi was never accused of theft of public funds as there was no evidence of such. But its substantive query was the apparent breach of sections of the 1999 Constitution as altered which mandate public officers to declare their assets before and after office, and bar them from participating in any private business, except farming, or operating foreign accounts.

“This newspaper exposed Mr Obi’s secret businesses and how he broke Nigeria’s law in at least three ways,” Premium Times stated. It enumerated the infractions: “One, Mr. Obi continued to hold his position as a director of his UK company, NEXT International (UK) Limited, 14 months after becoming the governor of Anambra State in contravention of Section Six of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act. Two, Mr. Obi set up complicated layers of secrecy to hide his offshore holdings, which he admitted to failing to declare to the Code of Conduct Bureau, apparently hoping the public and the authorities would never get to know, thereby breaching Section 11, Part of the Fifth Schedule of the 1999 Constitution. Three, Mr. Obi as a governor was also operating a foreign account in breach of the constitution and the public service code of conduct rules.”

Obi’s initial response was that he did not steal and that the businesses were jointly owned with members of his family, which he felt he was not required to declare by law.

“It was exhilarating that nowhere in the article was he accused of any form of corruption, whether in the form of diversion of public funds or in any other manner during and after his stewardship as the governor of Anambra State,” his spokesperson, Valentine Obienyen, said in a statement. “I don’t declare what is owned with others. If my family owns something I won’t declare it. I didn’t declare anything I jointly owned with anyone,” Obi said in another interview.

Read against the relevant provisions of the constitution, the former governor’s argument is at best that he was ignorant of the law which required him to declare all his assets, not run foreign accounts and any company, except farming while serving as a public officer. Perhaps realising the weakness of his defence, Obi made further efforts on Monday to beef up his arsenal when he appeared on ARISE NEWS Channel. He spoke more of the transparency of his businesses that he said had been built long before he came to office. He explained that the circumstances of his emergence as governor left him with little or no chance to formerly resign his directorship, stating that he resigned on phone. Those foreign companies, he said, were put in a trust, a process he said was lawful worldwide.

For those who are familiar with the constitution and the requirements of the code of conduct for public officers, Obi’s arguments are very weak and he would require a very strong legal team to wriggle out if the authorities decide to prosecute him. Clearly, his assets in the trust that are not declared are deemed concealed and are liable to forfeiture to the federal government if convicted. And it would be immaterial that they were legitimately acquired as Obi insists.

However, the former governor’s claim that the report is the handiwork of his political foes is worth examining. Given Obi’s pedigree as a former public officer who is generally perceived to have transparently delivered in office, and his political exposure, he may be forgiven for thinking his opponents may have been behind the report. Coming into office in 2006 virtually against the run of play, he had to endure a tedious legal battle to regain and retain his mandate. A few months later, he was removed from office and had to return to court to retrieve his seat. He inherited a politically volatile state with a high crime rate. It is to his credit that by the end of his second term in 2014, he had stabilised the state and was highly regarded as one of the most prudent and achieving governors in his class. Under his watch salaries and gratuity of any civil servants were paid as and when due. Reputed to have upscaled the critical infrastructure of the state, Obi left a hefty N75 billion, including $156 million in state’s treasury without any debt, local or foreign.

Without a doubt his records endeared him to many Nigerians who see him as a shining example of what a Nigerian leader should be. Apparently angling to benefit from his nationwide approval, the presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, nominated Obi as his running mate. However, the ticket was beset by loud grumblings from politicians from his South-east stock, who felt they should have been the pick. Unable to secure the critical consensus to pull massive votes from the region, the ticket was worsted by the Muhammadu Buhari-Yemi Osinbajo ticket at the 2019 general election.

Now, with the talk of a southern presidency and the strong bid by the South-east, not a few Nigerians think that should the pendulum swing towards the region, Obi clearly stands the best chance to clinch it in the PDP. And his best-selling point is his perceived high integrity in public office. That has now been dotted by the Premium Times report. But was the online medium used to tar him?

Hardly. From a journalistic point of view, the online newspaper is on a very sound professional footing. Even the former governor did not deny the non-declaration of those assets. His point is that the non-disclosure was in good faith. That, nonetheless would still amount to an infraction of the law. However, if the newspaper had thought beyond journalism and had been politically minded, it would have considered the need to protect him once there was no evidence of theft or even tax evasion. So, as it is, the paper may have done an excellent professional job but it has also reduced the ranks of the very few pools from which the nation could recruit its next leader. It has weaponised otherwise corrupt politicians who may now argue that no one is a saint after all.

Adebiyi, managing editor of THISDAY Newspapers, wrote from