On disclosure of stolen funds
The court directive to President Muhammadu Buhari’s government, to ensure that his government and those of former Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan, account fully for all recovered looted funds is not only a welcome development but also a big relief to most Nigerians.
Government’s failure over the years to publicly disclose details of recovered looted funds is a breach of the fundamentals of transparency and accountability. More importantly, the efficacy of Freedom of Information Act (FIA) 2011 has been proven beyond all doubts with the case brought by a pressure group, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), whose suit against the Federal Government has led to the judgment by Federal High Court, Lagos in insisting on full disclosures. Good enough, the specific details government must publish publicly are well spelt out and include such important issues as the total amount of stolen funds recovered, the total amount that has been spent from the recovered stolen funds, and details of the projects on which the recovered stolen funds were spent. These specifics must be taken as minimum and if breached should result in contempt of court with its attendant consequences. Beyond the minimum, government should include, names of individuals or groups from whom the funds were recovered, the names of the countries that the funds were repatriated from and other vital details.
There is hardly any doubt that if the government honestly and transparently provides such information as now directed by the court, most citizens would be encouraged to feel justified in their confidence and trust in the current administration. While publication of the required details is, therefore, a good chance for President Buhari’s government to garner improved goodwill from local and international interests, failure to undertake the publication is a potential reputational risk in addition to being an outright disobedience to the laws of the land.
It is, however, necessary to ask why the Nigerian government had to wait until a judicial pronouncement was made before complying with the Freedom of Information Act (FIA). That law is clear on what government and its officials should do when requested to make information available. Why was it so difficult or impossible for it to accede to the request to provide information on recovered stolen funds? Whose interest was it serving or protecting in refusing to accede to the request before the SERAP went to court?
Many times, governments in Nigeria behave as if in attending to legitimate needs of the citizens they are doing the people favours. And most times, they carry such misbehaviour too far, as in the case that brought about the stated judicial pronouncements. In the current case, there is merit in asking why the Attorney General and Minister of Justice allowed the Federal Government to even proceed to court to engage SERAP on a case whose outcome was predictable, even by a layman. Was the AGF not aware of the FIA or was he an outright mischief maker? What these bring out is the need for government functionaries at all levels to pay attention to the needs of the citizens without bias and to exhibit knowledge, professionalism, expertise and empathy, at all times. They should always tell their masters the truth, notwithstanding any personal risks. That way government will be saved avoidable embarrassments. As it were, by embarking on the needless legal battle, government only succeeded in wasting scarce public funds and dragging its image into disrepute.
Now, that the government and those who advised it against the provision of information on recovered stolen funds have been shamed, in the spirit of accountability and transparency, the specified details covering all recovered looted funds should immediately be made public. It is important to emphasise that such a publication should be on individual government basis and not lumped together to cause ambiguities and confusion.
No doubt, the judicial directive may put officials of past governments on collision course with the present one, if the past ones either mismanaged the recovered funds or did not maintain proper records and are now being required to provide the required details. The importance and essence of the decision of the court must not be trivialised or made to overheat the polity.
Nevertheless, inability or unwillingness of any person or group that ought to provide required information for publication should be handled with the law and due process. Although most litigants in this jurisdiction are slow or unwilling to accept legal defeat, irrespective of how pointedly clear and justified the judgments may be, the case that brought about the directive to the Federal Government, must be seen as one not for the appeal court as that would be tantamount to further waste of public funds.
Finally, SERAP has bailed Nigerians out of executive impunity and insensitivity and it deserves kudos for proving that Nigerians have come a long way and are matured to demand, through civilised means, accountability from their leaders.