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Our Right to Information: the Missing Link in the Asset Declaration Process

28 September 2011 marked the International Right to Know Day, commemorating the universal Right to Information, which is also enshrined in Nigeria’s laws. 28 September 2011 was also the day that the Nation newspaper carried the front page headline, “Why some ex-governors won’t face trial, by CCB”. The story reported that the justification given by Mr Sam Saba, Chairman of the Code of Conduct Bureau for prosecuting some former governors accused of breach of their oath of office and the code of conduct, while excluding many others from prosecution, was that the latter had made a “plea bargain” by refunding some money. To my mind, this timely, yet disturbingly vague statement speaks directly to the core of the Right to Information and demonstrates on several levels just why access to information is vital to combating corruption in Nigeria. Nigerians must not be forced to continue to accept at face value inconsistent and insufficient excuses as measures for accountability.

Plea bargaining is a concept of criminal law in which a defendant agrees to a deal offered by a prosecutor as an incentive for a defendant to plead guilty to a lesser charge, which then invariably attracts a lighter sentence. How does a refund of some (not necessarily all) of an indeterminate amount of looted funds amount to a plea bargain? Since, by the admission of the Chairman of the Code of Conduct, some errant ex-governors have admittedly committed criminal offence, what punishment, if any, has been meted out; and to whom? And, where in Nigeria’s criminal statutes, does it prescribe that the penalty for an admission of guilt to a criminal offence is a waiver of prosecution?

Reminiscent of a magic act - with of smoke and mirrors, sleight of hand and unexplained tricks, and with the Nigerian public as mere spectators to this magic show - the antics and explanations of the Code of Conduct Bureau raise more questions than answers. These, and many more, the questions may easily be answered if Nigerians right of access to information was being honoured. Instead, the content of assets declaration forms are withheld from public scrutiny; investigation and verification processes are conducted in secrecy; and the results are not disclosed.

The Constitution guarantees public access to the mandatory assets declarations of Public officers, the purpose of which is for citizens to assist in the Bureau’s mandate to ensure accuracy, transparency and accountability in the verification process. Furthermore, the FOIA equips all persons with the right of access to all public records and information held by public institutions. The Code of Conduct Bureau is one such institution. The drafters of the Code of Conduct Act and the Constitution clearly foresaw public disclosure of the assets declaration forms as an invaluable asset to any investigation and verification process. For who can know a man better than the community in which he lives? Who can better identify his property and interests?

And yet, the Bureau consistently refuses to allow Nigerians the right of access that the Constitution clearly affords them to know the assets of public servants elected and appointed to work for Nigerians. Finally, let us not forget that officers of the Code of Conduct Bureau, even as custodians of the asset declaration forms, are themselves also subject to the same assessments prescribed by law, and their declaration of assets also ought to be open for public scrutiny.

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