Citizens’ Rights: SERAP Writes CJ on Sowore, Jalingo

Citizens’ Rights: SERAP Writes CJ on Sowore, Jalingo

…As MRA Knocks Code of Conduct Bureau for Non-Compliance to Asset Declaration Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, (SERAP) has sent an open letter to Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, Chief Justice of Nigeria and Chairman, National Judicial Council (NJC), urging him to use his offices and leadership of the NJC to “urgently develop measures and issue

…As MRA Knocks Code of Conduct Bureau for Non-Compliance to Asset Declaration

Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, (SERAP) has sent an open letter to Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, Chief Justice of Nigeria and Chairman, National Judicial Council (NJC), urging him to use his offices and leadership of the NJC to “urgently develop measures and issue directives to all courts to respond to the disturbing trends by state governments and federal government to use the court as a tool to suppress citizens’ human rights.”

SERAP said: “Across the country, state governors and federal government are charging citizens, mostly journalists, bloggers and activists, with serious crimes such as ‘treason’, ‘treasonable felony’ or bogus crime of ‘insulting public officials’, simply for exercising their human rights.”

In the letter dated 4 October 2019 and signed by its Deputy Directo, Mrr Kolawole Oluwadare, the organization said: “These charges, refusal of bail and granting of bail on stringent conditions seem to be dangerous manipulation of judicial authority and functions by high-ranking politicians, something which the NJC and the Judiciary under your watch should resist.”

SERAP also said: “In the climate of a growing clampdown on human rights of journalists and activists by several state governments and federal government, the NJC ought to push back and act as protector of individuals’ rights against abuses by the authorities. We believe that the courts, not the state government or federal government, should have the final say in matters of citizens’ human rights.”

According to the organization, “The NJC should ensure that when the authorities disobey court orders and suppress human rights, they are not allowed to come to the court and seek reliefs until they purge their contempt. Otherwise, the justice system and the Nigerian constitution become a solemn mockery.”

The letter, copied to Mr. Diego GARCÍA-SAYÁN, UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, read in part: “If the practice by state governments and federal government is allowed to continue, the courts will be relegated to desuetude, and will lead to arbitrary and unrestricted power as well as further suppression of citizens’ human rights.”

“It is essential for the NJC to issue directives to all courts to promptly consider on the face of the papers filed by the authorities whether the charges brought against journalists, bloggers and activists are truly based on facts or fabricated to secure indefinite detention of citizens with judicial authority.”

“In several cases, journalists, bloggers and activists have either been denied bail, as it is the case with journalist Agba Jalingo, or granted bail with stringent conditions that implicitly violate human rights, as it is the case with journalist and activist Omoyele Sowore and Olawale Bakare. In all of such cases, the alleged offences are not constitutionally and internationally recognizable.”

“It is important for the judiciary to exercise all the judicial power placed in its hands by the constitution with firm determination and to guard against encroachments on that power by either the state governments or the federal government.”

“Even during many years of military dictatorship when the constitution was suspended and with it, Nigerians’ fundamental rights, the judiciary was still able to play an important role in securing protection of individuals’ rights and rejecting any forms of executive rascality by drawing on a variety of sources, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.”

“The return of democracy in 1999 gave rise to a legitimate public expectation that the NJC and the judiciary would be more active and proactive in enforcing the fundamental rights of Nigerians and pushing back in cases …

In another development, the Media Rights Agenda (MRA) has accused the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) of contradicting itself in expressing concern over the low level of compliance with the asset declaration regime, saying the Bureau was responsible for the ineffectiveness of the legal and constitutional requirements for public officers to declare their assets.

 The Chairman of the Bureau, Professor Mohammed Isah, expressed concern over the weekend while featuring in a News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) Forum in Abuja that public officers are not complying with their asset declaration obligations. He said “the level of compliance is not encouraging at all.”

 In a statement issued in Lagos, MRA’s Executive Director, Mr Edetaen Ojo, said: “We are not impressed by this shedding of crocodile tears by the Chairman of the Code of Conduct Bureau over the ineffectiveness of the asset declaration regime when the Bureau itself has done everything possible since the coming into force of the 1999 Constitution to ensure that the system does not work, and has instead allowed itself and the asset declaration framework to be used to settle political scores, thereby undermining the credibility of the process.”

According to Mr. Ojo, “despite the fact that the Bureau is an institution created by the Constitution and therefore has the strongest protection among all the anti-corruption agencies in Nigeria, the others having been established by statute, the CCB has deliberately incapacitated itself and is now clearly the weakest and most ineffectual of the anti-corruption agencies.”

 He described as ridiculous and laughable the Chairman’s attempt to explain away the persistent refusal by the Bureau to comply with the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, 2011, saying “his statement is not only false and misleading, but betrays a level of ignorance that is embarrassing coming from someone holding such high public office.”

 Prof Isah had said that: “if anybody as a private person or private organisation wants to access asset declaration or information contained in the asset declaration of any public officer, those conditions laid down by FOI Act must be fulfilled.”

 But Mr. Ojo insisted that “the FOI Act contains absolutely no condition to be fulfilled by anybody, whether a private person or a private organization, seeking to access the declaration of assets or any information contained in the asset declaration of any public officer.”

 Besides, he said, Prof. Isah’s latest claim contradicts the Bureau’s “standard refrain” that it cannot accede to requests from members of the public for the disclosure of assets declarations of public officials because the National Assembly has not yet issued guidelines for the disclosure of such asset declarations in accordance with Paragraph 3(c) of Part One of the Third Schedule to the Constitution, and that asset declarations constitute personal information which cannot be disclosed.

 Mr. Ojo argued that “A common sense reading of the relevant provisions of the Constitution and the FOI Act clearly reveals the illogicality of the Bureau’s position.  It is clear from Paragraph 3(c) of Part One of the Third Schedule to the Constitution that it intends that citizens should have access to the declaration of assets made by public officers. If the Bureau is waiting for guidelines issued by the National Assembly, then what is the difficulty in applying the FOI Act? The Act was enacted by the National Assembly. It applies to the CCB. It also applies to all the information, records and documents held by the CCB, except those exempted. The declarations of assets by public officers are records in the custody of the CCB. Nothing in the Constitution or the FOI Act says that it does not or cannot apply to the declaration of assets by public officers.”

 He noted that the only possible explanation for the determination of the Bureau to shield the asset declarations of public officials from disclosure would be because officials of the CCB, who are themselves also obliged to declare their assets, feel that it is the only way they can protect their asset declarations from disclosure, in which case it is clear that they have a conflict of interest in the matter.

 Mr. Ojo contended that besides the issue of the low level of compliance, it is also apparent that the CCB lacks the capacity to verify all the assets declarations made to it by different categories of public officers and that it would obviously do a better job in carrying out its mandate if it opens up the assets declaration and verification processes to public participation, not only by acceding to requests for such declarations but also by actively encouraging members of the public to file complaints where they become aware of any false declaration.

 He urged the Bureau to do the right thing rather than continuing on its current path of shielding the assets declarations of public officers from public access, thereby protecting thousands of corrupt public officers who have made false declarations from exposure.

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