Chairman of the Code of Conduct Bureau, Mr. Sam Saba, in this interview with ADE ADESOMOJU, speaks on the assets declared by President Muhammadu Buhari, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, and other public officers
Nigerians want to have access to the details of assets declared by public officers. What is the bureau doing about it?
Yes, it is true and the issue is not just starting now. The issue of having access to assets declaration of public officers was reviewed by the Code of Conduct Bureau and the Code of Conduct Tribunal as far back as 2003. We sat jointly to discuss the need for us to ensure that we give some guidelines as a way of suggesting to the National Assembly, because the National Assembly is supposed to be the one to give guidelines that will give access to information on assets declared by public officers. But since that was not forthcoming, people believe that it is the Code of Conduct Bureau that does not want to give out any of these (completed assets declaration) forms.
We took the initiative: Whatever we do, we have to consult with the tribunal and that was why we came together and then worked separately; then we came together again to finalise the guidelines. When we did that and finalised it, we also invited the civil society organisations and they gladly came. We sat down together and we went over everything together. They felt that some of the guidelines we gave were too stringent and they modified it, and we agreed.
Can you mention some specific modifications that were made to the guidelines based on the CSOs’ suggestions?
For example, they felt the amount of money to be paid to gain access (to the information) was too much, so they reduced it. They also felt that the requirement that one must swear to an affidavit before one can gain access could serve as a stumbling block. That was also removed.
What about the issue of tax clearance?
Tax clearance is okay, because if you want to know what other people are doing, you too have to live above board. You have to live above board when trying to pry into somebody’s assets declaration.
There is an aspect of the proposed guideline that prohibits publication of the content of the assets declared in the media.
Yes, you cannot publish it. You can only use it for the exact thing you want to use it for and not to publish it. Since this thing has not been forwarded to the National Assembly or even to the Ministry of Justice, it will be wrong to discuss the details.
At what stage is the proposed legislation on the guideline now?
Now, we have finalised it (the modifications). The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has sent it to us and I have in turn given it to the body that has been charged by the UNODC with the legislation on prevention (of corruption) — as you may know, this is more of prevention (of corruption) — so that they can now look at it for the final time. They are looking at it and as soon as they are through with it and are satisfied with it, I will submit it with a cover letter to the UNODC, because the UNODC sponsored this one. The previous one was sponsored by the CBB and CCT and that was used as a framework for developing this one.
So when will it be sent to the National Assembly?
It will be difficult to say because we will still have to send it to the Ministry of Justice. The Ministry of Justice will look at it and see the merits and the demerits of it. Once the ministry agrees to the amendments, it will send it to the National Assembly as an executive bill.
Nigerians seem not to recognise the contribution of assets declaration to the fight against corruption. How do you think the concept has fared over the years?
It has helped in fighting corruption. First of all, you know that those who aspire to public office fill certain forms – from Mr. President, to his vice, members of his cabinet, governors, deputy governors and local government area chairmen. They fill these forms before they take oath of office and swearr the oath of allegiance. None of these categories of people takes office or begins to perform functions of the office without first declaring their assets. They know that this is what they have declared and they know that it is going to be verified.
How do you carry out the verification?
We verify in two ways. First is the conference verification which is the preliminary one where you come with all your papers, for example your statements of bank accounts, tax clearance, evidence of ownership of vehicles and property which you say you have. For instance, if you say you have three vehicles, let us see the registration numbers. We don’t have to see all the details. Once we are able to see the receipt of the purchase of the vehicle or the registration documents, we are satisfied. But we still have to see it physically and that is the second stage which we call field verification. So, we have conference verification during which you bring these papers. We accept the papers and we agree with you. We come to you on a fixed date when it is convenient for you to verify it physically. That is the second stage, which is the field verification. That has helped enormously. We don’t have any problems with the politically exposed people or persons because they know they cannot even take the oath of office until they have done this. It is an obligation.
But you were recently quoted in the media as saying some governors had not declared their assets even after they had been sworn in to office. Is that not a breach of the law?
The reporter was rushing too fast. I said I would get back to him. He asked that question and I said some of the responses I was getting did not show that some of them (the governors) had done so, but that I was not too sure until the time my commissioners would give me feedback. Each commissioner has a zone and some of the zones have six states or four states. When they come and tell me that they have finished collecting all the forms, then I would be able to say categorically that it is so and so.
