The Code of Conduct Bureau has drafted a bill it intends to send to the National Assembly in order to make citizens have access to assets declared by public officers
| By Ade Adesomoju |
IN 1999, when Nigeria had just returned to democratic rule, a civil society organisation, the Media Rights Agenda, instituted a suit against the Code of Conduct Bureau asking for a court order compelling the CCB to release to it the details of the assets declared by over 40 government officials, including the then President Olusegun Obasanjo.
The suit, which was filed before a Federal High Court in Lagos, did not achieve its intended goal.
After the signing of the Freedom of Information Bill into law in 2011, some other civil society organisations had applied to the Federal High Court in Lagos and Abuja, seeking an order compelling the release of the details of assets declared by the then President Goodluck Jonathan.
While the African Centre for Media Information and Literacy chose to institute its case before the Abuja Division of the court in October 2011, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project filed its own case before the Ikeja Division of the court in Lagos in June 2012.
So far, all the actions filed with respect to request for the details of assets declared by public officers have failed.
A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Chief Godwin Obla, said last Thursday that the prevailing “legal milieu” helped and still helps “the preservation of privacy or secrecy of such details.”
Obla was delivering the keynote address at ‘the round table on access to asset declarations of public officers bill 2015.’
He pointed out that the hope of getting access to assets declaration of public officers could not be hinged on the provisions of the FoI Act.
He said, “Sadly, the FoI Act is of little or no practical value in this regard. One needs not to look further than section 12 of the same Act to realise why this is so.”
According to him, the exemption of information likely to ‘constitute an invasion of personal privacy’ as stated in the provision of the FoI Act, “effectively extinguishes any prospects of greater public inclusion and/or involvement in this area.”
The event where Obla spoke was co-organised by the Code of Conduct Bureau and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime with supports from the European Union. It was to enable stakeholders, including lawyers, civil society groups, government agencies, journalists and others, to make input into a draft bill on the subject matter before its submission to the National Assembly.
The bill is tagged, ‘Access to Public Officers Asset Declarations Bill, 2015.’
In his opening remarks, Chairman of CCB, Sam Sada, recalled that the bureau was set up in 1989 to address the menace of corruption through its other provisions that public officers must declare their assets every four years – at the beginning as well as the end of their tenure.
Sada, however, regretted that the administration of assets declarations as provided for in the Constitution and the Code of Conduct Bureau Act had not been effective in the country because of existing legal impediments to making such declarations open to the public.
Sada said the laws gave the bureau powers to “receive assets declarations, verify, examine, keep in custody and enforce compliance when there is a breach.”
But he added that the laws left the responsibility of determining how and on what terms assets declarations should be released to the public to the National Assembly, which had failed to address the issue.
He said, “For the administration of assets declarations to be effective the issue of disclosure must be addressed.
“Assets declarations should be recognised not only as one of the tools for scrutinising wealth of public officials to see if they are living above their earnings, but also as a tool for the purpose of increasing confidence in the government and their public leaders who show integrity and accountability.”
Without a specific law in place making provisions for public access to assets declarations, the public may have to for long rely on the willingness of such public officers to make their declarations open.
With the failure of President Muhammadu Buhari and the Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, to fulfil their campaign promise that they would publicly declare their assets, the late former President Umar Yar’adua remains the only leader that has voluntarily made his assets declaration public since 1989 when the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Decree (now an Act) came into force.
The head of Buhari’s media team, Garba Shehu, in a statement on Saturday, said the President and the Vice President submitted their assets declaration forms separately on Thursday.
Shehu added that the CCB, through its Chairman, Saba, on Friday acknowledged the receipt of the forms.
Shehu, said the act was in fulfilment of the provisions of the law and the electioneering promises of Buhari and Osinbajo.
In February this year, while campaigning, Buhari had said that he would publicly declare his assets and liabilities, if voted into power.
Buhari stated this in a document. The document highlighted what Buhari would do in his first 100 days if he assumed power on May 29.
Garba, however, did not disclose the contents of the assets declaration forms in his statement on Saturday.
While advocating disclosure of assets declarations, Sada raised concern over its security implication but was quick to explain that the proposed bill would help to strike the balance between the release of details of assets declared by public officers to people who requested for it and the security implication.
He said, “In as much as this is being canvassed for, we cannot ignore the fact that when wrong persons hold information regarding one’s names, property, bank accounts, phone numbers, date of birth, family members and other financial instruments, such information in the wrong hands can be threatening, considering the wind of insecurity and kidnaps that have been sweeping the country in the past few years.
“In order to strike a balance, it is necessary to draft a bill that will specify on what terms asset declarations can be made public. This will help the CCB to push forward another milestone in the fight against corruption in Nigeria.”
He expressed the hope that with a new government coming on board, the bill would generate the necessary attention to the issue which the previous National Assemblies had failed to address.
Project Coordinator with the UNODC, Bala Sanga, reiterated the need for stakeholders to ensure that the bill was passed into law.
He maintained that public access to assets declaration was a mechanism by which public officers could be held accountable.
Sanga said, “It is very important to know that assets declaration is good. But it is also very important that the public has access to the assets declared by public officers. That is one mechanism by which public officers are held accountable.
“We (UNODC) intend to continue to work with the Code of Conduct Bureau to ensure that best global practices are put in place for the benefit of Nigerians.”
Obla threw his weight behind the bill, which he said would help to reduce the rate of corruption in the country.
He said the current mechanism of assets declaration had failed to achieve the desired ends even as it continued to be “a hollow, cosmetic and near-meaningless ritual embarked on by public officers.”
He maintained that without access by the public, the essence of assets declaration was lost.
He said, “Therefore, where citizens are unable to lawfully and readily access any information about the assets of public officers, as is the case in present-day Nigeria, the essence of these declarations becomes lost and what takes its place is a mechanical adherence to symbolism devoid of any practical value.”
He explained that the bill would help to curb corruption and add to “the efficacy of the Freedom of Information Act.”
He added, “Research and experiences from around the world have indicated that public assets declaration would facilitate in reducing corruption and increasing public accountability.
“Similarly, countries where assets declared by public officers are made accessible to the public are perceived to have lower levels of corruption.”
But Obla identified a “problematic” provision in the bill which he said must be addressed before sending it to the National Assembly.
According to him, the restriction of access to what is termed “prejudicial information” creates the potential for abuse and misapplication.
He said, “The section restricts access to ‘prejudicial information’ and goes ahead to state some kinds of information that are included in this definition as account numbers, name of minors and vehicle registration numbers etc.
“Whilst the intention of this section appears to be protection of the privacy of the subjects of applications under the Act, it creates the potential for abuse and misapplication.”
He suggested that the term “prejudicial information” under the Act be given “an exhaustive and closed-ended definition so as to prevent any abuse.”
He however concluded that the bill would “immensely enhance the impact and value of assets declaration.”
He added that making the asset declaration accessible to the public would also enable journalists and scholars to investigate and monitor the accuracy of the assets declared.
A statement by the UNODC Project Officer, Dr. Femi Ladapo, said the bill, when passed into law, would among others, create a culture of accountability, openness and transparency in the public administration.
Some are now beginning to wonder whether the failure of Buhari and Osinbajo, who were newly sworn in last Friday, to declare their assets publicly contrary to their promise during the electioneering, would not pre-empt the needed atmosphere that will hasten the passage of such bill into law.
Culled from The Punch
— Jun 3, 2015 @ 13:55 GMT