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Monday 21st September 2020,
Hope for Nigeria

SERAP’s FoI: Why Buhari, Osinbajo should end secrecy over their asset declarations – Falana

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Falana warns journalists against rumours peddling

Femi Falana

I have read the Freedom of Information (FoI) requests by Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) giving President Muhammadu Buhari, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, 36 state governors and their deputies 7 days to publicly declare any updates on their asset declarations submitted to the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB).

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SERAP’s case for the public announcement of any updates on the assets already declared by President Buhari and Vice President Osinbajo is correctly based on the Constitution of Nigeria 1999 (as amended), the Freedom of Information Act and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which has not only been ratified by Nigeria but also domesticated as part of the domestic laws.

The Presidency has claimed that there is no law in Nigeria mandating President Buhari to declare his assets publicly. With due respect, this cannot be the correct position of our law.

As far as the law is concerned, the word “declaration” means “a formal statement, proclamation, or announcement, especially embodied in an instrument.” See page 467 of Black’s Laws Dictionary (Ninth Edition).

The combined effect of the Constitution, FoI Act and the African Charter is that all public officials ought to voluntarily announce publicly their asset declarations even without prompting from civil society groups like SERAP.

In the alternative, the Code of Conduct Bureau is bound by law to make them available to members of the public, pursuant to section 1 of the FoI Act.

In fact, the law contemplated by the Constitution to make asset declarations of public officials public is the FoI Act. With the FoI Act, there is no longer secrecy in government, including in the asset declarations made by all public officials.

Section 3 (c) of Paragraph A of Part 1 of the Third Schedule to the Constitution provides that the Code of Conduct Bureau shall have power to “retain custody of such declarations and make them available for inspection by any citizen of Nigeria on such terms and conditions as the National Assembly may prescribe”. The National Assembly has since 2011 prescribed such terms and conditions in the FoI Act.

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No more excuses by public officials, as the National Assembly has, by passing the FoI Act, prescribed the terms and conditions for public officials and the CCB to publicly make asset declarations available. In this instance, SERAP has correctly invoked the provisions of the Constitution, FoI and the African Charter.

Similarly, Section 22 of the Constitution has imposed a duty on the mass media to promote public accountability and transparency.

Even private citizens can no longer insist on secrecy as they are now required by official policies to register their biometric data for the purpose of acquiring international passports, telephone lines and opening of bank accounts.

The Bank Verification Number commonly called BVN–a biometric identification system implemented by the Buhari administration–has ended secrecy of bank accounts, thereby curbing illegal banking transactions in Nigeria.

All that SERAP is asking is for the Presidency, governors and their deputies to announce their asset declarations as submitted to the CCB. Such announcement will help to update the records of what the President and Vice President already made public and refresh the memory of the public who are keen to see transparency and accountability in the implementation of the asset declarations frameworks in Nigeria.

I therefore urge President Buhari and Vice President Osinbajo to show strong leadership by immediately acceding to the FoI requests by SERAP and publicly announce any updates on their asset declarations already made public in 2015.

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This will end the secrecy that continues to surround asset declarations in Nigeria. The secrecy has over the years been used to hide corruptly stolen assets, which has continued to cause untold misery for millions of Nigerians.

Femi Falana, SAN

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