Fighting corruption is one of the cardinal programmes of the Muhammadu Buhari administration. Asset declaration which fortunately has national and international legal frameworks establishing it provides an opportunity for more institutional impact in the anticorruption war. Asset declaration serves as a powerful tool for preventing the accumulation of illicit wealth by making room for the oversight of the financial activities of public officials and politically exposed persons.
Asset declaration laws in Nigeria promote the disclosure of financial information before taking up a political office and at regular intervals of every 4 years, hence it serves as a check to unusual and unexplainable increase in the personal wealth of public officials and politically exposed persons. The data and information in the filled asset declaration form can then be used by anti-corruption agencies (EFCC, ICPC, etc.), courts of law, the media and civil society organizations in the discharge of their watchdog roles. The knowledge of the fact that asset disclosure requirements are expected from a public official or a politically exposed person can also serve as a deterrent to corruption. Asset declaration serves as a potent tool for preventing the accumulation of illicit wealth.
Asset declaration is a powerful tool for tracking conflict of interest. Declarations of assets and interests helps decision making by public officials and politically exposed persons not to be undermined by personal interests like ownership of shares, receipt of gifts, acts of generosity, etc. Asset declaration helps prevent corruption by identification and mitigation of potential conflict of interest. Declared conflict of interest may serve as a basis to recuse a public official or politically exposed person who is working as a procurement officer for a contract for which a company that he/she has interest in is bidding. Declared conflict of interest may serve as a basis for a parliamentarian to withdraw from a debate which involves a company that he/she has interest in. Declared conflict of interest may serve as a basis for a judge to recuse himself/herself from a case in which he/she has interest in. Asset declaration serves as a potent tool for preventing conflict of interest.
While Nigeria and many other nations of the world have asset declaration laws in place, these laws usually contain loopholes and openings that allow corrupt public officials and politically exposed persons to circumvent the law. Effective asset declaration practice should enforce regular disclosure by public officials and politically exposed persons as well as their close family members. Effective asset declaration practice should ensure that the scope of asset declaration applies to moveable, non-moveable and financial assets and interests. Effective asset declaration practice should apply to beneficial owners of corporate entities who owns and controls the corporate entities despite not been named as the legal owners. Assets and interests to be declared should include cash in the bank, stocks and bonds, gifts received and loans granted, real estate, cars, jewelries, cryptocurrencies, beneficial ownership of companies, list of jobs and positions held, involvement in professional or civic bodies, etc.
However, the challenge of verification and oversight are major problems that the asset declaration process must confront. If the number of declarations to be collected is huge, then the government must deploy adequate resources and strategy. The media, civil society organizations, foreign governments and other stakeholders must be seen as critical partners in fighting corruption through asset declaration. Effective asset declaration practice should entail publishing asset disclosure digitally on a central platform in open data format. This will ensure that the media, civil society organizations and the general public will have unhindered engagement of the oversight process. These stakeholders should also be consulted before and after the development of the asset declaration platform in order to ensure that the information in the asset declaration functionally promotes transparency and accountability.
The Open Government Partnership (OGP) which is a globally accepted forum for the reform of government institutions and reduction of corruption is also in the position to harness asset declaration information. Through the instrument of OGP, Nigeria and other countries that do not publicly disclose asset declaration information can learn best practices from other countries that disclose their asset declaration information, and this will lead to an improvement in the openness and transparency of the asset declaration system. OGP along with beneficial ownership transparency and open contracting are strategies that can be deployed to achieve global best standards of open data. Government’s fights against corruption will not likely yield maximum impact if asset declaration is taken for granted.
Eke (08035066196) is a Programme Manager at the Centre for Social Justice