The anti-corruption war of the President Muhammadu Buhari administration may be heading to the rocks, unless drastic steps are taken to arrest the sharp practices embarked upon by cashiers and process clerks in the Lagos judiciary.
The Point’s findings revealed that court cashiers and process clerks are charging civil servants about 400 per cent of the normal fee for processing their asset declaration forms. In consonance with the provisions of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), the Code of Conduct Bureau, has called on every public officer to submit written declarations of all their properties, assets and liabilities and those of their spouses (if not a public officer) and their unmarried children under the age of 18 years.
This directive was in line with the paragraph 11 of Part I of the 5th Schedule to the 1999 Constitution (as amended), which states that any statement in such declaration that is found to be false by any authority or person authorised in that behalf to verify it shall be deemed to be a breach of this Code.
The CCB has commenced its 2016 fourth quarter cycle of conference and field verifications of assets of top public officers and letters of invitation have been dispatched to ministers, Service Chiefs and other top public officers to proceed with the asset declaration exercise.
However, The Point investigations revealed that as the exercise is ongoing in Lagos State, it is concurrently being carried out at the federal, state and local government levels across the country, but it is witnessing massive cases of extortions of public servants by some court officials.
The Point’s visit to a Lagos High Court confirmed that what transpired was pure and terrible case of corrupt and sharp practices, where public servants, after collecting and filling the asset declaration forms issued out by the CCB, are to swear to an oath of truth, confirming the authenticity of the assets being declared, are requested to pay the sum of N250 as oath fees and an official receipt obtained.
This means that someone somewhere is making N750 on every public servant who comes to sign his or her asset declaration form, and assuming that averagely on a day, 1,000 people come for the exercise, somebody somewhere will smile home with N750,000 while only N250,000 goes to government coffers
But court clerks have turned the exercise into a bazaar, where public servants are now charged N1,000 each but issued receipt for N250, before they could proceed to a judge or a notary public for the signing of the asset declaration.
This means that someone somewhere is making N750 on every public servant who comes to sign his or her asset declaration form, and assuming that averagely on a day, 1,000 people come for the exercise, somebody somewhere will smile home with N750,000 while only N250,000 goes to government coffers.
An aged public servant, who is a librarian at the Federal Institute of Industrial Research, Oshodi, who pleaded anonymity narrated to The Point his harrowing experience when he went for his asset declaration form signing exercise.
He said the clerks/ cashiers insisted that he must pay N1,000 instead of the official N250, a demand he said he declined and was subsequently asked to come back another day. He said that he noticed some of his colleagues acceded to the demands and paid N1,000, but were issued receipts bearing N250, while the officials pocketed the balance of N750 on each and every public servant who were issued the receipt.
Another staff of the National Food and Drug Administration and Control, who because of the sensitivity of the issue also pleaded anonymity told The Point, “I was shocked when I was told to drop N1,000 instead of N250. I questioned the lady at the desk and asked her why I should pay such amount, she replied that that was what my mates were paying.”
She said she wondered if the exercise was mandated by the Federal Government as part of its strategy in curbing corruption that is prevalent among public officials, then the effort is in futility, as these officials are not only involved in corruption, but also encouraging it.
She said that she eventually caved in and paid the N1,000, after been delayed unnecessarily, before she could proceed to the justice office to get the asset declaration form signed. At the justice’s office, the clerk also demanded for gratification, before they collected her form and asked her to come back another day to pick it up. ordeal at The Point of payment, where he was also asked to drop something to make them happy.
He said, “Although, I didn’t take it as a big deal, but seeing that they were demanding from other people as well made me realise how rich these people would have become from this exercise, which I know is not ending soon.”
Other public servants from National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, and local government councils also attested to this illegal extortion, disclosing that due to the gravity of the situation, and for their own safety, they cannot give out their names to the press, so as to protect their jobs.
When The Point contacted the Lagos State Director of the CCB, Mr Ezekiel Olusoji Ola, he said the Bureau is independent of the judiciary and their functions are different, adding that the CCB does not have the statutory function of collecting any form of payment for asset declaration form.
He said, “It is a big offence for anybody to collect any form of money here to give asset declaration form. The only connection we have with the judiciary is that declarants are to take their asset declaration forms, which they collected from the CCB, after filling it, to a High Court, which is in close proximity to our premises here in Ikeja. The High Court officials are the ones who collect money for oath fees, and as far as I know, it is N250 presently and they are not supposed to collect more than that.
“Another issue is that these civil servants are to be blamed, some of them patronise touts who hang around the court premises and these touts make extra demands on them, making them to pay more. If these people know their rights, they shouldn’t heed to any extortion from these officials.”
He said that a similar case of extortion at the High Court was reported to the court registrar last year, when it was brought to the CCB attention and she promised that culprits would be brought to book.
When The Point asked him what punishment was meted out to the culprits, Mr. Ola said he was not aware of the punishment meted out to the offenders.
He therefore urged civil servants to endeavor to speak up if any illegal demands come from any quarters.
Describing the asset declaration exercise as a laudable one in the fight against corruption, a corporate governance lawyer, Mr Dele Solanke, said it, however, may not be the best anticorruption strategy.
“Extortion is an issue that everyone experiences one way or the other. It is part of the failures of the judicial institution, because as corporate governance requires some accountability strategies to be put in place by institutions like the judiciary, transparency initiatives must also be put in place, or what we call whistle-blowing programmes. I believe that from the extortion or corruption going on in the judiciary, if the court system or the administrative arm of the judiciary ha whistle-blowing programmes, all these issue of corruption would be sorted out,” he said.
I didn’t take it as a big deal, but seeing that they were demanding from other people as well made me realise how rich these people would have become from this exercise, which I know is not ending soon
He admonished that people should not give in to any form of extortion or bribe or whatsoever, as doing that make one become a stakeholder of good governance.
“Everybody has to assume a role because looking at the dynamics of governance all over the world, what obtains is that there is really no difference between you and I, I mean the citizens and the people in the judiciary, citizens have equal rights. In advanced democracies, it is not as if there are no challenges, there but their system encourages them to speak out or protest against any form of illegality, which illuminates the governance process.
“From my own perspective as a corporate governance practitioner, citizens who are victims, are stakeholders and other high ranking officers need to take the issue of corruption or extortion up, all that is needed is write a petition to the Chief Justice to kick against such activity,” he asserted.
Solanke said it is something they will look into, because “this is a battle that all of us have to undertake every time because it happens everywhere in the world,” adding, “If you look at corporate standards in Nigeria, especially the recent one that was highly celebrated in 2007, people should blow whistles of bad doings, because the issue of corruption takes away the initiative and also undermines the state itself, so if you allow corruption to blossom, then the system will be endangered, so everybody should be a stakeholder, if good governance must be achieved.”
Attempts by The Point to reach the Public Relations Officer of Lagos State judiciary, Mrs Grace Alo, for her reaction, proved abortive, as calls to her telephone line did not go through as at the time of filing this report.