By Chido Onumah
I refer to your press conference of Thursday, December 6, 2012, in which you tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to do a cleanup of President Jonathan’s anti-corruption credentials. You would agree that your presentation was all fury and little substance. I know as the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Public Affairs, your responsibility is to make the president look good in public. In your press conference, you listed a number of things that the government has done (and is doing) to show that President Jonathan is serious about fighting corruption.
To save space, I shall focus only on one. In a sense, the issue I have chosen for discussion appears to be the most important. Not only because it was the first in the list of accomplishments you enumerated in your speech, but because it is pivotal and at the heart of whether the president has the “political will” to fight corruption and whether we should believe him or not when he claims he is fighting corruption. I am talking here about the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA).
This is what you said about the FoIA: “The signing of the Freedom of Information Act into law by President Jonathan in May 2011 represents a watershed in the anti-corruption crusade in Nigeria. This piece of legislation, which had been virtually stalled by successive administrations since 1999, was signed into law by Mr. President to usher Nigeria into the league of countries where transparency (emphasis mine) in governance is entrenched and citizens are granted unfettered access to information (emphasis mine) about government activities.
“This is the fulcrum upon which good governance rests in all known democracies and it is noteworthy that the present administration took the bull by the horns to lay this very important foundation for the war against corruption in Nigeria in the early months of its inception and 24 hours after the bill was presented to him by the National Assembly. You will agree with me that without a legal framework for whistle–blowing, the fight against corruption would be meaningless.”
Well said. I couldn’t agree with you more on the importance of the FoIA. Yes, it is to the credit of the government that the very first law the president signed was the FoIA. The problem, however, is that the law has been observed more in breach. And we can thank the president for his shining example. Perhaps, as a latecomer to the jamboree that is the Jonathan administration, you are not privy to certain things. Or is it a case of selective amnesia? The blustering presidential aide that you are, perhaps your impulsiveness got the better of you.
Whatever the problem, it is important that we set the record straight for posterity. Warily, to test the FoIA and the president’s sincerity, on July 28, 2011, almost two months to the day the president signed the FoI bill into law, the African Centre for Media & Information Literacy (AFRICMIL) sent a Freedom of Information request to the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) asking “to be allowed to inspect and obtain copies of the 2007 asset declaration of President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan; the asset declaration of President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan after the end of his tenure on May 28, 2011; and the current asset declaration of President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan when he assumed office on May 29, 2011”.
AFRICMIL made the request in good faith and in accordance with Paragraph 3, Part I of the Third Schedule to the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended, which provides that “the Code of Conduct Bureau shall have power to: (a) receive declarations by public officers made under Paragraph 12 of Part I of the Fifth Schedule to this Constitution; (b) examine the declarations in accordance with the requirements of the Code of Conduct or any law; (c) 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 (emphasis added)”.
Paragraph 11 of Part I of the Fifth Schedule to the Constitution provides that: “(1) Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, every public officer shall within three months after the coming into force of this Code of Conduct or immediately after taking office and thereafter — (a) at the end of every four years; and (b) at the end of his term of office, submit to the Code of Conduct Bureau a written declaration of all his properties, assets, and liabilities and those of his unmarried children under the age of eighteen years”.
Pursuant to the aforementioned constitutional provisions and Section 2 of the Freedom of Information Act 2011, which states that “Notwithstanding anything contained in any other Act, Law or Regulation, the right of any person to access or request information, whether or not contained in any written form, which is in the custody or possession of any public official, agency or institution howsoever described, is hereby established”, AFRICMIL made the request to the CCB to be allowed to inspect and obtain copies of President Goodluck Jonathan’s asset declaration.
Regrettably, the CCB did not dignify the request with a response. After waiting patiently for almost three months and in line with the provisions of the FoIA, AFRICMIL filed a case at the Federal High Court, Abuja. In the suit (No FHC/ABJ/CS/877/2011) filed on October 21, 2011, on behalf of AFRICMIL by Ashimole Felix of Che Oyintumba & Associates, AFRICMIL sought an order of mandamus compelling the CCB to comply with its (AFRICMIL’s) request of making available to the public the asset declaration of President Goodluck Jonathan.
Mr. Lewis Asubiojo, who represented AFRICMIL in the suit, said “the organisation was concerned that even with the memo from the presidency that government agencies should subject themselves to the Freedom of Information Act, the CCB refused to act on its request”. He noted that “for a government that has proclaimed a transformation agenda and wants to fight corruption, it is important that President Jonathan leads by example, and one way he can do that is to make public his asset declaration”.
Since AFRICMIL’s request over a year ago, we have gone from the ominous silence of the CCB, to Reuben Abati, the president’s Special Adviser on Media, coldly confirming that “the president will not declare his assets on the pages of newspapers”, to the president himself conceitedly stating publicly that he did not “give a damn” about making his asset declaration public. The assumption, of course, is that the declaration is with the CCB and was made as and when due.
In a June 2012 interview with SaharaTV’s Rudolf Okonkwo, to mark Democracy Day, Abati had referred Nigerians interested in the president’s asset declaration “to check with the Code of Conduct Bureau office”. Regrettably, it is the same CCB that has “gone rogue” on the president’s asset declaration. It is instructive to note that Sam Saba, chairman of the CCB, recently declared that the FOIA conflicts with the Constitution on the issue of making available to the public the president’s asset declaration. He called for “judicial intervention to know what the law says”.
President Jonathan says he is transformative leader. Unless he just wants to transform himself, I see no reason he should allow his asset declaration create so much uproar and overheat the polity unnecessarily.
To be continued.
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