Much Ado About Declarations [opinion]

ROUNDS of “omake” (applause), hype, praising and wide public approval met President Geingob and the First Lady’s asset and health disclosure.

I am cognisant of the historic nature of this political act… being the first for the nation. And I am mindful of the discomfort involved in revealing personal wealth and health matters.

I also have taken note of the good intention to promote openness, transparency and accountability in our system of governance. Simply, there is a perception – real but also perceived – out there that the past 25 years of independence has seen some of those who ascended to political power getting rich quickly and possibly corruptly.

You also do not have to be an economist to know that ours is one of the most unequal countries in the world, and that most of the economic growth in this country is going to a small part of the population, the richest 1% among us.

So in that way, the public’s warm reception towards the asset declaration exercise is understandable. This is because it is widely viewed as measure to help dissuade the would-be corrupters (knowing well that their wealth will be subjected to public scrutiny) therefore it serves the trust-building function between citizens and their government.

However, I might be in the minority here, the citizen’s uncritical reactions toward the asset declaration is disturbing and dangerous for governance. Therefore, instead of erring on the side of caution, I am rather taking the risk of committing a mistake and look at the asset declaration with a more critical stance.

In no way is mine about what the President and the First Lady declared or not. My interest here is more about the politics of asset declaration, as a policy tool to curb corruption in general.

My qualms centre around four aspects: First, asset declaration as a stand-alone measure is not a remedy enough to curb corruption, especially with regards to sophisticated corruption. In its current form what we have is a mere symbolic political gesture without a mechanism in place to verify the authenticity of what has been declared or not declared.

It also dawns on me that what we have is a one-off process in that once the public servant has declared hisher assets, there is no ongoing mechanism to monitor, compare, update and reconcile the public servant’ assets after they have been disclosed.

Secondly, I worry that what has been declared may be inflated to be used as a cover-up for future undertakings.

Thirdly, asset declaration may create a moral conundrum – the notion of rich leaders and poor citizens – for some of our leaders in that they will come out as massively rich while the majority of the citizens are poor and struggling.

There is no denial here that it is possible for leadersublic servants to be rich, but in a country where most Namibians don’t have assets, showcasing leaders’ assets is a reminder of the different reality leaders and ordinary citizens are living in.

Even if the wealth in question was accumulated due to hard work, ethics and honest means, the knowledge that leaders are able to amass massive riches in a short space of time, while most of the ordinary citizens are plunged into poverty or surviving from pay cheque to pay cheque, presents a moral dilemma for any conscionable leader.

Fourth, the asset declaration approach does not really deal with the issue of privileges that come along with power, which can also help explain why some leaders are able to acquire wealth quicker than ordinary folks.

Being privileged is not necessary corruption. However, in a society where leaders are adored, the power-holder has great aantages over the one without in that power comes with name recognition which may place the power-holder ahead of everybody else.

As we know, it is very rare that the power-holder waits in a queue in the banks, stores or any other event. More often, the power-holder’s applications for loans, plots, farms are usually placed on top of others and get approved without any quandary.

For me, because of the power imbalances between leaders and their followers, any leader should have sleepless nights if hisher wealth is going in the opposite direction, no matter such wealth was acquired in an incorruptible way, than the ordinary folks.

Therefore, if we really want a meaningful asset declaration, we need laws that would extend the powers of the prosecutor general, Anti-Corruption Commission and the Ombudsman over the assets declaration. A failure to do that would make asset declaration a futile exercise.

*Ndumba J Kamwanyah is a lecturer at Unam’s department of human sciences – social work. The views expressed are entirely his.

Source : The Namibian