Occasionally, Nigeria’s judiciary wakes up. It looks around, acknowledges its fundamental obligation and acts with that sense of responsibility.
One week ago, the Federal High Court in Abuja, ruling in a case brought by SERAP, ordered the Federal Government to disclose how much of General Sani Abacha’s stolen funds it had recovered since 1999, and how the money was used.
The words of the presiding court officer, James Kolawole Omotosho, are, “The exact amount of money stolen by General Sani Abacha from Nigeria, and the total amount of Abacha loot recovered and all agreements signed on same by the governments of former presidents Obasanjo, Yar’Adua, Jonathan and Buhari.”
We have been here before. In 2012, SERAP filed the first case of this nature. It took a while, but delivering judgement in February 2016, Justice Mohammed Idris of the Federal High Court in Lagos ordered that President Muhammadu Buhari and his predecessor governments since 1999 must “account fully for all recovered loot.”
Justice Idris ruled that all those governments had “breached the fundamental principles of transparency and accountability for failing to disclose details about the spending of recovered stolen public funds, including on a dedicated website.”
That ought to have been easy enough. After all, Buhari had for decades proclaimed from every available rooftop that he was the champion of integrity and would vanquish corruption in Nigeria.
But that was before he tasted the presidency, and because Nigerians did not know that Buhari was a stage actor who was more fundamentally corrupt than anyone who had ruled before him.
And so, no longer wearing his actor’s robes, Buhari scoffed at the court order.
In July 2017, it happened all over again. Giving judgment on another FOI suit, also by SERAP, Justice Hadiza Rabiu Shagari of the Federal High Court asserted that the government had a legal obligation to identify to Nigerians all suspected looters of the public treasury, past and present. She ordered the Buhari-led government to publish a list of such people from whom it had recovered public funds and the sums recovered from them, since it assumed office.
Buhari had promised to publish the list earlier in the year but reneged. Following the judgment, Abubakar Malami, the Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation, told reporters in Abuja that the government agreed with the ruling and would implement it. He told State House correspondents the same thing the following day.
But lying was the principal currency of trade of the Buhari government, and Malami was one of its key traders.
A few months later, he met with officials of SERAP in Abuja. He told them that President Buhari had directed all agencies involved in the recovery of looted funds to put relevant documents together towards “fully and promptly” enforcing the judgment of the court. The bodies included the Ministries of Justice and of Finance, the EFCC, and the ICPC.
Again, Malami was lying on behalf of Buhari, the government and his office. The proof is that they spent five more years in office without honouring that promise.
Buhari’s commitment to democracy had never gone beyond the “elect-me” pretence. Once elected, he acknowledged only one lever of power: the military. In his mind, there was no recognition of the theory that the government had other arms, particularly the judiciary.
The legislative arm, particularly in his second term, was led by the docile Senate President Ahmad Lawan, whom he needed for the purpose of facilitating large foreign loans. He tantalised the manipulable man with dreams of succeeding him in Aso Rock.
There was something else. As soon as Justice Idris gave that first verdict in 2016, Obasanjo provided Buhari with guidance on how to use the strongman approach: ignore everybody and tell them you are not the Central Bank.