Tinubu doesn't need to borrow if looted funds are recovered – SERAP deputy director
The Deputy Director of the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, Kolawole Oluwadare, shares his thoughts with AYOOLA OLASUPO on the group's advocacy for good governance, the significance of financial autonomy for the judiciary, the call on President Tinubu to probe the alleged missing funds for unaccounted oil revenues, among others
Your group, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, has been consistent in criticising some government actions. Many Nigerians think you should have shown some element of tiredness on issues concerning the country. Why have you been unwavering so far?
SERAP at all stages is calling for good governance not marred by politics, tribe, or religious sentiments. Now more than ever, the call for good governance is much more important given the state of the economy, the rising costs of things, and the lack of adherence to the economic rights of Nigerians. We've chosen to be consistent in our advocacy for good governance because the law permits us to do so. The constitution allows the citizens to take issues and submit them to the justices. That is Section 6 of the Nigerian Constitution, and we believe in the rule of law. These issues are public interest matters and we do not have any peculiar interest. They are in the public interest.
Why did SERAP find President Bola Tinubu complicit in the Imo attack on the NLC President?
We did not find the President complicit in appearance to the constitutional democracy that we practise. The President is called the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, and all executive powers are vested in him. Some of those powers are given to the governors at the states but the Presidency is ultimately responsible, and the Nigerian Police Force, the principal law enforcement agency that is reportedly behind the arrest of the president of the Nigeria Labour Congress, Joe Ajaero, of course, answers to the President (Tinubu).
We have the Inspector General of Police who was appointed by the President and that is why we have stated that we are calling on the President to ensure that if anyone is found culpable, he or she should be made to face the law. Of course, the right to protest or embark on a strike should be protected.
What message do you have for the Governor of Imo State, Hope Uzodimma, on the attack on Ajaero?
If it is true by the investigations of the national agencies and the Nigeria Police that any state governor was behind the arrest and attack on the NLC president, of course, that is unlawful. We will take necessary steps in thought to ensure that we challenge unlawful use of authority from whosoever is involved.
But Governor Uzodimma had said that the NLC president went beyond his (Ajaero) bound to meddle in local politics. Don't you think the governor was right at that point?
I won't be able to comment on the activities and the event that transpired before the attack on the NLC president but what I do know is that the Nigeria Labour Congress is representing Nigerians. It also has the right to freedom of expression which means to either protest or take part in the strike. I think it is not a crime.
SERAP claimed that President Tinubu's administration failed to probe alleged missing funds from unaccounted oil revenues and money for the repair of the nation's refineries between 2020 and 2021. Can you throw more light on this?
SERAP's position, which is in court as I speak, is predicated on the NEITI Oil and Gas Report 2021 which was released earlier in 2023. Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative is an agency of government tasked with the responsibility primarily to ensure accountability and transparency in the management of our oil revenue and resources. It has published its report where it made these allegations and of course, the reports are public documents. Naturally and constitutionally, the President ought to ensure that these allegations are thoroughly investigated and individuals culpable of them should face the law. You will agree with me that these funds are very much needed this time and they should be recovered and put back in the public treasury for the use of the common Nigerians.
How does SERAP feel when it files suits on transparency and accountability issues, and nothing comes out of it?
The government and government agencies have refused to obey the judgments of the court. This again is one of the things we see in some of these styles of governance. It is a slap on the face of the rule of law and an abuse of democracy. We've gone to court for many of these transparency and accountability issues and the courts have the course to decide in the view of Nigerians. For instance, the CCTV probe of Abuja, the Abacha loot, pension of government officials. The courts have given judgment in favour of SERAP and the Nigerian people, but the government has yet to obey these judgments.
Nonetheless, they remain the judgments of the court and our advocacy is to compel the government to obey these judgments which naturally shouldn't be so. Judgments of the court are valid and sacrosanct, but the government has refused to obey these democratic ideals and we cannot fold hands. We will continue to put more pressure on the governance, and we call on the Nigerian people to join in this advocacy to ensure that these judgments are enforced.
Do you think the judicial system should be blamed for this?
Of course, how will you blame the court for giving judgments and for the executive not obeying them? The law is very clear; there are three arms of government; the executive, legislature, and the judiciary, and the rules of their duties have been stated about their overlapping functions. The executive executes government policies and actions, the legislature makes the laws, and the judiciary usually interprets the laws by the way of judgments of the court. The court has given judgments, and it is not for the court to obey them, but the government, the President in most cases, should obey these orders of the court. If that has not been done, we cannot blame the judiciary because it (judiciary) has done its part of the dealings. Why can't the government and the President obey the judgments of the court?
How will you describe our judicial system in terms of the dispensation of justice?
