On Thursday, June 28, President Umaru Yar'Adua took the unprecedented step of declaring publicly his personal assets. Coming barely one month after he assumed office, the step is unparalleled because he is the first Nigerian president, military or civilian, to declare his private assets publicly. That he is not under any legal obligation to do so makes it more significant.
Also, the fact that not even his predecessor, General Olusegun Obasanjo, the man who made the so-called fight against corruption an official mantra, had the moral courage to tell Nigerians what he is worth instantly made Yar'Adua an anti-corruption icon, of some sort, to many Nigerians, who are desperately in search of a role model.
At last, a man in possession of strong moral capital has come to the throne and Nigeria is about to rise and shine, many, to whom corruption has become a bete noire, ululated.
In a clime where government business is conducted in asphyxiating secrecy, such openness is indeed a breath of fresh air.
But having decided, on his own volition, to go public, Nigerians would have helped him assume the enviable, but presently unoccupied position of anti-corruption icon, which the president craves for, desperately. They would have done this by asking simple questions, and seeking clarifications. Public declaration of assets should not be an end in itself, if it is to serve any useful purpose, but a means to an end. The end being a rigorous interrogation of the declaration so made by the people to whom the declaration was made.
Anything short of this makes such a declaration a public relations stunt, which is actually what it turned out to be. The president's handlers scored a bull's eye with that stunt as many came to the illogical conclusion that the man is indeed a poor man by being worth less than a billion naira. But how can a man who is worth so much be a poor man? Not even if his wealth is calculated in the worthless Zimbabwean dollar would he be deemed a poor person.
Besides, the president was said to have, also, publicly declared his assets in 1999, when he became the governor of Katsina State, and he was worth less than N100 million. Eight years after, a period when he did no other work than being the governor of a state, his assets increased exponentially by over 800 percent to the present N856,452,892. In other words, the president became more than N700 million richer while serving as a state governor.
The question that ought to have been asked, which answer at the end of the day, may indeed prove beyond all reasonable doubt that Yar'Adua is indeed a quintessence of transparency is; what is the secret? It is common knowledge that the Yar'Adua family is a very wealthy family. Could it be that the president inherited a patrimony in the course of his gubernatorial tenure apart from the Yar'Adua Family Compound in Katsina State, which he was said to have acquired through inheritance in 1997, and the duplex at Malali, Kaduna State, reportedly a gift from his late elder brother, General Shehu Yar'Adua?
Even if the bulk of his wealth came from campaign donations ÔÇô cash and vehicles ÔÇô which he appropriated after the "do-or-die" elections, as has been reported, the question still ought to have been asked. What does the law say on such funds? Or is there no law in our statute books regulating campaign funds? Was the president right in converting the millions of naira that accrued to the PDP presidential fund, including 29 vehicles, into his personal wealth?
But because the president's unprecedented step was seen as an end in itself, rather than a step in the right direction, which ultimate destination should be the arena of accountability in public office, in all sense material, many naively challenged other public officials to take a cue from him. Rather than ask the simple question that would have helped in clearing the fog, they unctuously praised him to high heavens.
Last week, two public officials - a senator, who is a former governor, and a serving governor - took up the challenge and declared their private assets publicly. Ibrahim Idris, governor of Kogi State was the first. According to a report in the Vanguard newspaper, Idris who is serving his second term went to a High Court in the state capital, Lokoja, on Thursday to swear to an affidavit, listing his assets as 14 buildings and 10 cars, all of which he said he acquired before assumption of office on May 29, 2003. "I have not acquired any property added to the ones already declared since I took over as governor of the state," he reportedly told Justice Tom Yakubu.
The same day, Alhaji Ahmad Sani, former governor of Zamfara State, and now, the Senate Minority Whip also addressed a press conference, through his private secretary, Alhaji Kabir Balarabe, to announce that he is worth well over a billion naira.
