By Biodun Jeyifo
|Prof. Biodun Jeyifo
Mr. Chairman, all protocols duly observed, ladies and gentlemen. It gives me great pleasure to at last be able to give this lecture. I say this because, first, I was to have given the lecture last year but could not do so for all sorts of reasons and, second, because this year once again, other pressing engagements and commitments almost made it impossible for me to give the lecture.
There is another reason why I am very delighted to be giving the lecture and this is simply the fact that the sponsors of the lecture, the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism, is an organization whose work and vision I both greatly admire and endorse. Journalism, specifically activist journalism, was crucial in the struggle for our country’s freedom from colonial rule, just as we are finding out more and more that in the long and unfolding struggles to consolidate that independence from continued foreign domination and internal misrule, anarchy and suffering for the vast majority of our peoples, that tradition of journalism will prove indispensable.
The Wole Soyinka Center for Investigative Journalism is a leading, perhaps pioneering organization for the consummation and perpetuation of this vital tradition of the press at this particular conjunctural moment in our history. May its work live up to the great expectations that its mission bestows on its founding in the years and decades ahead!
All modern democratic nations and societies need a free press at the centre of which stands the kind of activist, professionally mature investigative journalism that the WSCIJ seeks to nurture and expand in our country. Beyond this, the developing nations of Africa and other parts of the global South have an even much greater need for a free press, for an activist, independent-minded journalism than the affluent liberal democracies of the global North.
The theme of my lecture this morning – the Freedom of Information Act of 2011 (FoI) as it confronts the immense challenge of what I call the dictatorship of corruption and mediocrity – is a small part of this larger global issue of the centrality of a free press and an independent-minded activist journalism for all modern democratic societies. But this should not blind us to the immensity of its ramifications for the survival of our country and the future prospects of the majority of our peoples.
Since the term “dictatorship of corruption and mediocrity” in the title of my talk goes to the heart of this assertion, let me now dispel any puzzlement concerning the term by directly addressing the range of issues and significations I have in mind in my use of it.
Before going directly to this theme, a word of clarification is perhaps necessary. As I move into discussion of the theme, I ask you, my audience, to bear in mind that the question that drives all my observations, analyses and projections is this: What need do we have for a Freedom of Information Act when what I am calling the dictatorship of corruption and mediocrity in our country is so open about all the corrupt misdeeds, all the inept illegalities and all the official inanities that attach to “democratic” governance in our country?
Well, my answer to this question is that we still need that landmark legislation that is known as the Freedom of Information Act that was passed in the year 2011, even if corruption and the mediocrity which it creates on a gargantuan scale in our country are normatively not hidden, not shrouded in secrecy in Nigeria. As a matter of fact, I shall in the course of my lecture be arguing that there is a crisis of under-utilization of the FoI by our press, by our media houses in spite of the fact that they were at the forefront of the struggle for the passing of the Act.
Indeed, my central argument in the lecture will be that though the nature and scale of corruption in Nigeria poses a challenge to the FoI, this is a challenge that is not insurmountable. However, before I come to this argument, it is perhaps helpful to highlight three particular cases that are exemplary in their graphic illustration of the climate of corruption that the FoI must contend with in our country that is almost without comparison with the moral and political climates that the FoI in other countries of the world have to deal with. [Parenthetically, let me note here that the FoI exists in many countries of the world; it has indeed become an almost indispensable part of human and civil rights legislation in many parts of the world].
The first case concerns perhaps the biggest and most brazen act of state or official corruption ever perpetrated in Nigeria. This sublime brigandage is known as the oil subsidy scam of 2011. It involved vast sums of monies paid out of our national coffers to a cabal of oil marketers that hold the lifeline to the distribution of petroleum products in our country. I am sure that every woman and man in this hall has heard or read of this case before but all the same, a critical look at the details is necessary in the context of this lecture.
