President Jonathan and the question of principles By Adeolu Ademoyo

Recently, during his last media chat, President Jonathan was asked why he has not publicly declared his private assets. He gave the following answers. For the avoidance of doubt I will like to quote President Jonathan verbatim: Please read him:

 “The issue of public asset declaration is a matter of personal principle. That is the way I see it, and I don’t give a damn about it, even if you criticize me from heaven. When I was the Vice President, that matter came up, and I told the former President (late Musa Yar’adua) let’s not start something that would make us play into the hands of people and create an anomalous situation in the country…. You don’t need to declare assets publicly; otherwise you are playing to the gallery. You don’t need to publicly declare assets. That’s a matter of principle. If I have to declare publicly, it means every political office holder will have to declare publicly. And it is not the right thing to do. That is my belief…”

Based on this verbatim narrative, this would be the structure of Mr. Jonathan’s argument:” I will not publicly declare my assets because the law does not require me to do so.  Even when I did so under Mr. Yar adua, I did so not because I thought it was the right thing to do. I only did so because my boss did it. I will not declare my assets publicly because every political office holder will have to, and this is anomalous, and not the right thing to do. So, for me I will not publicly declare my assets because it is a question of principle.”

President Jonathan’s reasons help us recall  Professors Olubi Sodipo(late) and Barry Hallen’s  perceptual moral theory.  The simplicity of this theory is disarming. It says a morally bad act is that which violates our perceptual space.

And the justification in the Professors’ moral theory is that you and I can perceive this violation and its ethical ugliness. This is the basis of the African moral justification of the negative disposition to  a morally deficient act: ”Kò bójúmu”,  which literally means “the act does not fit”. Given  that the act is unfit in our perceptual space we turn away from it bodily (similar to the reaction of a snail whose eyes tune off when they make negative contact)because it violates something in us. In other words, there is a moral dissonance, anguish, tweak, pain, and dislocation between us and the immoral act, hence the judgment: ”Kò bójúmu”.

Hallen and Sodipo’s theory give us the intellectual moral  resources to comprehend Mr. Jonathan’s question of principle.

When President Jonathan said that it is a question of principle that  he would not publicly declare his assets, we must ask: which principle-a legal or moral principle; a personal or public principle? And we must ask: by what principles are modern societies and nations govern-moral, legal personal or public?

Even when we know that all humans have their personal “principles”, but since modern presidents are not private citizens, it is not obvious that modern presidents govern by personal  “principles”. They are obliged to govern by public principles. It seems to me that Mr. Jonathan forgets that he lost the right to act personally the day he accepted the job. Even village chiefs do not govern their villages and precincts by personal “principles”. 

Given his assertions on the question of principle, I am not sure Mr. Jonathan draws a clear distinction between his person  as a private citizen and his job  as a president and as public citizen. The big problem is the implication of this for our treasury –which is a public thing. As we have seen with his poor and irredeemably corrupt handling of the Malabu Oil gate scandal, it seems Mr. Jonathan simply does not draw a line between the personal and the public.

And that shows clearly in one of  the premises of his claim.  He said  public declaration of president’s assets  “will create an anomalous situation…and not the right thing to do.” To be fair to President Jonathan he did not say that it is wrong for him to publicly declare his assets. He said that if he did, this would make others do it. Making others to do it is what the president said is “anomalous and not the right thing to do…”

But in view of this premise, through a sheer stream, and perhaps slip and trip of consciousness, Mr. Jonathan has unwittingly  but sadly betrayed    a domino  effect, and a slippery slope. A domino effect is the series of consequences and ripples  an action causes. So, the point is which domino effect does the president desire for our country-one of negative closure or one of perceivable openness and transparency in the public? While Nigerians desire the domino effect of openness and transparency in the public as the most important tool against corruption, Mr. Jonathan through his principle has voted for the domino effect of a negative closure in defense and protection of corruption and corrupt political office holders. 

Sadly and contrary to Aso Rock thinking the desired domino effect of transparency and openness which Mr. Jonathan’s open public declaration of his assets will cause, is the major tool against corruption and not the setting up of spurious and shadow hunting committees which Mr. Jonathan sets up all the time.

Finally, take this scenario, which is an empirical  test of Mr. Jonathan’s own principle and chosen domino effect. Suppose a Mr. President of  country X has looted country X’s treasury and has kept the loot with a trusted political aide.  By President Jonathan’s principle and its domino effect,  it would be  “anomalous, and not the right thing” for such aide to declare their assets publicly. On this I ask fellow Nigerians: in view of this scenario, does this violate your moral perceptual space or not? Does President Jonathan’s principle fit morally? I leave the rest to you and the grave  history of our condition and future; and the  somber moral in public  trust.

Adeolu Ademoyo  is of the Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.


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