Transparency in asset declaration regime: SERAP remains dauntless in the face of obstacles

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Advocacy group, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has once again called on President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo to lead by example by publishing the content of the assets declaration forms they submitted to the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB).

This is in line with the mandatory requirement for all persons taking public office to declare their assets with the CCB, which was designed as an effective tool for checking corruption. It is, however, largely believed that the CCB lacks the resources to embark on a physical inspection of declared assets in the forms submitted to it by public officeholders, as public officeholders have been known to declare non-existent assets in anticipation that they would divert public funds to acquire those assets while in office.

Leading the charge in the struggle for transparency in asset declaration regime for Nigerian public officeholders, SERAP is steadfast in its principle that Nigerians ought to know the specific assets declared by public officeholders to the CCB so that members of the public can do their independent verification of these assets and hold the public officers to account.

In a January 3, 2020 FoI request, the advocacy group urged Buhari, Osinbajo, the 36 state governors and deputy governors to “make public details of their assets, specifically property and income, contained in their asset declaration forms submitted to the CCB since assuming office.”

In the FoI request made by its Deputy Director, Kolawole Oludare, SERAP said it strongly believed that “public disclosure of summary of assets submitted to the CCB would help to uncover any irregularities and trigger formal verification of declarations by the CCB and other anti-corruption agencies.”

It added that public declaration of assets was “entirely consistent with government’s expressed commitment to prevent and combat corruption, provide a safeguard against abuse, and serve as an incentive to public officials to provide exact information when filing and submitting their asset declarations.”

“Non-public disclosure by public officials of their summary of assets undermines the effectiveness and integrity of the constitutional and statutory obligations to submit asset declarations, especially given that declarations are designed to curb grand corruption and weakens the public trust in the asset declaration regimes,” it added.

But Buhari, Osinbajo, the 36 state governors and deputy governors spurned the request.

Niger and Lagos states, which managed to acknowledge the receipt of SERAP’s FoI request, declined releasing the requested information but rather contended that “the FoI Act is inapplicable to state governments, their agencies, and officials.”

Reacting during a television interview to SERAP’s request, Buhari’s Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, said was no legal basis for his principal to make his declared assets public.

“SERAP asking the President to declare publicly, on the basis of what law? The President will do what the law requires of him and what the law requires is that he should declare his asset which he has done. Declaring publicly is not in our laws; it can only be a voluntary thing,” Adesina said.

Then the struggle shifted to the Federal High Court in Lagos where SERAP filed a suit marked FHC/ABJ/CS/65/2020, seeking “an order for leave to apply for judicial review and an order of mandamus to direct and/or compel President Buhari, Vice-President Osinbajo, 36 state governors and their deputies to make public their summary of assets.”

SERAP went further to seek a mandamus order to compel the CCB “to make available to the public, specific details of asset declarations submitted to it by successive Presidents, Vice-Presidents, Senate Presidents, Speakers of House of Representatives, state governors and their deputies since 1999.”

SERAP argued that asset declarations forms submitted to the CCB by public officers were public documents and public officers could not hide under the fundamental right to privacy to keep their assets secret, having been entrusted with the duty of managing public funds.

The suit was vehemently opposed by the CCB, which contended that no law empowered it to release to the public the assets declaration forms submitted by public officers.

The CCB said it needed a clear legislation by the National Assembly to be able to release to the public details of declared assets by public officers.

The court, in a May 11, 2020 judgment by Justice Muslim Hassan, agreed with the CCB and dismissed SERAP’s suit.

“I agree with the CCB that the duty to make the asset declaration form of public officers available is dependent upon the terms and conditions to be proscribed by the National Assembly. The terms and conditions must be specific and related to asset declaration of public officers and not legislation of general nature such as the Freedom of Information Act,” Justice Hassan held.

Beaten but not bowed, SERAP proceeded to the Court of Appeal in Lagos to challenge the verdict.

In the appeal, SERAP’s Deputy Director, Oludare, described Justice Hassan’s verdict as a miscarriage of justice.

He insisted that with the FoI Act, the National Assembly needed not to make any other law specifically empowering the CCB to release to the public contents of assets declaration forms by public officers.

“Asset declaration forms submitted by public officers are public documents in the custody of the CCB. The CCB is under a legal obligation to provide the information requested by SERAP in accordance with the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

“The learned trial judge failed to determine whether the asset declaration forms kept in the records of the CCB are public documents. The judge failed to determine whether the public interest in disclosing the information outweighs whatever injury that the disclosure would cause the CCB and public officers,” Oludare argued.

SERAP is urging the Court of Appeal to set aside Justice Hassan’s verdict and compel the CCB to release the asset declaration forms.

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