By Kolawole Olaniyan
Former president Olusegun Obasanjo recently launched a stinging attack on the authority of the Federal High Court and the competence of Justice Mohammed Baba Idris after the judge ruled that details on the spending of recovered stolen public funds under Obasanjo’s government between May 1999 and May 2007 should be widely published including on a dedicated website.
Justice Idris’ judgment, which followed a Freedom of Information suit brought by Nigeria’s leading anticorruption NGO Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), also called for publication of records of spending of recovered funds under the governments of former president Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and former president Goodluck Jonathan.
Reacting to the judgment, Obasanjo reportedly said, “They said the money recovered from Abacha, I should account for it. What stupidity! The man who asked for it, the man who gave the judgement or who answered them are all stupid, with due respect. I don’t keep account, all Abacha loots were sent to Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, and every bit of it was reported to Minister of Finance. My job was to write where we can get help to recover the money. Every penny that comes out of it went to CBN, so if they want to know what happened to the money, they should call CBN governor or call the Minister of Finance. But again, it shows ignorance, total ignorance, which is lacking and you wonder, are these people educated? They can also approach the man who helped us in recovering process to give the list of money recovered and where he took it.”
This statement, coming from a former president of Nigeria, flies in the face of leadership by example and can only help to frustrate the objective of the Freedom of Information Act, and by extension, undermine the authority of the country’s judiciary and erode the rule of law.
Judges are not infallible but there’s nothing stupid in Justice Idris insisting on transparency and accountability of leaders who once held a position of trust and control over the public treasury. Judges don’t act or give judgments according to their personal whims and fancies: they apply the laws as they find them. Although judges may sometimes fail to live up to the ideal-and the present is not a case of such failure-the principle should be generally understood and respected that judges would draw conclusions from the evidence before them in accordance with legal precedent, ordinary norms of legal reasoing, and established constitutional and legal principles.
If judges have to decide cases on the basis of what politicians or someone else wanted the law or the result to be, the very principle of independence of the judiciary would be forfeited. While it’s within Obasanjo’s right to disagree with the judgment or even criticise it, calling Justice Idris “stupid and ignorant” simply for doing his job amounts to inappropriate political criticism as it threatens the judge’s independence and integrity.
It’s unfair to see individual judges as ‘fair game’ because they cannot publicly defend themselves against inappropriate criticism.
But Obasanjo’s attempt to browbeat Justice Idris simply for upholding the Freedom of Information Act is hardly surprising especially given that he ignored wise counsel to sign the Bill into law during his time in government.
What is the point of “government of, by, and for the people” if opinion leaders and former presidents like Obasanjo by words or deed seem to want to dodge responsibility for their action or inaction while in office by implicitly promoting policies of secrecy?
Imagine if the disclosures of corruption, compendiously known as Dazukigate, which weakened the ability of the country’s military to fight and defeat Boko Haram, and debased institutions of governance, have remained a secret.
If anything is to be learned from the country’s current experience with disclosures of corruption among high-ranking government officials, politicians and the military, it’s that the government of president Muhammadu Buhari must open public affairs, including regarding details on spending of recovered funds under governments since the return of democracy in 1999, to public scrutiny.
Non-disclosure of Dazukigate would have deprived the Nigerian people of a much-needed opportunity to know what former president Goodluck Jonathan was doing while in office, and to cleanse some level of government.
Justice Idris’ judgment is without doubt a great victory for transparency and accountability in the country. Thanks to Justice Idris Nigerians will now be able to know exactly how recovered stolen funds were spent including under Obasanjo’s government. They will be able to find out if recovered funds were appropriately spent on real projects, mismanaged or re-stolen.
The judgment recognizes that corruption is never flaunted in the open and it’s invariably practiced through secrecy-secrecy found in every level of government from local governments to Aso Rock Villa and National Assembly.
It buttresses the point that openness promotes the appearance of fairness and enhances public confidence in the integrity of government action. Openness serves as a check against incompetence, venality, or bias; and promotes the constitutional values of encouraging elected officials to act in the public interest. This in turn can stimulate more knowledgeable public consideration of transparency, accountability and human rights issues and perhaps even encourage individual citizens to come forward with constructive suggestions.
Thus, by ordering publication on a dedicated website of projects on which recovered funds were spent by the governments of former presidents Obasanjo, Yar’Adua and Jonathan for inspection by the citizenry, Justice Idris has enhanced the status of the Freedom of Information Act as a veritable legal framework of protection against governmental deception and arbitrariness.
Without the disclosures ordered by Justice Idris, high-level official corruption will continue to flourish with official action and with almost absolute impunity. And Nigerians will continue to be denied effective enjoyment of their human rights if they don’t know what their leaders and government are doing and unable to hold them to account.
Nigerians do not demand infallibility from their leaders and institutions, but it’s difficult to accept the proposition that a judge granting Nigerians the right to know what their leaders and government are doing is “stupid and ignorant.” Nigerians indeed have a right to compel their public officials particularly the high-ranking among them like Obasanjo to keep the avenues of information open so the public can know and evaluate their work, accomplishments and derelictions regardless of whether they are in or out of office.
How Buhari responds to Justice Idris’ judgment will without question be a significant aspect of what defines his anticorruption agenda.
One immediate step for Buhari to take is to instruct the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, the Accountant General of the Federation and the Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria to put in place mechanisms for the full and effective enforcement and implementation of the judgment by Justice Idris.
Olaniyan, author of ‘Corruption and Human Rights Law in Africa’, is Legal Adviser, International Secretariat of Amnesty International, London.