You have to give a damn: SERAP invokes FOI to force GEJ to declare assets

by Stanley Azuakola

The president does not give a damn about publicly declaring his assets but civil society does. Actually ‘a’ civil society group, Socio Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), does.

On Sunday, during a media chat, the president was asked why he hasn’t publicly declared his asset. His response came as a shock to many: “I don’t give a damn about that,” he said. “The law is clear about it and so, making it public is no issue and I will not play into the hands of the people. I have nothing to hide. I declared (assets publicly) under the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua because he did it, but it is not proper. I could be investigated when I leave office. You don’t need to publicly declare it and it is a matter of principle. It is not the President declaring assets that will change the country.”

Apparently piqued by the president’s response, SERAP quickly sent a Freedom of Information request asking him to provide information on his “assets declaration details between May 2007 and May 2012, and to publish widely the information on a dedicated website.” They disclosed that if the president failed to comply with their request within 7 days of receipt and/or publication, they will be compelled to seek appropriate legal action to enforce the FOI.

The request dated 26 June 2012 was signed by the group’s executive director Adetokunbo Mumuni.

See excerpts of SERAP’s letter to the president below:

“The disclosure of the information requested will give SERAP and the general public a true picture of the assets of the president from May 2007 to May 2012, and will demonstrate the president’s oft-expressed commitment to transparency and accountability and show that your signing of the FOI was not just a public relation exercise but a public duty done in good faith.

“SERAP is concerned that your recent statement that you would not publicly declare your asset is a clear violation of the Nigerian Constitution and the UN Convention against Corruption to which Nigeria is a state party, and entirely inconsistent with your oft-repeated promises to prevent and combat high-level official corruption in the country.

“Your statement may also have breached the provisions of chapter two of the 1999 Constitution dealing with Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy, which among others require the government to take steps to eradicate corrupt practices and the abuse of power.

“We are also concerned that your statement shows your government’s lack of political will to lead by example, and to combat the endemic grand corruption which has continued to have corrosive effects on the human rights, in particular economic and social rights of millions of Nigerians. Your statement is also inconsistent with the action of a president who signed into law and is supposedly committed to the effective implementation of the Freedom of Information Act.

“We believe that disclosure of assets is crucial for ensuring that public officials’ personal interests including that of the president as the leader of the nation, do not conflict with their duties and responsibilities. Public disclosure also helps to provide a baseline and thus means for comparison to identify assets that may have been corruptly acquired and that a public official may legitimately be asked to account for.

“Specifically, Section 153 of the Constitution establishes a Code of Conduct Bureau to ensure, among other things, that all public officers, as defined in Part II of the Fifth Schedule, declare their assets on assuming office and immediately their terms of office expire. Paragraph Three of Part 1 (A) of the Third Schedule, empowers the Bureau to receive declarations made by all public officers, examine same and keep them in custody. Paragraph 3(C) says the Bureau shall have the 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.’

“Similarly, the UN Convention against Corruption requires public officials to make declarations to appropriate authorities regarding, inter alia, their outside activities, employment, investments, assets and substantial gifts or benefits from which a conflict of interest may result with respect to their functions as public officials.

“By virtue of Section 1 (1) of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act 2011, SERAP is entitled as of right to request for or gain access to information, including information on the assets declaration by the president of Nigeria, being a public document within the meaning of the FOI, and which is in the custody or possession of any public official, agency or institution.

“By virtue of Section 4 (a) of the FOI Act when a person makes a request for information from a public official, institution or agency, the public official, institution or urgency to whom the application is directed is under a binding legal obligation to provide the applicant with the information requested for, except as otherwise provided by the Act, within 7 days after the application is received.

“By Sections 2(3)(d)(V) & (4) of the FOI Act, your excellency is under a binding legal duty to ensure that documents containing information relating to your assets declaration are widely disseminated and made readily available to members of the public through various means.

“The information being requested does not come within the purview of the types of information exempted from disclosure by the provisions of the FOI Act. The information requested for, apart from not being exempted from disclosure under the FOI Act, bothers on an issue of national interest, public concern, interest of human rights, social justice, good governance, transparency and accountability.”

The ball is now in the president’s court. But can the C-in-C be compelled to give a damn?

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