It is not often that African leaders, never mind their ministers, declare their assets. Not when they are ascending to the top or when they do get there. Even more unheard of is telling those who voted them in what the colour of their bank accounts looks like.
Last week, and for the first time since we became a republic in the 1970s, a president of our country declared his assets this time to the Anti Corruption Commission. You must be being beclouded by unreasoning to think that to mean a mean feat. That is as laudable as it is unprecedented.
It came almost one year late, as the president had told the world on the 9 October last year that he would do so before that month ended. He did not. But the truth remains that he has done it, following the preparing of a detailed Assets Declaration Form by the ACC which was given as reason for the delay and the passing of the new law. The president told me in an interview that new law or old law he was going to declare anyway. And I believe him. It is a bold and laudable move to first sign into law the new ACC Act, and then to declare his assets.
The onus ahead of the president in keeping in line with what he has started is monumental. He probably did not appreciate what he was getting himself into when he pledged it. An annual account of what is in his accounts. An annual state of his real estate. An annual turn of his turnover. And when he leaves, he should declare his assets as well. And to keep in line with that is as tortuous as it is transparent.
But just how much does the president have as assets? The truth is, the ACC Act assures, may be gives insurance to, the confidentiality and secrecy of one’s assets declared. Except if the declarant is being sued for false declaration or for corruption-related offences. However, it is no contravention of the law or a bad idea if someone decides to make their assets public. In fact it is cool, isn’t it?
The ACC, no doubt, has its tentacles stretched all over the place and can pick up some anomalies. But more effective and much quicker accountability is ensured with public knowledge of the assets. President Ernest Bai Koroma says his assets are not in the millions of dollars. His assets which include vehicles, a house or houses, business interests and shares in companies, etc amount to hundreds of thousands of US dollars.
We do not know how much of those assets had been acquired before he became president. In other words, how much he may have made while in office. Remember his salary is $ 1, 500 a month.
Agreed African leaders are either jittery or reluctant to tell their people how much they are worth. But two of the very few that have bothered to declare, have given a detailed account to their peoples. Over the weekend I spoke with Liberian journalist, Ledgerhood Rennie on the declaration of assets by his country’s president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. He told me that when she declared, she did so publicly and made the assets public.
When one considers that she declared hers immediately she came to power and our president is doing so almost a year into his presidency, it behoves every curious mind to ask where the line is drawn between what assets were acquired and when. It is necessary we know this.
The essence of assets declaration is to ensure the declarant does not live beyond their means. It is a tracking devise, if you like. Much as I do not have a speck of doubt in the credibility and moral high ground of the current ACC chief and many of his team, restricting such declaration to only a few in the ACC desalinates its essence. What happens when in the future we have a compromised ACC boss who decides to cover up a future president? The public knowledge of the assets declared will be the sole insurance to ensuring adherence to the dictate of the rules of the assets disclosure.
Besides, even out of genuine lack of knowledge of the detail of a declarant’s assets, the public can help fill the ACC in on some of the missing links. That can only happen if they know about the assets.
Even more concerning is the fact that the ministers are yet to declare their assets or indicate when they intend to do so, as stated by law and as warned by the president. The longer it takes for them to do so the more difficult for them and for the correctness of the information. I have seen the assets declaration form and it is quite detailed. It is also frightful but only to those who want to cheat – corrupt officials. That said, it is but very important that the ministers declare their assets before too long. Already they are approaching their first anniversary in cabinet.
The ACC, I understand, has already issued the ministers with their declaration forms. And soon other public officials among them heads of Parastatals will receive their own Love Letters to make clean. And the same “secrecy and confidentiality” will continue.
In civilised countries, which I am sure we are imitating, just a log onto the Internet gives one access to the detailed assets of a minister or prime minister or president. What is added to the declaration is reflected in a timely fashion. So why are we having those of ours shrouded in fear under the cloak of secrecy and confidentiality.
Sorry… but before I go, just a quick reminder to the president. During his state opening of parliament, he pledged to separate the offices of the Attorney General and Minister of Justice. I understand from an insider that a Sierra Leonean living abroad had been earmarked to be made Minister of Justice. His bar was that he was not a registered voter. He returned and was here in time for the voter registration update ahead of the local council elections. But there is disagreement over whether that makes him eligible since the constitution says that someone must have been registered as a voter in the election that voted the president into office, to be made a minister. So really, he does not qualify as such.
But where are all the competent people who can be made Minister of Justice? The point is as the president approaches one year in office, and as he delivers on some of his promises, no doubt, he needs to be reminded of some of those pledges he made and is yet to deliver on. May be he has forgotten about them. Especially those having to do with governance structures. By Umaru Fofana