IF YOU had asked Muhammadu Buhari in February 2015 if he would publicly declare his assets once he became Nigeria’s president, his likeliest answer would have been yes. But, five years down the line, that issue is not so straightforward anymore.
Buhari’s special adviser on media and publicity, Femi Adesina, who is often eager to point out the silence of Nigeria’s laws on the issue, has been a staunch defender of his principal’s right not to publicise his assets declaration forms.
Adesina was asked on Monday if the president will make detailed information about his assets available to the public during his second term, especially as the Socio-Economic Right And Accountability Project (SERAP) has requested he does so under the Freedom of Information Act.
“SERAP [is] asking the president to declare publicly and I ask: on what law? On the basis of what law? The president will do what the law requires of him. And what the law requires is that he declares his assets, which he has done. Declaring publicly is not in our laws. It can only be a voluntary thing,” he replied.
Shortly before he became president, however, Buhari had given a completely different impression and did not hinge his public declaration on what the law requires.
Weeks before the 2015 general elections, Punch Newspaper reported that he said he would “publicly declare his assets and liabilities if voted into power”.
“Buhari stated this in a document obtained by our correspondent in Abuja on Thursday. The document highlights what Buhari will do in his first 100 days if he assumes power on May 29,” the paper added.
“He said he would encourage political appointees in his administration to also declare their assets publicly.”
A compilation of over 80 of Buhari and APC’s campaign promises published by TheCable also starts with this commitment.
Months after Buhari became president, Adesina admitted this promise was made but argued that it was made by the president’s party, the All Progressives Congress, not him as a candidate.
Buhari himself had, however, stood by his campaign promise roughly a month before Adesina suggested this. Through a statement released by his senior spokesman Garba Shehu in June 2015, Buhari said details of his declaration would be made public soon after the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) was done verifying them.
“In the circumstances, it is only after this verification exercise, and not before, that the declaration can be said to have been made and validated; and only after this, will the details be released to the public,” Shehu had noted.
“There is no question at all that the president and the vice president are committed to public declaration of their assets within the 100 days that they pledged during the presidential campaign.”
Public but partial disclosures
In September 2015, bowing to pressure from Nigerians, the presidency reluctantly publicised some of Buhari and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo’s assets.
According to the release, the president had N30 million in his account, five houses across three states and the FCT, a number of cars, farms, an orchard, ranch, a number of economic trees farms, and livestock including 270 cattle, 25 sheep, five horses, as well as a variety of birds.
In May 2019, before his inauguration, Buhari submitted a second set of assets declaration forms to the CCB. According to Shehu, they “showed no significant changes in assets as declared in 2015 by him”.
“There are no new houses, no new bank accounts at home and abroad and there are no new shares acquired,” he said.
But press statements from the statehouse have only shared a glimpse into what is supposed to be in the forms.
According to guidelines specified by the CCB, all public officers are not only required to declare their own assets upon assumption of office but also those of their wives and children.
“When filling the form, you are required to provide detailed information including but not limited to the number, types, address, value of properties so declared and the date of acquisition as well as income derivable from the properties where appropriate,” it states.
CCB: Public officers must consent to release of forms
While the presidency has maintained that FOI requests for assets declaration forms can only be handled by the CCB, the CCB has, in turn, said it needs the consent of public officers to provide such information.
“Section 14(1) of the Freedom of Information Act, 2011, has exempted asset declarations of public officers from documents that can be accessed via reliance on the provisions of the FOI Act,” it stated in a letter to The ICIR last February.
“Reason being that assets declarations contain information of the declaring officer. Nothing on the face of your request shows that the individuals to which the request relates have either consented to the release or the information being sort for is one that is publicly available as stipulated by section 14(2) of the FOI Act.”
But the executive director of Media Rights Agenda, Edetaen Ojo, thinks the bureau is making a mockery of the assets declaration process by refusing FOI requests. He said not only does the constitution intend that citizens have access to the information, but the CCB, in fact, also needs public participation in its verification of details declared as it lacks the capacity to do this by itself.
“By shielding the declarations made by public officers from the public,” he told The ICIR, “they, one, are not able to verify those information, and then they are stifling the possibility of members of the public helping them with verification.”