According to a report in the Punch newspaper, the senator who claims not to operate a foreign bank account says the total amount from salaries and savings/investments he has in banks is N8,364,396.43 and foreign currency in Nigerian banks, $163, 576.32 (N20.774m), made up of $113,418.39 in credit card, and $50,157.93 in Domiciliary account. The senator also declared a bank loan (credit) of N125,223,629.36, and a debit of N240,833,333.34. He also has a cash at hand of N2m.
In addition to the cash at hand and in the bank, both in local and foreign currency, the former governor has six buildings located in Sokoto, Gusau, and Abuja, valued at N332m; two residential vacant plots in Asokoro, Abuja and Bakura in Zamfara valued at N30.25m; four factories located in Gusau, Yar Geda and Bakura/Talata Marafa valued at N203.5m; three farms, all located at Talata Mafara, Bakura, Dansadau in his home state, valued at N17.5m.
The value of the shares, which have not started yielding dividends yet, is put at N18.5m, while his six Mercedes Benz and Jeep vehicles are valued at N85m, and N24m worth of household furniture.
Sani claims he earns, annually, N9m from his buildings, while his farms and factories fetch the handsome sums of N25m and N112m respectively.
Signing off the presentation, Balarabe said of his benefactor: "Senator Ahmad Rufa'l Sani, the Senate Minority Whip, wishes to fulfil the pledge he made in May, 2003. This is further an exhibition of his strong belief in transparency and accountability."
The sarcasm in this last sentence could hardly be lost on any discerning Nigerian. If the only thing that qualifies the president to be a transparent and accountable public official is a public declaration of his personal assets, then, Sani is also transparent since he has done the same. That is the hole those who praised Yar'Adua, without asking questions, dug for themselves, and into which they have now fallen.
What moral right would anybody have to ask Sani the simple question that was not put to Yar'Adua? Sani deliberately put the joke on Nigerians and by so doing, exposed our gullibility as a people.
It is the same lack of caution that has made some to believe that Yar'Adua will cleanse the country's electoral Aegean Stable, simply because he promised to reform the electoral process. How would he do that? Nobody is asking. But that is an issue for another day.
The fact that Sani took up this challenge is not by accident. He was one of the governors pointedly accused by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) chairman, Nuhu Ribadu, of being corrupt. When the immunity clause stood between the EFCC and their prosecution, Ribadu told the whole world that he was waiting for May 29. More than a month after May 29, Ribadu has suddenly lost his voice.
Sani's public declaration of his assets is a bold reminder to Ribadu, the man who told us that he had signed extradition pact with the US and many European countries, so that, as golden fish, there will be no hiding place for the former governors after May 29, that he is still there, daring him to do his worst. Will Ribadu take up the challenge? I will be pleasantly surprised.
But whether he does or not, Nigerians should start asking their leaders simple questions.
Sani, just like Yar'Adua, needs to tell us how and when he came by such mind-boggling wealth. What was he worth before he became a governor in 1999? How is it that the Yerima Bakura, the supposedly pious apostle of Sharia, who ought to be an exemplar of ascetic life, has such ostentatious taste for life?
How is it that in a country of extreme poverty such as ours, where over 70 percent of the population live on less than $1 (N126) a day, almost every public officer leaves office a billionaire? Why is it that when it comes to their private businesses while in public office, Nigerian leaders have the axiomatic Midas touch, with their personal businesses flourishing while state businesses flounder?
How come public officials, always exhort hapless Nigerians, already living below poverty line, to tighten their belts, while they are busy amassing stupendous wealth?
With an annual income of N146m, excluding dividends from shares, Sani was richer than the state he superintended because it is doubtful if Zamfara generated, internally, such revenue while he was in office.
To imagine that this same man, who is a billionaire simply because he was a governor for eight years, was cutting off the limbs of indigenes of Zamfara, who were driven by poverty to steal their neighbour's fowls and yams, shows the level of contempt our so-called leaders have for us.
At the end of the day, one won't be surprised to hear that these chief executives took loans from banks to set up their flourishing business, even why in office, without telling us what collateral they used in securing the loans. And you ask, when did government houses, both at the state and federal level, become collateral for bank loans?
We are indeed at the dawn of a new beginning!