Two weeks ago, I joined the call on Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan to declare his assets, and to make that declaration public in the manner of President Umaru Yar’Adua.
Mr. Jonathan has responded to the national clamour on him by saying he has declared his assets, and has done so several times since his days as Deputy Governor of Bayelsa State.
In making the announcement, however, the Vice-President labored to emphasize that he has satisfied the law. The Vice-President is right: Nigerian law does not require public officials to do more than send a statement of declaration to the Code of Conduct Bureau.
The problem is that Vice-President Jonathan misunderstands the moment. We are talking about the rule of right, not the rule of law. The law of which he speaks is an anachronism. It is out of place with today’s ethical climate. It is a law that has been manipulated by the corrupt and the greedy, and Mr. Jonathan knows this only too well. No self-respecting Nigerian ought to swear by it. That is why Mr. Jonathan sounds like a Christian who, having slept with his brother’s wife, seeks forgiveness by confessing the sin to the pastor, not his brother.
Under the existing law, it has been the norm for public officials to loot the treasury to its foundation, and shamelessly ignore their public charge. I draw the attention of the Vice-President to the incredible revelations now being made at the trials of his former colleagues as governor. Like armed robbers stopping in a restaurant to take stock of their takings, some of those Governors had actually ‘declared their assets’ along the way.
The challenge of today is that anyone who really loves this country and has nothing to hide must refuse to be part of a law that is itself a reflection of our ethical collapse. Nobody who claims to be part of the restoration of Nigeria, as the Yar’Adua government does, ought to cite this law as justification for doing the wrong thing. The last time I checked, Mr. Jonathan was a part of that government.
I am certain that Mr. Jonathan understands, only too well, the point that I am making. If he has chosen not to declare his assets publicly, on account of the letter of the law, he is not being very clever. He should ask himself if he has done the right thing. He has not.
There are times when we satisfy the demands of the law but not the imperative of right and wrong. This is one of them, and President Yar’Adua realized it. The right thing is indexed on the best interests of the people, and that is more potent than the law. The right thing for a Nigerian public official today, is to ask himself where his credibility lies: the law, or a public declaration of assets. Only a public declaration can confers some credibility or elicit public trust. That is the sign of someone who is certain of the track upon which he has walked.
The contrary, represented by Mr. Jonathan’s argument, is like a fig leaf that a naked mad man holds in front of his face in an attempt to cover his manhood. It raises more laughter than answers. If Mr. Jonathan’s declaration of his assets in the past few years is a true reflection of him, why is he suddenly shy about letting the public see it? He would not be offending the law, but enhancing it in the service of his fatherland. There can be no greater honour or motivation than that. If the integrity of an honest man is challenged, he steps forward—over and above the requirements of the law—in protection of his name.
What is at stake here, then, is the character of Mr. Jonathan. Sending a piece of paper to the Code of Conduct Bureau provides no protection for his image. Insisting that it does is simply calling upon the law to defeat the law. That is why he has set off our collective alarm. The objective of the law is not to make people hand in pieces of paper for hiding; it is to give society the confidence they are whom they say they are. That is impossible if they lack access to the declaration.
If Mr. Jonathan is honest, he should be glad of the most powerful tool available today to earn the respect of Nigeria. That tool is a published declaration of assets. The secret declaration he has undertaken is outmoded and flawed; that the Code of Conduct Bureau tried to stop President Yar’Adua from publishing his declaration is proof that the current law is anti-transparency and anti-Nigeria.
Mr. Jonathan cannot have it both ways. He must determine what is more important: being the Vice-President, or being a private Citizen with no public obligations. If respect and honour are important to him as a person and as the nation’s Number 2 Citizen, he must publish his declaration.
That is the only way his service as Vice-President of Nigeria, and in the service of Bayelsa State, will have credibility. That is the only context in which his tenure as Vice-President will have meaning. Nigerians have been promised a change by the administration of which he is Number 2; what kind of change is that if the Vice-President refuses to follow the most significant example by a Nigerian leader in nearly 50 years? Mr. Jonathan ran with President Yar’Adua on the same ticket; what kind of flight is that if both men are not even in the same airport? What language do they speak when they discuss reform, if the President mentions translucency and the Vice-President says he does not know the spelling?
Nigerians know that some people in public office have something—or plenty—to hide. That is actually the most powerful argument for refusing to publish your declaration. Some people know they have looted lavishly and must find every banana leaf under which to hide those assets and hide their heads. Such people will clutch at every loophole in the law rather than beat their chests and say, “I am not afraid…here I am.”
Perhaps we must be mindful that guilt and fear travel together. If Mr. Jonathan is not guilty, why is he afraid? Why does he invite this suspicion on himself and the Jonathan family? It must be clear to him: unless he makes his declaration available for public examination, he will never know national respect. If the Jonathans put self before Nigeria, none of them will ever enjoy success or being a Jonathan, because history will always trace them to this cesspit.
If Mr. Jonathan does not care, and he chooses to play both sides of the fence, Nigerians should clear their throats wherever they see him, raise their voices and point to the cloud of dust above his head, shouting, “D-Y-A! D-Y-A! D-Y-A! D-Y-A!”
If he chooses to avoid the path of honour, Mr. Jonathan may well remain the Vice-President, but he will also become something more important: the new public face of hypocrisy.