The current national hullabaloo over the list of corrupt officials published by the Federal Government arose from the government’s repeated accusation of the principal opposition political party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), as corrupt, and the opposition’s challenge that the government should publish and shame those “looters.” Picking the gauntlet, therefore, the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, proceeded to publish the list of the treasury looters, last week, an action which has since generated even greater controversy.
Anyone who finds himself in a list of public treasury looters inescapably becomes a candidate for public opprobrium. It carries with it a stigma which, sometimes, unfairly, extends to the family and the extended family. In some countries, the punishment for looting public treasury could be grave indeed. In China, individuals who stole up to $50 million are likely to face public execution. North Korea, Iraq, Iran and several other countries readily put to death bribe takers, embezzlers, drug offenders, influence peddlers whose acts affect the economy in a significant way.
Given the widespread corruption in Nigeria, the Nigeria Bureau of Statistics recorded that between June 2015 and May 2016 more than 83 million bribes were offered and accepted in Nigeria. The Transparency International returned the chilling verdict a few weeks ago that corruption, in spite of the government’s efforts to suppress it, had increased.
We find it astonishing that the Federal Government guided by so many clever and experienced senior lawyers, including Alhaji Mohammed, accepted the bait to publish the names of dozens of Nigerians, many of whom have not been arraigned, much less convicted in a court of competent jurisdiction on corruption charges. In so doing, the Federal Government contravened one of the most essential tenets of democracy and the rule of law which under Section 36(5) of the 1999 Constitution as amended presumes the innocence of an accused person until he or she is proven guilty. We wager that the government has strayed into libel for publishing the names of presumably innocent people as treasury looters thereby exposing them to public ridicule and hatred and generally impugning their integrity in the eyes of right-thinking members of the public. We think its action is undemocratic, illegal, unfortunate, unacceptable and all lovers of democracy should condemn it in strong terms.
The sensational cases involving the defeated PDP and the Goodluck Jonathan administration are still in court and no decision has been made as to the guilt of those individuals. Even if the government assumes to know the likely outcome, and it should not, it ought to have exercised prudence and await the court’s decision. There is no guarantee that the court is going to convict all those whose names have been published and the government appears to have committed prima facie libel against all those named in its list. Again, the government also violated the fundamental rule of the separation of powers by acting as if it is also the judiciary, the prosecutor as well as the judge in its own cause.
Having named the accused persons as if they have been convicted, the government equally placed the judges handling these cases in an untenable position. How would they feel, and how would the public react if in the end, the judges find the accused innocent? Would the public not assume that the cases had been compromised through corruption?
The publication of the list discredits the fight against corruption as a politicised, misguided, inequitable crusade which is no more than a diversionary strategy to take off the nation’s attention from the government’s failure to maintain security in the country. It is improbable that the only corrupt people in the country are only the members of the defeated PDP. Even those who may be convicted could latch on the list as evidence that the fight against corruption is a one-sided, partisan, propaganda designed merely to win votes for the ruling party.