The Federal Government of Nigeria which has set so much store of recovering looted funds but refused, despite various stakeholders’ requests, to publish details of the recoveries, was recently ordered by a Federal High Court in Lagos to “immediately release” the details to Nigerians. Following that court order, when the Federal Government publishes those details, the action is not likely to enjoy the type of esteem the people would have conferred on it had the government willingly done it without judicial compulsion.
For several reasons, Nigerians should, however, be happy with the court’s ruling. Democracy and rule of law are gradually taking root in the country; second, citizens’ voices and rights, especially the right to know, are beginning to count; third, the government is not at liberty to publish only whatever it likes to make known to the people. The Court was specific on what the government must make known to Nigerians – “names of high-ranking public officials from whom public funds were recovered and the circumstances under which funds were recovered as well as the exact amount of funds recovered from each public official.” It was also categorical that the publication should be made “immediately”. The fourth thing that should also excite all Nigerians is the good speed with which the Court came out with its decision – the case was reportedly filed in 2016 and within one year it was concluded. How heart-warming and fulfilling it will be when most, if not, all cases are speedily concluded, as in this case, for true justice to reign! Nigerians should jubilate because the court’s ruling is, indeed, a victory for justice, rule of law and accountability in this country.
While jubilation goes on, it is however essential that the APC-led government and President Muhammadu Buhari appreciate that it will serve them no good if, in implementing the decisions of the court, they decide to rely on what Mr. Abubakar Malami, the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice was reported to have described as “reconciliation of associated considerations as they relate to sub-judice principles, as they relate to concluding reconciliation and confirmation of figures” to delay full compliance with the orders of the court. If the recovered funds are yet to be reconciled and confirmed, how come the government had reported a summation of the recovered amount to prove that its fight against corruption is yielding positive results? If indeed, the figures are up till now unreconciled and unconfirmed, the effectiveness of the officers entrusted with documenting such important developments is suspect. Indeed, that may suggest that the government had been over or under-reporting the actual amount of recoveries and perhaps, it does not even know all the persons recoveries were made from.
It is also important that the government should not agree with Malami’s assertions that the disclosures would be at the “appropriate time” and “intermittently”. What other time is an appropriate one when the court ruled that the government should “immediately release” the information to Nigerians? It will be very unfortunate if the government follows the reported dispositions of the minister. As the Chief Law Officer of the country, Nigerians expect much from him but certainly not to introduce externalities into the orders made by the court. Given the very important position he occupies, he is expected to lead the example of upholding the rule of law and not to manufacture excuses and, or, confusions.
Further implications of the Court’s decisions ought to be treasured. Publication of looters’ names will make known Nigeria’s high profile or high-ranking ‘pen robbers’. Such persons, if there is still any iota of conscience in them, will bury their heads in shame. They will never again be entrusted with public offices. They would have smeared their families’ names with oozing animal dung and, to all members of the society, their names and those of generations after them bear the signature of eternal disgrace. Consequently, the “name and shame” idea should send a strong signal to the present and future public and non-public office holders. Properly implemented, it should be a strategic tool for the fight against corruption in the country. Moreover, publication of the circumstances under which funds were recovered will aid, if government is serious, in devising preventive measures against recurrence of similar forms of looting in future.
For the joy of Nigerians to be full, government must ensure that the robbers are correctly criminalised in the eyes of the law by ensuring they are formally prosecuted, convicted and sentenced by courts of competent jurisdictions. It should not be enough that they returned the resources they stole. In addition, government must inform the citizens of the projects on which it intends to invest such recovered resources and thereafter give comprehensive and verifiable account. On no account must recovered funds be allowed to either be re-stolen or mismanaged. Finally, all citizens – individuals and groups – should emulate the example of SERAP, the civil society organisation, which instituted the case in focus, and work for the freedom of the people of Nigeria from the vice-like grip of corruption.
The Guardian Newspaper Editorial.