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Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed
When the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) published a list of 135 individuals suspected of looting public treasury in 2007, Lai Mohammed and Garba Shehu roundly condemned the action, with Mr Mohammed describing it as “illegal and a reckless abuse of power” because it was aimed at muzzling opposition.
Roughly 11 years later, the two now play leading roles as top administration officials in the area of communication, andMr Mohammed is anchoring piecemeal publications of names of persons suspected to be fraudulent, including those whose cases are pending before the court.
The then chairman of the EFCC, Nuhu Ribadu, published the names in 2007 to deter the public from voting people with questionable public service background, especially those who had been subjects of corruption investigation.
“We are going to prevent past leaders from contesting elections by exposing their ills no matter how highly they are placed, because they plunged this country into tokunbo stage,”Mr Ribadu said in July 2006 while the names were being compiled.
“It is not possible to have free and fair elections when corrupt people are allowed to contest elections. I know that I have made enemies and lost friends but the job must be done.”
In February 2007, a few weeks before the general elections, the EFCC published names of 135 persons suspected to be fraudulent, including then-Vice President Atiku Abubakar and dozens of governors and top politicians.
The list, which the EFCC described as “purely advisory” at the time, comprised 82 members of the opposition parties and 53 members of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Muhammadu Buhari, then-candidate of the opposition All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), was not amongst those listed as corrupt and unfit for public office at the time.
At the time, Mr Mohammed was the spokesperson for the opposition Action Congress (AC) while Mr Shehu was the spokesperson for Mr Abubakar, the presidential candidate of the AC in the April 2007 general elections.
“We’re not surprised to see that they’re going for top opposition figures but only inconsequential people in the ruling party,” the AC said at the time. “It means nothing in law, it is in bad faith, illegal and a reckless abuse of power.”
Mr Shehu described the publication as “a piece of cheap blackmail,” and added that they were “studying the list and we are considering a legal option because we are sick and tired of these same baseless and careless charges that they keep bandying about,” according to the BBC.
Umar Yar’Adua, PDP’s candidate in the election who was favoured by then-President Olusegun Obasanjo, went on to win the election amidst widespread irregularities.
Now over a decade later, Mr Mohammed is the information minister and the leading actor in the controversial publication of names of alleged looters of public treasury who are members of the PDP.
Mr Mohammed’s list contains exclusively members of the PDP, and it includes those who have been charged to court and pleaded not guilty, those who have reportedly returned money to the EFCC and those who are under investigation but have not been charged to court or returned any money.
As it was at the time, opposition figures whose names appear on Mr.Mohammed’s list have taken to the media to condemn the Buhari administration and reiterate their innocence. PDP chairman Uche Secondus, Olisah Metuh,Rashidi Ladoja, Babangida Aliyu and Femi Fani-Kayode are amongst top opposition figures who have issued blistering replies about their respective inclusion on the list.
Some lawyers have warned that the publication could set off a wave of lawsuits against the Nigerian government while also complicating ongoing trials.
Mr Mohammed did not respond to PREMIUM TIMES requests seeking comments about his new position on naming allegedly corrupt opposition leaders ahead of general elections. The minister had said he was challenged by the PDP to publish the names.
The information minister’s action appears different from the advice of Attorney-General Abubakar Malami, who warned last year that the government cannot publish names of people without first addressing legal implications thereof.
“The disclosure will definitely be made, but it is contingent on reconciliation of associated considerations as they relate to subjudice principles,” Mr Malami said after the Federal Executive Council meeting on July 5, 2017.
Mr Malami’ made the comments hours after the Lagos Division of the Federal High Court ordered the federal government to “immediately” publish personal details of those that law enforcement agencies have recovered suspected public funds from since Mr.Buhari assumed office.
The Buhari administration should“immediately release to Nigerians information about the names of high ranking public officials from whom public funds were recovered and the circumstances under which funds were recovered, as well as the exact amount of funds recovered from each public official,” the presiding judge, Hadiza Shagari, said in suit number: FHC/CS/964/2016.
The order came in a lawsuit filed by Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) following a Freedom of Information suit.
The group had written to Mr Mohammed asking for specific details about recovered funds, including those from whom anti-graft agencies had recovered public funds and assets. But Mr Mohammed rejected the FoI, citing legal implications.
The minister had on June 4, 2016 published funds and assets recovered and those under interim forfeiture by anti-corruption agencies, but failed to include names of those involved.
Mr Mohammed did not respond to PREMIUM TIMES request for comments about what influenced his decision to publish names of alleged looters after rejecting SERAP’s request for a detailed and more specific information about recovered funds.
It was not immediately clear whether Mr Mohammed is reluctant to publish the details of recovered loot because of associated discrepancies that the administration is still trying to work out.
In February, the finance minister, Kemi Adeosun, raised concerns about the gulf between the amount EFCC claimed to have recovered and what is actually in government treasury.
Mrs Adeosun said the ministry was only about to account for N91 billion recovered funds since Mr Buhari assumed office in May 2015, as against about N739 billion Mr. Magu said had been recovered within two years.
Ileowo Kikiowo, an APC supporter, said Mr Mohammed’s action should be praised for its historic feat.
“For the first time in the history of this country, people are knowing what some individuals might have stolen from the public,” Mr. Kikiowo said. “Diezani Madueke is facing allegations of mismanaging billions of dollars.”
The analyst said there would be no legal backlash for the action because Mr Mohammed was careful enough to have indicated that the names were only suspects and their guilt or otherwise would be proven in courts.
“If you look at the list, you’ll see that they are named alleged looters, not that government has convicted, so they have no cases in court,”Mr. Kikiowo said.
“I commend the minister for publishing the names,” he added. “It would have been an embarrassment to the government if the PDP had gotten away with the challenge and this has nothing to do with politics but the country’s well-being.”
The decision to hold back information on recovered loot might be because some individuals said to have returned stolen money are either in the APC or associates of the president, said Chido Onumah, an anti-corruption activist.
“Jafaru Isah is said to be a close associate of the president, but the EFCC recovered millions from him in early 2016,” Mr. Onumah told PREMIUM TIMES by telephone Tuesday afternoon.
“Musiliu Obanikoro was a former PDP member but now in APC and we understand he also returned money to the EFCC.”
Mr Onumah, head of African Centre for Media and Information Literacy (AFRICMIL) said Mr. Mohammed’s action demonstrates “a lack of commitment in fighting corruption,” on the part of the government.
He also said Mr Mohammed switching sides was “natural and unsurprising” because “the difference between APC and PDP is six and half a dozen.”
“Even President Buhari himself was said to be involved in the return of Abdulrasheed Maina, a corruption allegation he has not denied,” Mr Onumah said.
Above all, Mr Onumah said, Mr Mohammed’s action betrays the Buhari administration’s“lack of confidence in the institutions of the state, especially the judiciary and anti-corruption agencies, to do their work.”
“They’re supposed to strengthen anti-corruption agencies,” Mr Onumah said “But this does not seem to be their interest because it is political season.”