It is very important that we understand the context. In rating the practices of the judiciary, we also need to understand the contexts in which they work. Corruption in Nigeria has created an ineffective system all across the board. Even the basic amenities that should be in the courtroom to aid the course of justice and the dispensation of justice are not felt. The courtroom should have power at all times. They should have videographers who will take audio and video recordings of proceedings to aid the dispensation of justice, but this does not exist in most of our courts. The judges are even overworked because the cases before them are more than they can handle. These are some of the issues that are bedevilling the judiciary. Being a lawyer, and a member of the bar, I understand these constraints, which the judiciary has to battle in dispensing justice, and that is why this advocacy needs to be consistent to ensure that corruption is minimised so that public amenities, including those at the court, will be able to serve the people.
What is your take on the call for financial independence of the judiciary?
We've been at the forefront of this, the call for financial autonomy for the judiciary, including the improvement in the remuneration for judges and justices, which hasn't been done. The judiciary is independent, and the constitution is very clear about it. So, the judiciary must be independent administratively, financially, or politically, and that has not really worked out in practical terms. The law has been amended, but in practice, not much has happened. Part of our advocacy is also to ensure that the judiciary is fully independent. That reinforces the ability to be impartial and effective in the dispensation of justice.
Some people are also calling for restructuring of the country. Do you also believe in that?
I won't be able to comment on restructuring.
SERAP urged former President Muhammadu Buhari to set up a presidential panel of inquiry to probe the allegation that over 149 million barrels of crude oil were missing, as documented in the 2019 audited reports by the Auditor General of the Federation and the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. How far do you think this was achieved before the end of the administration?
Unfortunately, the matter is still in court and yet to be determined. Still, the issue is taken up to favour the Nigerian people, and of course, if the President has to obey those orders because it is not about the person of the President, it is about the office of the President. Any sitting president should enforce these judgments and it is only just natural. It is so commonsensical and illogical that it beats logic to understand why, and in this case, the President will refuse to do this.
The Auditor General of the Federation is appointed by the President and answers to him, and he has produced a report that a huge amount of money cannot still be accounted for. The only thing the President can do if he really has the interest of Nigerians at heart is to ensure that this is investigated, and the funds are recovered. Perhaps, there may be no need to go about borrowing. There will be no need to borrow if we recover most of the looted funds.
It raises the point about the Abacha loot that we are still getting funds but what about the internally looted funds that can be recovered to help us finance critical aspects of our budget and also to ensure that we do not only recover the looted funds but ensure that they are not re-looted and end up in pockets. We need a proper administration that is keen on fighting corruption and delivering the promise for the welfare of the people. This report from the Auditor General is a good path to mop up these looted funds that are not even outside the country to ensure that we put them to best use for the interest of the people.
Do you think the Federal Government has been making judicious use of the Abacha looted funds, which have been recovered?
We've been able to ascertain by research that the lack of transparency and accountability may not necessarily be corruption. The lack of transparency and accountability enables corruption. So, if the government cannot give clear and concise details of how much has come in first and foremost and how the money has been spent…it is not enough to say that you use it to do Second Niger Bridge and Lagos-Ibadan expressway, how can we be sure that funds have not ended up in private pockets and again been used in a way that does not conform to our laws?
For instance, SERAP had to go to court to compel the Federal Government under the administration of former President Muhammadu Buhari to disclose how the funds recovered under them have been spent, and you can imagine that this had to be a subject of litigation. After three years in court, the court decided in our favour and gave judgment, and the judgment is yet to be obeyed till tomorrow and you want me to say that the government has used those funds in a judicious way. Why will a government that claims to obey democracy find it difficult to give details of how much has come in and has been spent?
Talking about the separation of power among the three arms of government, do you think it is necessary for the President to interfere in the selection of the leaders of the National Assembly?
I think that is politics and even at that, it is a critical part of governance. Governance and politics may appear to co-exist, but governance is more important than politics. We are paying more attention to politics at the expense of governance. Whoever is at the helm of affairs of the National Assembly is not as important as the adherence to the principles of the rule of law and good governance in the interest of the people. That is what is important. So, the question to ask is not about who holds the leadership of the Senate and the House of Representatives but how they utilise resources to help Nigerians. This is what is more important. How has the National Assembly fared in allocating resources and the bills that come before them for appropriation? Have they been truthful to Nigerians? What about the plan to buy Sport Utility Vehicles worth millions of naira for the federal lawmakers? Those things are more important than the politics of those who control the National Assembly as a political party.
How would you rate President Tinubu's administration in the area of accountability and transparency?
It is not too early to tell that we are yet to see clear indications that this administration can choose to be more transparent or accountable than the previous administration. Under this administration, we've sent out five Freedom of Information requests and we have yet to get any response to them. We've also filed four lawsuits on issues of accountability and good governance, and the issues are still in court. Does that not indicate our position of accountability and transparency under this administration? It is not enough to say that they've paid well. It should ensure that the government conforms to the rule of law. We have not seen this administration doing that. These are the indications that show that after almost a year in office, he has yet to show his commitment by actions with transparency and accountability.
