Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Unveiling Asset Declaration in Nigeria

In order to promote the culture of transparency, accountability and integrity of public officials, a legal requirement makes it mandatory for them to declare their assets. Paragraph 11 of Part one of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution says: “(1) Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, every public officer shall within three months after the coming into force of this Code of Conduct or immediately after taking office and thereafter - (a) at the end of every four years; and (b) at the end of his term of office, submit to the Code of Conduct Bureau a written declaration of all his properties, assets, and liabilities and those of his unmarried children under the age of eighteen years.” This anti-corruption principle has been more of a paper tiger. How?

Apart from the fact that some public officials do not bother to declare their assets as specified in the code of conduct for public officers, those who comply sometimes make false declarations. It is alleged that some of the political office holders make anticipatory declarations i.e. they make higher and bigger claims than their true worth in anticipation of what they intend to illegally acquire while in office. While some indulge in anticipatory declarations; few others under-estimate their true worth. Here, properties or assets owned by a public officer are said to belong to his or her cronies or family members. Anticipatory declarations are often made on assumption of office while under-estimation sometimes takes place after the expiration of the terms of office. It noteworthy that it is not only public officers that make bogus claims of their assets, many others in informal and private sector do under-declare their incomes and assets in order to evade tax or reduce considerably their tax liabilities.

The code of conduct for public officers in paragraph 3 of the earlier refrenced Fifth Schedule forbids some categories of political office holders from operating a foreign bank account. According to the section: “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 of 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.” This section has also been observed more in breach. While some operate these external accounts in violation of the rule, others play smart by using a reliable ally or family members to operate them on their behalf.

Perhaps the dodgiest thing on the issue of asset declaration in Nigeria is the fact that such written declarations are not for public consumption as the statement forms are treated as classified documents under the Official Secrets Act. There is thus no way of independently verifying the contents of these declarations. Although the law establishing the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal (Chapter 56 Laws of Federation, Nigeria 1990) empowers them to authenticate the claims made in the asset declaration forms, it is doubtful if the verification exercise are ever done and if they did, the report of such are never made public. In the opinion of the discerning masses, the secret declaration vitiates the purpose meant to be served by the disclosure principle. It is believed that the public’s right to know ought to be guaranteed in conformity with the recently ratified Freedom of Information Act.

It is noteworthy that some political office holders, of their own accord, have made public their asset declaration forms (ADF). First to do this was the late former president of Nigeria, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua who on June 28, 2007 made public the content of his ADF which stood at N856 million. Vice President (now president) Goodluck Jonathan followed suit in August 2007 when he declared a total asset of N295, 304,420 public. Others who have voluntarily made their assets public include former Governor Gbenga Daniel of Ogun State who made an open declaration of N4.47 billion assets in July 2007.

In December 2010, Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State made a public declaration of cash and asset worth N750 million while the latest VIP (Very Important Person) to do such was Governor Abiola Ajimobi of Oyo State who on July 3, 2011 made public a declaration of N292, 432,107 cash and N2.2billion assets. These are exemplary conduct but what Nigerians want is not a discretionary open declaration but a mandatory one. The challenge for the populace is to carry out an independent investigation to ascertain the authenticity of the claims of those who have made their assets public. However, I sincerely doubt if individuals or Non-Governmental Organisations have the technical capacity and financial muscle to embark on such enterprise.

This effectively put the ball in the court of Code of Conduct Bureau whom, it is hoped will see to effective prosecution of those who fail to comply with relevant laws guiding asset declaration at the Code of Conduct Tribunal. These two anti-corruption agencies need to be strengthened financially, legally and administratively to perform their constitutional duties while amendment of the relevant laws is also needful to make the content of asset declaration forms open to public scrutiny.