Nigerian Court Orders Disclosure by Assembly

6 July 2012

Amid a swirling controversy over President Goodluck Jonathan’s adamant “don’t give a damn” refusal to  disclose his assets, a Nigerian judge has ordered the National Assembly to disclose information on salaries, emoluments, and allowances received by its members between 2007 and 2011.

The president’s statement has arroused heated debate and even involved the U.S. embassy.

Aside from alleging that  nondisclosure may violate the law, critics note that his posture undercuts his anti-corruption message and contravenes the spirit of a recent pro-disclosure joint statement made following meetings with top U.S. officials.

The president’s defenders say that Constitution requires that asset disclosures be filed, but does not mandate their disclosure.

Judge Orders Parliamentary Payments Disclosed

Justice Bilikisu Bello Aliyu of the Abuja Federal High Court on June 25 mandated disclosure of the information within 14 days in response to a suit filed by Legal Defense and Assistance Project (LEDAP), a non-governmental organization. “They are of public interest since the payments were from public funds,” she wrote.

LEDAP relied on the 2011 Freedom of Information (FOI) Act in a July letter requesting the information, but the National Assembly did not respond, prompting a suit to be filed in September.

The National Assembly argued that legislators’ earnings were not covered by the new law and that LEDAP had no standing to sue. The judge disagreed on both matters.

Monima Daminabo, the Director of Information of the National Assembly, was quoted in Business Day as saying that some of the payments are for “operational expenses.” He said the Assemble is “going to comply exactly in line with the court order.”

Chino Obiagwu, counsel to LEDAP, said the group wants lawmakers to return illegal allowances.

Seeking Presidential Information

Meanwhile, another group, the Socio Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has filed a FOI request for President Jonathan to “provide information on your assets declaration details between May 2007 and May 2012, and to publish widely the information on a dedicated website.”

According to the group, “The disclosure of the information requested will give SERAP and the general public a true picture of the assets of the president from May 2007 to May 2012, and will demonstrate the president’s oft-expressed commitment to transparency and accountability and show that your signing of the FOI was not just a public relation exercise but a public duty done in good faith.”

The president in a July 24 television appearance stated his unwillingness to make such information public. Jonathan said: “The issue of asset declaration is a matter of principle. I don’t give a damn about it, if you want to criticize me from heaven. The issue of public declaration I think is playing to the gallery. You don’t need to publicly declare any assets. If I am somebody who wants to hide it is what I tell you that you will even believe.”

A presidential spokesman said subsequently, “The president did not say he will not declare his assets. The President has declared his assets. There is a laid down procedure for doing that for public officers. Assets are declared with the Code of Conduct Bureau, but the law does not require a public officer to go on the pages of newspapers and declare his or her assets. Now, this was the President’s problem, that asking him to go and declare his assets publicly will contravene the law because the law does not say so and he does not think that it is right to impose on people to do something that is not required by the law.”

A special assistant to Jonathan in a recent editorial challenges parliamentarians to reveal their own asset statements. “Many of those self-acclaimed custodian of public morality who have being freely lampooning President Goodluck Jonathan for his indisposition to publicise his asset declaration documents are nothing but self-serving rabble rousers,” wrote Bolaji Adebiyi.

Allegations in the media that Jonarthan’s refusal violated an agreement with the United States prompted the U.S. embassy to state that the mutual plaudits for transparency came in a nonbinding communique, not a bilateral agreement, as described in an article in Leadership.

The embassy statement says, “The is a world of difference between a communiqué, a mere summary of issue discussed in a meeting and an agreement, which is a legal binding document that defines obligations on the part of those covered by it.”

It also says, “For the avoidance of doubt, there is no agreement Nigeria and the United States on public assets declaration.”

The  contentious part of the communiqué, issued in June after a meeting between Jonathan and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns included a section that reads: “Both countries recognized the imperatives of all tiers of government in building a prosperous and just Nigeria, reaffirmed commitments to transparency and accountability from local to national levels that include strong transparency and engagement efforts. To support those commitments, Nigeria intends to widen its budgetary transparency efforts to include public assets declarations by parliamentarians and other senior public officials.”

The question of whether Jonathan’s stance violated the agreement was raised in an article by Laolu Akande in The Guardian.

Parties Debate President’s Position

The ruling Peoples Democratic Party said in a statement: “Publishing the declaration of assets is not a requirement of law or the constitution. Any decision to make public such a declaration is at the discretion of the individual concerned and should, therefore, not be used as a reason to distract the government from performing more critical constitutional duties.”

By contrast, the opposition Action Party has stated: “The President, by refusing to publicly declare his assets, and by doing so with a choice of words that portray arrogance and nonchalance (I don’t give a damn about that), has given the green light to his cabinet members and other government officials to downplay the fight against corruption and to eschew transparency.”

The constitutional provisions, as explained by SERAP:

Section 153 of the Constitution establishes a Code of Conduct Bureau to ensure, among other things, that all public officers, as defined in Part II of the Fifth Schedule, declare their assets on assuming office and immediately their terms of office expire. Paragraph Three of Part 1 (A) of the Third Schedule, empowers the Bureau to receive declarations made by all public officers, examine same and keep them in custody. Paragraph 3(C) says the Bureau shall have the power to “retain custody of such declarations and make them available for inspection by any citizen of Nigeria on such terms and conditions as the National Assembly may prescribe.”

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