People have called for a cut in the cost of running government, but many former governors who are either ministers or senators are still receiving life pensions from their states. What message do you have for the Federal Government about that?
We also wrote to the President about former governors and deputy governors who are in the National Assembly and used the moment to ask him to stop their emoluments. The President did not do any of these findings. Does that not indicate the position of the current administration on the effective use of public funds? There are pension laws in more than 20 states in Nigeria. If there is a huge and unnecessary drain on Nigeria's resources, this drain is the funds from the Federal Government, apart from the loans most of them have taken. Again, for the President to have appointed these individuals as ministers knowing that they are already earning pensions in their various states is a huge drain on the resources of the country, and there are many instances that show that this administration has yet to understand or take action to cut the costs of governance.
The latest now is the supplementary budget appropriation, and the budget may show that this government is being run at a wasteful expense in the management of resources and the lack of action on the part of the President or ministers to probe the report of the Auditor General of the Federation and other industry reports to recover these funds. Another fact is that the government has yet to take action to cut the cost of governance and this huge cost allocated to recurrent expenditures; salaries, emolument, and allowances are at the expense of poor Nigerians who could make better use of these funds if you have spent it on health care, roads, and other things, including security.
More than 130 million Nigerians are poor, according to the 2019 National Bureau of Statistics report. What is the President doing about this? It is not enough for the President to tell Nigerians to tighten their belts and make sacrifices. He ought to lead by example. He ought to set that precedence in cutting the cost of governance for his office, but he has yet to do that.
Amid the current economic crisis the country is facing, the National Assembly members have begun taking delivery of the N160m Sports Utility Vehicles for individual lawmakers. Are the criticisms trailing such an act justifiable?
Of course, yes. We have gone to court on that, and this is one of the unfortunate incidents where we have to go to court to make sure public officeholders do the right thing as per the laws of Nigeria. It is not justifiable that the National Assembly is getting such a huge sum of money with the growing rate of poverty, insecurity, and unjustifiable immorality; it is not sustainable. That is why we have to keep borrowing while we cannot even show a good course for how we spent so much. It is not justifiable, and the matter is in court. I do hope that the court will find it in favour of Nigerians ultimately.
Can you share some of the notable achievements or successful campaigns that SERAP has been involved in the past and recently?
Our advocacy against pension laws has also empowered us to be able to advocate for good governance and we've seen some of the states reviewing some of these laws. Lagos State has cut it down; Zamfara at some point reviewed the law and Kwara State too. This advocacy has been able to prevent some of the waste that would have occurred in the continuous payment of pensions (to governors who are holding public offices). Our latest advocacy on job emolument has yielded some fruits. The former Ogun State governor, Senator Gbenga Daniel, yielded the call for our advocacy for those who are presently serving at the National Assembly and had earlier been in government should stop earning pay. He wrote to SERAP clearly showing the letter he has written to the Ogun State government to stop paying pension under the Ogun State Pension Law.
We've also seen the same happening in Gombe State; so, that forms part of our achievements. Mainly from the public interest, we've had successful judgments that have yet to be implemented and put into practical terms. We have made Nigerians know that we have rights and that by subjecting them to judiciary interpretation, we are not doing anything unlawful to Nigeria's democracy. SERAP is not political; we are not religiously affiliated, and we do not promote any partisan or tribal advocacy, but sometimes people want to mislabel our work because they see it as being political. Of course, this has made people misunderstand the nature of our work.
Apart from that, what other challenges does SERAP face in its work, and how does the organisation overcome these obstacles?
Every conversation like this can continue for public enlightenment for the people to understand their rights and the way their rights are situated in governance and in the course of democracy. It means a mind that is liberated is a mind that is free already because that mind will understand what democracy is, and his or her roles as citizens and understand the duties of those public office holders either appointed or voted for as citizens. We will continue to have conversations like this and our enlightenment so that people will understand that the advocacy for good governance is for the benefit of everyone. We will be consistent in ensuring that we educate the public and we understand our work.
Judges in the country are poorly paid and this may affect the delivery of justice. What can be done to change the situation?
The court is very important for the commitment of the government and in this instance of the executive, we may ask the legislature to ensure that the welfare of the judiciary is improved. The low-hanging fruit will be to ensure financial autonomy is fully realised in practical terms for the judiciary. The last improvement in the emolument of judges was done in 2007 and it has been a while. Things and cost of living are much higher with the effects of inflation and the removal of fuel subsidies. That has to be revisited and that also means court infrastructure and other things that will improve the work of the judiciary must be improved and in political terms, the interference of governors in the administration of justices in their state must be curbed by adhering to the principles of financial autonomy for the judiciary.