For the avoidance of doubt or confusion, let us remember that in the Nigerian context oil subsidy implies an annual budgetary allocation to defray the costs of refined oil imported into the country to augment the shortfall between what our oil refineries produce and the volume of petroleum products that the nation consumes annually.
There is a longstanding controversy concerning the reality and the scale of this subsidy, but in the present context, we need not concern ourselves with that controversy. The important thing to note here is that in the year 2011, and depending on which set of posted and announced figures you use for your computation, what was actually paid out to marketers as oil subsidy was six to nine times bigger than what was budgeted, even though there was no rise at all in the volume of petroleum products sold and consumed in the country. Indeed, for 2011, the posted, budgeted sum was N245 billion for the whole year.
But within the first eight months of the year, an alleged sum of N1.3 trillion had been paid out to the marketers. I say “alleged” here because N1.3 trillion was only one of the figures thrown around. On this particular crucial issue, let me quote from the Report of an Ad-Hoc Committee of the House of Representatives on that oil subsidy scam:
Contrary to the earlier official figure of subsidy payment of N1.3 trillion, the Accountant General of the Federation put forward a figure of N1.6 trillion; the Central Bank N1.7 trillion, while our Committee established subsidy payment of N2.58 trillion as at December 2011, amounting to more than 900% over the appropriated sum of N245 billion.
Please note that the sum of N2.58 trillion actually paid out was 900% greater than the N245 billion budgeted. Indeed, for the year 2011, the budget approved for the whole country was N4.97 trillion, which means that what was paid out to the cabal of oil marketers was more than half of the national budget itself for that year. And to place this within the framework of some of the convertible currencies of the world, N2.58 trillion is approximately $16 billion US dollars; 12.46 billion Euros; and 10.73 billion British pound sterling, all paid out to marketers most of whom were phantom dealers in petroleum products who supplied nothing.
One more quotation from that same House of Rep Ad-Hoc Committee Report and we will move on to my second example of what I am calling the dictatorship of corruption and mediocrity. This is the quotation:
Contrary to statutory requirements and other guidelines under the Petroleum Support Fund (PSF) scheme mandating agencies in the industry to keep reliable information data bases, there seemed to be a deliberate understanding among agencies not to do so. This lack of record keeping contributed in no small measure to the decadence and rot that the Committee found in the administration of the PSF… We found out that the subsidy regime, as operated in the period under review (2009 and 2011), was fraught with endemic corruption and entrenched inefficiency. Much of the amount claimed to have been paid as subsidy was actually not for consumed PMS (i.e. petroleum products). Government officials made nonsense of PSF Guidelines due mainly to sleaze and in some cases, incompetence. [The emphases are mine]
“Decadence”; “rot”; “entrenched inefficiency”; “incompetence”: these are the Committee’s own terms, not mine. Mine is only to draw conclusions from these terms and from the combined effect of their concatenation in the Report’s searing indictment of the sublime kind of corruption that reigns in our country. This is my conclusion, my extrapolation: Corruption is not only dishonesty, fraud, or sleaze; it is also aided by, and in turn generates mediocrity, rottenness, putrefaction. We shall come back to this issue later in the lecture.
For now, let us turn our attention to the second of the three exemplary cases that I wish to highlight in these observations and reflections on the challenges that the dictatorship of corruption and mediocrity poses to the FoI Act. This happened in the year 2006 and entailed a very public feud between no less august and authoritative political personages than the President and Vice President of the Republic at the time, Olusegun Obasanjo and Atiku Abubakar.
The feuding in essence entailed accusations and counter-accusations by Obasanjo and Atiku of massive looting of the Petroleum Technology Development Fund (PTDF) of hundreds of millions of dollars. It was precipitated when the President sent a report to the National Assembly alleging that Atiku had conspired with some Americans to divert vast sums from the PTDF to the benefit of himself and his foreign co-conspirators. Please note that the word “loot” was in the report that Obasanjo sent to the National Assembly with a demand that impeachment proceedings be launched against the Vice President.
