An attempt by some members of the House of Representatives to legalise the holding of foreign accounts through the amendment of existing law has sparked off wide scale condemnation in Nigeria
| By Anayo Ezugwu | Dec. 9, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT
A LAW allowing public office holders to maintain foreign accounts is on the way in Nigeria. A Bill to this effect has already passed its second reading in the House of Representatives. It proposes to grant the president, governors and other public office holders the legal right to own and operate foreign accounts. The bill, sponsored by Bamidele Faparusi, is titled, ‘An Act to Amend the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act Cap, C15 Laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 2004. Among other things, the Bill is to provide for the leave of the Bureau to be obtained for any public officer to maintain or operate a bank account outside Nigeria, and for other matters connected therewith.’
Leading the debate on the Bill, Faparusi said that the provisions of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act were meant to ensure that public servants complied with the public morality and accountability and to discourage them from the culture of graft, greed, materialism, ill-gotten wealth and conflict of interests in the performance of public duty.
He, however maintained that the provisions of the law relating to the prohibition of foreign accounts by public officers in Nigeria as provided in section (7) had only been observed in breach owing to the obvious implacability of the law. “The purport of the law is to discourage the laundering of money and fraud by public officers. But it is public knowledge that nobody would use his bank account to launder money, instead, proxies and cronies have become ready instruments for such purpose,” he said.
He explained that “the law as it is today does not contemplate this development and to tackle it, there is need to make for such public officers who, hitherto, maintains and operates a foreign account and has cause to hold same, to get leave of the Bureau to continue to use such accounts. This would be an improvement from the practice of requiring a public office holder to close any foreign account so held by reason of the office he now occupies. The instant law, as it is today, does not contemplate this development and to tackle it, there is need to make for such public officer.
He further argued that this development would give the Bureau some teeth to bite, based on the fact that it would be able to prosecute any defaulter and seek the imposition of sanctions in line with section 23 of the Act relying on the said public office holder’s decline to make proper declaration to the Bureau.
In his contribution, Emmanuel Jime argued that assets of public office holder be made public in two weeks. He said that would encourage trust and promote transparency in governance. “The principal aim of asset declaration/disclosure by public officials is tailored towards combating corruption; enhancing and building public confidence and legitimacy in government processes; and engineering transparency in its dealings, in the eyes of the public and the international community at large,” he said.
The intention of the piece of legislation, according to him, is to amend section 3(c) of the Code of Conduct Act, 2004 to “retain and make accessible to any Nigerian citizen within 14 days, the assets and liabilities declared by any serving or past public office holder, via any medium as he or she may wish upon agreement with the Bureau and to bear the charges thereof.” He added that, “the importance of making more accessible, assets and liabilities of public office holders to make governance more open, has found expression in many countries of the world namely Latin American countries, Argentina, Brazil and Chile among others.”
But this proposed Bill contrives the provisions of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers under the Fifth Schedule of the 1999 Constitution as amended. Part one (1), paragraphs three (3), stated that, the president, vice-president, governor, deputy governor, ministers of the government of the federation and commissioners of the governments of the states, members of the National Assembly and the Houses of Assembly of the states, and such other public officers or persons as the National Assembly may by law prescribe, shall not maintain or operate a bank account in any country outside Nigeria.
The proposed amendment has drawn the ire of many prominent lawyers in the country. Onyekachi Ubani, chairman, Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, Ikeja branch, said the Bill would negate the fight against corruption. “This Bill cannot be a good measure in fighting corruption. Some public officers will now be able to steal and stash the money in foreign accounts if it is passed into law,” he said, adding that the lawmakers should focus on Bills that were of benefit to ordinary Nigerians to justify the mandate given to them.
Adetokunbo Mumuni, executive director, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP, said the Bill has contravened the Code of Conduct for Public Officers Act. “What the legislators have done is a direct encouragement for people looking for ways to loot our resources and stash them away in foreign countries. It is a retrogressive step and every well meaning Nigerian must condemn it,” he said.
On his part, Bamidele Aturu, human rights lawyer, said it would send a wrong signal to the international community about the nation’s seriousness in tackling corruption. He said it would also weaken Nigerian banks because more money would now be transferred outside the country by public office holders.
Shehu Sani, president, Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria, also condemned the proposed Bill. He said the law would encourage stealing of public funds. “Legalising foreign accounts for public office holders’ amounts to statutory construction of a channel in which public funds can have an easy sailing out of the country. Permitting public office holders to own overseas accounts will encourage and support a wholesale evacuation of our resources to foreign banks. The new law, if approved, will simply impoverish the country and enrich foreign banks,” Sani said.
He advised that public office holders who earn their salaries in Naira should be made to keep their earnings in Naira and in Nigeria. According to him, the alarming and pervasive level of corruption in Nigeria should call for tighter laws to stem the tide. “Nigeria should not be a sanctuary for thieves; legislators should tighten the noose against corrupt persons.”