Ignorance is not a bargaining chip

by suleimanharuna


Suleiman Haruna, Garki, Abuja



Human beings by nature explain their good actions with reason and defend bad ones with excuses. This especially happens when they break the norm and are brought before the law; The assassin asks for forgiveness, the robber claims to be born again, and the petty thief blames the devil, or poverty. But it is clear that their action was premeditated and deliberate.


Laws guide human societies. These are either written or unwritten. It is an unwritten law that one should not defecate in the market place, and people, knowing the implications, avoid breaking that law. If one finds himself/herself in a society where he does not know the unwritten laws, he could still get punished for breaking them.


With written laws however, it is different. One has the chance to study them; whether in the form of the Constitution or simple statutes, and every citizen is duty bound to read these documents from time to time in order to avoid breaking the law and consequently getting punished. In Nigeria, we have a Constitution that is reviewed from time to time in order to reflect new realities. One of the provisions of the Constitution is the Code of Conduct for Public Officers in the running of Government business.


The public officers referred to, include both career civil servants and political office holders at all tiers and arms of Government. Political Office Holders include the President, Vice President, their Advisers and Assistants, Ministers, Leadership and Members of the National  Assembly, the  Judiciary, State Governors, their Deputies, Assistants and Commissioners, leadership and members of the state Assemblies, Local Government  Chairmen, their  Councilors and Advisers, and all other Public office holders, as long as they draw their  remuneration from  government.


The vision of the drafters of the Constitution is to place rectitude on a high pedestal in the running of public office, such that both the officer and the office are seen to be beyond reproach and that is why the Code makes adequate provisions to ensure this. The issues include conflict of interest and abuse of office, collection of controversial gifts, which may turn out to be inducements, outright bribery, and infringement on the right of others. Perhaps the most debated provision is that of prohibition of public officers from engaging in any private business, with farming as the only exception. Another is the prohibition of foreign accounts for certain categories of officers like the President, Vice President and Ministers, Governors, their Deputies and Commissioners, Members of the National and State Assemblies. Beyond all those mentioned above, the major instrument listed in the Code of Conduct, and used in measuring rectitude in public office, is Assets Declaration.


Over the years, the agencies responsible for the enforcement of the provisions of the Code, the Code of Conduct Bureau and Code of Conduct Tribunal have carried out their mandates dispassionately, with the Bureau distributing Assets declaration forms to the doorstep of the public officers, who ideally should visit the Bureau office at the headquarters or in any of the states of the federation to carry out this constitutional duty. The Code of Conduct Tribunal is a sister organization that tries those prosecuted by the Bureau, through the office of the Attorney General of the Federation for breaching the provisions of the Code.


It has become traditional for public officers to hide under the cloak of ignorance to delay or even refuse to declare their assets. Ignorance, it is said, is no excuse in law. As a result, many public officers have appeared before the Tribunal and paid the price of their stubbornness. Some have lost their jobs and were even asked to return all salaries enjoyed in office. Others have been banned from holding public office for up to ten years. The lucky ones have escaped with heavy fines.


Apart from the excuse of ignorance, others blame bureaucracy in their individual establishments for their woes. The Assets Declaration form is preceded by a whole page of guidelines on its completion. It is clearly stated that one must return the duly completed form by himself/herself to the nearest office of the Bureau within a stipulated 30 days.


Another critical issue probably affecting political office holders more; is the practice of anticipatory or over-declaration and under-declaration of assets. The problem of anticipatory declaration is preponderant at the onset of appointment, where the officers include in their forms assets they intend to accumulate while in office. Under-declaration mostly affects officers on the verge of leaving office, if they acquire many more assets than indicated in their initial declaration; they exclude these from their subsequent declarations. What these public officers do not know is that the Bureau conducts verification of these assets as a matter of routine, and once it is established that the officer had engaged in false declaration, he would be brought before the tribunal.


The assets declaration form itself has provided a list of what it considers as the public officer’s assets and these includes buildings and vacant plots which may include ranches, factories and farmlands; vehicle, boats and other means of transport; properties of spouse if they are not public officers; properties of children under 18; Government Securities, shares, debentures, and bank accounts, both local and foreign. For each asset declared, the officer must state its source, and income accruable from it (if any).


Some political office holders claim they are not public officers. This is with special reference to special advisers and assistants to Governors, Local Government Chairmen, and Ministers et cetera. They believe they are employees of their bosses and not of government, despite enjoying government salary and other perks associated with their offices. For the avoidance of doubt, any government official that is remunerated from government coffers is a public officer and is bound by the Code of Conduct.


There is the need for all public officers including political office holders and public servants to acquaint themselves with the provisions of the Code so that they don’t fall out of line and suffer the consequences. Even if the Bureau does not catch up with defaulters, patriotic whistleblowers from across the country will continue to assist it in achieving its mandate. Out of sight is not out of mind and  Ignorance is no excuse in law.     ##