By Eric Elezuo
May we meet you sir
My name is Edataen Ojo, I am the Executive Director of the Media Rights Agenda here in Lagos.
What is the Media Rights Agenda all about
Well it is an organization that promotes and defends broadly the rights to freedom of expression, and within that the right to access of information and media freedom. Broadly, that s the area of focus, but within that there are a lot of issues we deal with in terms of policy, law, practice of journalism, digital rights and internet freedom issues.
Let’s talk about the Freedom of Information; what is your organization doing to see that the bill is passed in states just like at the Federal level
Well, as you know the National Assembly passed the Freedom of Information Bill in 2011, and it was subsequently signed by then President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan. It is our believe that the FOI applies to the public institutions at local, state and federal government levels, but most states are disputing that, and there have been a number of challenges in court among states and local governments. At the moment, the issue is not yet settled. There are six decisions coming from various courts on the issue. Three of them have affirmed that the law applies to the three levels of government, while three others held that it only applies to Federal public institutions. So, we are waiting for the Court of Appeal to resolve that issue. But prior to the passage of the FOI bill by the National Assembly, we have engaged the Lagos State House of Assembly to try and get them to pass a Freedom of Information Law for Lagos State. It went through several processes, and it became clear to us that they were not willing to pass the law because of political gimmick. I remember as far back as the time of former Governor Bola Tinubu, when he first muted the idea of drafting the law for Lagos State. He set up a committee. I was appointed a member of that committee along with other colleagues from the Nigerian Union of Journalists, Guild of Editors, society organizations and we work with the Lagos State Ministry of Information and Ministry of Justice, and we developed a framework, and subjected it to public consultation, and gave it to the governor, but it was never passed. Not even the first reading in the House. But subsequently, when Hon. Omisore, representing Meiran Constituency, was the Chairman of the House Committee on Information, he initiated a move to pass to law, and we provided technical assistance. At that time, it went through first and second reading, and got to third reading. It was the tenure of Hon. Adeyemi Kuforiji; he wasn’t really keen at passing it because it came up for the third and final readings before the House was finally dissolved in 2011, and he stepped it down basically. After the Federal Freedom Law was passed, we felt we don’t need to expend energy to pursue it, hoping that if the Lagos State wanted to be transparent, it will subject itself to the Federal law, but under Governor Fashola, the state was not willing to subject itself to the laws of the Federal Government. That was an indication to the fact that there was no real commitment to the principles of openness and transparency and accountability, especially in Lagos, both within the Executive and the Legislature. It is really only Ekiti State to date , under former Governor Kayode Fayemi, that has passed the freedom bill. All other states said they need to domesticate it before they could make any move to do so. I think it is just a means of depriving the citizens of information.
What exactly do you think they are hiding by refusing to pass this law
Well, one of the issues that came up in Lagos was SERAP making a request for freedom of information from the LASG to find out how the state spent they world bank loan the state took for the education sector, and the Lagos State government was not ready to offer any explanation or information, rather it claimed that the Freedom of Information Act does not apply to Lagos State, and that case went to the Federal High Court in Lagos, which upheld the argument of the LASG, and the matter is now pending at the Court of Appeal. It could be that the LASG under Fashola did not want to explain how they spent the World Bank loan, and I think it is for the people in Lagos State to make the inference to why it is so. A governor should give account of a loan it took, and if citizens are asking for an account, regardless of FOI bill, the state government should have no difficulty giving explanation. So in the absence of such explanation, one can guess or speculate what they are hiding, but clearly they don’t want people to know how that money has been spent, and that’s very unfortunate.
Is that in your opinion an act of impunity
Oh yes, it is an act of impunity. When you have a law and you know that the law binds you, you deliberately refuse to give effect to the law. You are using public fund to fight a case where you are already depriving citizens access to information, using resources that could have been used to develop the state to justify your refusal to give them information. I think it is unjust to the extreme, and citizens need to be more demanding of governance and government to ensure they are open and transparent. It is the only way we can ensure that they are put on their toes. We are now beginning to see what is happening at the Federal level as to what happened to a lot of public resources that was just shared to individuals and oganisations for no basic reasons other than perhaps to co-opt them to support a particular political agenda, so once there’s lack of transparency, one is bound to see such things. We really need to mobilize and encourage citizens to engage the government to be sure that our resources are used for general good.
