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Jonathan-Don’t-Give-Damn (JEDI-JEDI) Presidency By Sonala Olumhense

I knew there had to be words which capture what ails Nigeria.  Last week President Goodluck Jonathan spoke them.  

I knew there had to be words which capture what ails Nigeria.  Last week President Goodluck Jonathan spoke them.  

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“Don’t give damn,” he said in front of a television, radio, diplomatic, Internet and YouTube audience.  He was responding to the national demand for him to declare his assets, which are thought to be considerable, publicly.

“Don’t Give Damn!”  Most powerful men would not utter those words in public; they arise from a narrow power mindset, and are dangerous in a real democracy.  
“Don’t Give Damn!” bragged Mr. Jonathan, announcing that it did not matter if people criticized him from heaven.

If there is any other way of interpreting the public relations disaster of June 24, otherwise known as a “Media Chat,” I have yet to hear it.  The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria clearly and eloquently prescribes the institution of assets declaration for public officials, beginning with the President.  It is not optional.

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The problem is that a declaration of assets is meaningless if it is not made public. The constitution leaves the official to show good faith and prove that he is transparent and trustworthy, but also provides a mechanism for public access to the document.  Under the constitution, it is the voluntary challenge of disclosure that makes the entire idea of assets declaration worthwhile.  It separates those who came to serve from those who came to serve themselves.   It holds terror only for those who know in their hearts they have something—or a lot—to be ashamed of.  

Still, “Don’t Give Damn!” said Jonathan of the law and the spirit in which it is written.  And then, in the most brazen act of arrogance I have ever heard in a public official, he confessed he had not wanted to declare his assets in 2007 when he took office as Vice-President.  

Luckily for Nigeria at that point, his boss compelled him to.

Only five years later, Mr. Jonathan is now in charge, and he sneers at all that, including many Nigerians who rejected his party last year but voted for Jonathan in the belief he had character: “Don’t Give Damn!”
And it is all merely a matter of “principle,” to him, he said.  
Principle?  Or Principal?

Perhaps he meant “principal,” which, according to a dictionary, is: “First, highest, or foremost in importance, rank, worth, or degree; chief.” As the government’s principal official, he was probably saying only that nobody can compel him to declare his assets.   

News reports of the event, however, have him saying that his objection is on grounds of principle.  
That would be peculiar, because in the English language, principle refers to ethical or moral canons of good behavior.  And that would relate to public behavior, not private prejudices or self-indulgence.  Principle is when you stand by a higher standard in spite of personal privation or pain.

In other words, what Mr. Jonathan calls principle is really its opposite: expediency. It is self-serving purpose of which there is no better example than his lame excuse for trying to hide his wealth.  He even said it ought to be up to each public official to determine whether he should declare or not. That would be like asking kidnappers to decide if they want to return the ransom.  Like the Metropolitan Police asking James Ibori to decide if he is a thief.  

Let us be clear: Only someone with something to hide, or too much to hide, would want to challenge the necessity for assets declaration in Nigeria.  It was put in place specifically to attract men of character and dissuade interlopers; to empower patriots and disperse charlatans; and to encourage public service over pillaging pirates.  

By challenging this principle, Mr. Jonathan is making the case for those interlopers, charlatans and pirates.  By implying he is too important to obey the spirit of the law, he confirms that he is uncomfortable with what he owns.

But he also overreached himself about whom he is.  “When I was a governor in Bayelsa State for about a year before becoming Vice-President, I was investigated thoroughly,” he said.  “I have nothing to hide.”

Really?  I hate to delay Mr. Jonathan’s desperate desire to be acclaimed as a saint, but before he seizes the halo, it is on record that in June 2006, the federal government indicted him for false declaration of assets and recommended him for prosecution by the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB).

The Joint Task Force (JTF), which was set up by President Olusegun Obasanjo, did not agree that Mr. Jonathan had “nothing to hide.”

For instance, Mr. Jonathan told the JTF he had acquired an N18million Lexus SUV and a N5.5 million BMW 7351 Series through personal savings, but the probe found he had collected them as gifts, in violation of the CCB Act.  It also indicted Mr. Jonathan for acquiring extensive real estate outside his legitimate income, citing property in Otuoke, Yenagoa and Abuja.  

The following year, the “children of independence” took office and Mr. Yar’Adua declared his assets.  For Mr. Jonathan, it seems Yar’Adua may have had to deploy words like “Pronto!” or “maza-maza!” but Mr. Jonathan, as he has explained eventually declared his worth of nearly N300 million.  

Not bad for a man who had been governor “for about one year.”  Naturally, Nigerians were horrified at the numbers.  In one instance, Mr. Jonathan explained a dangling N15 million by claiming that someone gave it to him as a gift, as if the constitution permits such inducements.  Nigerians fiercely attacked that declaration.

Without a doubt, it is those two experiences that have driven Mr. Jonathan into his defensiveness.  Never having passed a single declaration of assets examination, he and the entire country seem agreed that he does not look likely to pass a third.  “Don’t-Give-Damn!” is the convenient excuse.

But it is not the fault of the Nigerian people that they want to scrutinize anyone who wants to rule them.  That is particularly true when such a person flies the flag of good governance and transparency at every opportunity.  For instance, when Mr. Jonathan took the presidency in February 2010, he said, “One of the cardinal commitments of this administration is our commitment to good governance, accountability and transparency.  We shall continue to pursue these policy objectives with all the seriousness they deserve.”

And then, upon being sworn in following Yar’Adua’s death in May, he lifted up the same flag again, “Our total commitment to good governance, electoral reform and the fight against corruption would be pursued with greater vigour,” he boasted. “As I had (sic) stated time and again, we must enshrine the best standards in our democratic practice…”

That is why Nigerians are now asking that Mr. Jonathan put his declaration of assets where his mouth has been so that they can confirm he is whom he claims he is.  Enough of the speeches.
But while still trying to justify himself last Sunday, Mr. Jonathan said that whether he declares his assets or not is not the issue.  It is painful to hear the Nigeria ruler suggest he does not recognize that character is the official chair on which he sits, and credibility the first item in his job description.  But the most condescending is the effort to dissociate the raping and looting of the commonwealth from our country’s to rise from obscurity.   

For 50 years, Nigeria has been rendered rudderless by ruthless public officers protected by the confidence that nobody is coming for them.  Since February 9, 2010, Jonathan has not proved to be that man, either, and he now confirms what we already knew.  Jonathan-Don’t-Give-Damn!

It was no surprise last week that his People’s Democratic Party (PDP)—as if it has any credibility—announced its testimony to “the high degree of integrity and transparency of President Jonathan".  
Assets declaration is not an issue: it is the issue.  It is not a distraction, because it is the ruler by which the public may measure a ruler.  A public official who does not want to declare his assets publicly declares he has assets that belong to the public.  

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