The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has filed a lawsuit in the federal high court, Lagos against the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB).

SERAP said it was suing the bureau over its claim that it could not disclose details of asset declarations submitted to it by successive presidents and state governors since 1999 because doing so “would offend the right to privacy of presidents and state governors”.

According to the human rights group in a statement on Sunday, the bureau had last week refused a Freedom of Information request by SERAP, stating that the asset declaration form is private information. 

However, SERAP is kicking against that.

In the suit number FHC/L/CS/1019/2019 filed on Friday, the anti-graft group said: “Asset declarations of presidents and state governors submitted to the CCB are public documents. Public interest in disclosure of the details of asset declarations sought by SERAP 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.”

It pointed out that a necessary implication of the rule of law is that a public institution like the bureau can only act in accordance with the law, as to do otherwise may enthrone arbitrariness. 

It argued further that the bureau did 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.

SERAP added that 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, in turn, the group stated, would put pressure on public officers like presidents and state governors to make voluntary public declaration of their assets.

The suit filed by SERAP’s counsel, Adelanke Aremo, said further: “The right to receive information without any interference or distortion should be based on the principle of maximum disclosure, and a presumption that all information is accessible subject only to a narrow system of exceptions. It is a settled principle of law that details such as asset declarations of presidents and governors should be disclosed if there is an overriding public interest in having access to such information, which is clearly so in this matter.

“Democracy cannot flourish if governments operate in secrecy, no matter how much open discussion and debate is allowed. The very nature and quality of public discussion would be significantly impoverished without the nourishment of information from public authorities such as the CCB, and to guarantee freedom of expression without including the right to know would be a formal exercise.”

Against this backdrop, SERAP said it was seeking these reliefs:

“An order granting leave to the applicant to apply for judicial review and to seek an order of mandamus directing and compelling the Respondent to compile and make available to the applicant information on specific details of asset declarations submitted to the Code of Conduct Bureau by successive presidents, vice presidents, senate presidents, speakers of House of Representatives, state governors and deputy governors from 1999 to 2019 and to publish widely including on a dedicated website, any such information.

“An order granting leave to the applicant to apply for judicial review and to seek an order of mandamus directing and compelling the respondent to compile and make available to the applicant information on the number of asset declarations so far verified by the Code of Conduct Bureau 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 and to publish widely including on a dedicated website, any such information.

“An order granting leave to the applicant to apply for judicial review and to seek an order of mandamus directing and compelling the Respondent to immediately take cases of false asset declarations to the Code of Conduct Tribunal for the effective prosecution of suspects, and include banning the politicians involved from holding public offices for at least a period of 10 years and seeking a refund of stolen public funds as part of the reliefs to be sought before the tribunal and for further order or orders as this court may deem fit to make in the circumstances.”

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