Now considering the fact that the government seems adamant in performing its obligations, and the fact that court processes are long and tedious, are there other ways the citizens can adequately engage the government to do the right thing
Certainly, I for one, believe very strongly that there is the power of citizens to make demands of government, and they would listen to them. Even in Nigeria, it is not a strange concept. You may remember in 2012 when there was protest around the country regarding the fuel subsidy issue, and through that protest, the Federal Government bowed to the demands of the citizens of the country in not increasing the price of petroleum products, and after increasing it, it brought down the price. It also created a system of investigation into how monies are disbursed and spent. We found out that that process was efficient. A lot of companies that have not supplied any petroleum product received billions of naira as payment for subsidies. That was an example of citizens putting pressure on government and demanding answers, and we found the government to have been responsive. We need to find ways to make citizens understand that they have these powers, but they don’t use it because there are very few democracies in the world where the government can withstand the powers of the citizens if they are united in their demand either for information or services, unfortunately, Nigeria at the moment are divided along a number of lines, ethnic, partisan religious and so on, and it has become extremely difficult to unify people around specific issues even when they are losing. Because somebody comes from the same party with them, worships in the same congregation with them, a lot of citizens are willing to overlook bad governance. That is a challenge we need to overcome.
Meaning that protests and strikes are allowed in are twisting the government
Oh yes, certainly, it is a constitutional right. The constitution recognizes peaceful assembly, and protests and strikes are parts of means of getting attention to issues within the framework of the United Nations set up to protect the rights of people, and this is under a repertoire. They are important mechanisms which need to be exercised.
What impact has Stop Impunity Nigeria (SIN) campaign made since inception in 2013
Well, when SIN was launched, our strategy was to stage by stage process. The first was to create awareness of impunity and its debilitating effects on the people of Nigeria. So the first stage was simply creating public awareness among citizens and government officials. I think we did that successfully, and there was a keen awareness across the sectors of the society and levels of government. The challenge we have faced is to mobilize people to resist impunity. On this part of it, we have not been so successful with examples of people trying to resist through litigations, protests and other actions. Now, it would be naïve to think that the problem of impunity which has built up over many years cannot be sorted out over a short period of time, so we can’t say that we have not been successful for a campaign that was just launched three years ago. We need a strategy to encourage Nigerians to stand against impunity. When they stand against impunity, we support them. Those that were brutalized a year ago in some parts of the Southeast and North for taking to the streets were supported by us in terms of medical support, legal aid etc. These are limited support because people suffer economic loss because they close their businesses during these protests. Our activities have mellowed somehow though as a result of limited resources. We had thought that a government that was preaching change now in government will be considerate to the campaign. More so, now one of the SIN’s former executive member, Bolaji Onwasorinye, now a member of Presidential Committee against Corruption. Obviously, there is something to fight against corruption from the inside. There is a lot of awareness done, but a lot of actions required.
Is the government actually involved in the fight against impunity, in collaboration with your team considering it is a cankerworm that it is eating deep into the fabrics of the nation
They are always involved, even during Jonathan’s administration. One of our key partners was the National Orientation Agency (NOA) under Mr. Mike Omehri, was always participating in our programmes and projects. However, under this present administration, there appears to be a more vigorous effort to fight corruption as before when no one was being prosecuted even as there were allegations of corruption. Now, there are lots of prosecutions going on, and people are voluntarily returning stolen money. But the problem of impunity is so pervasive, and goes beyond financial or economic corruption; it includes obeying traffic rules and many others. Even with a new government in place, there are just a few individuals that support the anti-impunity campaign, and there are people who were carried over from the past administration, unfortunately. It is going to take a while, and we are not ruling out the fact some individuals are also trying to sabotage the campaign, as it will not serve their interest because they have skeletons in their cupboards. It is going to be a long and determined battle to curb impunity in Nigeria.
