This is so big I ought to write it in upper case only: Nine days ago, a Nigerian court ordered the government of President Muhammadu Buhari to publish up-to-date information on recovered stolen funds since the return of civilian rule in 1999.
This changes everything.
The judgement is owed to the diligent and persistent search of the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) for justice and accountability, which began with a simple Freedom of Information law request to the Accountant-General of the Federation in September 2011.
As I have repeatedly complained, the FOI law, which was enacted when President Goodluck Jonathan assumed office, was never honoured by that government.
It was a ruse, which was why the SERAP request was laughed at in the hallways and offices of Aso Rock. But it compelled SERAP, in December 2011, to take the matter to court. In February 2012, in a decision by Justice Steven Adah, the group received court approval to compel the federal government to disclose the information
When justice arrived four years later in February 2016, the Federal High Court in Lagos asserted that Buhari and his successor governments since 1999 must “account fully for all recovered loot.”
Justice Mohammed Idris asserted that governments since 1999 have “breached the fundamental principles of transparency and accountability for failing to disclose details about the spending of recovered stolen public funds, including on a dedicated website.”
It is important to take into account that in delivering this judgement, the court dismissed all of the objections of the federal government, and upheld those of SERAP.
The government had argued that SERAP lacked the locus standi to institute the action that the action was statute barred; and that SERAP’s affidavit evidence offended the Evidence Act. It even argued that the FOI law having been enacted in 2011, did not apply to spending by governments since 1999.
Arrant nonsense, the court ruled in effect: Nigerians are entitled to know.
The court directed that the current government’s publication of the report should include detailed information on the total amount of stolen public assets that has so far been recovered by Nigeria; what has spent of the recovered assets; and details of the projects on which they were spent.
I repeat: This changes everything.
Agreeing with SERAP, the court declared that the failure or refusal of the government to disclose the detailed information about the spending of recovered stolen public funds since the return of civil rule in 1999, and to publish widely such information, amounts to a breach of the fundamental principles of transparency and accountability and violates the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act.
This changes everything: for the government; the government of President Buhari; and for the press and the public.
First, let me concede that the government could decide to appeal the verdict. It is the natural instinct of governments, especially in rudimentary democracies such as ours, to advocate and advertise transparency in propaganda, but not in practice. It will be a historic surprise should the current Nigerian government not follow that tradition, and in doing so, actually find support in a higher court that is also afraid of the hygiene of its underwear.
Second, the government of Buhari came to power on the back of its proclamation of a determination to change things and the way things are done. No better script could have been written for it to demonstrate its true character than the one that has been penned by the federal court of Justice Idris.
If Buhari’s government abides by the verdict and swiftly publishes the report, it will earn respect for providing corroboration of its intention to honour the rule of law. Of greater and historic importance, it will establish a new standard for democracy in Africa. It will provide a true beginning for the war against corruption in Nigeria.
Third, I have always chided the Nigerian press and the public for not taking adequate advantage of the FOI law. SERAP’s historic court triumph demonstrates the mouthwatering possibilities. In “How to Use the FOI Weapon,” on August 4, 2013, I drew attention to some of the cases that had been filed under this law, and wondered why more citizens and organizations were not taking advantage of it. If the press truly understands that its role is to reveal, not conceal, why is it not waving the FOI flag at every public door? I asked.
“The FOI law is the Nigerian citizen’s most powerful cudgel yet,” I said. “Dear compatriot: You can scratch with it, lift with it, read with it, ask with it, listen with it, defend with it, attack with it, poke with it, lunge with it, strike with it, dig with it, plant with it, harvest with it, rip with it, puncture with it, yanga with it, lead with it, live with it. I wouldn’t leave home without it.”
The road to the future had been established, in my view, in June 2012 when the Federal High Court in Abuja ordered the Clerk of the National Assembly to quickly release to the Legal Defence and Assistance Project (LEDAP), details of the salaries, emoluments and allowances collected by national legislators between 2007 and 2011.
LEDAP had filed a suit in September 2011 after the Clerk ignored its FOI request for that information.
Justice B.B. Aliyu, overruling the objections of National Assembly lawyers, affirmed that every citizen was entitled to public information under the FOI; that the law permitted non-governmental organizations to demand such information; and that it was of public interest because it concerned public funds.
SERAP’s loot recovery triumph is proof of this, and it reaffirms this right. It is a gift to every Nigerian. It provides fresh hope and manure for the Nigerian dream because it makes many other questions possible.
One of them: Abuja, the Nigerian original sin. This very young city has in one generation shamelessly become one of the world’s most expensive. Why? Because it was taken over and overtaken by the rich, mostly looters, before it was even discovered by the ordinary Nigerian.
The SERAP victory provides a trail to some of those false riches that came from the foreign loot culture. But it also provides new inspiration and energy for an armada of local loot investigations and recoveries.
For instance, the Lagos-Ibadan and Sagamu Benin Roads have been under construction forever under layers and layers of seedy contracts. Nigerian railways and airports have in recent years received an avalanche of Chinese loans that are reflected neither in our rails nor our airports. One government lavished between $10 billion and $16 billion in the electricity sector, and Nigeria is still in the dark. I have summarized some of these in various columns over the years.
If the unfolding office over the handling of certain public funds by former National Security Adviser Sambo Dasuki is anything indication, I forecast sad but welcome explanations of the darkness of our own doing.
Now, we get to see what President Buhari is really made of.