Between Reps and foreign bank accounts for public officers

  • Monday, 25 November 2013 12:21

In this report, KOLAWOLE DANIEL writes on the proposed amendments being sought by three lawmakers in the House of Representatives to the Act backing the activities of the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB), as it relates to allowing public officers operate foreign bank accounts while serving.

THE Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) and Tribunal derives its powers from the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act, Chapter 56 LFN 1990, which gives the Bureau the mandate to establish and maintain a high standard of public morality in the conduct of government business. It is to ensure that the actions and behaviour of public officers conform to the highest standard of public morality and accountability.

To implement the above mandate, Section 3, part 1 of the Third Schedule to the 1999 Constitution as amended clearly spells out the functions of the Bureau and as well provides an enabling legal environment for the body to work.

The Bureau, as part of its responsibilities, also ensures that all public officers declare their assets at the beginning and at the end of their tenure of office as well as every four years while in office. Upon the declaration of the assets, the CCB ensures that the assets declared by the public officers are verified to establish any case of misconduct or corrupt enrichment for further necessary action.  Any infraction of the guidelines stipulated in the Bureau’s Act by any public officers is found a contravention of the law and offendersare arraigned before the Code of Conduct Tribunal.

From the workings of the Bureau, many Nigerians oftentimes are of the opinion that it has not really lived up to expectation judging from happenings in the nation’s polity where civil servants and other public officers flaunt their ill-gotten wealth with some measure of impunity. Cases abound on how some public officers under-declare their assets or acquire wealth while in service through dubious means and still walk freely and enjoy the stolen wealth without anyone questioning them.

In its wisdom, however, the House of Representatives is currently working on a legislation that dealswith operations of CCB. One of the amendments being proposed to the Bureau’s Act has to do with the provisions that restrict public officers from operating foreign bank accounts. The House is now seeking to allow public officers operate foreign bank accounts while in office and the proposal has scaled the Seconding Reading (quote). The Bill was one of the consolidated bills that were so passed at the last plenary of the House.

The bills are: a Bill for an act to amend the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act, Cap. 15 LFN, 2004 so as to make the leave of the Bureau necessary for a public officer to maintain or operate a bank account outside Nigeria and other related matters; a Bill for an act to amend the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act by deleting proviso to Section 3, deleting Section 18(1) and enacting an amended Section 81(2); and a bill for an act to amend the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act, Cap. C15 Laws of the federation of Nigeria 2004 so as to make accessible assets and liabilities declared by public office holders and other matters connected therein. Promoters of the bills included Honourables Bamidele Faparusi, Emmanuel Jime and Udo Ibeji.

Before now, it was criminal for any public office holder to operate foreign bank accounts, but Honourable Faparusi who sponsored the amendment that sought to amend the law, while leading debate on the general principle of the bill, informed his colleagues that, Section 7 of the Act prohibited public officers in Nigeria from operating foreign accounts andsaid “the obvious impracticability of the law has only helped in breaching the law.”

According to him, the amendment to the Act, “will give the Bureau some teeth to bite based on the fact that it would be able to prosecute any defaulter and seek the imposition of sanctions in line with section 23 of the Act”, stressing that, “this bill is hinged on the principle of disclosure and advocates a process whereby a public office holder can inform and get leave of the Bureau concerning any bank account he wishes to maintain and operate, which leave shall not be reasonably denied.”
To drive home his argument Honourable Faparusi maintained that, “Today, people are operating such accounts by proxy or even in the open because they know that nothing will happen. But this amendment says you can operate the account but this must be with the leave of the bureau” noting that such amendment would now make people to know that there will be punishment for non-disclosure of foreign bank accounts.

Honourable Ibeji, who sponsored the second leg of the amendment, said his proposed amendment sought to expunge the provision in the Act that allows the president to amend the Act through an executive order, removes the power of the president to exempt some people from sanction by the Bureau and provide for public access to declared assets.

While the third leg of the amendment was sponsored by Honourable Jime who said that his proposed amendment to the Act was to ensure that assets and liabilities declared by public office holders are accessible to Nigerians, stressing that such development would made Nigerians to hold public office holders accountable during and after they might have left office.

To this end, Jime said that the amendment he sought would “establish legal framework which has been missing in the Code of Conduct and Tribunal Act and offer procedure for records of assets and liabilities declaration for public office holders to become more public and accessible to all members of the Nigerian public.”

He added that the amendment would bridge the existing gap in curtailing the conflicting private interest and public activities of public office holders, stressing that if the proposed amendment scaled through, assets declared by public office holders must be made public in two weeks to encourage trust and promote transparency in governance.

Most lawmakers who spoke supported the amendment while others opposed it. Those who supported the bill were of the view that the amendments would go a long way in strengthening the workings of the Bureau, while those opposed the amendments actually argued against the aspect that sought to allow public officers to operate foreign bank accounts as they  were of the view that it would further give room for public officers to open foreign bank accounts as they like, adding that when there is a law in place banning public office holders from opening foreign bank accounts some still through the back doors open and maintain such accounts while in active service.

The Deputy House Leader, Honourable Leo Ogor, who led the lawmakers that opposed the amendment, was of the opinion that the amendment “can actually encourage corruption rather than reduce it.” Instead, he said the amendment should have encouraged public officers to “operate domiciliary accounts in the country.”

However, after heated arguments, when the Speaker, Honourable Aminu Tambuwal, who presided over the session  put the question on the consolidated bills that sought to be amended to vote,  the proposals were supported by majority of the lawmakers and subsequently referred the bills to the House Committee on Anti-corruption, Value and Ethics for further legislative inputs.

Not long after the amendments scaled through Second Reading when reactions started trailing the action of the lawmakers. Executive Chairman, Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders (CACOL), Comrade Debo Adeniran, while commenting on the amendments said, “It is not only absurd but unreasonable for our legislators to base the reason for the scrapping of the extant Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act, 2004 on non-enforcement. Does it mean that if you cannot enforce any law then you scrap it? This is like cutting off the head because one has headache. It is clear that the problem is not in the law, but its enforcement”.

According to him, “this new amendment will actually encourage corruption rather than reduce it. The bill to allow public office holders open and operate foreign bank account will definitely expand corrupt practices to an unimaginable level, thereby worsening the current worrisome massive corrupt practices being perpetrated by the Nigerian politicians. Though we know that some public officers still smuggle and open foreign accounts by proxy, but this bill will just be another way to legalize the fleecing of our country’s treasury and laundering of the public funds to other countries.

“It is more reasonable to ask public officers to operate domiciliary accounts for the benefit of the country instead of giving them the leeway to stash their stolen loots in some foreign accounts where it would be difficult to trace,” he maintained.

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