Human rights activist and lawyer, Comrade Femi Aborisade, was a leading figure in the pro-democracy movement in the early nineties and was the National Secretary of the Joint Action Committee of Nigeria (JACON), which organized and unified Nigerians’ resistance to the military. In 1994, along with Chief Gani Fawehinmi SAN, he helped form the National Conscience Party. Excerpts:
By Bartholomew Madukwe
WHAT is your reaction to the refusal of the administration to publish names of those who returned money to government?
On June 4, 2016 the Federal Government published the values of recovered cash loot, various sums involved in final forfeitures, interim forfeitures in local and foreign currencies and a list of 239 non-cash loot comprising farmlands, plots of land, vehicles, maritime vessels, completed and uncompleted buildings, between 29 May 2015 and 25 May 2016.
However, the identities of persons from whom the recoveries and forfeitures were collected were not disclosed, contrary to repeated promises made by the regime to name and shame former public officers who had looted public vaults.
Some persons, including Professors of law, have attempted to rationalize the non-disclosure of the names of persons from whom the recoveries were made and those involved in interim and final forfeitures, arguing that premature disclosure of names would have been illegal on the ground of likelihood of claims of damages for defamation; but none of those who share this opinion have gone ahead to cite the provisions of the law that would have been violated if Mr. President or any other arm of government named and shamed those who voluntarily made returns or have been made to suffer forfeitures.
Without doubt, the failure of the Federal Government of Nigeria to disclose the names of persons who voluntarily returned looted cash and those who have suffered asset forfeitures either on interim or final basis shows that the PMB/APC regime is succumbing to pressure in the fight for probity and transparency in the handling of public affairs. In the context of the fact that the identity of some other persons and the sums they allegedly looted had been disclosed before commencement and conclusion of their trials, the latest attitude of the regime amounts to double standards.
A fundamental point to first establish is that disclosure of the identities of persons who have voluntarily been making returns as well as those who have suffered forfeitures and the value of what they return or forfeited ought to be a product of a systematic process of investigation and prosecution through the judicial system rather than being politicized through agencies of the executive arm of government outside the judicial process. Where arrests are made pursuant to proper investigation and suspects are promptly charged to court, disclosures ought to be made in the ordinary course of prosecution of suspects.
In the process of prosecution, relevant agencies of government as well as individuals and organizations would have the opportunity to gather empirical and verifiable information on recovered or forfeited loot based on the processes filed in the court’s Registry.
Process of investigation
Indeed, the defendant may only be prosecuted and convicted based on proof by the prosecutor beyond reasonable doubt. A defendant who is accused of an offence is not obliged to answer any question in the process of investigation and interrogation.
But from the law as established by the apex court, is there is no legal liability that the Federal Government may suffer by disclosing the identities of persons who voluntarily made returns of looted funds and non-cash loots?
Indeed, in the case of looters who have been made to forfeit looted assets in final forfeiture orders, there is absolutely no legal liability for publishing such names. Similarly, publication of names of looters involved in interim forfeitures cannot be defamatory, provided the publication is factual and not false. The best tradition of a democratically elected government operating a written constitution and specific statutes governing specific areas of law is for government to charge suspects to court. In the process, the names of looters as well as the value of what they return or forfeited pursuant to any plea bargain agreements, confessional statements and/or admission of guilt would simultaneously become public knowledge.
The compelling conclusion that may be drawn is that the non-disclosure of the identities of suspected looters who have made returns is not in the public interest.