Of course, as could be expected, Atiku promptly responded to Obasanjo’s charges. But what no one expected, what in fact nearly took everyone’s breath away in Atiku’s response was that he did not deny the charges at all; rather than a denial, he alleged that Obasanjo and some of his cronies and girlfriends had benefitted from the funds he had diverted from the PTDF. And to back up this claim, Atiku made photocopies of the cheques he had written in favour of these cronies and paramours of Obasanjo. He took out full-page advertorial spreads in major newspapers in which documents in support of this extraordinary counter-accusation were published.
Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, it is tempting to say that this account, this story speaks for itself. But that is not exactly true. To the story itself and for our purposes in this lecture, we must ad that no action based on the FoI could ever have brought out the surfeit of information on the looting, the corruption that Obasanjo and Atiku, together with their supporters, voluntarily revealed about themselves. And let us also note that nothing happened to Obasanjo, Atiku and their cronies, girlfriends and sycophants that benefitted from that vast looting of the funds of the PTDF by way of well deserved punitive action.
Ironically, the only person who did go to jail was the American congressman, William J. Jefferson who, at one time, was Atiku’s point man in the United States theatre of operations in financial wheeling and dealing before he and the Vice President quarreled and went their separate ways. But Jefferson served prison time in the United States, not in Nigeria.
For our third and final case, we must go all the way back to 1984 when Nigeria was still in the grip of the irruption of military dictatorships into political governance, an irruption whose end seemed to be nowhere in sight. The case in point is the Buhari-Idiagbon Decree No 4 of 1984, unquestionably the most notorious of all military decrees ever promulgated in Nigeria. That Decree has a special bearing on all that I have said so far concerning the challenge of the dictatorship of corruption and mediocrity to the Freedom of Information Act.
This is partly because in military rule, dictatorship manifests itself directly and autocratically; it has no need to deviously manifest itself through corruption. Also, you simply cannot talk of a Freedom of information Act in the African dictatorships of the 1970s through the 1990s when the very first thing that goes with the inception of any military dictatorship is the Constitution itself, together with all the rights that derive from it.
Moreover, African military dictatorships are notoriously very paranoid, to the extent that many military dictators at the time actually went so far as to promulgate decrees banning rumors, as if any human society has ever existed in which there can be no rumour-mongering as an inevitable part of social existence. At any rate, the Buhari-Idiagbon Decree No 4 of 1984 took this axiomatic and quixotic paranoia of African military dictatorships to a new level when it explicitly stated that you must not and cannot publish anything to embarrass military leaders and their support corps of civil service officials even if what you publish is true.
It is important to state here that like the two other cases I have already mentioned in this lecture, this infamous decree against truth also had its origins in the phenomenon of endemic corruption in our country. This is because the decree came on the heels of allegations of the disappearance of N2.8 billion naira from the coffers of a federal ministry that had been under the headship of Buhari in a previous military administration.
Allegedly, Buhari had been deeply embarrassed by this report and when he himself carried out a successful coup, he promulgated Decree No 4 to deal with those sections of the press that had been most vocal about the alleged missing N.2.8 billion naira.
From these three separate cases, we can see that there is a common of corruption. However, unlike the corruption that we saw in both the oil subsidy scam and the Obasanjo and Atiku feud that paraded itself in broad daylight, the alleged corruption in the case of Buhari’s military dictatorship was hidden, subterranean. Everyone knew it was there and abundantly so; but you could not talk openly about it; you could not even engage in rumours about it.
In Buhari’s Decree No 4 of 1984, this veil of silence and secrecy on corruption was made sublime in its impunity and brazenness: the decree stated without the slightest equivocation that even if true, any allegation of corruption could not be published because it would embarrass the military government and its loyal civil servants.
This observation leads us to the next stage of this lecture, the stage in which we now directly engage the crucial issue of a dictatorship that is not military, not exercised through the gun but through the complex mediations of corruption and mediocrity of the highest order.
