The Code of Conduct Bureau has explained that the Act that established it does not permit it to make public the assets declared by public officials. It however noted that officials could on their own make their forms public.
The explanation came as the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.); his deputy, Prof Yemi Osinbajo; and other public officials prepare to declare their assets preparatory to leaving office in compliance with the requirements of the law.
A senior official of the CCB, Veronica Kato, said in an interview with Saturday PUNCH that the bureau could only make such documents available by a court order in a case where a public official was under investigation or trial for alleged corruption relating to the acquired assets.
Kato said, “It is not possible to make the assets declared to the CCB by these public officials public. There is a law guiding the CCB and that law does not allow us to do so. This is due to the conditions upon which the assets declaration is constituted according to the guidelines.
“The assets declaration form is to be given to the public officials on terms and conditions as prescribed by the National Assembly, and those terms and conditions, up till now, do not permit us to make it available to the public. Besides, it is a private document and it’s confidential.”
Kato noted that while journalists might want to have access to such information, it was beyond the CCB to make such information public due to the breach of the owner’s confidential details.
She added, “It’s a different case where there’s a petition or something of that sort demanding that a particular official’s declared assets should be made available for investigation purposes. If a public official decides on their own volition to make it public, such a person will do that. We have been established for over 25 years and we don’t make declared assets’ details public because we don’t have the power to do that.”
“For example, when the incumbent President and his deputy came into office, they decided to declare their assets publicly. That was their decision. They are also the only ones that can decide to make the assets public as they are leaving.
“Our duty is to ensure that public officials declare their assets to the CCB; we take custody of the asset declaration forms and we verify those assets, and when we see red flags, we investigate and prosecute them if we find contravention against the code of conduct rule. Those are our primary functions.”
When asked how the citizens could assist the CCB when they do not know the assets listed in the forms, Kato said if any citizen felt a public official had acquired more than they had before getting into office “and the citizen can provide evidence to proof that such assets were acquired with illicit funds and through the abuse of their office, the citizen can write a petition to the CCB and we will investigate and compare what they declared with what they now have.”
Kato added, “If we can establish beyond reasonable doubt that these things were acquired illicitly, then we go to court.”
Prior to the 2015 general election, Buhari promised he would publicly declare his assets and liabilities if voted into power.
In a document titled, ‘I pledge to Nigeria’, Buhari highlighted what he would do in his first 100 days if he assumed power on May 29, 2015. He said he would encourage political appointees in his administration to also declare their assets publicly.
He had said, “I pledge to publicly declare my assets and liabilities and encourage all my appointees to publicly declare their assets and liabilities as a pre-condition for appointment. All political appointees will only earn the salaries and allowances determined by the RMFAC.”
After much criticism of his refusal to keep to his promise after he was sworn in, in September 2015, the Presidency eventually published Buhari and Osinbajo’s assets.
Details of Buhari’s declared assets were made public in a statement by his spokesman, Garba Shehu, showing that the assets were valued at less than N30m at the time of his inauguration on May 29.
Shehu added that the President’s money was held in a single local bank account. Buhari was said to have homes in Daura in addition to an orchard with a number of economic trees and a ranch with 270 heads of cattle, 25 sheep and five horses, as well as shares in Berger Paints, Union Bank and Skye Bank (now Polaris Bank).
Osinbajo, on his part, declared N94m and $900,000 held in his bank accounts. He also declared a four-bedroom residence in Lagos, a three-bedroom flat in Ikoyi and another two-bedroom apartment at the Redemption Camp along the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway.
The Vice-President also listed a mortgaged property with two bedrooms in Bedford, England.
Shehu added, “Apart from his law firm, known as SimmonsCooper Partners, the Vice-President also declared shareholding in six private companies based in Lagos, including Octogenerium Limited, Windsor Grant Limited, Tarapolsa, Vistorion Limited, Aviva Limited and MTN Nigeria.
“His personal vehicles are one Infinity four-wheel drive SUV, one Mercedes Benz and a Prado SUV.”
