Vice President Jonathan's "Modest" Fortune

Vice President Jonathan's "Modest" Fortune

By Ogaga Ifowodo   


I am shocked by the outpouring of commendations for the vice president, Mr Goodluck Jonathan, on finally publishing his assets declaration. So universal is the praise that even the usually exacting Joe Okei-Odumakin of the Campaign for Democracy had no other quibble than that Jonathan failed to also declare his wife's assets. Suddenly it seems that the intense pressure on Jonathan to publish his assets declaration was solely for the mere form of the act with scant regard for the substance. Had the vice president voluntarily published his assets, or been the first to do so, this effusion of praise might be understandable. As we know, however, Jonathan had to be implored, cajoled and literally harassed into letting the people he will serve know his worth in money and property. So implacably opposed to a public declaration was he that he made it quite clear he would sooner resign his office than do what the public wanted; swearing all the while that he had nothing to hide.

In my piece, "As Jonathan Pushes His Good Luck to the Brink," published in The Guardian the same day the publication of his assets declaration was reported, I said that I believed the vice president had a lot to hide. On the evidence of what he has declared, I stand by that view until the questions I pose below have been satisfactorily answered. Quite remarkably, the vice president seemed to have been inclined towards a secret declaration more out of a palpable fear for the safety of his real estate holdings than the principle of probity and transparency. I am bothered by the near total reluctance to subject Jonathan's declaration to scrutiny.

According to the vice president, his total worth in assets is N295.3 million. Of this, he claims that his four "private buildings" in Bayelsa and Abuja are worth N67.9 million. Jonathan also owns a total of seven undeveloped plots of land, including two in Abuja, worth N60.5 million. If these were all the vice president could boast, they would put him not only among the handful of Bayelsan multi-millionaires but also among the tiny minority of the well-to-do in a country overwhelmed by crippling poverty. Yet that isn't all. The vice president also owns vehicles and household items worth N41.8 million, including a N15 million BMW car which he declared to be a gift, as well as some other unspecified items  -   among them four sixteen-seater passenger boats. Furthermore, Jonathan lists about N62 million as accruing from investments in sixteen blue-chip companies and total cash in Nigerian banks of N58.9 million.

These assets, it needs emphasizing, do not include those of his wife. Yet it is public knowledge that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission had cause just last year to be interested in the financial dealings of Mrs Patience Jonathan. The news that the EFCC "seized US$13.5 million" from her and that the commission was "investigating the funds' origin" made national and international headlines. For instance, on 11 September 2006, the International Herald Tribune reported the sleaze to the world thus, "Nigerian anti-graft commission seizes US$13.5 million from governor's wife." If the source was found to be legitimate, as either Mrs Jonathan's income-yielding stocks in blue-chip companies or an inheritance, the Nigerian public was not told.

This then is the assets declaration that has drawn such effusive praise. Satisfied that the VP condescended to publish his assets, we seem now unwilling to ask a few simple questions: how did the ex-university teacher, living a fairy tale life since 1999 when he became deputy to a convicted looter-in-chief of the Bayelsa State treasury, become a multi-millionaire in less than a decade? Had he saved every kobo of his salaries as deputy governor and chief executive, would he still be worth that much? How much has he paid in income tax since 1999? Who gave him the gift of a BMW car, in what circumstances, and why did he accept it? Nor have we asked the obvious corollary question: as deputy governor, could Jonathan have lived safely behind a cordon sanitaire, safe from temptation and corruption, as his boss, Dipreye Alamieyeseigha, ceaselessly raided the till?  And are we to believe that on becoming governor, he kept his hands Pontius Pilate-clean while his wife dirtied hers to the point of attracting the attention of the EFCC?

Of the many reactions in praise of Jonathan, I found that attributed to Mr Lanre Odogiyan, SAN, most worrisome. In the report, "AC, human rights groups, others commend Vice President Jonathan over assets publication" in The Guardian of Friday, 10 August, Odogiyan was quoted as having said thus: "The nearly N300 million assets declared by the Vice President is modest and shows that he lives a modest lifestyle. Though I am surprised, I am also impressed, I will not hesitate to commend this modest lifestyle to our leaders." In two quick sentences, Odogiyan used the word "modest" three times to describe Jonathan's wealth and person! One wonders then why he was surprised at all.

But that is not the only reason why I consider Odogiyan's reaction worrisome. I sense a reflection of the utter perversion of values that has crippled Nigeria in the view that N300 million is a modest personal worth. To me, and to the majority of Nigerians, that is a fortune. At the prevailing exchange rate, that amount is about US$2.5 million. No serving or retired government functionary in the United States would be praised for acquiring such a "modest" fortune in the course of public service. And the vice president had the US in mind when, speaking through his media assistant in specific defence of the exact state of the treasury he left behind in Bayelsa State, he wondered: "Did any one ever hear Bill Clinton declare how much cash he left in the treasury for George W. Bush? Don't they also practise the presidential system?" Yes, they do practise the presidential system, but does Jonathan recall that Clinton left the White House broke after two terms  -   not to mention his eight years as governor of Arkansas? That it was not until he was commanding handsome speaking fees and had written a best-selling autobiography that he could pay off the  debts he owed the lawyers who fought  his many legal battles? Closer home to us, does Jonathan remember that Julius Nyerere, after twenty-four years of being prime minister of Tanzania, resigned from office with only one house built with a loan?

But we have long succumbed to the myth of Nigerian exceptionalism, also known as the Nigerian factor. Still we might ask, How many houses does Jonathan need to meet his need for shelter? As deputy governor and then governor, he clearly did not need a house in Abuja. If the State's governor's lodge would not serve his dignity (which would be partly his fault) whenever he should be the federal capital for official business, then any of the sumptuous hotels would do well enough. As vice president, Jonathan would need to have served his term and decided to relocate to Abuja before any necessity for him to own a personal house there, let alone two undeveloped plots of land, would arise. But since he owns four houses, again we might ask: How much mortgage, Sir, are you still paying? Unless a money tree sprang up overnight in your backyard, how did you amass the considerable sums well beyond your official income to become such a well-heeled man of means so quickly? For in the absence of a disclosure of any inheritance or a lucky day playing the lottery, your "modest" fortune remains beclouded by suspicion.

It seems we must now insist on the publication of two assets declarations: the very first on assuming high public office, and the last. This way, we would better be able to detect what was acquired at the expense of the people. Before we mistake the trees for the forest, we must quickly return to the urgent need for accountability and probity in governance that led to the pressure on Jonathan to publish his assets declaration. We might wish to start by asking a few hard questions and insisting on clear answers.