Citizens Made of Straw?/

Last week, there was considerable hand-clapping across Nigeria following a court order to the federal government to publish a list of the high-ranking public officials from whom it has recovered public funds and the sums recovered from them, since it assumed office.

The order was given in Lagos on Wednesday by Justice Hadiza Rabiu Shagari, who was ruling in a Freedom of Information suit brought by the by Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP).

SERAP went to court following the government’s failure one year ago to disclose the officials from whom it had recovered some funds.  President Muhammadu Buhari had earlier in the year indicated he would reveal the information in his May 29 address, but failed to. 

Under pressure, the government finally published the figures, but the associated names were surprisingly missing, leading Nigerians to speculate that a government which claimed to be attacking corruption was protecting the corrupt. 

In her ruling last week, Justice Shagari affirmed that the government owes the legal debt to “tell Nigerians the names of all suspected looters of the public treasury past and present.” She ordered the government to disseminate the information widely, including on a dedicated website.

That was on Tuesday.  On Wednesday, Abubakar Malami, the Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation, told State House correspondents the government fully agreed with the court and will carry out the order.

I doubt that.

There are two reasons for this conclusion.  One, his statement was a little more eloquent than a lot of the reports indicated.  He told the State House correspondents to whom he made the remarks there were “some factors” that could, in effect, make the disclosures impracticable.

The AGF acknowledged that. 

 “There are matters that are sub judice in court,” he said, his tongue twisting this way and that as he acknowledged the Freedom of Information law. “There are matters of reconciliation, compilations and other associated things…it is contingent on reconciliation of associated considerations as they relate to sub judice principles; as they relate to concluding, reconciliation and confirmation of figures.

“So that has been done and the government will at the appropriate time make necessary disclosures perhaps intermittently against the background of the prevailing conditions relating to the pendency of certain things and associated things.”

Necessary disclosures…intermittently, pendency…

Translation: don’t hold your breath, citizen. 

But here is the second, even more poignant reason those names won’t be published: in February last year, the same government received from the same Federal High Court, a bigger ad broader order it has ignored since then.

In that historic ruling, Justice Mohammed Idris affirmed that Nigerian governments since 1999 had “breached the fundamental principles of transparency and accountability” by not disclosing to Nigerians details about the spending of recovered stolen public funds, and ordered that Buhari and his successor governments since 1999 “account fully for all recovered loot.”

In addition, 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 such information widely, amounted 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 is why Malami’s double talk last week ought to be alarming to every true Nigerian, as he finally affirmed the FOI law upon which SERAP had brought the suit.  But just last year, the same government was berating SERAP in court, claiming the action the group had instituted was barred by statute, and its evidence not supported by the Evidence Act. 

But that turned out to be empty air: the court dismissed each of the government’s objections while upholding SERAP’s.  It ordered the government to publish a full record of the recovered stolen funds since 1999, “including on a dedicated website,” and to detail the total amount of stolen public assets which had so far been recovered by Nigeria; what had been spent of it; as well as details of the projects on which they were spent. 

Not only was that fair enough order, it ought to have gladdened the heart of an anti-corruption government. 

Instead, the government appeared to retreat behind a fig leaf, where it was still licking its wounds months later when it similarly failed to identify the persons involved in its own noisy assets recovery effort. 

For those who have a bit of difficulty telling the issues apart: SERAP’s just-decided suit relates to the assets recovered by the government, while Justice Idris’ order covered the period from 1999 into the same government. 

And so here now are we, and the government says it will obey the court.  But there is no evidence that this government respects the courts.  Even in even more limited cases, with far less at stake, it has not honoured its expressions of courage and commitment. 

To now say it will publish this important document is a departure from that character, and it opens a return to the credibility deficit.  When the Justice Idris ruling was handed down, I said it changed everything.  That is even more so now.

But it is no surprise that nothing changed, for it is easier to summon the god of thunder when standing on an anti-corruption political pulpit than to confront that demon in the flesh.  To publish that list would change the anti-corruption narrative from fiction into a true story. 

That leads me to the third reason why the government will not honour the court’s decision: contrary to every old wives’ tale, Nigerians are a docile, forgetful and fearful people.

Yes, I know we think we are a brave, strong people, but the evidence says we have turned into spectators of our own abuse, particularly by politicians.  Few appear to have the courage to speak out, or to back up their private outrage with any public action.  Which is why, when the court last year ordered publication of the loot recovery dossier, the Buhari government ignored it.  Predictably, Nigerians did not insist. 

If further evidence were required, notice that no news report last week alluded to the Justice Idris verdict; even journals which carried that story last year did not see the Justice Shagari ruling in that context.

Because of that docility and lack of history, one year from now as the political fisticuffs are in full swing over the 2019 elections, we will start life anew.  Among others, we will be surprised to hear that the government obeyed neither the Justice Idris nor the Justice Shagari orders. 

And we will try to persuade ourselves that all we have to do is vote for a new person or a new party and Nigeria’s troubles will be over. 

Evaluating the Justice Idris ruling last year, I concluded we would find out what President Buhari was really made of. 

Now we find out what Nigerians are really made of.