To enter into this segment of the lecture, please consider the following ironic reversal of normal expectations concerning dictatorships and democracy. On the one hand, we have a military dictatorship that is non-elective, that is indeed totally contemptuous of popular mandate but is nonetheless very paranoid about being embarrassed by any revelation that it is corrupt. But on the other hand, we have an elective, “democratic” government that putatively bases its legitimacy on popular mandates but is completely unembarrassed by any and all allegations of corrupt practices and dealings.
I would like to suggest that the irony in both cases is more apparent than real. Military dictatorships are characteristically, even extremely paranoid about being shown to be corrupt only because nearly all military coup-makers come into power on the claim that they have come to clean up the mess made by civilian governments, or even by a preceding military autocracy.
Of all the governments we have ever had in Nigeria, the Buhari-Idiagbon dictatorship was the most self-righteous, the most fanatical about imposing discipline on Nigeria and Nigerians; for this reason, it absolutely could not stand being embarrassed by the taint of corruption, especially if the allegation happened to be based on truth.
The irony in an elective, “democratic” government that brazenly washes the dirty linens of its oceans of corruption in the national and global public sphere is likewise a factitious irony with no basis in reality. This is because the presumption of virtually all our ruling class parties since the return to formal democratic rule in 1999 has been, quite simply, that no party, no politician ever wins or, conversely, loses an election on the basis of public exposure of huge sums that the politician or the party has looted from our oil wealth.
At a more general level, winning or losing elections has little or nothing to do with your performance in office. You may be as corrupt and as mediocre as the worst politician on the African continent or the world, but that is no disqualification for you to become a member of the National Assembly, the Executive Governor of a State, or the President of the Republic itself – unless, of course you have been caught, tried and jailed.
I readily accept the fact that not all our politicians are corrupt and mediocre. Indeed, there are a few state governors and public officeholders that are deserving of respect and admiration. But I think that the great majority of our politicians are fundamentally predisposed to being corrupt and mediocre. This is not because they are necessarily or inherently corrupt or mediocre; it just so happens that this is the prevailing order that they know; it is the universe of expectations and values in which they operate. Corruption and mediocrity reign supreme in our country at the present time because that is the game in town; it is the undeclared dictatorship which has apparently found a perfect hiding place in the outward forms and protocols of a formally democratic political order. Permit me to expatiate a little on this observation.
I think it is safe for me to assume that most of us in this gathering this morning would agree to a proposition which states that an endlessly corrupt electoral system in which massive, blatant and violent rigging plays a central role is the main reason why virtually all our political parties and politicians do not really depend on their performance in office to win elections.
Another way of putting this concretely is to say that rather than actually perform well in office and win the respect and the mandate of the people, virtually all of our political parties spend most of their time amassing the war chest that will enable them either to successfully rig elections or, conversely to prevent successful rigging by opposing political parties and politicians. In other words, rigging does not stand alone; it is part of a vastly corrupt and corrupting political party system.
Because this is a very crucial point in this lecture, I wish to be absolutely clear about what I am asserting or even claiming here. For this reason, I wish to give one very concrete illustration of my claim here that rigging does not stand alone but is part of a vast network of corruption in our political party system. This illustration, I would argue, is one that most adult and politically sophisticated Nigerians know only too well.
Thus, I don’t think anyone would seriously contest the fact that as the ruling party with a so-far iron-clad control of the centre, the PDP spends most of its time between election cycles preparing to rig itself back into power with absolutely no relevance to how it has performed in office. By contrast, the other ruling class parties not in control at the centre but in the seats of power in some of the states of the federation spend all their time between electoral cycles amassing the financial means and the strategies with which to prevent the PDP from rigging itself back into power.
Nowhere is this whole apparatus of a deeply corrupt and corrupting political order more apparent than in our election tribunals in which, as everyone knows, political parties and politicians who have much more credible claims to having won elections must still bribe very heavily to secure legal redress for having been robbed of their victories through rigging at the polls.
