The Code of Conduct Bureau has refused to release copies of asset declaration forms of some prominent Nigerians more than seven days after Saturday Punch sent a letter of request to the bureau.
Relying on the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 2011, Saturday Punch had on January 24 written to the CCB asking for copies of asset declaration forms of the Chief of Staff to the President, Abba Kyari; Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha; Minister of Labour, Dr Chris Ngige; Minister of Works, Housing and Power, Babatunde Fashola (SAN); Minister of Communication, Adebayo Shittu; and Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi.
Other office holders Saturday Punch sought for their declaration forms from the CCB were Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed; Minister of Agriculture, Audu Ogbeh; Minister of State for Transportation(Aviation), Hadi Sirika; Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami; Director-General, DSS, Yusuf Bichi; and Finance Minister, Zainab Ahmed.
In the letter signed by the Punch Head of Abuja Bureau, Olusola Fabiyi, the bureau was also asked to provide the list of defaulters.
The letter read in part, “Beyond the listed political office holders’ asset declaration forms, kindly furnish us with the number and names of political office holders who have yet to fill and submit their asset declaration forms for whatever reasons.
“We will also want to know the number of names of political office holders the Code of Conduct Bureau is investigating over issues relating to asset declaration forms.”
The newspaper also urged the CCB to furnish it with the names of political office holders, who had yet to comply with the bureau’s directive to visit it for verification.
“Based on the provision of the FOI Act, we hope that our request will be granted within seven days of your receipt of this letter,” the letter also read.
But despite a number of reminders during the seven-day period stipulated by the FoI Act, the CCB failed to respond to the letter. As of close of work on Friday, February 1, 2019, the CCB had yet to respond.
When Saturday PUNCH sought to know the reason for the agency’s action, a top official in CCB simply told one of our correspondents, “The letter is on the chairman’s table. Can he be forced to respond?”
The FoI letter, which was addressed to the chairman of the CCB, was received by the bureau with a copy acknowledged by the office of the chairman on January 24, 2019.
The FoI Act provides that public institutions must make the information requested available within seven days of receiving the request.
The Act also said failure to give access to the information requested for within the time limit provided by the Act is deemed as a refusal of access.
Specifically, Section 7 (4) of the Act states, “Where the government or public institution fails to give access to information or record applied for under this Act or part thereof within the time limit set out in this Act, the institution shall, for the purposes of this Act, be deemed to have refused to give access.”
And on the issue of time limit, Section 4 of the Act states, “Where information is applied for under this Act, the public institution to which the application is made shall, subject to Sections 6, 7, and 8 of this Act, within seven days after the application is received – (a) make the information available to the applicant, (b) Where the public institution considers that the application should be denied, the institution shall give written notice to the applicant that access to all or part of the information will not be granted, stating reasons for the denial and the section of this Act under which the denial is made.”
But eight days after the application was filed and acknowledged by the bureau, the information requested was not made available to Saturday PUNCH, neither was there any written notice to state the reasons for the denial.
Agbakoba, other SANs slam FG
Reacting to the development, popular lawyers, especially Senior Advocates of Nigeria, on Friday kicked against the CCB’s action, saying the agency had no legal basis not to respond to the letter even if the request would not be granted.
They said the agency’s decision to keep mum had reinforced rumours and belief that the anti-corruption war was one-sided.
A former president of the Nigerian Bar Association, Mr Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, said the information in the asset declaration forms of public officials should be released immediately upon request because they were in the public interest.
He explained that the purpose of the asset declaration form was to enhance probity and public accountability and the information could not be deemed personal.
He said the idea of the CCB releasing the information to an applicant and denying another applicant could not have been done in good faith.
He added, “Generally, the FoI overturns the Official Secret Act and it is to make public information accessible upon request. But there is a proviso that says they (public institutions) can withhold it for good public reasons or in the national interest. But the CCB must state that in its response to the applicant.”
Recall that the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, was suspended based on a petition filed by a civil society group, Anti-Corruption and Research Based Data Initiative. Led by Mr Dennis Aghanya, the group accused the CJN of false asset declaration and other sundry allegations.
Aghanya had said that the ARDI had written a petition against Onnoghen and commenced investigation against the senior judicial officer about a year ago.
But there had been questions over how the organisation got access to Onnoghen’s asset declaration forms if they were not issued to him by the CCB.
Agbakoba said, “Clearly, it shows that the CCB is not acting in good faith. If on one hand, it (CCB) would decline but on the other hand releases information in respect of a very senior government official, like the CJN, it has to justify why it is refusing the request. Clearly, it puts into doubt its intentions.
“Asset declaration form cannot be personal information and if the CCB sees it as one, it is part of the error. The purpose of asset declaration is for probity and public accountability; so, asset declaration is not personal.”
Another Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr Babatunde Fashanu, said the CCB had no legal basis not to honour Saturday PUNCH’s request.
He said, “There is absolutely no legal basis for the CCB not to honour that request.
