• As Ozekhome, Sagay, Keyamo engage in legal tackles
As the controversy surrounding the list of alleged looters of the treasury recently released by the Federal Government continues to rage, some senior lawyers in the country have expressed divergent opinions over the constitutionality of the action.
In separate interviews with Sunday Sun, some of the lawyers threw their weight behind the Federal Government’s action, while others condemned the move, describing it as not only a display of maximum disrespect for the rule of law and the judicial process, but also diversionary tactics deployed by the government to becloud its failures.
The Federal Government had last Sunday released a list containing 23 names of alleged looters. The 23 names were in addition to an earlier list released penultimate Friday by the government also containing the list of alleged looters, which included the incumbent National Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Uche Secondus and five others.
Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, who released the list, had noted that it was based on verifiable facts, including the amount involved, the date the amount was collected and from where it was taken.
Speaking with Sunday Sun, however, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Chief Mike Ozekhome, faulted the Federal Government’s action, saying it is targeted at getting the judiciary to acquiesce to the executive in the trial of the accused persons.
“In any case, many of these people whose names were contained in the list already have their cases in court. These are people that the same government filed charges against and they have not been able to prove any of the charges, some of them going to three years now. It is the same government through the EFCC, ICPC or police that is always asking for adjournment. So, what they are trying to do by doing this is to acquiesce the judiciary by painting the people corrupt so that the judge will say, ‘well, the executive has already said the people are corrupt so let us find a way to jail them at all costs.’
“So, it shows that they have maximum disrespect for the rule of law and for the judicial process, which they themselves indicated has commenced. But we are going to take some actions against Lai Mohammed and the Federal Government. Some of them will be contempt proceedings and some will be defamation action, because until a court of law proves a person guilty, you can never call him a looter as they have done to many Nigerians,” Ozekhome said.
Ozekhome came down hard on the Federal Government alleging that it was waging a selective war against corruption that is meant to divert the attention of Nigerians from its failures. He said: “Everything they have done is what we call red herring, a diversionary tactics to divert the attention of suffering Nigerians from the woeful failure of this government. This government has failed on all indices; it’s a government that has made deep corruption its cradle rather than anti-corruption. This is the most corrupt government in Nigeria since the Lugardian amalgamation on January 1, 1914. This government has encouraged insecurity; a government that sponsors the kidnap of its own citizens just to make a point of being able to get the same citizens released but after the payment of ransom; a government that does not obey court orders and the rule of law; a government that approves the expenditure of $1 billion from the Excess Crude Account (ECA), the same ECA which one of their promoters had gone to court against about four years ago and it was declared illegal. But the government is approving the expenditure of $1 billion from it supposedly to fight Boko Haram, which they said they had defeated since December 2015, without any appropriation by the National Assembly.
“Under Sections 58 and 59 of the Constitution, only the National Assembly can appropriate the expenditure of money paid into the federation account under Section 162 of the constitution. So, what the government is telling us is that they want to spend an average of N1 billion everyday for the next one year, which is $1 billion to fight Boko Haram that they said they had defeated. This is a government that has failed on everything including the economy, where Nigeria’s economy today is in shamble. Both the World Bank and the IMF have rated the economy as nose-diving and the Transparency International has rated Nigeria as being one of the most corrupt countries in the world today.”
He maintained that what the Federal Government has done “is to try to divert attention by talking about alleged loot from the coffers of the federation by their opponents.
“But they did not name a single of their kitchen members, including some of their ministers who had been indicted in their states by judicial commissions of inquiry. They did not name the former Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Babachir Lawal, who was indicted by a panel set up by the president himself and headed by the vice president. They could not see anything wrong with all the other scandals like the Mainagate, Barugate and the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) gate. That is why the list they released is a laughable one that nobody in the country has believed. Go online and you will see that everybody is laughing at the government because they have not removed the log from their eyes.”
