By Dan Agbese
Not long after he assumed office as Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, gave us some indication of what happened to our public treasuries during the Jonathan administration. The evidence he released, with some glee, was his computation of amounts of money in the charge sheets in court documents allegedly stolen by a number of former public officers and their minions operating under the big, protective umbrella of PDP.
The PDP laughed the minister out of court for the very simple reason that an allegation, however much you might stretch the law, is no proof of theft or perfidy. Apparently, Mohammed did not give up. He wanted to establish the truth in his allegations. He promised to release the names of the men and women he called treasury looters. Last week, he was as good as his word. He first released the list of six men among the alleged treasury looters. Interestingly, the national chairman of PDP, Chief Uche Secondus, led the other five.
Three days later, Mohammed released another list of 23 men and women that allegedly freely helped themselves to our common wealth. In his signature combative verbal flourish, the minister told the press in Lagos April 1, that the first list was “… a tip of the iceberg. Apparently, this does not mean anything to people whose style is to comment on issues they barely understand, or just shoot down anything coming from the government. What was the PDP expecting when it challenged the Federal Government to name the looters of the public treasury under the party’s watch?”
I wonder. I do not think the PDP men who dared the Federal Government to name names are laughing at this point in this latest saga in the war that passeth all wars – the war against corruption. The PDP is howling, as indeed, it should. Some of the men on the list have issued a flurry of legal threats against the minister. We will wait and see how this eventually plays out either in the public space or in the hallowed chambers of our judges who might be pressed into service to determine whether or not Mohammed was right to let us know who our alleged treasury looters are.
Mohammed is obviously determined to prove his case to show that the anti-graft war under Buhari has clear evidence of pockets emptied and some wealthy men and women who could not count their money yesterday are now counting their every kobo. Thieving is a leveller.
I am sure we have not forgotten that last year the Federal Ministry of Information gave some rather frightening details of how much the Buhari administration had recovered within one year from the men and women who once held offices of sacred public trust. The figures were so scary as to be meaningless. Here they are. The government hauled in the following cash from the treasury looters: N78,325,354,631.82; $185,119,584.61; 3,508,355.46 and 11,250 between May 29, 2015, when Buhari assumed duty and one year later on May 25, 2016.
It is important to have a stomach fortified by Agila pounded yam or Akure gari, to take in what Nigerians did and do to Nigerians. And although the information is more than a year old, it is worth recalling some of the lurid details put out by the ministry in addition to the cash recoveries. Under interim forfeiture orders by the courts, the looters lost or might lose cash and assets in the region of N126,563,481,095.15; 2,848,447.55 and 303,399.17.
I cannot go on with these scary figures because my stomach for so long denied Agila pounded yam with okra soup is too weak to stomach what Nigerians did and do to Nigerians. Had we retained the cowry as a medium of exchange all these things would not have happened. Or so I think.
Mohammed has been helped in the task of naming names by an organisation that goes by the long name of Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP. Last year, the organisation, worried about the increasingly opaque nature of the anti-graft war, went to court under the Freedom of Information Act to compel the Federal Government to tell us what was recovered and how it was recovered from the individuals whose thieving luck had run out on them.
On July 7 last year, Justice Hadiza Rabiu Shagari, ruled that “the Federal Government has legally binding obligations to tell Nigerians the names of all suspected looters of the public treasury, past and present” and publish the latest full information both in the local press and on the internet showing “the names of high ranking public officials from whom public funds were recovered since May 2015 …”
It was a courageous but unusual decision that spoke of the people’s desire to know those who cheated us and have still not been shackled in the house of shame.
SERAP was not unaware of the slippery legal road here. I like its contention that the “the government has an obligation to balance whether the risk of harm done to legitimate aims (that is secrecy of on-going corruption investigation and presumption of innocence) from disclosure of the names of public officials is greater than the public interest in accessing the information.”
It then gave Mohammed a 14-day ultimatum to comply with the court judgment. It has taken the government this long to do so. The anti-graft war, like all criminal cases, is a treacherous terrain. For one, the government must be wary of being accused of conducting a press trial of the accused persons. It is not the path of justice both for us who have been so glaringly cheated by our fellow men and women, men and women with a dead conscience who so arrogantly and with impunity emptied the treasury to luxuriate in the lap of luxury.
For another, the people’s right to know is not exactly given because the right of the accused to be presumed innocent until found guilty by a court of competent jurisdiction is also a fundamental right under our laws. The success of this war, as I have had occasion to point out in this column, depends as much on the manner of its prosecution as its integrity. Given the level of brazen theft by the treasury looters, if most Nigerians had a choice, they would want the anti-grant bodies to ignore the niceties of the law and reach for the fat necks of both those who have been formally charged in court and those whose allegations have just made it to the public space. They would want the treasury looters to be quartered now because the long trek through the corridors of the courts peopled by crooked lawyers does not give the people the satisfaction or the confidence that the treasury looters are being given their comeuppance this side of hell. Sadly, that is not the way our law works. Respect for the rule of law is as fundamental to our nation as it is to all democratic societies.
There have been two interesting developments since the minister released the list of 29 men and women. The first is that SERAP is not happy with the list. It wants the president to “immediately withdraw the clumsy, arbitrary and selective looters’ list (because) this kind of action can only diminish the government’s ability to fight corruption, frustrate its oft-expressed goal of a transparent governance (and allow suspects in APC and PDP) to escape justice.”
The second is that the PDP is fighting back. Early in the week, Reno Omokri, a former aide to President Jonathan, issued his own list of 10 men who are alleged treasury looters in the ruling party. This is what SERAP feared. Public frustration with the anti-graft war would only deepen with the bricks and the bats flying between the two political parties. Perhaps, Alhaji Lai Mohammed can still rescue the looters’ list from being blown away in the hot air of the politicians. Justice Mustapha Akanbi, former chairman of ICPC, put it nicely when he told reporters in Ilorin last Sunday: “If there are members of APC or any other political parties, they should mention them so that there will be credibility to what they are doing because fighting corruption should not be one-sided.”
He made my case.
This article by Dan Agbese appeared originally in The Guardian