So, I said he should hold on, that when we get the results, we would get back to him and he just went ahead to publish it. I mean he (the reporter) could do away with that aspect of the story because what was the most important thing was that most of them had complied; I could not say all, because the results had not come to me. I think it was too early. So, for now, from what my commissioners have told me, all of them (governors) declared on time. Some of them even declared about a month before the time (their swearing–in). So we don’t have any problem with them; the same goes for their deputies.
We have not seen a former governor brought to the tribunal for failing to declare his assets. Does this mean that they always comply all the time?
They comply and verifications are ongoing. The outgoing governors have up to 90 days to declare their assets at the end of their tenure. The new ones don’t have that liberty and they know that they have to fill it (the assets declaration form) before even entering the office, and they do it. There is no way by which any of them can be a defaulter. What we normally do, as a reminder is that our state directors in all offices across the states will meet with the chief judge of each state and tell him, “Remember that no governor or his deputy will be sworn in until they fill this form.” And the chief judge will remind the governor-elect and his deputy that they have to fill the Code of Conduct Bureau form before they take the oath of allegiance and the oath of office. And they will comply.
The same goes for the National Assembly; no member of the National Assembly will take the oath of office without filling the form. For instance, when these current set (of legislators) came in, we even moved the forms there (the National Assembly Complex). There was a small place where we had the forms and those who did not collect from the Clerk of the National Assembly would just go over to the bureau’s desk, collect the form, fill it and return it or they return it to the Clerk, who would submit the completed forms to the CCB. The various commissioners in charge would then deal with them (the completed forms). So we have no problems with them (lawmakers).
Speaking of verification, we cannot verify everybody. But at least, we do that for governors and principal officers. We never had problems with them. I remember that we had problems in the late 80s up till the early 90s. People were not willing to declare (their assets). But with a lot of public enlightenment, with a lot of programmes on television and radio, with the coverage that journalists like you are giving it in your various newspapers, people have begun to understand. And today, we don’t have that problem. People are filling the forms willingly.If politicians rarely breach the declaration, have you ever discovered any breach in the information provided by them during the verification exercises?
We also request for nominal roll call from various Ministries, Departments and Agencies and they send it to us. So, from it (information received), we send the number of forms to permanent secretaries who will then distribute them. When they finish completing the forms, they (the forms) are sent back to us. For those who don’t fill it, we get in touch with them because we go through our nominal roll to find out the person that has not submitted or we go through the Director of Administration of MDAs to make the observation.
President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo have declared their assets to the CCB and they said they would only make their declarations public voluntarily after the bureau has completed its verification exercise. Has the verification exercise started?
That is pending now.
Which of the two stages of verification is pending – conference or field verification?
Both the conference and the field verification exercises are pending.
When is the first stage going to start?
Any moment from now
What is delaying it?
We are waiting for when it is convenient for Mr. President and his vice for us to go and do it.
Some observers believe that politicians make anticipatory declarations of assets, yet we don’t see any of them taken to the tribunal.
It is not rampant. I will say it is not rampant. I remember that when I was secretary (of the bureau) a long time ago, we had only one case. It was discovered and it was rectified.
What kind of rectification was done?
He didn’t say it was at foundation level, whereas what he declared was that it was completed.
But was the person charged or is that not an offence?
You see, these things are gradual. You correct somebody; it is a preventive measure. It’s only when the person is proving difficult that you will deal with it (the situation). He was willing, since he saw that he was discovered. Certain things, we overlook, because the person has done the right thing. At that time, we were trying to get people agree to fill these forms. They should not be coerced into filling it; they should just do it as responsible public officers. The one that we frown at now is when it is done with impunity. You know that you are supposed to fill this form, you have 90 days to do it, but you don’t. Of course, your name will go to the tribunal.
If at the end of the verification exercise, anyone of the incumbent president, vice president, governors, their deputies and other public officers is found to have declared false assets, does it mean the bureau will overlook it again?
Definitely, it will go to the tribunal because it will be a breach.
Why is it that more public officers in the lower cadre like the council chairmen are charged by CCB for asset declaration offences, while the those regarded as the ‘big fishes’ are rarely charged?
Like I told you at the beginning of this interview, we don’t have problems with the ‘big fishes’ because they comply. The ‘small fishes’ are the ones that don’t comply. For example, now, governors and their deputies have declared; the commissioners coming in have declared; the legislators, both at the federal and state levels, have declared; the local government area chairmen and councillors have declared. Those are the big people in the society and they have declared.
Then, what work is left for the bureau and the tribunal to do?
