The president as a role model By Dan Agbese

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Section 11 (1) of the Fifth Schedule to the 1999 constitution provides as follows:

“Subject to the provisions of this constitution, every public officer shall within three months after the coming into force of this Code of Conduct or immediately after taking office and thereafter – at the end of every four years; and at the end of his term of office, submit to the Code of Conduct Bureau a written declaration of all his properties, assets, and liabilities and those of his unmarried children under the age of eighteen years.”

This was borrowed from the same section in the 1979 constitution. The departing military administration in 1979 created the Code of Conduct Bureau, which has been retained in all subsequent constitutions, as part of its efforts to protect our public officers from the temptation of soiling their integrity at the sight of money. I suppose they wanted to guard against men and women going into public office with the generous physical endowments of a mosquito and coming out looking like African elephants.

The new look would not necessarily be evidence that they lived beyond their means while in office but it would definitely be a fair indication that they either fed well at public expense or with the generous assistance of contractors to their ministries. You should easily recognize that as part of the longest-running war in the land – the anti-graft war.

The constitution does not compel the declarant to make his declaration public. The drafters of the constitution made two assumptions here, to wit, a) the Conduct of Conduct would have the capacity to authenticate an individual declaration in every material particular and encourage individuals to challenge the declarations where necessary and b) a sense of responsibility in the public service coupled with moral leadership would compel the declarant to be honest and avoid the fiction of under-declaring his wealth to protect himself but defeat the primary purpose of the constitutional provision. None of the assumptions has been borne. Our governments are still opaque, not transparent.

There is hardly any sane point in doubting that this constitutional provision is treated with contempt by our public officers to whom the section applies. They merely follow the routine and get away with the criminal under-declaration of their legitimate but mostly illegitimate assets towering above their liabilities.

Wealthy permanent secretaries with mind-blogging mansions in Abuja and other major towns and cities, pass themselves off by declaring the mud houses built by their fathers in the time of Lord Lugard as their own only assets. But the Code of Conduct Bureau has no capacity for proving the falsity of the declaration.

The late President Umaru Yar’Adua tried to make a difference in the observance of the law. After he assumed office on May 29, 2007, Yar’Adua, aware that as president, he bore the moral burden of providing both legal and moral leadership as our national role model, duly declared his assets and liabilities and made his declaration open to the public. He must have expected his ministers to follow his sterling example. None did. Not even his vice-president, Dr Goodluck Jonathan. Not a single state governor followed the president’s example. He walked a lonely road through the marsh of our collective ambivalence.

The only man who followed Yar’Adua’s example many years later turned out to be his fellow Katsina man, President Muhammadu Buhari. He and the vice-president, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, fulfilled this constitutional requirement even before they formally assumed office on May 29, 2015. Initially, they too did not want to go beyond what the law stipulated but when the public howled and brought pressure to bear on them to make the declaration of their assets and liabilities public, they duly obliged.

For a man who campaigned for a corruption-free country, this step was important to the president as the supreme commander of the anti-graft forces. He served notice, or so most of us believed at the time, that the dawn of transparency in government had arrived on our shores.

I crowed. In my column of July 1, 2016, I wrote: “The change that swept Buhari and his party into power last year was not just change. It was a watershed; a boundary between yesterday and today and even tomorrow. We expect the administration to be all that we wish for our country. We expect every action of this administration to breathe that change and spell that change. Anything that suggests, inadvertently, that it is still business as usual robs us of our hope, our fervent hope in a great present and a greater tomorrow for us and our country.”

It turned out I spoke too soon and set myself up for disappointment. The dawn did not dawn. To begin with, Buhari’s ministers and other appointees covered by the constitutional provision did not follow the example of his moral leadership set by him and Osinbajo. Sure, the ministers too declared their assets and liabilities but kept their declaration under lock and key with the Code of Conduct Bureau, safe from the prying eyes of the Nigerian public. Twice the president and the vice-president walked the lonely path, as if they could turn the fact of nature on its head and a lone tree could make a forest.

We are talking here about something that has never featured in our national discourse on where we went wrong and continue to either wobble or even go wrong. Moral leadership is the real pillar of leadership and a president’s legacy. There are two aspects to political leadership – legal and moral. Legal leadership is easy because the laws lay the road map for it. It is thus easy to know when the president desecrates the rule of law to expand the space for his own convenience. A howl of public would quickly greet such transgression because the public watches with the keen eyes of an eagle any such breaches that might narrow the people’s rights and freedoms that protect them against the vagaries of incipient autocracy.

On the other hand, moral leadership is rather difficult to appreciate because its road map is mapped by individual conscience and his sense of public responsibility. We have for long ignored the moral aspect of political leadership and in doing so, undermined the totality of good and responsible leadership and rendered our laws and the constitution hollow and ineffective.

No Nigerian public officer has ever resigned his exalted office for costly mistakes made by him or by those over whom he exercises official responsibilities. It is the reason our public officers ignore those who have documentary evidence that calls their integrity into question.

It is the reason heads of our security agencies would ignore the killing of unarmed civilians by their men and get on with running their offices, pricked occasionally by conscience warped by power.

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The surprise is not that Buhari’s men refused to follow him as their role model. The real and embarrassing surprise is that the president abdicated his right to exercise his moral authority over his personal appointees and make them toe his line and thus expand his anti-graft war to the next level in the moral regeneration of our country derived from our public officers accepting responsibilities for what goes wrong under their watch.

As I noted in my column under reference, “The letters of the law are important but, in some respects, the spirit of the law trumps the letters of the law. Law becomes sterile legalism if it is not vested with the moral authority derived from its spirit. Going the extra mile to vest this law (on declaration of assets) with the respect it deserves should serve notice to our public officers that the eyes of the small people are watching them.”

The president is our national role model. I urge Buhari not to forget that. He leads, we follow. He talks, we listen. He decides and acts, we accept. These are the authentic building blocks of his legacy.

Casting himself as a role model would clear the path for him to cast off the political babar riga stained with biases and a skewered sense of national leadership and replace it with the immaculate babar riga of statesmanship that enables him to throw his arms around the country and its citizens as a leader, not as ruler.