It is well known that the 2011 oil subsidy mega-scam that ran into more than N2.58 trillion naira had everything to do with the re-election project of the President and the PDP. But even with that dubious help, we shall never get a full measure of the actual sums that go into both rigging and preventing rigging by our ruling class parties. All we can safely say is that rigging and its opposite, rigging-prevention, are but the tip of an iceberg; behind the whole unholy party-electoral edifice in our country is the widespread, definingfeeling among the Nigerian political class that the money is there to be looted either to stay in office or to come into power because, for a long time yet, the oil will keep flowing. I will come back to this point at the end of the lecture.
In case the point I am making here is not yet clear enough, let me spell it out: the rigging of elections, as heinous as it has generally been in our country since the return to civilian rule in 1999, is but one factor among others that make our electoral system and our present political order so spectacularly corrupt and corrupting.
This is why, as much as I loathe and condemn the rigging of elections in our country, I do not ascribe what I have in this lecture been calling the dictatorship of corruption and mediocrity to the agency or primacy of rigging; rather, in my view, corruption itself is the agent, the precondition of a dictatorship that is both kleptocratic and plutocratic.
I have observed that in the Obasanjo-Atiku feud of 2006, both camps made revelations of corruption about each other that should, at the very least, have led to the impeachment of the President and the Vice President. But nothing happened to them and not a single one of their cronies, henchmen and girlfriends that were the beneficiaries of the “loot” from the PTDF was made to pay back a single kobo.
Also, nobody has paid back a single kobo out of the N2.58 trillion looted in the oil subsidy mega-scam, a colossal sum that could make the lives of millions of Nigerians better than the horrible conditions they currently have to endure, thanks to this dictatorship of corruption and mediocrity.
As a matter of fact, with regard to this particular case of the oil subsidy scam, the whole nation was treated to a comedy of errors and absurdity when the Chairman of that same House of Rep Ad-Hoc Committee on the oil subsidy scam, Hon Farouk Lawan, was caught by a hidden videotape camera receiving hush-money bribe from one of the biggest names among the cabal of real and fake marketers. Hon Lawan has not faced any significant legislative censure for this egregiously corrupt act. All that has “happened” to him is that he is being tried in a court of law in which he is apparently successfully tying up the legal process in a seemingly endless impasse.
It is time in this lecture to address the equation between corruption and mediocrity that is a central aspect of the undeclared ‘dictatorship’ that I am engaging in the lecture. Corruption and mediocrity in our country at the present time are symbiotic, they feed off each other. Extremely poor performance or even no performance at all is no barrier to becoming very wealthy and holding very high public office in our country – including the highest office in the land.
According to the House of Representative Ad-Hoc Committee Report on the oil subsidy mega-scam we see “a gross lack of record keeping”, “decadence” “rot” and “entrenched inefficiency” in the work of the public officials that supervised the payment of those vast sums to the oil marketers.
These epithets of abysmally low standards of performance and probity were addressed to the specific case of the oil subsidy scam but they might as well have been addressed to the generation and distribution of electricity; construction of physical infrastructures like roads, bridges, hospitals and schools; public sanitation and waste disposal; social services for children, youths, the elderly and the disabled. Federal and state governments don’t have to perform well or perform at all to generate the budgets on which they depend; it comes to them like manna from heaven even though we know that the source is the rents from the oilfields of the Niger Delta.
At the centre of things in the government of the federation and the ruling party, the standards of performance in virtually all areas of governance are so low that almost any other party or phalanx of politicians can credibly claim that they can do better than the current incumbents, even though there is little to choose between all the ruling class parties in terms of their ideologies and their value orientations. Almost everywhere that you find corruption in our country, mediocrity is never too far behind.
At this point and drawing from my professional academic interest in linguistic, literary and cultural studies, I would like to offer some thoughts on the separate and yet connected relations between the cognate terms corrupt, corruptive and corrupted. My intension in doing this is both to further clarify and broaden the ramifications of this link that I am urging between corruption and mediocrity in our country.