There are many people who have committed breaches. There are many people who have collected the forms and they have not returned them and that is a breach; after 90 days that the public officers left office.
What category of public officers are you talking about; do they include former or serving governors?
Not governors. You were asking me about the ‘big fishes’ and I said all the ‘big fishes’ comply.
But which kinds of breaches does the bureau discover during the assets verification exercise that it overlooks when it involves the so-called ‘big fishes,’ which the ‘small fishes’ may not get away with?
We don’t overlook. The governors come here for verification. They go to our Asokoro office that houses the three assets departments – federal political office, federal public service and state/local government. They go and they are cooperative beyond what you will even expect. We don’t have problems with them.
Why are many of your cases filed before the tribunal end up being struck out either because they are not diligently prosecuted or that the charges are poorly drafted?
It was so because in some cases, to be honest with you, at that time, we lacked capacity.
But it still happens.
No, it’s not still happening. Where it happens, it is because witnesses fail to turn up. Of course, any judge will tell you that if you don’t have a witness, it means you don’t have a case. Who is going to buttress the allegation you have levelled against the suspect? Sometimes, the culprits collude with the witnesses, settle them, and on that day, they will not come; they will refuse to turn up. And some other times, witnesses don’t have the funds to be able to come. In some other cases, some members of our staff don’t have the Duty Tour Allowance to be able to take care of them when they come here; to transport them, stay in the hotel and be able to be witnesses. In some cases, we don’t have the funds to do it.
There are also some instances where charges are incompetently drafted such that they do not spell out offences that are known to the relevant laws.
That is part of what I told you when I said we lacked capacities as of that time. But now, our capacities are being developed by both the Department for International Development and the UNODC. They are both helping us.
So, was it a case of incompetence or problems associated with witnesses that was responsible for the striking out of the case of breach of the code of conduct instituted at the Code of Conduct Tribunal in 2000 against the former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory under the late Sani Abacha military regime, Lt.-Gen. Jeremiah Useni (retd.)?
Gen. Useni’s case is a special case. The then Attorney General of the Federation filed the charges himself and handled the case personally with some officers in his chamber. In the course of trial, the case was adjourned indefinitely. Recently, it came up because Useni wanted to enforce his fundamental human rights and asked the tribunal to grant some orders; the prosecutor asked for adjournment to brief the AGF and get further instruction on the matter. But the defence lawyer asked the tribunal to strike it out and it was struck out.
Is there any possibility of refilling the charges?
I cannot say with certainty that we want to do that because, like I told you, the case did not originally come from the CCB.
At what point did the CCB take over the case?
The CCB really did not take over the case as such because even the then AGF robed on that particular day to appear for the case. I don’t know what actually happened because I was outside the country. I was made to understand that he was unable to appear.
Is it true that the CCB is helpless in ensuring that the personnel of military and paramilitary outfits in the country declare their assets like civilians?
Some of the military personnel declare but most of them are not declaring. They used to declare in the early 90s but, somehow, they just stopped. Only some of them who are service chiefs declare but the remaining of them don’t fill the form. I have had cause to go and meet the Chief of Defence Staff and I raised the issue with him that his men have not been declaring their assets. And he said yes but that he needed to get the permission of the Commander-in-Chief —the President – before they could declare their assets. I said no, it doesn’t have to be. I said it is in the constitution, the Fifth Schedule Part II of the Constitution, which lists the concerned public officers. The military is there. Though the provision is not exhaustive, the military is there. He said ‘But I have declared my own.’ I said, ‘I’m not talking about you now; I’m talking about the remaining members of the Armed Forces.’ So, the issue was that I should take it up with (former President Goodluck) Jonathan before the military would declare. So, we’ll take it up with the new President anytime we appear before him to give an account of what we are doing. The men of the Police and other paramilitary outfits do declare their assets. We only have problems with the military.
Is there any platform for collaboration between the bureau and other anti-corruption agencies?
There is cooperation between us and other anti-corruption agencies. We have even signed a memorandum of understanding. For example, if the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission) has a case that involves any public officer, they (EFCC) request for the (completed assets declaration) forms from us and we give them; the same goes for the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission and the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit. And when we need help, we also ask them. For example, I have just said we should draft a letter to the NFIU, requesting the financial profile of the immediate past and incumbent governors so that we can make comparison in our verification exercise.
Is that a new development?
Yes, it is a new development that came into being about a year ago.
ADE ADESOMOJU, PUNCH