Asset declaration and best practices

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Buhari, Osinbajo : Photo file copy

Nigerians on September 3, 2015 woke up to new realities as details of the assets of the President and Vice President, Buhari and Osinbajo were unveiled to the public through public declaration of their assets. The assets are as declared before the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) on assumption of office on May, 29. The development implies that the two officials took a step higher than what the law prescribes in causing publication of assets already declared to be made in the newspapers.

According to the report, details of the President’s assets declared publicly include: Less than N30m cash; one Union Bank account; shares in Berger Paints, Union Bank and Skye Bank; five homes in Daura, Kaduna and Abuja; two plots of land in Kano and Port Harcourt; Farms, an orchard and a ranch; 270 head of cattle, 25 sheep, five horses, birds, trees; Cars, two of which he bought from his savings and the others supplied to him by the Federal Government in his capacity as former Head of State.

The Vice President’s assets include: N94 million and $900,000 in his bank accounts; 4-bedroom residence at Victoria Garden City, Lagos and a 3-bedroom flat at 2 Mosley Road, Ikoyi, a 2-bedroom flat at Redemption Cam and a 2-bedroom mortgaged property in Bedford, England; Law firm, known as SimmonsCooper; Shares I Octogenerium Ltd., Windsor Grant Ltd., Tarapolsa, Vistorion Ltd., Aviva Ltd., MTN; Infinity SUV, Mercedes Benz and a Prado Jeep.

The public declaration of assets by the President and the Vice President is significant for several reasons. First, having made the issue a subject matter of campaign during the build up to the last presidential elections, the gesture may have been an indication of promise kept. I recall that in an interview I granted to The Guardian on Tuesday June 9 2015 tittled: “Buhari, Osinbajo will make asset declaration public” I responded to anxieties about the prospects of the President and the Vice President declaring their assets this way.

“We must proceed from the premise of what the law stipulates, which is to the effect that they are expected to declare their assets. The law did not stipulate that those assets should be publicised, the assumption being that once declared, it is in the public domain. Whoever is interested should go and apply for a certified trued copy from the code of conduct bureau. But in the light of the present circumstance, on the strength of the integrity and antecedent of Mr. President and his vice who rode to power on the integrity ticket, with the well-known incorruptible posturing of both men who have zero-tolerance for corruption, my expectation is that they should take a step further by causing their asset declaration to be made public.

My view is that they are going to do that. I am 100 percent optimistic that they would cause the asset declared to be published. My optimism arises from my knowledge of the personalities involved, particularly the vice president, who has a record of integrity in public service and values his reputation. I would implore the civil society organisations to be patient with the new leadership because they are just settling down and there are a lot of issues to be grappled with. Let us see what is going to happen in their first 100 days, because they have said within this period, they are going to make their asset declaration public. I think we should not stampede them and invest faith in their credibility and integrity. They have done what is required of them, legally speaking.

They cannot publicly declare such assets without complying with the formalities prescribed by law, which is what they have done now. Having declared and submitted their forms to the code of conduct bureau, let us wait for further policy pronouncements of what they intend to do. I believe it is rather premature to think that they are trying to shy away from declaring their assets publicly. I happened to be in a public function, where the vice president assured that beyond what the law stipulates, such asset declarations would be published in major national newspapers. I know he is a man of his words. So, those criticising them should keep their gun powder dry and let’s wait for few more weeks”.

On a personal level, I feel fulfilled that the two topmost public officials in the country have kept their promises, meaning that the optimism that some of us expressed have not been betrayed. The word of a gentleman ought to be a bond.

Beyond keeping of promises, the gesture must also be considered and analysed against the background of international experience of asset declarations with a view to determining whether our country can also draw useful experiences from best practices in other climes.

