The highwayman maxim, “He who comes to equity must come with clean hands,” may not exactly fit the alleged corruption in the government of President Bola Tinubu, but it draws attention to the need for moral high ground in that government.
The “Edugate,” that intruded into the consciousness of Nigerians as 2024 rolled in, is making some Nigerians to remind Tinubu to quickly remind himself, the Vice President, governors and their appointees to declare their assets, to avoid “emergency” nouveau riche syndrome at the end of their tenure.
The suspension of the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, Dr Betta Edu, and the accusing finger pointed at “Action Minister” of Interior, Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo, now reportedly summoned by the Code of Conduct Bureau, is ominous.
Some of the allegations against Edu are the transfer of N585m into the private bank account of a member of staff of her ministry and approval of airline tickets to enable some other members of her staff to travel by air to Kogi State that has no airport!
Tunji-Ojo is having a hard time explaining to sceptics, including Seun Okinbaloye of , that though he remains a shareholder of a company that took a N438m contract from Edu, he cannot be held responsible for the company’s actions because he resigned from its board in 2019.
Nigerians disregard his argument with the same disdain that greeted the logic-twisting argument that though Dideolu Estate, the legal entity that owned Oniru land, is owned by Obafemi Awolowo, his wife, Dideolu, and their children, Obafemi Awolowo did not own the land.
Already, outrageous claims about the ‘phantom’ assets of Edu, who has not been convicted or legally proven culpable of any malfeasance, are making the rounds on the Internet and are wildly heating the polity.
Some of these claims indicate that Edu acquired estates in several locations in Abuja and Cross River State within five months of assuming office. These (probably wild) claims can damage her name because there are no records in the public domain to debunk the claims.
To avoid being messed up, the Yoruba would appeal to Eda, or Everyman, not to spill palm oil on their white clothing. At other times they’d ask “Oniyangi,” not to allow his sand to mix with their palm oil.
The President should lead the way for public officers to follow and emulate. Maybe if the assets of public office holders are speedily declared publicly, it may check and curb the tendency to want to steal government funds.
But more importantly, this may help innocent public office holders, who are simply doing their jobs, avoid being looked at with suspicion by members of the public, who can only rely on speculation and suspicion, because they have no way to confirm the wealth of public officers.
If you’ve ever worked in government, you are likely to have been falsely accused of pilfering government funds, whereas you were just an average Joe Blow who is struggling at your nine-to-five job, just like anyone else on Main Street, Nigeria.
It appears as if Mr President and recently sworn-in state governors are breaching the constitution by putting the cart of performing their official duties before the horse of declaring their assets and liabilities. ?
If they and other elected or appointed public officers are not encouraged to speedily declare their assets, as required by the constitution, the tar brush of wild guesses splashing Edu and Tunji-Ojo may stain innocent public officers.
Sections 140(1) and 185(1) of the 1999 Constitution require that, “A person elected to the Office of (the President and state governors) shall not begin to perform the functions of that office until he has declared his assets and liabilities…”
The purpose of this constitutional requirement is for Nigerians to be able to determine by how much the assets of political appointees appreciated (or depreciated) between the time they assumed office and the time they left.
Maybe you’ll recall that Walter Onnoghen failed to declare his assets when he was appointed Chief Justice of Nigeria in 2017. He suffered the indignity of being suspended by former President Muhammadu Buhari.
Eventually, he resigned from the exalted office after the Code of Conduct Tribunal convicted and banned him from holding public office for 10 years on (probably hazily defined) allegation of false declaration of his assets.
His explanation that he was let go on account of the rumour that he had a meeting in Dubai with Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party, who contested the presidential election with Buhari in 2019 couldn’t help reverse his exit.
In addition to declaring his assets, and encouraging his appointees and other elected public officers to do so, the President must also urgently ‘resurrect’ the internal control mechanisms that had been embedded in the accounting system of government even from the days of the colonial masters.
All the President needs to do is to direct the Minister of Finance and Co-ordinating Minister of the Economy, Wale Edun, to thumb through the general orders, or civil service rules, and the financial instructions.
These documents clearly state the laid down procedures for approval of all government payments, preparing payment vouchers, vetting the expenditures, writing and signing the cheques and making the approved payments (or making transfers in these days of the Internet of Things).
It is not enough for the President to ask the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission to investigate alleged improper payment approvals made by Edu. Efforts must be made to check and prevent such occurrences in the future.
Edu may have merely been a victim of the failure of the government’s financial system to work as designed. Things have deteriorated to the extent that no one even knows what is right or wrong anymore.
Some, however, think that Edu cannot pretend not to know how government expenditure processes work, because she has been a Special Adviser to a governor on Community and Primary Healthcare as well as Commissioner for Health in Cross River State.
So politicians, who do not exactly know how things should work, and also do not care to obtain the necessary literature that can educate them on the prescribed procedures for handling government finances, just ignorantly go with the flow, (maybe because it sometimes serves their corrupt purposes anyway).
What seems to be the problem is that Nigeria’s political elite took a cue from the grace notes of the military, who ruled Nigeria with impunity. The military, it will be remembered, was wont to publicly declare, “I no hear English,” to signal their contempt for intellectual rigour and requirements to abide by due process.
In the 1980s, a certain military officer signed for and collected money due to non-commissioned officers who worked with him on an official assignment. He neglected to pay them. Neither the accountant, who paid him, nor the NCOs, could approach him for a refund.
If the military, who claimed to have come to clean the Augean stable of corrupt civilian politicians, routinely breaches basic financial rules, you can only imagine the unwholesome lesson that civilian successors would have learnt.
Yet, it’s the civilian political elite, led by President Tinubu, that will claw Nigeria out of the abyss of financial iniquity.