Government may release partial list of looters
• Lawyers divided over publishing of names
• Citizens can use FOI Act to get names
Owing to the need to protect the identities of former public officials who willingly returned their loot, the Federal Government may not publish their names.
But there may be a partial release of names of the beneficiaries of illicit funds, including those who were not willing to return their loot and those the courts may find guilty of corruption.
The Guardian learnt that a group within government was positively disposed to making the names open like President Muhammadu Buhari initially promised.”But the legal implications have been a detracting factor, because many of the seizures may be a bone of legal contention in future,” a source said in Abuja.
Another said: “Left to the President, he is for ‘publish and be damned,’ but there are other issues and forces at play which make it impossible, for now, to go the whole hog.”
The source, who is close to the seat of power, noted that many who voluntarily came forward because it was brought to their knowledge that funds transferred to them were illegally taken from government coffers, would naturally feel betrayed when they were told they would not be publicly embarrassed if they came forward.
While the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has asked the government to publish the names, a Lagos-based legal practitioner and president general of The Igbo think-tank, Aka Ikenga, Chief Goddy Uwazurike said under the Nigerian constitution, everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
In a statement by its Executive Director, Adetokunbo Mumuni, SERAP said that recovered funds be spent in a transparent and accountable manner so as to remove opportunities for re-looting recovered loot.
It said that the publication of the names would be a positive development towards entrenching a culture of transparency and accountability in government, insisting that publishing the names would not infringe on their right to presumption of innocence in particular and fair trial.
According to the organisation, the recovered funds must be spent to directly benefit Nigeria’s most vulnerable population particularly to improve their access to quality education, healthcare including for children, women and the elderly, and regular and uninterrupted electricity supply.
“It will be a double jeopardy for victims of corruption if recovered funds are re-looted, as it was the case with Sani Abacha recovered loot. This is a case of grand corruption, which has devastated many lives and fundamentally contrasts with the ideal of government, as a public trust. Therefore, high-ranking government officials suspected of turning the public treasury into a private cashbox should be prepared to accept a higher degree of openness about their official conduct than private individuals.
“The authorities responsible for combating corruption cannot be expected to refrain from all statements, such as the fact that a suspicion of corruption exists. What is excluded is however a formal declaration that somebody is guilty without trial before a court of law.
“The fact that suspected corrupt officials have returned some public funds makes the argument in favour of publishing their names even stronger. Open justice promotes the rule of law and publicity is a powerful deterrent to abuse of power and official misconduct.
“Nigerians have the right to know how high-ranking government officials carry out their entrusted public functions and manage the public treasury, and whether or not they act in accordance with the code of conduct which Nigerians expect from their leaders.”
But Uwazurike told The Guardian that only the judiciary, to the exclusion of the executive and the legislature, has the power to find a person guilty or to indict anyone which such publication may impute.
According to Uwazurike, “It will be ultra vires its powers for the executive to publish names of those who purportedly brought those sums of money.
“I am sure wise counsel prevailed on the previous stance of naming and shaming. Anyone whose name is so published has a right to sue for libel unless he had consented to the publication.
Everyone has a right to the protection of his name.”But rights activist and Senior Advocate of `Nigeria, SAN, Femi Falana said Nigerians or groups, who feel unsatisfied with the position of government for not attaching names to the recovered money should write to the Ministry of Information or the Executive under the Freedom of Information Act to provide them.
According to him, the problem is that Nigerians and the media are not taking full advantage of the FOI Act to get critical information from government.
“Since government has given their reasons for not attaching the names of the people, they can also go the court to get them and those who feel that their rights have been infringed upon can approach the courts.”
But another senior advocate, who did not want his name mentioned said that there should be a difference in referring the recovered money as loot or money deposited in their accounts.
According to him, it is only a court of competent jurisdiction that can determine upon the conclusion of trial whether the money could be termed as loot or otherwise.
“Publishing names of people, because monies are discovered in their accounts without trial can amount to a libelous act,” he added. On his part, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Dafe Akpedeye wondered if there is any law that prohibits publishing for public consumption names of those who returned stolen funds. He said such a publication would not jeopardise further investigation into the matter. But Akpedeye added that this would depend on what the government is out to achieve.
Also speaking, another Senior Advocate, Norrison Quakers, pointed out that the fact that someone is accused of looting government funds and he returns them is evidence of guilt.
But he also cautioned the government to be careful about publishing the names.Details of the recoveries, published by the Federal Ministry of Information, showed that the Nigerian government successfully retrieved total cash amount N78,325,354,631.82, $185,119,584.61, £3,508,355.46 and €11, 250 between May 29, 2015 and May 25, 2016.
Also released were recoveries under interim forfeiture, which were a combination of cash and assets, during the same period: N126,563,481,095.43, $9,090,243,920.15, £2,484,447.55 and €303,399.17. Anticipated repatriation from foreign countries totaled: $321,316,726.1, £6,900,000 and €11,826.11. The ministry also announced that 239 non-cash recoveries were made during the one-year period. The non-cash recoveries are farmlands, plots of land, uncompleted buildings, completed buildings, vehicles and maritime vessels.