The Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abukabar Malami (SAN), has disclosed that “President Muhammadu Buhari has directed all relevant agencies to compile documents on names of all looters with a view to promptly enforcing the judgment of a Federal High Court in Lagos ordering the government to release to Nigerians information about the names of high ranking public officials from whom public funds were recovered.”
The court also ordered the government to tell Nigerians the circumstances under which funds were recovered, as well as the exact amount of funds recovered from each public official.
Mr Malami made the disclosure yesterday during a meeting at his office in Abuja with a delegation from Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP). This development was disclosed today in a statement by SERAP executive director Adetokunbo Mumuni.
Mumuni said: “We had a very productive meeting with Mr Malami, discussing among other critical issues the need for the government to obey the judgment delivered in July by Hon Justice Hadiza Rabiu Shagari following a Freedom of Information suit number: FHC/CS/964/2016 brought by SERAP.”
According to Mumuni, “Mr Malami informed us that President Buhari has directed the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Finance, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) and other relevant agencies involved in the recovery of looted funds to promptly put the documents together with a view to fully and promptly enforcing the judgment by Justice Shagari.
“We appreciate the opportunity to meet with the Attorney General of the Federation and look forward to working with him as the government strives to enforce this very important judgment. We hope that the implementation of the judgment will now happen sooner rather than later. We believe that effectively implementing the judgment will be a victory for the rule of law, show the way forward in the fight against corruption and impunity of perpetrators in the country, as well as demonstrate Buhari’s oft-repeated commitment to tackling the problem of grand corruption.”
It would be recalled that the SERAP suit followed disclosure last year by the Federal Government of funds recovered from some high-ranking public officials and private individuals.
In her judgment delivered on 5th July 2017 Justice Shagari agreed with SERAP that “the Federal Government has legally binding obligations to tell Nigerians the names of all suspected looters of the public treasury past and present.” Joined as Defendants in the suit are the Minister of Information Alhaji Lai Muhammed and the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture.
The same day that the judgment was delivered Mr Malami told reporters in Abuja that government was in agreement with the ruling and would carry out the order as long as it does not amount to sub judice.
Justice Shagari also granted the following reliefs:
A DECLARATION that by virtue of the provisions of Section 4 (a) of the Freedom of Information Act 2011, the Defendants are under a binding legal obligation to provide the Plaintiff with up to date information relating to the following:
1. To widely disseminate including on a dedicated website information about the names of high ranking public officials from whom public funds were recovered since May 2015
2. The circumstances under which stolen public funds were returned
It would be recalled that the Ministry of Information last year published details of the recoveries, which 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 totalled: $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.
Subsequently, SERAP issued an FOI request and gave the Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Muhammed 14 days to disclose the names of all suspected looters.
The request reads in part: “While we believe that suspects generally are entitled to be presumed innocent until proven guilty by a court of competent jurisdiction, SERAP opposes blanket non-disclosure of names of high-ranking public officials from whom some of the funds were recovered.
“SERAP insists that the public interest to know is greater than any other legitimate interest that the government might wish to protect. The Nigerian government has an obligation to balance whether the risk of harm to the legitimate aim (that is secrecy of ongoing corruption investigation and presumption of innocence) from disclosure of the names of public officials is greater than the public interest in accessing the information.
“SERAP believes that the recoveries, specifically from high-ranking public officials (and not private individuals), are matters of public interest. Publishing the names of those public officials will provide insights relevant to the public debate on the ongoing efforts to prevent and combat a culture of grand corruption in the country.
“The gravity of the crime of grand corruption, the devastating effects on the socially and economically vulnerable sectors of the population, and the fact that recovery of huge funds from high-ranking public officials entrusted with the public treasury raise a prima-facie case and therefore amount to exceptional circumstances that justify naming those high-ranking officials in the public interest.
“Publishing the names of public officials involved could go a long way in preventing senior public officials from turning the public treasury into a private cashbox. The public interest in publishing the names of the high-ranking government officials from whom funds were received outweighs any considerations to withhold the information, as there would be no prejudice against those whose names are published as long as the information is appropriately framed and truthful.
“While the government in some limited cases can legitimately place restrictions on the public’s right to access certain information, attempts of the Nigerian authorities to justify the total closure of information related to the names of public officials from whom funds were recovered on the basis of “ongoing criminal investigation” and “presumption of innocence goes far beyond the limitations allowed under international law, and would promote secret recoveries.
“The information being requested is not related to detailed investigatory activities of anticorruption agencies regarding the recoveries so far made. Similarly, the mere fact that the information being requested is related to ongoing investigation does not necessarily mean that the information could not be disclosed. In addition, governmental agency has the obligation to prove that the disclosure of the names of public officials would disrupt, impede, or otherwise harm the ongoing or pending investigations or presumption of innocence.”