Thus, when we say that a person, an act, or a process is corrupt we are alluding adjectivally to a quality, a disposition or an effect. The term corruptive adds a dimension that implies an active transformation that turns that which is not initially corrupt to that which becomes tainted with corruption. The term “corrupted” lends an even more dynamic, more perfected or completeddimension to the term “corruptive”.
At this level, the term corruption that we so often use to describe our politicians and their habitual practices takes on the quality of a specter, a malaise, a generalized social pathology that reeks of rot, decay, putrefaction. On this basis, I would argue that in our Nigerian context, “corruption” is to politicians and political parties as “corrupted” is to virtually all our institutions, both religious and secular, both private and public, both local and nation-wide.
Pushing further on this observation, I would argue that we tend to associate corruption primarily with our electoral process and our politicians and political parties, but who among us is unaware of the cheap, superstitious and facile religiosity that underlies the nairamania, the amassing of great wealth in our mega-churches and among our most prominent, jetsetter religious leaders? Who is unaware of the scale of examination malpractices in our primary and secondary schools? Yes, the corruption has its roots, its foundations in the political order and among our rulers, but almost every institution in our country has become corrupted.
Since I am an academic, I am particularly interested in the decay, the unspeakable fall in standards that has befallen our educational institutions. Here, I will give only a few particularly shocking examples of this terribly corrupted state of things in our secondary and tertiary institutions. The failure rates in our secondary school leaving examinations are some of the worst in the world.
In the last one decade, I don’t think we have recorded anything higher than 35% of passes in these exams. In one particular year, in the NECO exams, only 1.8% of those who sat for the exam passed, leaving a staggering failure rate of 98.2%. Our universities are poorly ranked in the world; not a single one of them is among the 2000 most highly rated institutions. Far more alarming is the fact that our universities are also poorly ranked among African universities.
In the most recently released rankings, only eight of our universities were listed among the first 100 universities in Africa and only one Nigerian institution is among the first 20. Within the country itself in the business sector of the economy, potential employers of our university graduates are forever complaining that the instruction our university students receive are so appallingly poor that a lot of the graduates are simply “unemployable”. The list goes on and on with a depressing regularity that has a grim foreboding for the future of our country.
I do not wish to empty out the contents of the special focus of this lecture – the Freedom of Information Act of 2011 in relation to the dictatorship of corruption – into an endless jeremiad about the things that are prematurely but utterly corrupted in virtually all the institutions of our society.
The Greeks have a saying that is very pertinent here that I wish to invoke to underscore this point: When a fish begins to rot, the process starts from the head and it is from there that the decay pervades the entire body of the fish. From this, I wish to state with as much emphasis as I can muster that it is our rulers, our politicians and political parties that we must hold accountable if we wish to arrest the rot, the decay that acts like a dictatorship in our present political order.
One aspect of a comparative, transnational view of corruption that we would do well to keep in mind in this respect is the fact that corruption is not always or even necessarily linked with mediocrity as we find it with our rulers. As a matter of fact, as big as corruption is in Nigeria, it is nothing in size compared with the corruption that has been documented and much discussed with regard to some of the biggest transnational business conglomerates of Western and East Asian countries.
Without in the least bit offering an apologia for the scope of corruption among our rulers, I would insist that it ought to be pointed out that Transparency International is able to regularly rank corruption higher in African and other developing regions of the world than what obtains in the West only because its figures pertain to the countries and regions of the world, leaving out the big business empires of the planet who, between them, account for by far the greatest share of corruption in the world, together with the effects that corruption has on the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable peoples of the planet.
I repeat: corruption is not always and necessarily linked with mediocrity, with abysmally low or poor standards. The high incidence of corruption in the ranks of some of the smartest and most innovative corporations in the world is clear proof of this assertion. The movements and forces around the world that have taken on the corruption of these corporations have counted on rationality, legal and ideological, as weapons with which to wage their struggles.