In May 2019, before his inauguration for a second term, Buhari submitted a second set of assets declaration forms to the CCB. It was stated that the declaration showed no significant changes in assets as declared by him in 2015.
“There are no new houses, no new bank accounts at home and abroad, and there are no new shares acquired,” he said.
Buhari insincere – Ozekhome
Human rights activist, Chief Mike Ozekhome (SAN), said the President’s failure to declare his assets publicly, ab initio, had a negative impact on his anti-corruption agenda.
In an interview with Saturday PUNCH recently, Ozekhome recalled that Buhari had led an anti-corruption campaign in 2015 before he came into power, where he promised Nigerians that he would publicly declare his assets when sworn in, but that he did not do so immediately as promised.
He stated, “Nigerians should have known from that first singular act that Buhari’s government will not be truthful and sincere to Nigerians. This was a man who said if he was declared the president of Nigeria, he would declare his assets openly and publicly. But when he got into office, he declared his assets, but refused to make them public until Nigerians pressurised him, went on television and wrote that he should make them public so as to show good example, leadership by example not by precept.”
He said the public declaration of his assets would symbolise transparency on the President’s part, serving as a yardstick to weigh the quantum by which the assets had appreciated or depreciated in the past eight years.
Another human rights lawyer, Mr Jiti Ogunye, noted that despite the fact that it was not a statutory requirement for the CCB to publish such information, if the Freedom of Information Act was active, it would have empowered Nigerians to have access to such forms and scrutinise the assets.
He noted that such information was important for the mass media and whistleblowers to keep an eye on the acquisitions of the public officials.
He added, “My view remains that if assets are declared and the forms are kept in a file, far away from public scrutiny, how will members of the public be able to volunteer information that someone in a public office has had more assets than we know? How will whistleblowers be able to function?
“Law enforcement agencies demand information from the citizens. They say they act on the information acquired and cooperation of the citizens, even the military in the war against insurgents solicits information from the people.”
TMG seeks transparency
The Chairman, Transition Monitoring Group, Auwal Rafsanjani, harped on the importance of making assets declaration forms public if the administration was keen on its anti-corruption campaign.
Rafsanjani said, “Any government that says it wants to fight corruption must look for a way to ensure a standard approach to assets declaration. Assets declaration is very important to minimise the level of corruption in the society because if public officials don’t declare their assets, there is a likelihood that they can accumulate as much as they can while in office at the expense of the public. So, it is important that public officials, including the President, Vice-President, Senate President and others must declare their assets and it should be done publicly.
“It is worrisome that this government promised to fight corruption, but it has not been effective in the fight against corruption and asset declaration was not prioritised.”
In his contribution, the Chairman, Centre for Anti-Corruption and Open Leadership, Debo Adeniran, said the existing law did not compel them to make the declaration public but that if such forms were made public, it would help in the fight against corruption.
He added, “The Code of Conduct Bureau Act makes it mandatory for people to declare their assets before they assume office and when they are leaving. The law doesn’t make it compulsory that they should make it public, but ideally it should be made public for people to be able to check their assets, confirm under or over-declaration and if they do not agree with the declaration, they can go to the Code of Conduct Tribunal.
“What we are advocating is that all assets declarations must be made public and should be verified by the Code of Conduct Bureau. The law permits the Code of Conduct Bureau to ascertain their claims, but are they really doing it?
“It is not good for our anti-corruption drive that the CCB always makes excuses that they do not have enough hands or adequate funding to do the verification of the declared assets. That is antithetical to the spirit of assets declaration, because if people claim ownership of some assets and there is no way to verify those declarations, it is as good as useless and it means they can also do anticipatory declaration, knowing that when they get into office, they will acquire more properties. It is unfortunate.”
Also, the Deputy Director of the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, Kolawole Oluwadare, in an interview with one of our correspondents stressed that public declaration of assets should be made compulsory for every public office holder.
He said SERAP would expect the CCB to make Buhari, Osinbajo and other public office holders to publicly declare their assets at the end of their tenure to give room for transparency and accountability as such documents would be made available for public scrutiny.