We need students, parents, schools, civic and professional associations putting down the pens and pencils of criticism, and replacing them with the rakes and shovels of national commitment and social action…
In a highly-advertised public relations gimmick on July 14, 2011, President Goodluck Jonathan announced what he called a “comprehensive” four-year audit of the federal government’s finances since 2007.
That base year was the year he and Umaru Yar’Adua, who at their inauguration had labelled themselves “children of independence”, took power.
2007 was before Mr. Jonathan famously declared corruption in Nigeria to be “exaggerated”. It was before he swore he would never publicly declare his assets, and before he elicited the collective gasp of history as he declared acts of stealing not to be mistaken for corruption.
But on that occasion, less than two months after his inauguration, he said he was re-launching the “war against corruption”, and that his government would be governed by the principles of transparency and accountability.
Mr. Jonathan’s speechwriter, presiding over a carton of Gulder, must have been guffawing hard as he listened to the president mouthing all the made-up cliches.
“We will carry out a comprehensive audit of all Ministries, Departments and Agencies of the Federal Government beginning from June 2007,” he must have mouthed along. “You must observe due process in all that you do…
“The anti-corruption agencies have been directed to beam their searchlights on the ministries, departments and agencies of the Federal Government, and also focus on the states and local government areas, in order to send out a clear signal, that no form of abuse will be tolerated.”
It is evident now that the Nigeria leader was merely reading a script. Not once thereafter did he even refer to such an investigation, no report was ever issued, and nobody has suffered as a result of his “war”.
But just in case you didn’t know, the nation’s constitution is categorical about one standard expected of public officials:
Section 140 (1) says: “A person elected to the office of President shall not begin to perform the functions of that office until he has declared his assets and liabilities as prescribed in this Constitution and he has taken and subscribed to the Oath of Allegiance and the oath of office prescribed in the Seventh Schedule to this Constitution.”
In Sections 149 and 152, it prescribes the same standard for Ministers and Special Advisers.
To be fair to Mr. Jonathan, he never said he had not declared his assets: the nightmare which kept him awake was always the one about the public finding out what he really owns.
But that is the very point, and our history is firm proof that a secret declaration is no declaration at all.
That is where that speechwriter who manipulated him got it wrong in the transparency double-talk. In Mr. Jonathan’s March 2015 electoral collapse, Nigerians confirmed they did not forgive the duplicity.
But the outgoing president was also assisted by the mistakes of the Founding Fathers, who imagined that asset-declaration as a non-contact sport would somehow help Nigeria along the way.
That must now be corrected, and it is hopefully one of the first few things that Muhammadu Buhari chases first when he assumes office. It is not enough for him and his appointees to declare their assets, even at Abuja’s Eagle Square. The task is to end impunity, and he can commence that process by working to make public assets declaration by public officers a matter of law.
But this must also be tied to two other extremely important correlations. The first is that the three cited categories of public-and allied-officials must also publicly declare their assets when their tenure ends, or within two weeks if they are fired or impeached.
A declaration of assets at the beginning is worthless if it is not accompanied by a control declaration at the end.
The second correlation is to combat the highest level of impunity at the source: the immunity cause in the constitution. If a President or a governor has time to create assorted and repeated mayhem in office rather than focus on serving the public, he can certainly face necessary legal action.
This is hopefully the tone that Buhari will set four weeks from now: leadership of action, laws and institutions.
But Buhari is not bringing miracles, and Buhari himself it is who must understand this. He does not have to do everything, because he cannot. What he can, and must achieve, is to set a bar below which Nigeria must never again sink. He can do that by establishing appropriate law, building a meritocracy, and motivating Nigerians to take their fate in their hands.
We expect action where there have been hollow words for over 50 years.
But of course he will also speak, especially at his inauguration, when every word will be as powerful as anything he will ever do.
He should throw himself at the mercy of Nigerians, reminding them that neither they nor the leadership given him can accomplish anything unless we all change. He should call out to Nigerians to reach deep so as to rise high; to replace selfishness with compassion, and corruption with nationalism.
He should remind Nigerians that everyone can serve, and everyone can give, and that it takes every man and every woman serving a little and giving a little for a people to reach the skies.
He may paraphrase another famous leader. “Ask not what this government can do for you or for yours, but what you and yours can do for this country.
“You don’t have to see me, or hold office, in order to serve.
“You don’t have to see the Vice-President.
“You don’t have to be acknowledged or to be rewarded.
“Let us change what being a Nigerian official means: not a means of self-enrichment, but an opportunity to serve. Let us change what being a Nigerian citizen means: from being a spectator of a kleptocracy to being an active champion of our democracy.
“We will identify and provide opportunities to contribute to the common good, but you do not have to wait to be shown how to serve. We will list worthwhile and unfinished projects throughout this country. You will have a chance to serve, to uplift, to serve, to contribute, to complete.
“Pledge. Commit. Cooperate. Improve your community
“Donate your time. Write a cheque. Donate scholarships and we will find deserving students who never need to know your name unless you insist, who will honour them in the name of Nigeria.
“Donate a privilege, a car, a bus, airline tickets or opportunities, rather than ask for them. Donate land or good buildings for public use, but not stolen funds. If you have stolen funds in your hands, return them: it is the right, safe and advisable thing to do.
“Build or furnish a library, a playground, a park, a community centre, a tennis court. Generously endow a chair or join with others to endow a chair or a scholarship in perpetuity in the name of an honourable Nigerian. Volunteer your expertise.
“We need functional communities, rising on the backs of volunteer and group work. Let us have local response to local needs and problems: villages and streets and neighbors and associations organizing and cooperating to improve the environment or conquer a common menace, so as to rebuild our battered country.
“We need students, parents, schools, civic and professional associations putting down the pens and pencils of criticism, and replacing them with the rakes and shovels of national commitment and social action…”
Something like that.
– Sonala Olumhense wrote in from email@example.com, and tweets from @SonalaOlumhense