Alagi Yorro Jallow

(JollofNews) – President Adama Barrow and his government must be ready to push the boundaries of transparency and accountability, even and especially with ourselves. We must be ready to embody and model the values that give meaning to and legitimize the important and necessary work of shining light on dark places, holding others to account.

I believe that public officers should publicly declare their assets. The Directorate of Asset Declaration should be empowered to verify the claims made on declaration forms to ensure that public officers do not over-declare their assets in anticipation of using public office to corruptly enrich themselves.

Asset Declarations of ministers and senior government officials are not meant to be a perfunctory exercise in box-ticking. They are primarily instruments of transparency and accountability, potentially powerful mechanisms of sunshine that could help, in very practical ways, to limit the incidence of corruption, one of the major challenges of our country.

However, the potency of this tool is gravely diminished, in my view, by the fact that asset declarations are made a secret affair, with the public, on behalf of whom people are elected or appointed to hold public office, not given a viable role in the verification of the assets declared and denied the fundamental right to know. This is another case of the “missing public” that needs fixing.

Therefore, as we rightly seek new beginnings for our country, we need to reinsert and reassert the public into this process of transparency and accountability by lifting the veil of secrecy from the declared assets of our public officers. This I believe: all public officers should be required to declare their assets publicly. Otherwise, the impact of the asset declaration exercise is successfully neutered.

I believe that President Barrow’s Executive Order authorizing his ministers to declare their assets is just not a rubber stamp there to hoodwink people because no one has access to the records and there is no mechanism for enforcement.

Universally accepted standards of Asset Declaration stipulate that the President and members of his cabinet disclose all assets, liabilities and business interests—as well as those of their spouses or any assets that are held on their behalf—upon election or appointment. Such a declaration is supposed to be made in writing to the Speaker of the National Assembly within three months of their election or appointment.

But despite the very unclear Executive Order of President Barrow and the importance that government officials be publicly accountable to the citizenry, it has proven very difficult to implement practically binding principles observed by those in high office. Indeed, it has become a thorny issue among politicians in The Gambia, as nobody wants to detail their (often unexplained) property or wealth.

To make matters worse, even when a senior public figure makes a declaration, it is extremely difficult for the media or any other interested parties in civil society to access the documents. If you read carefully, what the media publishes is just the fact that there has been a “declaration of assets,” not the actual contents of the declaration. Does the media have access to enough documents to scrutinize all the declared assets?

What mechanism for verification is put in place to ensure a true account of the inventory of assets declared? One viable mechanism is physical verification, which involves comparing the data on the forms with data held at various public agencies and private entities to check for authenticity, veracity and accuracy. The exercise will involve visiting physical sites for inspection and assessment of declared movable and immovable properties. Wherever necessary, professional experts will be used in the process at the expense of the Directorate.

Institutions declaring their assets include the Ministry of Local Government and Lands, Financial Institutions local and abroad and the Gambia Revenue Authority, among others. The declared assets of public officers would undergo the verification exercise to prove if indeed their forms were truthfully completed. Their initial declaration would be followed by an annual declaration update to be filed within thirty days after the start of each fiscal year.

Unsurprisingly, the lack of verification leads to widespread doubts about whether leaders really declare their assets. This also proves the entire point of declaring assets: to be more transparent and accountable and to help tackle corruption. In the current situation, the president, cabinet ministers and senior government officials know that if they have handed in a “declaration of assets,” no one can question their wealth. On top of this, there is no prescribed penalty for failure to declare assets! Talk about a toothless regulation.

Such a lack of transparency can lead to a sense of impunity and to allegations of corruption. Publicly declaring assets tackles these problems, giving citizens more faith in their elected and appointed representatives. Clearly, however, senior government figures in The Gambia are not worried about that. Or, rather: they are more worried about publicly declaring what they own. I wonder why? If it is legally accrued wealth, then why not declare it?

In other countries, the media might be able to use other routes to get around the Speaker’s non-disclosure by using an access-to-information law. Regrettably, we in The Gambia have the colonial Official Secret Law instead of legislation requiring access to information, such as a Freedom of Information law, leaving Gambian citizens in the dark on many critical issues.

The author is founder and former managing editor of The Independent, the Gambia’s only private newspaper before it was banned by the government in 2005. He was a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, a 2007 Nieman fellow and is the author of Delayed Democracy: How Press Freedom Collapsed in Gambia published in 2013.