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Chidi’s assets: A bridge and a prayer

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Fifteen Minutes with Dr Hakeem Baba-Ahmed

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There is no end to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who get the credit – Florence Luscomb

I have never met Professor Chidi Odinkalu, the chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in person although I hear he is the type of Nigerian I should list among my friends. Chidi and I belong to a cyberspace group which has many other people I know very well, most of whom think very highly of Chidi.

Every time Chidi says or reacts to something someone says, you see evidence of learning, grooming and open-mindedness rare even among educated people these days. Our group is passionate about most things important, and we often get all worked up for days when there is something to argue over. Chidi is always in the thick of it, even when the matter involves Islamic theology, Fulani marriage customs or the place of Ojukwu in Nigerian history, or the worrying tendency for the younger generation to see everything through very narrow and destructive prisms. You could tell Chidi has spent much of his life in foreign lands, but he does not have that see-me-here Diaspora mentality.

So why is Chidi on the title of this column today? Because, on November 23, 2011, he, as is required by law, went and declared the totality of his assets and liabilities with the Code of Conduct Bureau. So what, you say. Everyone does that. And you might even say many deliberately increase their assets to make allowances for what may “accrue” during the periods they hold offices; and then hope that the severe lack of capacity of the Code of Conduct Bureau to verify such exaggerated declarations will remain severe. They will then stay on the shelves of the Bureau until an exit declaration is made, which may not be cross-checked with the entry declaration either.

Chidi did not just go through the statutory ritual of declaring all his assets. You would think this former lecturer in Law at the Havard Law School and a man vastly experienced in the frailties of the human character will be wary of telling relations, friends, in-laws and the entire public what he is worth, as well what he is owing. Some people who will say even your spouse(s) should not know what you are worth (but will make allowances for telling them your liabilities) will be shocked that Chidi went the extra mile of requesting that his declaration should receive full public disclosure. In other words, even though the law does not compel him to publicly disclose his assets and liabilities, and most people will be reluctant to do this for fear of opening floodgates to relatives and sundry persons; kidnappers, armed robbers, and enemies who may reveal the lies in the declaration, he asks that his own declaration be made public. Many people will say it is fine to do this, if you do not own much. But judge for yourself whether Chidi’s assets and liabilities are the type you declare quietly or the type over which you will be indifferent if everyone knows of them.

A non-governmental organization, R2K (Right to Know), said details of Professor Odinkalu’s assets and liabilities were:

i.   Personal earnings in two Standard Bank Accounts with balances of N94,000 and $11,700;
ii. Two Barclays Bank accounts in the U.K containing £7,752 and £4,542;
iii. A mortgaged 3-bedroom house in Edmonton, London;
iv. A 4-bedroom house in Lekki, Lagos;
v. A Toyota RAV4 bought in 2004;
vi. A Kia Rio car bought in 2005;
vii. Shares and stocks worth about N3m;
viii. A personal pension plan managed by Friends Provident;
ix. A 27 KVA Nioda generator;
x. 7.5 KVA Inverter;
xi. 10,000 books which the professor described as “invaluable.”

Now, if you are among the 80% of Nigerians who earn less than N300 a day, Professor Chidi will be an incredibly wealthy man. But if you were an Ibori or many of his former colleagues whose cases before the EFCC and the courts appear unlikely to ever be concluded, what the professor has may be the value of what you could dash a girl friend. Even if you are a serving Governor, Minister or some powerful person in the corridors or bedrooms of power, the total value of Chidi’s assets is what your wife could spend on a two-day trip to Dubai or London.

The voluntary publication of Chidi’s assets and liabilities has raised the bar in accountability and openness. It is a challenge to all those who hold positions of trust to accord some respect to the Nigerian public and the values and rules governing probity and honesty by making public what they own, and are owed. Even as I say this, I know it is a challenge that will not be taken up. I was close to the take-off of the late Umaru Musa Yar’adua administration, and I remember the panic he caused when he decided, against the most vociferous advice, not to publish his declared assets and liabilities. His decision was ground-breaking in terms of its impact, and it really set the cat among the pigeons. Panic ran right through all the political office holders and the hundreds angling to be appointed Special Advisers, Ministers, Chairmen of Boards etc. Would he demand that they did same, even against existing law? Would he change the law to compel the publication of declared assets and liabilities? Would he hold it against them if they did not? Would it be worth holding a public office under Yar’adua if one had to declare his entire assets (or some of it, and then risk exposure by those who know better)? In the end, the late President said it was a personal decision of his and he was not going to compel anyone to do so. His number two, now President Jonathan, also published his own declaration. I do not recall anyone else doing the same. And the nation lost the opportunity to raise the moral standards of leadership.

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