The Code provides a very good basis for making pubic officers stay within acceptable limits in their conduct and carriage by making them realise that public office comes with a huge moral demand and ultimate good faith.
It is a no brainer that most acts of misconduct by public officers are related to pecuniary interests. This explains why much of the Code of Conduct focuses on finances. In paragraph 7(a) of the Code, the president, vice president, governor, deputy, ministers, commissioners, permanent secretaries, heads of public corporations, universities or state agencies are restricted from taking loans from anywhere apart from government or its agencies, banks, building society, mortgage institution or other recognised financial institution.
It is very easy to understand why. We cannot allow such high-ranking public officers to be held hostage by some powerful interests through debt, even as such loans could actually be arranged as a way of tying their hands. It is also meant to avoid a situation whereby a public officer receives gratification from the powerful interests including businesses and turns around to claim it was a loan. In fact, clause (b) of the same paragraph 7 states that these officials shall not accept any benefit of whatever nature from any company, contractor, businessman or their nominee or agent. This makes it a strict liability for a public officer to receive such benefit; meaning that once such acceptance of benefit is shown, the beneficiary is deemed to have received such through corrupt means.
In a clear recognition that corruption often involves more than the public officer having a criminal intention and acting thereto, the Code makes it an offence for anyone to try to induce a public officer. It says that no person shall offer a public officer any property, gift or benefit of any kind as an inducement or bribe for the granting of any favour or the discharge in his favour of the public officer’s duty. It is therefore as much a crime to offer bribe as it is to accept bribe.
Unfortunately, many of these clearly criminal conducts are so commonplace that the society accepts them as the norm. Out such practice has evolved to another level of criminality where some powerful individuals close to public officers now run bribe brokerage services. There are go-betweens for many public officers including judges. We have equally heard of such conducts in the executive arms of government at different levels. We must recall however that the definition of public officers under this code is so wide as to cover even civil servants. So, by the provisions of this Code, even the bribe transactions involving junior-level staff offend this law.
The Code equally provides for the kind of association a public officer cannot be found in. It makes it an offence for a public officer to belong to or take part in a ‘secret society’ where such membership is incompatible with the functions or dignity of the office. The Constitution defines ‘secret society’ to include any association, group or body of persons that uses secret signs, oaths, rites or symbols and is formed to promote a cause or foster the interest of its members and to aid one another under any circumstances without due regard to merit, fair play or justice to the detriment of the legitimate interest of non-members. It also includes such groups where their membership is incompatible with the function or dignity of any public office and whose members are sworn to observe oaths of secrecy; or the activities, membership list is hidden from the public and the meetings and other activities are held in secret.
By far the most popular provision of the Code of Conduct is that which requires public officers to submit to the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB), their declaration of ‘properties, assets and liabilities’ including those of their unmarried children who are less than 18 years of age. This provision is mandatory, with grave consequences for failure. It was therefore amusing to hear the chairman of the Bureau, Sam Saba, complain recently that some state governors had not submitted their declarations.
And this is where the main problem seems to be. It is the ineffectiveness of the CCB (which has a Code of Conduct Tribunal) to ensure compliance or sanction. The appropriate thing to do, when anyone is suspected of breaching the Code of Conduct is for the CCB to commence investigation and charge the person to the Tribunal. If the person is found guilty, the Tribunal may order a vacation of office as a legislator, disqualification from holding a public office for up to 10 years and seizure and forfeiture to the state of any property acquired as a result of the breach.
In spite of the provisions of the Code of Conduct, if any of the circumstances there amount to other crimes the perpetrators can still be punished under other laws.
Here is the time for the new administration to ensure that the apparently comatose Code of Conduct Bureau is up and running, the Code of Conduct Tribunal uses its teeth effectively and that the Code of Conduct is given life.