Some people think that the assets of General Muhammadu Buhari are a big secret.
The law requires him to declare his assets before assuming office. Knowing that Nigerians were thirsty for transparency in their leader—but particularly feasting on President Goodluck Jonathan’s infamous “don’t-give-a-damn” declaration about never declaring—Candidate Buhari told Nigerians in 2015 he would declare. Publicly.
He went further: he would make the declaration public and would “encourage” top officials do the same. Yes: “encourage” was an interesting choice of image.
Buhari’s stated intention was a huge cudgel on the campaign trail. Various offices and officials related to his campaign wielded it aggressively in beating back any doubts about their candidate.
This was why his campaign, in its closing arguments, adopted such an audacious style and tone. When he denounced what was in effect the exiting national leadership, he asserted that a government must earn popular trust.
In a campaign video, Buhari cited the “millions who have been let down by their government,” declaring, “Nigerians are tired of the status quo.”
Offering a more accountable government, he posed as a unifier. “There is no Muslim Nigeria or Christian Nigeria, no northern Nigeria or southern Nigeria,” he said, “There is only one Nigeria…”
And he would “lead from the front…”
In the final weeks, he had the bright idea of penning a letter to the electorate. He called it, “My Covenant With Nigerians.”
“I intend to lead with integrity and honour and commit myself totally to everything that is of concern to our people,” he promised, describing profound advances he would make in his first 100 days.
The “Covenant” consisted of specific pledges; on the first, “Corruption and Governance,” Candidate Buhari pledged to:
“Publicly declare my assets and liabilities and encourage my political appointees to also publicly declare their assets and liabilities…Show personal leadership in the war against corruption and also hold all the people who work with me to account.”
The Covenant, Buhari said, was based on the “Road Map to A New Nigeria” which his All Progressives Congress (APC) proclaimed in March 2014.
Elated Nigerians rose to their voting feet in applause and commitment, an experience performance Buhari acknowledged at his inauguration: “I salute their resolve in waiting long hours in rain and hot sunshine to register and cast their votes and stay all night if necessary to protect and ensure their votes count and were counted.”
It was commitment borne of desperation. So desperate were Nigerians that they expected Buhari, following his speech, to sprint to the office to commence the tasks of cutting down trees, hewing rock or planting food.
But he went home. He was in no rush. Indeed, when he began work, nobody knew he had. People thought he was just…slow. He became “Baba Go-Slow.”
By the time Buhari had a cabinet in place, those first 100 days were long gone. Nigerians were beginning to look at each other in disbelief.
And yes, he did “declare” his assets, but only in a manner of speaking: some general facts were cynically made available, but the declaration document was conveniently in the hands of the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB).
Officials argued that it could not be made public until the agency had completed the statutory verification.
The CCB, which is in principle a child of the constitution but in practice tissue paper in the pocket of the government, never intended to release the document. The President did not. The hard work to keep Buhari’s assets declaration hidden had begun! It became the overriding mission of the Buhari presidency.
That work spilled through his first term and has now emptied into a second term he had also promised he would not run for.
For the hide-and-seek, officials then entered a revisionist period. They sought to persuade the public either that Buhari never said he would declare his assets publicly, or that the law did not require him to do so.
And yes, they denounced the same powerful “Covenant,” a product of the Policy and Research Directorate of the APC Presidential Campaign Organisation (APCPCO) which various officials had openly used to close the Candidate Buhari sale. So prominent had it been that APC itself splashed on its website one of the popular publications of it, as it appeared in Vanguard newspaper on March 17.
The Transition Committee, led by the respected former civil servant Ahmed Joda, who subsequently told Daily Trust how he had been woken up from sleep to be tasked by Buhari with the assignment, had used it to produce an 800-page report to guide the new president on calibrated steps to fulfil his mission, including within those first 100 days.
That repudiation of the Covenant was the turning point in the Buhari character-shift. The mask was off. If the past was prologue, as he had said at his inauguration, the future was epilogue.
Following last week’s new legal challenge by the indefatigable Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), the assets declaration question is back. But tomorrow’s budget, metaphorically-speaking, has already been spent.
Think about it: the most important question has been answered. Buhari is not a reformer. He is not an anti-corruption crusader. While he has for years proclaimed differently, his failure to declare his assets publicly say louder than words that he is not as poor as the popular fiction suggests.
How poor is he not? In 2015, he claimed five homes, among others. But under the welfare package for former Nigeria leaders since 1999, he must have received at least one “well-furnished five-bedroom house;” was that one of them?
Among others, he also declared two cars “bought from savings,” but none of the three-cars-every four years supplied by the state under the same package (under which he may have received up to 12 cars by 2015).
The point is that our currency of measurement is warped. Outside of the kleptocracy, a man of these means would in no wise be considered to be austere. A man whose children attend English universities and travel First Class and live in private accommodation while doing so would not.
That is why I pointed out ahead of the 2015 poll, what was at stake. In an article on February 8, I said of Buhari and the APC crowd: “It is not about you, and if you win, it would be the final tragedy should you act as if there is one day to waste, or as if the standards of measurement will be lowered…The support is for the country, not you, and not your party.”
And now, given how strenuously Buhari has worked to conceal his “austere” assets, it seems a fair conclusion that were he to publish it tonight, its contents would be highly questionable. I mean, if you are like your passport photo, why wear a mask?
Because nobody works so hard to bury a “truth” he proudly proclaims. It is something else for which you seek a distant cemetery.
[This column welcomes rebuttals from interested government officials].