Seraphic SERAP?

Featured November 7, 2017

Tunji Adegboyega 

SERAP, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project deserves commendation for filling a part of the void created by the fizzling out of almost all the human rights groups in the country. The other groups that participated actively during military rule, especially in the struggle to return the soldiers to their barracks, have since gone into oblivion. Many of them that were upright in those dark days have since been bitten by the corruption bug. As a matter of fact, it was such a pitiful situation hearing that one of them that was highly credible back then was in the middle of a N10million largesse from the authorities of the collapsed Synagogue building in Lagos.

The emergence of SERAP, in 2004, has vindicated Aristotle’s position that ‘Nature abhors a vacuum’. SERAP, despite its relatively young age has been doing the little it can in making governments responsible and accountable. Its most recent battle is the case it instituted against the leadership of the National Assembly, Senate President Bukola Saraki and Speaker, House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, to make them account for N500billion that the country had spent to run the assembly from 2006 to 2016, as well as disclose the monthly allowances of each of their members. This is the same National Assembly that carries out oversight on other institutions. Yet, its accounts are rarely audited annually as public accounts are supposed to be.

But Justice Rilwan Aikawa of the Federal High Court in Ikoyi, Lagos, penultimate Friday, did justice to the matter as he said that, “I have looked at the papers filed by SERAP and I am satisfied that leave ought to be granted in this case for judicial review and an order of mandamus directing and compelling Saraki and Dogara to account for the spending of the running cost and disclose the monthly income and allowances of each senator and member.”

The suit was filed in December, last year, sequel to the disclosure by Abdulmumin Jibrin that our senators and House of Representatives members have pocketed N500bilion out of the N1 trillion running cost provided for in the National Assembly budgets between 2006 and 2016; and the claim by former President Olusegun Obasanjo that each senator and House of Representatives member goes home with nothing less than N15m and N10million monthly, respectively.

Ordinarily, there should be no controversy over such matters of public interest but for the opacity that has dominated the public space in the country. Indeed, the suit would have been unnecessary if the National Assembly had acceded to SERAP’s request for information on these claims. There is none of these items that is shrouded in secrecy in other democracies. They border on national interest, public concern, social justice, good governance, transparency and accountability and should be readily made available even without the Freedom of Information Act being invoked. Anyway, it would be interesting to hear why the National Assembly leadership is uncomfortable releasing such information when on December 12 they have their day in court.

As pointed out earlier, the case against the National Assembly leadership is just the most recent of SERAP’s battles for transparency, accountability and good governance. The project only recently took the executive arm of government to court to stop payment of salaries to former governors-turned lawmakers or ministers. Lest we forget, it was SERAP that also raised the first objection about the composition of the Corruption and Financial Crime Cases Trial Monitoring Committee. The body, in a letter to the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) Justice Water Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen, urged the CJN to “remove the risk of apparent and potential conflicts between the work of the committee and the private practice of some of its members, who are handling high-profile cases of corruption involving politically exposed persons (PEPs)”.

It added that “for the Salami committee to perform its tasks effectively and with propriety, it should preferably be composed entirely of members of the judiciary, particularly drawn from available pool of brilliant and incorruptible retired judges”. This is commonsensical. Unfortunately, the CJN did not seem keen in buying this idea. It was apparent Justice Ayo Salami, who had been appointed as chairman of the committee would not agree to work with such members and he has done what was expected of him: politely turn down the offer. Much as it is true that no one is indispensible, it is only a matter of time to see the wisdom or otherwise in Justice Salami’s rejection of the offer and the CJN’s retention of the controversial members, without addressing the issue raised by SERAP and Justice Salami.

In spite of its relatively young age, SERAP has a record of successes in its chosen mission. In a suit filed by Femi Falana (SAN), before the ECOWAS Court of Justice in Abuja in 2007, the organisation argued that the massive corruption in the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) amounted to a denial of the right to a free, quality and compulsory education for Nigerian children. It won. In a landmark judgment delivered in November 2010, the ECOWAS Court upheld SERAP’s submission and declared that the Nigerian government had a legal responsibility to provide, as of right, free, quality and compulsory basic education to every Nigerian child. Indeed, according to SERAP, “This is the first time that a sub-regional human rights court would consider corruption as a violation of human rights.”

The project also filed a suit in 2009 against the Federal Government of Nigeria and six oil companies over alleged violation of human rights and associated oil pollution in the Niger Delta at the ECOWAS Court of Justice. It also won. The court unanimously found the Nigerian government responsible for abuses by oil companies in a judgment delivered in December 2012, and made it clear that the government must hold the companies and other perpetrators to account.

In a democracy, a virile opposition is sine qua non. But there is nothing that could be called opposition party in the real sense of the concept in the country today. The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) which could have served that purpose is still trying to find its feet more than two years after being defeated at the polls. Such vacuum is not good for democracy even as it is not good for the country. Opposition parties are supposed to put the government of the day on its toes. Even in advanced democracies where structures work normally, opposition parties still play great roles in shaping governance. Not to talk of our kind of country where individuals, rather than structures, are the issue.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like SERAP have a great role to play in making government responsible, responsive, accountable and transparent in the country. This is much more so that NGOs are better respected because of their usual detachment from partisan politics unlike political parties. We should commend  SERAP for its contributions to the strengthening of democracy and good governance in the country. As a matter of fact, there is still room for quite a number of such organisations with credible people to drive their vision. It must be recognised though that it is difficult for organisations or even individuals to stay steadfast to the end in our kind of country. Many of our politicians are as wily as the biblical serpent. They are capable of luring anyone to eat the forbidden fruit. Anything they touch becomes tainted. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo who knows them very well was alleged to have described one of them as capable of bribing God! SERAP parades the necessary influence that would make the politicians want to infiltrate it in order to break its ranks. One only hopes it will be seraphic to the end; and refuse to go the way of many of its progenitors that started well but ended badly.

Published on The Nation Online on Sunday 5 November, 2017.