On his part, the Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Anti-Corruption (PACAC), Prof. Itse Sagay (SAN), stated that the Federal Government acted within the ambits of the law, stressing that the government reserves the constitutional right to accuse those whose names were contained in the list of looting the treasury.
“The principle that says that somebody is presumed innocent until proved guilty doesn’t affect the right of any other person to accuse another person of being a looter, yes! So, that’s not affected that principle. The person who is calling him a looter is not calling him at a trial; he is making a statement of fact,” he said.
Sagay advised that, “if the subject matter of the allegation feels defamed, he can sue; his right is there to protect himself and get damages. So, the Federal Government has absolutely not erred in law by releasing the list.”
On whether the release of the list would not jeopardise the trial of the accused persons, he said: “I don’t see why. A trial means that a person is being prosecuted and the case has to be proven beyond reasonable doubt. And if that is done, there will be conviction. So, that is not affected. Even if the Federal Government released a certain list of looters, once they are charged to court the Federal Government still has to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the persons are actually guilty of the offence.”
Sagay also faulted claims that the Federal Government acted subjudice since some of the people whose names appeared in the list were already facing trial. He noted: “In this case, it does not apply because the Federal Government was acting in obedience to a court order made by Justice Idris of the Federal High Court in Lagos. So, there is no breach there. And it is my view, and I’m making it subject to superior views, that judges are not illiterates or laymen; they are people that are learned in law too. So, even if something is published about somebody, which is false, they shouldn’t be prejudiced; they are supposed to be subjective and cool headed enough to look at the evidence before them. They are not going to be carried away by what is in the newspapers and say that because it’s in the newspapers, somebody is guilty. I don’t expect a judge who is trained in law and is put in a very responsible position to behave like that. So, I don’t see why the publication should affect them in any way.”
He also noted that the allegation that the government was waging a selective war against corruption was permissible, as there would be “names that other people may consider should have been there that may not be there,” adding that “in that case, such a person has a duty to publish those names too to complement what the Federal Government has published.”
Asked whether the government and the opposition were not trivialising the issue of corruption in the polity with the claims and counter claims between them following the release of the list, Sagay said: “Well, the PDP people may turn it into a political thing. I expect that Nigerians are intelligent enough to know the difference between black and white. If they see any false names being listed just to act as counter attack, they will know. I mean I don’t really think Nigerians are like marines who have been out of their country for ages; I don’t know what is happening. They know the people who have looted their assets; they know the people who have pauperised the country, who have turned it into a wretched country without any funds or resources such that the Federal Government is now struggling to reinstate it as a functioning state. Nigerians know that; so, nobody can becloud the atmosphere by just releasing names in revenge.”
In a similar reaction, Mr. Festus Keyamo (SAN) told Sunday Sun that the Federal Government’s release of the names of looters does not amount to a conviction of the accused persons.
Keyamo said: “The Federal Government did not say it is convicting them. Did it say that? So, why are people saying it has convicted them before trial? The Federal Government has the fact that certain people looted the treasury. The courts must not pronounce somebody guilty before you claim that somebody has stolen something that is yours and you have your facts. I will give you an example – if a thief comes to your house and steals something and you see him through your camera and the person begins to run and you pursue the person, will you not call the person a thief on the road as you are pursuing him because you are waiting for the courts to convict the person first? Will you not raise the alarm that the person is a thief? You have your fact already so you can call him a thief while pursuing him on the road to attract attention. That’s what the Federal Government has done. The Federal Government has its facts; it has the document that they stole money from the treasury and has only raised alarm that these people are looters, simple. You don’t wait for the courts to call somebody a thief before you call him a thief if you have your facts.”
On the argument that the Federal Government does not respect the judiciary and the rule of law, hence the release of the list, Keyamo said: “They are the ones who threw the challenge to the Federal Government; they started it. They asked the government to name looters of the treasury and the government responded to their challenge. It’s as simple as that.”