Bucking the legalistic trend, Oyo State Governor, Seyi Makinde, has openly declared his assets. His submission to the Code of Conduct Bureau puts Makinde’s worth at about N50 billion – his firms are worth up to N48.1 billion; shares, cash and portfolios make up the rest. In a country tainted by corruption and public office holders are viewed with suspicion, Makinde’s action captures public imagination for its boldness.
Historically, only a few members of the political class have stepped beyond the minimum set by the law to present themselves accountable in the Fourth Republic. The late President Umaru Yar’Adua set the pace with his open assets declaration in June 2007. Yar’Adua, whose balance sheet had a credit of N856 million and liabilities of N88.7 million, urged his then deputy, Goodluck Jonathan, to walk that noble route. Jonathan demurred. In 2010, Kayode Fayemi, in his first tenure as Ekiti governor, and his deputy, the late Funmi Olayinka, declared assets worth N1.9 billion. Fayemi also declared his assets at the end of his term in 2014.
Unfortunately, Yar’Adua’s premature death in office aborted that project. Jonathan, on becoming president in 2010, again refused flatly to make a public declaration of his worth until his defeat five years after. But President Muhammadu Buhari and his deputy, Yemi Osinbajo, have improved on that, making their asset declarations at the CCB public – first in 2015 and again 2019 – upon their re-election. Still, their declarations were not as detailed, compared to the release by Makinde.
Nigerian politicians find it easy to outwit the weak system, but Makinde’s public assets disclosure poses a challenge to them. Although the CCB law mandates top public officers to file their assets details within three months of their assumption of office, the governor submitted his returns on the eve of inauguration – on May 28. Surprisingly, the governor said he was revealing all the details of his holdings: companies, Eurobonds, cash in naira and foreign exchange and nine properties in Nigeria, one in South Africa and two in the United States.
By Nigerian standards, Makinde is not a pauper. According to the World Poverty Clock, Nigeria is the extreme poverty capital of the world. It harbours 94 million “extremely poor” people, who live on less than $1.90 per day. Out of the morass, Makinde’s message to Oyo State people – and Nigerians in general – seems to be that he will show fidelity to his oath of office. It is a clean move, though, in Nigeria, trust is preciously lacking as both the poor and the rich public office holders are linked with unusual looting of the public treasury.
Critically, Makinde refuses to be held captive by the CCB law. The 1999 Constitution limits government officials to just filing a written declaration to the bureau. This closes the door against holding officials accountable. As a result, the ruling class members hide under the law. Some of them use this loophole to make anticipatory declarations and false declarations. Some do not even make filings at all. Worse, the public is unable to trace the properties they acquire illegally in and out of office.
The declaration of assets is a safeguard against sleaze, a way of life in Nigeria. During his state visit to the United States in 2015, Buhari stated that public officials looted $150 billion from the treasury in the 10 years to that time. Buhari removed the immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, back in January following discrepancies noticed in his asset declaration forms.
It helps to determine whether officials involve themselves in conflict of interests. In Makinde’s case, this is now easy. His companies can easily be traced in the event that they secure contracts from the Oyo State Government. Public-spirited individuals, journalists and civil society groups can interrogate the governor’s declared holdings during and after his term of office.
The World Bank recommends that countries should promote asset declaration to deter officials from perpetrating acts of corruption. It puts down the effectiveness of such laws to making “asset declaration available for public scrutiny.” Currently, this is lacking in our clime. In a research, it said that 70 per cent of countries in Europe and Central Asia required mandatory public disclosure of information contained in the asset declaration forms.
Similarly, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development reported that 86 per cent of OECD countries required their top leaders to disclose private assets. “A well-defined asset declaration system is a strong tool to fight public sector corruption and abuse of power. Published information on a person’s assets allows civil society to hold leaders to account,” an OECD research paper argued.
In this, it recommends the US model, because it is “comprehensive and transparent.” That was the foundation when the White House released the details of Barack Obama’s assets in May 2012. That also was the case with his deputy, Joe Biden. The Obamas had assets of between $2.6 million and $8.3 million, but the details made the difference (as against the current legal norm in Nigeria). Much of Obama’s income came from his memoir. He stated his 30-year mortgage at 5.6 per cent rate, the saving plan for the children’s college education and his annual salary of $400,000. Apart from Biden’s $230,700 annual salary, the then vice-president listed an outside income of about $30,000 and $105,000, principally from the rent on his properties and book royalties.
But assets declaration will be just a hollow exercise if it is not followed by a diligent verification for accuracy and tax returns. Therefore, the challenge before Nigeria is to encourage political leaders to disclose their assets openly and comprehensively to allow civil society organisations and the media monitor the integrity of public officials. The provision in the Third Schedule, Part I (3c) of the 1999 Constitution, which mandates the CCB to: “Retain custody of such declarations and make them available for inspection by any citizen of Nigeria on such terms and conditions as the National Assembly may prescribe” should be completed and enforced. The citizens should impress it on NASS to urgently act on this minimum constitutional requirement. Other governors, commissioners, ministers, lawmakers, members of the judiciary, the top security chiefs, top civil servants and administrators should follow Makinde’s example.
Buhari should strengthen the CCB and the Code of Conduct Tribunal to carry out their constitutional functions.