WHY is the issue of publicly declaring one’s wealth status such a thorny subject in many parts of Africa?
The other day, my pastor was exhorting the congregation (I must confess I attend church regularly on Sunday nowadays) to observe God’s rule that requires believer to give Him one-tenth of monthly, annually or periodic earning. The rule is simple arithmetic: you take your net salary or income, divide it by ten and give to God the result, accordingly. (“You shall truly tithe all the increase of your grain that the field produces year by year.)
“We mortals are very stubborn,” the pastor yelled, “we cheat God as if He doesn’t know what we truly earn. Please be forthcoming dear, if you want to see the Glory of the Kingdom.”
The congregation was stone silent: no cheers, ululations, applause or the usual gestures whenever the Man of God made pronouncements touching people’s soul. He concluded by asking why, in his country and Africa at large, it is so difficult for people to state the true amount and nature of their income and wealth.
Reflecting on the clergyman’s words, the writer found the message to resonate beyond the confines of religious rhetoric.
There are cases where a couple, living under the same roof and sleeping in the same bedroom, do not reveal their earning to each other. Neither do people of the same “family” nor close friends.
At a much higher level, governments in many parts of our continent have enacted laws requiring people elected or appointed to high public offices to declare their wealth to the respective state agencies. It is a law that has to be complied with. But we hear many bigwigs and public figures simply refuse or simply ignore to do so. Some under-declare by understating their true wealth status.
Weeks ago, a former senior leader of our country proposed that we should consider re-introducing the Arusha Declaration, which among other things, demanded leaders to declare their wealth, and how they acquired it. It was reported that during a press conference called by that ex-senior leader to express his views on a number of domestic issues, a journalist asked him whether he was ready and willing to declare his wealth, upon rumours that he was a very rich man. He reportedly answered that he couldn’t and won’t.
For a person who wished Arusha Declaration be re-introduced, but at the same time objected to the idea of wealth declaration, was that a contradictory stance? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
There was this man whom people claimed owned a fleet of lorries and high-rise buildings in Kariakoo area, but always used to walk on foot, wearing plastic sandals and worn clothes. Some people suspected he was cautious about muggers and robbers; others said he preferred not to be ostentatious, yet other people claimed he wanted to be secretive about his wealth, while a good number hailed him as a “simple”, down-to-earth man. So the mere act or habit of not wanting people to know if you are rich or not may not necessarily be intrinsically wrong with our culture.
But what if the writer was known to be the son of a pauper peasant, inherited nothing, never ever won a lottery, but within a few years was known to own billions of shillings and dollars, some of the cash stashed away in foreign bank accounts, and the writer refuses to account for all that money? Would that still be part of our culture?
Certainly people would start speculating about the life and doings of the writer. “That man lives a double-life,” neigbours would say. “During the day he is gentle and polite, after dusk he is a merciless armed bandit! How did he acquire all that wealth?”
“Oh, no!” others would counter, “he may have discovered a deposit of precious stones in Arusha, and decided to keep it all for himself, secretly.”
The rumour mill would go on. If the character happened to have held a senior government office, or once worked at BoT when billions of dollars were reportedly stolen there, some people would consider the character a most probable suspect. “Let us tip-off TAKUKURU,” some people would demand. “Rubbish, the tip-off idea is pure envy and jealously. That man was born to be rich,” the argument would go on and on. A few journalists would try to challenge the man to tell the truth, but most likely they would soon be intimidated, if not bribed to invent placatory articles about the hidden virtues of the suspect.
The issue becomes more and more complex. Divergent views would feed the newspapers. Some writers would recall a commentator who once wrote: “Though we sometimes think that western society is the most materialistic in history, a study of other cultures—whether modern or ancient---discloses that the desire for money and possessions has dominated the minds of people in every part of the world down through centuries.”
Oh! Could the commentator’s statement be the reason why wise men and women promulgated wealth accountability for high-ranking officials (save for nobilities, because they are supposedly rich naturally) on whose deeds and actions hinge the lives of lesser-beings? Are these types of laws meant to deter old and present-day Pharisees---those who preach righteousness of society, theoretically, “but all too often practice greed and hypocrisy?”
Still, is the culture of condoning one’s status of wealth (call it lack of transparency in modern parlance) the main reason why it is so difficult to “prevent and combat” corruption in Africa?
Numerous studies have warned that Africa shall never “claim” the 21st century without improving governance and accountability, which is the polite way to say “doing without corruption”.
“Corruption is a secretive transaction by definition and as such is difficult if not impossible to measure in a reliable fashion. What is more, definitions of corruption may vary, as do perceptions of what constitutes corruption in any given context,” reads one study.
So what? Consider this statement: “Corruption is preventing the world (read Africa) from reducing extreme poverty, from averting child deaths and even from fighting epidemics like HIV/AIDS. And it will have a devastating effect on the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals if not tackled directly by each national government.”
A newspaper reported last week that some Ugandan parliamentarians had urged their country’s president to “declare his wealth.” But one wonders, why not start with the MPs themselves, then the ministers, then senior-raking officials, then the call on the president will have some merit? Then from Uganda expand the exercise to cover Tanzania, Kenya, the rest of East African Community, Southern African Development Community (SADC), ECOWAS countries, PTA and eventually the whole AU. See how easy? Not exactly.
Our quoted commentator talked about materialism in western societies, but regarding the issue of declaring wealth, they are somehow better. You read a newspaper article and you are told the queen is worth so much; the prince so much; this or that celebrity is known to own so much—although you really don’t know if it is true or false because you don’t have the means to verify or figure it out.
But at least they have the Forbes Magazine, which publishes a league table of world’s richest people. This year, we heard, it was Mexican telecom billionaire Carlos Slim, worth US dollars 53.5 billion, who took over the top of the top ten, from American Microsoft magnate William Gates III, worth 53.0 billion dollars. Forbes reported that Chinese have joined the world of “self-made” billionaires, something unimaginable under Mao’s reign a few decades ago!
Back home, there is no more Arusha Declaration, so why not try to create our own league of the rich, not necessarily to make TAKUKURU envious, but at least so that our pastors and sheikhs don’t condemn us before God, for defying “You shall truly tithe…”