Falana to Buhari, Osinbajo: Secret declaration aids stolen assets concealment

•Says local, continental laws compel public disclosure

President Muhammadu Buhari and his deputy, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, were on Tuesday asked to change the narrative about stolen assets in the country by publicly declaring their assets.

Human rights advocate and lawyer, Femi Falana, admonished the duo to lead by example and end the age-long secrecy around asset declaration by public officials, which he claimed, had long been used in hiding stolen assets.

Leading socio-economic pressure group, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), had issued an ultimatum of seven days on the president, his deputy, governors and their deputies to give updates on their assets by making a public release of the declarations they made to the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) as required by the law.

In this dispensation, only the Oyo State helmsman, Governor Seyi Makinde, had made a public disclosure of his assets after making the constitutional requirement to the Bureau.

His worth, before office, was put at N50 billion.

The governor is yet to make a public statement on the advocacy group’s request and ultimatum, considering all the 36 state governors were asked to make the public disclosure.

SERAP’s request was founded on the relevant provisions of the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act, which now make it compelling for public officials to make public records available on request.

CCB under the leadership of Professor Mohammed Isah had stymied moves by a national newspaper last year, claiming that the asset declarations form of the president was private to him and releasing it to the public would amount to an invasion of the first citizen’s privacy.

Curiously, the same CCB had released, reportedly on FoI request, the asset declaration form of the immediate Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, to one Dennis Aghanya, a former aide to President Buhari, who subsequently used it to controversially rid Onnoghen of his job.

Onnoghen’s form was not only made public, as private information on his immediate family members, including wife and children were also released to the public.

Removed by Buhari on January 14, the first southern CJN in more than three decades would have officially retire on January 23.

By CCB’s admission, only Isah has the keys to where high-profile declaration forms are kept.

Defending Buhari’s refusal to make assets public, presidential spokesperson, Femi Adesina, said no law compelled it.

Falana would have none of it all.

Citing home-made laws and continental charter, the senior advocate ruled SERAP’s request legal and constitutional and positive response to it, a constitutional must.

According to him, “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.

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“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.

“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.”

In asserting that the public information space had been opened up by the combination of the 1999 Constitution, FoI and African Charter, Falana argued that “I have read the FoI requests by SERAP, giving President Buhari, Vice-President Osinbajo, 36 state governors and their deputies seven days to publicly declare any update on their asset declarations submitted to the CCB.

“SERAP’s case for the public announcement of 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 FoI 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 CCB is bound by law to make them available to members of the public, pursuant to Section 1 of the FoI Act.

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