Undoubtedly, asset and interest disclosure has become a key global anti-corruption issue. In the light of the clear agenda of Mr. President on the basis of which he rode to power, this public declaration of asset is one clear signal that this administration is really serious and committed to its anti-corruption campaign. If the number one and number two citizens have declared their assets publicly, what prevents any other public official from not following this worthy example? It is also important that this declaration is coming before the appointment and constitution of the cabinet ministers. My expectation is that all appointed ministers and other categories of public officials now have heavy moral and legal responsibilities to publicly declare their assets. There can be no excuses for non-compliance. Indirectly, the President and Vice President may have started the war against corruption on a very solid and bright foundation.

The understanding is that the asset declaration represents a veritable tool for transparency in governance – an important hallmark of the democratic tradition.

The international community considers asset declarations as a tool for transparency. This is evidence by its inclusion in the UN Convention against Corruption, which notes that:

“Each State Party shall endeavour, where appropriate and in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, to establish measures and systems requiring 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”

The understanding is that “regulations concerning the disclosure of assets and interests can help prevent conflicts of interest among public office holders. Disclosure of information on private interests increases the transparency of decision-making processes, and thereby lays the foundations for the accountability of office holders for their actions. The disclosure of assets 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. A good disclosure system can, further, be the basis for successfully enforcing criminal and other legal anti-corruption provisions”.

Best Practices – Country Examples

International best practices on asset declaration vary from country to country depending on the legal regime and the emphases placed on combating corruption by the authorities. While some countries prefer to restrict the disclosure requirement to senior office holders or those in sensitive positions, others require the declaration of interests of less senior public officials more generally, with some also requiring information about the assets of public officials’ spouses. Few countries, however, require asset disclosure of public officials at all levels. Examples of countries in this category include: Belarus, Brunei Darrussalam, Colombia, Egypt, Greece, Guatemala, Iraq, Italy, Lebanon and Malaysia.

This underscores the seriousness of asset declaration. Nigeria’s latest example is a clear indication that our country is ready to implement the international code of conduct for public officials – a commitment which has long been established as the main objective of UNESCO Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice which publishes a yearly report of the Secretary-General on the implementation of the international code of conduct for public officials. One clear recommendation to be made is the need to comply with international best practices. A few examples of how some countries have addressed this challenge would make the point being made clearer.

Albania

In Albania there is a Revised Asset Disclosure Law approved by the parliament on the strength of the agitation by the Albania Coalition against Corruption. It took over one and a half years to convince the government that drafting a new law was a necessary element to the reduction of corruption in public finance. The model may be useful in reforming our law in this area particularly areas that would streamline remuneration packages available to our parliamentarians with a view to ensuring reduction in the cost of governance – a popular clamour in our society today. The Albanian experience was informed by research findings indicating the lack of transparency of financial disclosures by public officials. The Albania’s law recognises that all declaration be made public; a reduction of the number of senior officials and the family members required to declare assets from 11,000 people to 3,500. The legislation also expects members of families of public officials to also declare their assets particularly those who have access to public funds.The law is enforce by an independent body call the High Inspectorate, responsible for the enforcement of the law.Is Nigeria ready for such a model?

Liberia

In Liberia there is a model for combating political corruption through asset disclosure which shows how effective asset disclosure can lead to public accountability the National Election Commission (NEC) in Liberia is actively involved. This means political parties and candidates contesting elections publicly declared their assets. These declarations were made available for public scrutiny via the NEC website and written about widely in the press. The electorate thus had an opportunity to make more informed decisions at the polls and to hold the winning candidate accountable in the future.

Papua New Guinea and Taiwan

In Papua New Guinea and Taiwan the role of Ombudsmen in monitoring asset declaration is emphasized. These are two countries where the ombudsman can review and monitor declarations of income and assets made by senior public officials. The ombudsman is an office independent of government with the investigative capacities to examine the contents of financial declarations. This model can avoid the necessity for establishing other independent mechanisms specifically for monitoring financial assets. Is Nigeria looking in the direction of creating the office of the ombudsman?

