A Federal High Court in Lagos has granted leave to Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) to compel the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) to publish the asset declarations of successive Presidents and state governors since 1999.
Justice Muslim Hassan gave the order after hearing SERAP’s ex parte motion argued by its counsel Adelanke Aremo.
Justice Hassan held: “Going through the application filed by SERAP, supported by a 14-paragraph affidavit with supporting exhibits, statements setting out the facts, verifying affidavits and written address in support, I am satisfied that leave ought to be granted in this case, and I hereby grant the motion for leave.”
SERAP’s action followed the CCB’s, that it could not disclose details of asset declarations submitted to it by successive Presidents and state governors since 1999 because doing so “would offend the right to privacy of Presidents and state governors.”
In the suit, SERAP is applying for judicial review and an order of mandamus directing and compelling the CCB to disclose details of asset declarations of all Presidents and state governors since 1999.
The suit reads: “Asset declarations of Presidents and state governors submitted to the CCB are public documents.”
“Public interest in disclosure of the details of asset declarations sought by SERAP clearly outweighs any claim of protection of the privacy of Presidents and state governors, as they are public officers entrusted with the duty to manage public funds, among other public functions.
“A necessary implication of the rule of law is that a public institution, like the CCB, can only act in accordance with the law, as to do otherwise may enthrone arbitrariness.
“The CCB does not have reasonable grounds on which to deny SERAP’s Freedom of Information (FOI) request, as it is in the interest of justice, the Nigerian public, transparency and accountability to publish details of asset declarations by presidents and state governors since the return of democracy in 1999.
“Disclosing details of asset declarations of public officers such as presidents and state governors would improve public trust in the ability of the CCB to effectively discharge its mandate. This would in turn put pressure on public officers like presidents and state governors to make voluntary public declaration of their assets.
“The right to receive information without any interference or distortion should be based on the principle of maximum disclosure, and a presumption that all information is accessible subject only to a narrow system of exceptions.
“It is a settled principle of law that details such as asset declarations of presidents and governors should be disclosed if there is an overriding public interest in having access to such information, which is clearly so in this matter.”
The rights group argued that democracy cannot flourish “if governments operate in secrecy, no matter how much open discussion and debate is allowed.
The very nature and quality of public discussion would be significantly impoverished without the nourishment of information from public authorities such as the CCB, and to guarantee freedom of expression without including the right to know would be a formal exercise.”
It further averred that the CCB has “an obligation to pro-actively keep, organize and maintain all information or records about their operations, personnel, activities and other relevant or related information or records in a manner that facilitates public access to such information or record.
“Given that many public officers being tried for or convicted of corruption are found to have made a false declaration of their assets, the CCB should no longer allow politicians to undermine the sanctity and integrity of the asset declaration provisions of the Constitution by allowing them to continue to exploit legal gaps for illicit enrichment.
“While elected public officers may not be constitutionally obliged to publicly declare their assets, the Freedom of Information Act 2011 has now provided the mechanism for the CCB to improve transparency and accountability of asset declarations by elected public officers.
“Allegation of false or anticipated declarations by public officers apparently to steal or mismanage public funds is a contributory factor to Nigeria’s underdevelopment and poverty level. All efforts to get details of asset declarations by presidents and state governors have proved abortive.
“The right to information and truth allows Nigerians to gain access to information essential to the fight against corruption, institutionalise good governance and improve citizens’ confidence in public institutions.”