Recently, NASS threw out the Gender Equality and Opportunity Bill. What is your take on that
That is the biggest disappointment. At this time when everyone talks about gender equality, when everybody recognizes that for every country to make progress, men and women need to have equal opportunities, need to be supported to engage in enhance their potentials. But for some parochial reasons, may be religious, customary beliefs and reasons, our legislatures do not see the reasons to put in place a framework to work out such a process. So the signal to the population is that it is okay to discriminate against women, saying it is part of our practices; that it is fine to subjugate one gender against another, and clearly, it isn’t. Though the genders have different roles, they complement and strengthen each other. They help each other to realize their fullest potential. It is something the National Assembly has to revisit.
Do you really think the female gender needs a legislation to realize their full potential
Yes I do. Every act of discrimination, whether based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity needs some intervention because if you don’t intervene people will continue to do things the way they do things, so by law, you need to prohibit certain things. Consider a certain area where women are denied inheritance, if there is no legislation, such things will continue. There are also work places where women earn less than men even for the same job. This should not be. It should be equitable; if you and I do the same work, we should be paid the same. To correct those, there is need for intervention. It triggers a lot of things; it helps to make budgetary allocations, and makes it binding on whosoever is on the seat at all times. Also, there are some harmful practices like trafficking in persons, especially women. You need to prohibit those things by law for people to stop doing them. So for a variety of reasons, you need legislative intervention so that everybody will have a common understanding of what can be done and not. However, in the absence of a law, public enlightenment or sensitizing can be used.
Between May 29, 2015 and December 2015, President Mohammadu Buhari was known to have travelled to at least 11 countries. In your own view, do you think the trips are worth it or is the President just lavishing the country’s resources
Some of the travels the President has undertaken are very important, some are not. There are meetings and events where you need participation at the highest level of government to exact your influence to the fullest. There your authority may depend on the stature of your representation. Where you have heads of state present, and you have sent a minister or junior officer, that person will not have a lot of influence and clout, so the country may lose out. In such situations, it is extremely important that the highest representation available attends so you can push your advantage, the same with bilateral negotiations. But there are also situations where the President’s presence is unnecessary such as conferences or events. The President has to have a re-appraisal of his international travels to know where to go and where to be represented. However, the President is in the habit of attending virtually anything. Consider the cost implication because when a president is travelling, it comes with a huge cost. The vice President, the Foreign Affairs Minister and the various Ambassadors should be made to undertake representations.
In a nut shell, of all the countries he had visited so far, which do you think is necessary for him to attend, and which is not
Well, I need a list of all of them before I could make a thorough analysis, but I think his visit to China was very important. Increasingly, Nigeria needs to ascertain its influence globally. The United States of America and Europe are becoming very arrogant in terms of engagement with Africa. I think countries like Nigeria should let them understand that there other big names like China, India and even Russia for that matter. Some of his trips within the African continent when there are no burning issues are unnecessary. They can be handled by lesser officials. There are better issues he needs to address locally. One of the initial disappointments for this administration is how long it took to appoint a cabinet, almost six months. At that time he was travelling around the world. It was even in the US that he hinted that his cabinet will be appointed in September. Those are some of the challenges we face.
Let’s consider the National Assembly, the Senate President and the Code of Conduct Bureau’s saga. Are they being honest to Nigerians
For the National Assembly, no. they are engulfed in the problem of impunity and abuse of office. There is a situation where the Senate President has been targeted for trial for defying his political party. He is being charged for offences committed about 12 years ago. The question is why now? I agree that in criminal cases, there is no status of limitation, so people can be tried at anytime. But he has been in this country all this time. He was only charged when he defiled his party, and ran for the Presidency of the Senate and won though nobody should commit offence and get away with it. What about the other governors who had served since 1999, how come none of them has been charged as Saraki.
Is it possible to say that it is a case of starting from somewhere
Yes it is a matter of starting from somewhere. But there is a perception that the tribunal is being used to fight political battles, then we need to know why start from here. We have had dozens of governors who had declared their assets. Indeed, the CCB had been obstructionist in the asset declaration made by public officers because they have never made it known to the public who should know better of the assets. The CCB has no capacity to verify assets declared by anybody, but it has deliberately blocked out the public contrary to the provision of the constitution.
