The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project has asked the Court of Appeal sitting in Lagos to set aside a judgment of a Federal High Court and to order public disclosure of asset declaration details submitted to the Code of Conduct Bureau by President Muhammadu Buhari, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, governors and their deputies and other politicians since 1999.
The Federal High Court sitting in Lagos had on May 11, 2020 dismissed the application filed by SERAP seeking “an order of mandamus to direct and compel the CCB to make available to the public specific details of asset declarations submitted to it by successive presidents, vice-presidents, senate presidents, speakers of House of Representatives, state governors and their deputies since 1999.”
Justice Muslim Hassan declined the prayers, holding: “I agree with the CCB that the duty to make the asset declaration form of public officers available is dependent upon the terms and conditions to be proscribed by the National Assembly. The terms and conditions must be specific and related to asset declaration of public officers and not legislation of general nature such as the Freedom of Information Act.”
SERAP in the appeal filed last week contended: “The learned trial judge misinterpreted the provision and purport of paragraph 3[c], Third Schedule, Part 1 of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution (as amended). The judge did not consider that the Freedom of information was enacted by the National Assembly in 2011 to grant public access to public documents.
“The learned trial Judge erred in law by holding that the Freedom of information Act is a legislation of general nature in relation to public access to asset declaration forms of public officers. The judge erred in law when he held that SERAP’s application ‘is unmeritorious and it is accordingly dismissed.’
“The learned trial judge failed to apply the provisions of Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act Cap A9 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004, which allows access to public documents to the facts of this case.
“The failure or refusal by the CCB to provide the information requested by SERAP constitutes a violation of their right to freedom of information guaranteed by Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.”
The appeal filed on SERAP’s behalf by its lawyers, Kolawole Oluwadare, Opeyemi Owolabi and Adelanke Aremo, read in part: “The learned trial judge failed to determine whether the asset declaration forms kept in the records of the CCB are public documents. The judge failed to determine whether the public interest in disclosing the information outweighs whatever injury that the disclosure would cause the CCB and public officers.
“The learned trial judge erred in law when His Lordship failed to determine the real questions in issue in the suit. The judge failed to determine whether SERAP’s freedom of information request falls within the purview of those exempted under the Freedom of Information Act.
“Asset declaration forms submitted by public officers are public documents in the custody of the CCB. The CCB is under a legal obligation to provide the information requested by SERAP in accordance with the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.”
SERAP is therefore seeking “an order allowing the Appeal, and setting aside the judgement of the Honourable Justice Muslim Hassan delivered on Monday, 11th May, 2020.”
SERAP is also asking the Court of Appeal for “an order granting all the reliefs sought by the Appellant in the Appellant’s motion on notice dated 4th October 2019 before the lower court including an order of mandamus directing and compelling the CCB to publish details of asset declarations as prayed; and a declaration that the failure of the CCB to publish the asset declarations amounts to a breach of legal obligation.”
SERAP is asking the Court of Appeal for “a declaration that the failure of the CCB to provide specific documents and information on the number of asset declarations so far verified by it, and the number of those declarations found to be false and deemed to be in breach of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers by the Bureau violates the Freedom of Information Act and the African Charter.”
SERAP is also seeking an “order of mandamus directing and compelling the CCB to immediately take cases of false asset declarations to the Code of Conduct Tribunal for effective prosecution of suspects, and include banning the politicians involved from holding public offices for at least a period of 10 years and seeking refund of stolen public funds as part of the reliefs to be sought before the Tribunal.”
SERAP is asking for “any other relief or reliefs the Court of Appeal may deem fit to grant in the circumstances and pursuant to its inherent powers.”
It would be recalled that SERAP had in suit number FHC/L/CS/1019/2019 argued: “Asset declarations of presidents and state governors submitted to the CCB are public documents. Public interest in disclosure of the details of asset declarations clearly outweighs any claim of protection of the privacy of presidents and state governors, as they are public officers entrusted with the duty to manage public funds, among other public functions.”
The suit read in part: “A necessary implication of the rule of law is that a public institution like the CCB can only act in accordance with the law, as to do otherwise may enthrone arbitrariness. The CCB does not have reasonable grounds on which to deny SERAP’s FOI request, as it is in the interest of justice, the Nigerian public, transparency and accountability to publish details of asset declarations by presidents and state governors since the return of democracy in 1999.
“Disclosing details of asset declarations of public officers such as presidents and state governors would improve public trust in the ability of the CCB to effectively discharge its mandate. This would in turn put pressure on public officers like presidents and state governors to make voluntary public declaration of their assets.
“Democracy cannot flourish if governments operate in secrecy, no matter how much open discussion and debate is allowed.”
No date has been fixed for the hearing of the appeal.