“In the first place, the CCB and the CCT are performing an open public function and the people who are filling in their information in these forms are public officers. So, since everything is for the public, what would be their reason not to make it available? I think it should be tested because I see no reason why the CCB should not make the forms public.
“Why are they filling the forms before taking office and upon leaving? Is it not for the public to know that they didn’t steal and that they are not corrupt? If they don’t comply, somebody should go to court.”
Also, a former vice-president of the NBA, Mr Monday Ubani, said it was worrisome the public could not have access to the information domiciled with the bureau despite the FoI Act, noting that the purpose of the asset declaration form was to ensure transparency and accountability in governance.
He said, “There have been several instances where people have applied and they were never given. That is why people are surprised how a private NGO was able to get that of the CJN and that is why people are saying if the NGO has that access, the CCB should also be ready to release the information to people who have requested for information. That again shows some level of uncertainty and duplicity in the application of our laws.”
Another SAN, Chief Mike Ozekhome, said there was no legal basis for the CCB not to provide Saturday Punch with the requested information.
He said, “There is no legal basis. You can go to court. It reinforces what we have been saying that the anti-corruption fight is selective.
“If the dossier of even just one, out of the more than 36 ministers close to Buhari, is exposed, the whole country will be shocked by the haemorrhage that members of the council of executive have subjected Nigerians to.
“Corruption is deeper and more cancerous today than ever before, especially within the executive. One minister’s assets alone, if shown to Nigerians, will make Onnoghen’s $10,000 deposit in local domiciliary account look like child’s play.
“I dare the government and the CCB to throw open to Nigerians the asset declaration forms of the President, the Vice-President and all the ministers so that Nigerians can scrutinise and determine who exactly are the corrupt Nigerians that we have today. You will discover that the first 11 most corrupt Nigerians, to the second 11, up to the third 11 all reside within the executive arm of government in Nigeria today, led by the Presidency. So, I dare them to do that, to show that the anti-corruption fight is not selective.”
Another lawyer, Chief Ferdinand Orbih, SAN, faulted the refusal of the bureau to release the official documents, saying, “Even without the Freedom of Information Act, they (asset declaration forms) should be available on demand, provided you are ready to pay the fee and the officer in possession of the documents must certify them and hand over the copies to you.”
The Executive Director, Media Rights Agenda, Mr Edetaen Ojo, said, “I do not believe the Chief Justice of Nigeria can be characterised as an “opposition” member but it is clear that the CCB is selective in its enforcement of the assets declaration requirements and uses it as a political weapon. If it is open to making such a public show of the Chief Justice of Nigeria and his assets declaration, whether the allegations against him are true or false, then there can be no basis for the CCB to claim that it is concerned about any public officer’s privacy or is interested in protecting the privacy of those who have submitted their assets declaration forms to the bureau.”
Similarly, the Coalition of United Political Parties has described the CCB refusal to grant access to asset forms of office holders in line with the FoI Act as an indication that the present administration is not committed to the anti-corruption war as being claimed.
The coalition’s first national spokesperson, Imo Ugochinyere, said this in an interview with one of our correspondents on Friday.
Ugochinyere said, “It shows the President is only playing to the gallery when he talks about his administration’s fight against corruption. They should know that making these documents available will go a long way to help the fight against corruption, if indeed they are committed to the fight.”
Also reacting, the Peoples Democratic Party said the CCB’s refusal to grant access to certain political office holders’ asset declaration forms in line with the provisions of the FoI Act was unconstitutional.
The PDP Deputy National Publicity Secretary, Mr Diran Odeyemi, in an interview with one of our correspondents, said it was evidence of bias by the All Progressives Congress-led Federal Government.
Also, the National President of the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, Mr Malachy Ugwummadu, said the CCB had no legal basis to deny Saturday Punch the information requested.
Efforts to speak with the Head of Information of the CCB, Mrs Florence Dibiaezue-Eke, were not successful. She did not take her call and did not respond to a text message sent to her by one of our correspondents on the failure of the bureau to respond to the letter.
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In his reaction, the PDP said the action of the CCB was a confirmation that the Presidency was not ready to listen to Nigerians.
It also said that it was a sign that the President Buhari-led Federal Government was not bothered about the public perception of the government.
The National Chairman of the party, Prince Uche Secondus, who spoke with one of our correspondents, called on Nigerians to impress it on the government to give account to them on its activities.
He said if the request had been for the release of forms by the opposition, the CCB would have released it without pressure.
He said, “Those who expect the APC-led Federal Government to change its style may be living in the past.
“Recall that the Chairman of the APC, Adams Oshiomhole recently said that the party forgives sinners? Maybe they are looking for ways of either cleaning the forms of the affected officers or outright withdrawal of the forms to enable then refill.
“You also recall that they said all those who have looted money and are undergoing trial become saints as soon as they join or identify with the ruling party?
“You therefore don’t expect such a party or its government agency to willingly expose its sinful workers.”