Tanzania

In Tanzania, “the Tanzania Governance Notice board collates and presents information that is useful for the strengthening of accountability, transparency and integrity in Tanzania. Key statistics, including budget data, audits and other governance related indicators, have been gathered in the TGN database. Though the noticeboard doesn’t explicitly collect information resulting from asset/wealth disclosures, it is interesting as an example of an IT platform sharing a range of financial information to enhance transparency and accountability”. The Tanzanian model emphasises the use of data compiled through means of notice board. Can we share this experience?

Useful Lessons

Our parliamentarians can borrow from the UK experience. In the UK the house of commons has set up a register of interest in May 1974 maintained by the parliamentary Commissioner for Standards as laid out in the House of Commons Standing Order No. 150. “The purpose of the register is to encourage transparency and accountability. It is “to provide information of any pecuniary interest or other material benefit which a member receives which might reasonably be thought by others to influence his or her actions, speeches or votes in parliament, or actions taken in the capacity of a Member of Parliament”3. The register is not intended to be an indicator of a member of parliament’s personal wealth, nor is registration an indication that a member is at fault”.

Transparency

Transparency is also promoted by the obligation on members to declare in parliamentary debates or proceedings and dealings with other members, ministers or public servants, all interests, whether registrable or not and including indirect, past and future interests which are relevant to the business in hand. While the obligation to register outside employment, sponsorship, property and shareholdings is absolute, in respect of other gifts and benefits the requirement is only to register those interests which in any way arise out of membership of the House of Commons. In line with this principle, the interests of spouses, partners and dependent children are registrable only if they arise out of their relative’s position as a member, or if they are held jointly with, or by, the member. The interests which are to be registered are set out in the “Code of Conduct and Guide to the Rules relating to the Conduct of Members”.

Interests are registered under the following 10 categories: Remunerated directorships; Remunerated employment, office, profession etc; Clients; Sponsorship or financial or material support; Gifts, benefits and hospitality (U.K.); Overseas visits; Overseas benefits and gifts; Land and property; Registrable shareholdings and Miscellaneous and unremunerated interests

Senate and House of Representatives

Our Senate and House of Representatives can draw useful experience from the model and compliment the Buhari administration’s resolve to fight corruption through transparency and accountabilities.

United States of America

In the USA there is a window established by the Centre for Responsive Politics emphasising personal Financial Disclosures Database. “The Centre for Responsive Politics is a non-partisan, non-profit research group based in Washington, D.C. that tracks money in politics, and its effect on elections and public policy. The centre conducts computer-based research on campaign finance issues for the news media, academics, activists, and the public at large. The centre’s work is aimed at creating a more educated voter, an involved citizenry, and a more responsive government…the centre has devised an innovative way of communicating information via the internet on the assets of political representatives – a searchable, online database that can be sorted by various categories”.

Conclusion

In conclusion, there is need for Nigeria to embrace international best practices on asset declaration by our public officials. Drawing specific examples from Albania, Tanzania, Papua New Guinea and Taiwan, Liberia, UK and United States among others the following measures may be considered: 1. Extending asset declaration to members of families of public officials 2. Instituting a code of conduct on asset declaration for our parliamentarians 3. Setting up the office of the ombudsman to monitor and enforce compliance 4. Creating a register of interests to be rigourously enforced by our parliamentarians 5. Other measures depending on the model being adopted.

Next to public declaration of assets is the need to insist on code of conduct for public officials. Whether for parliamentarians or public officials, codes of conduct help to build an atmosphere of ethics. For government officials, they offer a clear, concise frame of reference for an institution’s ethical principles in a single document.

Within a government, codes of conduct strive to decrease corruption and increase accountability among public officials – whether elected or appointed. The aim of these codes, which may be voluntary norms or legally enforced, is to make sure that the public’s interest is protected. When designed well, codes of conduct offer clear ethical standards and a reference point which citizens and governments can use to assess the behaviour of public officials. Codes of conduct typically are combined with sets of penalties and other punishments for public officials found to be in violation of them.

No doubt asset declaration by our President and Vice President is a step in the right direction. We can now say that the war against corruption has actually started.

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