By Chris Ochayi
The Code of Conduct Bureau, CCB, Thursday, disagreed with the Civil Society Organizations, CSOs, on the non release of requests for assets declaration information of public servant.
The duo expressed divergent views on the cogent issue while speaking at a one-day stakeholder’s roundtable discussion on Freedom of Information, FOI, Act implementation and challenges, organized by CSOs under the aegis of Citizens Voice Against Corruption, CIVAC, in Abuja.
The Chairman of the CCB represented by his Special Adviser, Mustapha Musa adduced reasons to support non release on information on public servants assets, but his position was opposed by the Chairman, Board of Governors, FOI Coalition Nigeria, Dr. Walter Duru, at the event.
In his presentation, Musa gave reasons to support the non release of information on assets of public servants contains in their asset declaration forms in the custody of the Bureau contrary to the express provision of the FOI Act.
Musa while speaking on sideline of discussion said, “One of the mandates of the CCB is to receive declarations of assets, verify the contents of the declaration forms and keep custody of the declaration as to make it available to any citizen on demand.”
According to him, “That is to say this has tallied with the provisions of the FOI Act. But then, that same paragraph C added that the information as contained in the forms of declaration can only be issued pursuant to the terms and conditions as may be stipulated by the National Assembly.
“Up till this moment we don’t have any terms and conditions that have been issued by the National Assembly.
“You see, we cannot go contrary to the provisions of the constitution simply because we went to comply with the provisions of the FOI Act. The FOI Act is inferior to the constitution.
“The constitution is the supreme law. In this regard, if there is any request to us which we believe the request has complied with the provisions of section 1 subsection 2 of the FOI Act, that is to say the applicant has satisfied the Bureau, that his reason is genuine, we can allow him to sight – only sighting. You cannot snap, photocopy or take the document away.
“You go through the document under close supervision and we take the document back.”
Musa argue further that the reason for seeking such an information must be genuine because if you say it should not be genuine it simply means that every person can just come and ask for anything.
On if a lack of genuine reason for seeking access to a public document is enough to decline a request, he said, “We are talking about practicability. By the time you open the door and say anybody can apply for anything, maybe 2,000 people can make application that the want to see the declaration of asset form of Mr. President.
“You see that aspect which is just an aspect of the mandate of the Bureau will now block the Bureau from discharging its primary duties that are much more important than giving information to individuals.
“Ordinarily, we will be happy to give information because by the time we give you the information, it will help us in getting more information that may likely reveal the secret of the declarant that are not contained in the form but we cannot do that because of item C to the provisions of paragraph 3 to the Third Schedule of the 1999 Constitution.”
He added that some applicants who felt that they were denied access to such information on asset declaration by the CCB have already approached the court.
“The court said we should maintain status quo and that because of that provision of the Constitution we cannot go contrary to what it says simply because we want to comply with the FOI Act.”
He said that it is not also advisable to release personal details and assets of public servants because of the security situation in the country.
“Looking at the current security situation in the country there is no way you can make all information concerning declaration of asset available to everybody because if you are to make all the information available bandits or kidnappers that are operating now in the country can grab the information and use it against the declarant because all his information are there,” Musa said.
In his remarks, Dr. Duru faulted the position of the CCB on the non-release of information saying it was contrary to the provisions of the FOI Act.
He said that the CSOs would further test the claim of the CCB in court for more clarity.
“We shall go and test this law in court because these things are better tested so that you allow the judiciary to interpret but is is strange to imagine that notwithstanding the provisions of section 1 of the FOI Act that clearly says that notwithstanding what is contained in any other existing law, Act, enactment or whatsoever that is relating to disclosure of information, is bound by the provisions of the FOI Act.
“It is for this reason that the law has clearly stated between section 11 and 19 there are exemptions.
“With these exemptions, anybody that thinks that an information I am asking for should not be given, should respond citing the relevant sections of the Act.
“If I am satisfied, I will let it be but if I am not satisfied, I will invoke section 20 that talk about judicial review to ask the court to compel them to avail me the information.
“It is a fundamental right. Even when the former chairman of CCB was there he never in all our engagements went this way.
“Now I understand that the new chairman has a different opinion so it is time to go and seek judicial interpretation.”