By: David Yusuf Kabia, Public Education Officer
Why asset declaration?
Milos Zeman once said that “The best defence against mafia business is full declaration of assets and incomes.” The idea, or better still, the principle requiring public servants to declare their income, asset and liability bothers around the significance of integrity, transparency and accountability in public service. It is a fundamental incontrovertible truth that public servants are the custodians of public resources meant for the use and benefit of citizens. Bearing in mind the criticality surrounding the protection of these resources, public servants are usually susceptible to marred suspicions of misuse of public funds and property-a rebuttable presumption that has led to many being dubbed thieves.
To this end, governments across the world, and particularly that of Sierra Leone, have relied on legal codification to ensure that public servants upon recruitment declare their income, asset and liability in a bid to gauge their wealth accumulation over the period of their employment. This process, without a fiercely legally empowered anti-graft institution like that of the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) to superintend it, the law may only exist to aid the looting of public funds and resources at the expense of the needy beneficiaries.
In Sierra Leone, the process of asset declaration is a primary requirement for public servants as enshrined in Section 119 of the Anti-Corruption Act 2008 as amended in 2019. While many may not be aware, the aforementioned provision requires public servants to declare their income, asset and liability upon recruitment into the public service and thereafter, after every two years (bi-annually), in which case it should be done within January to March.
While many feel that the requirement by government calling on public servants to declare their assets is to snare them on their wealth, others believe that asset declaration seeks to protect the very public servant from being misunderstood or suspected to have stolen resources belonging to the public. Being open about what one does or has while in public service promotes transparency, which in turn shows trust and integrity. Being transparent in what one does in public service helps build the trust around the workplace and those one comes in contact with.
Dalai Lama said, “A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity.” When public servants declare their assets upon recruitment and every other stipulated date, it puts them in a better situation by being confident that nothing incriminating can ever be aligned with their names. This puts the public servant to speed in terms of their output.
While Section 119 may have made the clarion call for the declaration of assets by public servants, Section 122 punishes the breach of Section 119, which is failing to declare one’s asset. Failure to declare asset by any public servant could result in accusation of unexplained wealth, which is provided for under Section 27 of the Anti-Corruption Act 2008 as amended. In the Indian case of The State Vs Selu Jayalalitha (2014), the Indian Supreme Court decided that where the accused failed to file a complete asset declaration form, there is additional presumption of unexplained wealth linked with the deliberate failure to declare their asset. This led to the six times Chief Minister of the State of Tamil Nadu to step down on account of the corruption charges he was found guilty of. In essence, the refusal to completely declare one’s assets can never be unconnected with the self-indictment that one cannot possibly explain how their wealth was acquired.
Asset declaration and the issue of joint ownership
Rules of Intestacy, Succession and Trust include joint ownership. Given where a particular public servant holds property in trust for their child or spouse and that child or spouse may have lived with the declarant during the period of the said declaration, Section 119 (5) (b) demands that such asset must be declared in accordance with the ownership, trust or joint ownership.
In Sierra Leone, in the Devolution of Estate Act No.21 of 2007, provisions are made in line with rules of succession. As provided for by Section 9 (Surviving spouse and child to be entitled to house or houses) of the aforementioned Act under intestate succession, a spouse and a child who are beneficiaries of an intestate’s house then become tenants-in-common. That is to say both have equal rights to the use of the house. In such a situation, either the spouse or the child ought to declare such house as being owned as a tenant-in-common.
In a country where, if not all, but most of the citizens are products of families not too interested in testation, the reality that most public servants would be either joint tenants or tenants-in-common remains starkly visible. To this end, many parents who have died intestate have left their estate (particularly landed property) to their children beneficiaries either as tenants-in-common or as joint tenants. Where such landed properties eventually form part of the estate of any public servant, to declare them would mean to save their ownership of them and avoiding unnecessary image dent through graft suspicion over public resources.
Therefore, public servants ought to change their perception of the process of asset declaration from that which seeks to hunt their wealth to that which seeks to protect their wealth from being misconstrued as proceeds of corruption.
As the Biannual Year of declaration has commenced, the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) once again has called on all public servants to embrace the asset declaration process and ensure to fully declare all incomes, assets and liabilities in order to avoid any marred graft suspicion or accusation that is image mud-dragging.