The outcome of the 2015 presidential election provided hope in abundance for millions of Nigerians about the possibility of positive change in all facets of our national life. This is coming against the background of the promise of change by the new governing party, the All Progressives Congress, which campaigned on the mantra of change. Also, the personality of President Muhammadu Buhari is associated with honesty and integrity and a Spartan lifestyle that shuns frivolities. The APC made a lot of promises whilst the President, as a candidate, promised to make public his declaration of assets on assumption of office. Nigerians were happy with this very promise considering that the President, as the overall leader, sets the moral tone of the administration. The expectation was that other state officials will be compelled to follow the example of the President.
However, the President and the Vice-President, Yemi Osinbajo, have since declared their assets and handed the declaration forms to the Code of Conduct Bureau. Instead of making the declarations public as promised, there was deafening silence and when Nigerians demanded that the President should fulfil his promise, we were told that we had to await the verification of the assets which could take so many months. This idea that we have to await the verification seems to be an unnecessary shift of the goal post after a goal has been scored. Four issues emanate from the wait-and-see approach. First, the President and the Vice-President do not need any special efforts to disclose the assets. All they need to do is to give the presidential media aides copies of the documents and they will be available to the whole world in the next couple of hours. The second is that they made these declarations on oath and considering their life experiences and qualifications, the average Nigerian will not believe that they will deliberately start their tenure by lying on oath to mislead Nigerians. We can give them that benefit of the doubt. Thus, the assets declared are presumed to be their real and only assets – no additions and no subtractions. The third is that by asking Nigerians to wait, the impression is created that the documents are being worked and re-worked or doctored, so that what we get to see at the end of the day may not be the original documents submitted by the duo. The fourth is the fact that the President and the Vice-President are in a position to get the best legal, accounting and forensic advice to guide their compilation of assets and need not fear anything to make them public once they have satisfied their conscience. So, the waiting makes no sense.
Ideally, the process of verification should be a public process where every Nigerian is told about the declared assets of the public officer and a call is made to all persons who have any information that may contradict the declarations to come forward to the Code of Conduct Bureau with empirical evidence or forever keep silent. This will follow the procedure of the banns of marriage in a Catholic Church. In a Freedom of Information request sent by the Centre for Social Justice to the Code of Conduct Bureau in April 2015 requesting the details of the public officers prosecuted and convicted for violating the Code of Conduct for public officers and list of properties and assets recovered so far between 2010 and 2014, the Bureau forwarded its 2013 Ministerial Press Briefing document which includes lack of cooperation and information from the public as part of its challenges. Specifically, the Bureau stated on page 8 of the Briefing as follows: “Effective verification of assets, most especially under-declarations, depends greatly on information received from the public. The Nigerian public are hesitant to provide information on those who live above their income. This makes it difficult to detect those who under-declare their assets”. Pray, how can Nigerians intervene to provide information to the Bureau on a declaration they have not seen? If you do not know the opening balance of an account, how can you meaningfully contribute to the debate on whether the closing balance is correct and represents the true and fair view of the financial transactions?
The same Bureau in response to the Freedom of Information request sent by Stop Impunity Nigeria campaign requesting the details of the declarations of assets of President Buhari and Vice-President Osibanjo sought to hide under the claw back provisions of the Freedom of Information Act by declining the request on the grounds that they constitute an invasion of the personal privacy of both public office holders since they contain personal information. The Bureau also declined the request on the grounds that paragraph 3 (c) of the Third Schedule Part 1, of the 1999 Constitution as amended provides that the Code of Conduct Bureau shall make asset declaration of public officers available for inspection by any citizen of Nigeria only on such terms and conditions prescribed by the National Assembly. However, the terms and conditions according to the Bureau have not been prescribed by the National Assembly.
The above position of the Bureau is untenable. These are the officials and standard arguments of the Bureau that seek to be clever by half measure. If the constitution states that the National Assembly should prescribe the terms and conditions for publicising asset declarations, it is our humble view that by enacting the Freedom of Information Act in 2011, the parliament satisfied that requirement. The position that the declarations contain personal information makes no sense since there is also a provision in the FoIA to the effect that even personal or proprietary information can be made public if it is in the public interest so to do. Pray, what more can be in the public interest than Nigerians knowing the worth of their President and Vice-President as they assume office from an anti-corruption stance? Even the FoIA contains a provision that the information in the custody of a public body which contains proprietary and personal information can be made public once the individual to whom it relates gives his consent. Again, what are Buhari and Osinbajo waiting for?
From the briefing of the Bureau, between 2011 and 2013, it sent 371 cases to the Code of Conduct Tribunal and secured only 100 convictions; 293 were struck out, discharged, acquitted or adjourned and the number pending before the Tribunal was only 68. This is not a good performance record for an agency that seriously seeks to enthrone a Code of Conduct for accountability and transparency in public service.
If the Bureau is serious in these excuses it is inventing for not making asset declaration public, the pertinent question is: What attempts has the Bureau made since 1999 to draft a bill and send the same to the National Assembly for the prescription of the terms and conditions for inspection of asset declarations? None that Nigerians are aware of. Without conceding that the FoIA has not covered the ground, the drafting and presentation of this bill to the National Assembly should be one of the concerns of the Bureau, the Buhari administration and all lovers of transparency and accountability in Nigeria. Finally, the National Assembly should give the bill accelerated passage once it comes before it.