Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Barth Nnaji’s Resignation is Testament to the Need for Public Declaration of Asset

“No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and not improbably, corrupt his integrity. With equal, nay with greater reason, a body of men are unfit to be both judges and parties at the same time.”  -James Madison

Earlier this year, President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, came out with a mind boggling argument on why he is not a big fan of asset declaration. In a widely published interview he asserts: “The issue of asset declaration is a matter of principle. I don’t give a damn about it, if you want to criticize me from heaven. The issue of public declaration I think is playing to the gallery. You don’t need to publicly declare any assets. If I am somebody who wants to hide it is what I tell you that you will even believe.” And now with the resignation of Professor Barth Nnaji as energy minister, over the issue of his conflict of interest in a power distribution company, we can conclusively say that the chicken is finally coming home to roost and the president may have committed what we Nigerians often calls “foot in the mouth disease”.

One can unmistakably surmise that Nnaji’s imbroglio would not have happened if he had been made to publicly declare his asset before his appointment as energy minister. Corruption is a big threat to democracy everywhere and anywhere; it hinders good governance, democratic processes, fair business and political competition. A recent joint report by Anti Corruption Network and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recommends that a public declaration of asset by politicians and political appointees will help: “ increase transparency and the trust of citizens in public administration, by disclosing information about assets of politicians and civil servants that shows they have nothing to hide; help heads of public institutions prevent conflicts of interest among their employees and to resolve such situations when they arise, in order to promote integrity within their institutions; help monitor wealth variations of individual politicians and civil servants, in order to dissuade them from misconduct and protect them from false accusations, and to help clarify the full scope of illicit enrichment or other illegal activity by providing additional evidence.”

Let me hasten to state here that Professor Nnaji has not been accused of any wrongdoing and may have actually acted above board in all his dealings as Nigeria’s power and energy minister, the problem here has little or nothing to do with impropriety but an appearance of such. For months, the workers and labor unions in his ministry have been making insinuations about his financial interest in some companies bidding to buy some of the assets of Power Holding Corporation of Nigeria. According to the Guardian newspapers, “Nnaji’s resignation may not be unconnected with revelations at last Friday’s meeting of the National Council on Privatisation (NCP) that companies allegedly owned or linked to the former minister made bids for the Afam Generation Company Limited and Enugu Distribution Company Limited.”

One can only rue what could have been, if the president and his ministers as well as all political appointees had been made to publicly declare their assets in an open and transparent manner. For one the general public would have known that the minister has an interest in a company bidding to purchase Afam power plant even though he has put his shares in what he called “a blind trust.” As one senatorial candidate from Massachusetts once quibbled “The blind trust is an age-old ruse.” In the United States of America where we drew the fountain of our constitution and democracy, the first elected official to use a blind trust was President Lyndon Johnson, he did this so he could hold on to his interest in a Texas television station, an industry heavily regulated by the Federal Communication Commission. Most of Johnson’s successors followed his lead, but only in 1978, with the passage of the Ethics in Government Act, did blind trusts become a formal option for executive-branch officers seeking to avoid conflicts of interest. The Act requires that trustees must be independent of the official, that such trust must be free of restrictions on sale or transfer of assets, and that the official is to receive no information except for quarterly updates on cash value and income or loss, needed to file income-tax returns. We do not have a similar legislation in Nigeria, the closest policy we have in Nigeria is the People’s Democratic Party’s “Manifesto, Programme and Policy Trust for 2011-2015” which commits the party and its members to “to ensure that its elected officials openly declare their assets.” We all know that all PDP officials, including the president flagrantly fouled this policy.

President Jonathan often allude to US president Obama as a good study on governance, in fact his entire campaign for Nigerian presidency seeks to mirror President Obama’s own campaign four years ago. His oft reference as a man without a shoe becoming the president of Nigeria is an attempt to draw parallel with Obama’s campaign of hope in a black man with foreign sounding name ascending to the presidency of the United States. It is not enough to campaign like Obama if you are not willing to follow his actions. As Todd S. Purdum argued in his article in Vanity Fair last month, “as a freshman senator, Barack Obama—whose wealth comes almost entirely from his book royalties—set up a blind trust but later that same year sold all of his stocks and closed the trust because he decided that even such an arrangement could not protect him from the appearance of a conflict. Most of his wealth is now invested in U.S. Treasury bonds and diversified funds—about the most transparent option available. What’s good for the country is good for Obama, and vice versa, to coin a phrase.” We can also say that what is good for Obama is good for Jonathan and his ministers.

Now is the time for the National Assembly of Nigeria to pass a comprehensive legislation similar to the US’s “Ethics in Government Act” which would make it mandatory that all executive, judicial and legislative office holders declare their assets openly and publicly before their swearing in. And as the OECD paper pointed out, a public declaration of asset without verification is meaningless, given the prevalence of corruption in our polity. It is imperative that the media and the public should have access to means for verification of such assets through the Freedom of Information Acts. Any public officials who may falsify their assets or hide assets in any way should be sanction in addition to the certain public opprobrium that would follow. Our democracy is too fragile to leave in the hands of politicians with skeletons in their cupboards.

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