Is it constitutional to involve the public
The Constitution says that The Code of Conduct Bureau shall receive a declaration of assets made by public officers, and shall make them available to citizens for inspection upon such terms and conditions as the National Assembly may prescribe. Now, previously, the said NASS has not prescribed terms and conditions. Since 2011, there is the FOI bill which prescribes terms and conditions in which public records should be made accessible to members of the public, the CCB continue to refuse to release to the public the assets declaration. They are claiming that despite the provision of the FOI bill, that it is personal information which should not be disclosed. The constitution which states that they should be made available to members of the public certainly is superior to anybody who thinks it is personal information. They need to explain to us why they are starting with Saraki just at the moment he defiled Tinubu and stepped forward for Senate Presidency. The President himself said it was prepared to work with anyone elected by NASS. The person opposed to Saraki was Tinubu. You cannot fight corruption with an institution that is perverted and tainted. The CCB is tainted, and the notion is that it is corrupt. Another issue is the chairman of CCB who has allegation of corruption against him.
But he has been cleared
Well, I don’t know if the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has any power to clear anyone of corruption. They can refuse or decide not to charge anyone to court based on lack of evidence or priority; they cannot say that you are cleared. That is a function of the courts. No administrative institution can clear anyone. Whoever can clear also has the power to try. What is worse is that the EFCC made the pronouncement creating a perception that the CCB chairman is doing what it wants because there is a determination to try Saraki and convict him. They have even said that they going on with the case day to day until it is concluded. So why a special procedure for this? These are bias which if not cleared, that institution will be destroyed. There is no confidence that the institution is acting independently.
Does that mean that there are markers that show that Saraki is going through a trial of witch hunting
Not really. I am not claiming that Saraki is innocent – I don’t know. But the truth is that if he is convicted by this tribunal under this circumstance, a lot of people will always have doubt whether he was truly guilty, and that is why it is important he goes through an impartial trial because once a judicial body can be manipulated to convict a guilty person, it can equally be manipulated to convict an innocent person. If Saraki is truly guilty, the way this tribunal is going about it will give him a loophole because the Supreme had said that what one needs to show is not bias, but the likelihood of bias. And if that is presented, the court will set aside your conviction. If the tribunal continues like this, and convicts Saraki, and Saraki is able to prove that there was strong likelihood of bias in his trial, that conviction will be set aside; he will go free. And you cannot be tried for the same offence twice. That’s the danger we face. If actually there is no vested interest in the trial, what is the difficulty in the tribunal judge stepping down?
Is there any possibility that impunity will ever end considering the foregoing
Yes, there is a need for independent institutions that is able to pursue their mandates independently without political interference, otherwise they will only act to satisfy those who have control over them, who will never be held to account, and impunity will continue. At the moment, the CCB and the CCT are not independent. Again, Saraki’s legal team has said that one of the offences Saraki is being accused of is what former Governor Bola Tinubu was discharged of. The CCB and CCT responded that Tinubu was acquitted in error. This means the use of double standard.
Could you please assess this administration which will be one year in a couple of weeks
I think that this administration has been very unlucky on the economic front. Two things have happened to prove this point. One is the crash in the price of crude oil which also crashed their projections, and again, the crash in the value of the naira. The government has no control those; it is unfortunate. They have done well in fight against corruption though it has not been as encompassing as it should be. The fight has been concentrated on the office of the former National Security Adviser, Col. Sambo Dasuki (ret). Considering the fact that a lot of people have been returning the money they took while some are being tried is a plus. However, on the other front, it’s been woeful failure. The problem of unavailability of fuel is unjustifiable at this time. By now, a serious government will have a strategy in place for preventing and responding to such situations. Again, the problem of electricity supply is horrendous. It shows the administration has no plan or foresight or even capacity to respond quickly to emergency situation. That is a huge negative. For Boko Haram, there is no decisive victory yet; the government has to put in more effort.
Predict this government in the next three years being the expiration of its tenure
If President Buhari can remain steadfast on the corruption issue, and go after all or most of those who had looted Nigeria’s resources, two things will happen – 1. Most of them will return the money and people will be afraid to loot knowing there will be accountability tomorrow. Buhari is not a financial wizard and there is no economic team around him to sort out our economic problems. I don’t think he will be able to solve all our problems. For me, the problem of corruption and impunity are the single biggest problems. They are the reasons for all our shortcomings.