This is where, in my opinion, we must locate the potential of the Freedom of Information Act to make a difference in the struggle against corruption and the indifference to due process and accountability that reigns supreme in the highest corridors of power in our country.
Like all other national versions of the Freedom of Information Act, ours also presupposes legal and moral rationality, especially as enshrined in the presupposition that the state, the liberal-democratic state, is founded on the rule of law, on the assumption that a country’s rulers, a country’s public officeholders and a country’s business enterprises must comply with the laws of the land, otherwise what you have is not a true democracy but a dictatorship hiding behind the outer forms and shells of democracy.
Invoking the theoretical jargon of radical political economy here, I would argue that our Freedom of Information Act of 2011 presupposes that our country is on the verge of transforming primitive accumulation of the most vicious kind into a modern, market-driven economy in which, in conjunction with cutthroat competition, you have the supremacy of the law.
It is doubtful that our press, our media houses have thought much of these ramifications of the Freedom of Information Act. This is because as much as they fought long and hard for the passing of this Act, they have been remarkably reticent in using it to compel our rulers, our public institutions and private business companies to comply with the provisions of the Act. Let me move to the conclusion of this talk by briefly engaging one of the few instances when the provisions of the Act was invoked – and met stiff, unyielding resistance from the powers that be in our country.
This much is known about the scale of remuneration of the members of our National Assembly: Both in relative and absolute terms, they are the highest paid legislators in the world. Each member of our National Assembly collects far more in salaries, allowances and bonuses than the President of the United States, the most powerful man in the world.
In the face of the universal outcry in the country against the whopping scale of our legislators’ remuneration package, they have been extremely secretive about the precise figures. Indeed the lengths to which they are apparently willingly to go to keep the exact figures hidden from public awareness and scrutiny seems to have no bounds.
Thus, when a former member of the House, Honourable Dino Melaye, began to go public with these figures, he was swiftly and severely dealt with by the leadership of the House. Indeed, the manner in which he was silenced was so effective that no other member of the National Assembly has since then ever dared to follow his example.
Far more cynical and indifferent to its claims to democratic norms is how the National Assembly responded when a civil society organization, The Legal Assistance and Aid Project, LEPAD, invoked the Freedom of Information Act of 2011 to compel our legislators to reveal to the Nigerian people exactly how much they are paid. They refused absolutely.
Consequent on this refusal, LEPAD dragged the National Assembly to the courts. In a suit argued by the frontline activist lawyer, Femi Falana, SAN, a high court ordered the National Assembly to act in accordance with a law that it had itself passed by promptly releasing full details of the salaries and emoluments paid to members of the Assembly. They still refused and then took the matter to a federal appeal court. The case is still pending in the courts.
I should mention that without being a lone figure crying in the wilderness, Femi Falana has done much to put the usefulness, the value of the Freedom of Information Act to test again and again since 2011 when the Act was enacted. He has invoked the Act in relation to a range of issues of public good that pertain to governmental functionaries, parastatals and private commercial interests including but not limited to Minister of Justice and the Attorney General of the Federation; the Universal Basic Education (UBE) Commission; the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA); and the GSM/Internet Providers.
I do not think that Falana harbors any illusions at all that by itself, the Freedom of Information Act will radically and positively transform the present endlessly corrupt and mediocre Nigerian political order. But he is taking this prevailing deeply unjust, wasteful and corrupted order to the very limits of its claim to being a democracy founded on the rule of law, not a failing state perpetually on the brink of becoming a failed state.
Let Falana’s example be a wakeup call to our media houses and our journalists that they must rediscover the reasons why they fought long and hard for this Act to be passed. The dictatorship of corruption and mediocrity that I have discussed at length in this lecture is the root cause of some of the worst problems and crises that our country faces at the present time: vast disparities of incomes and opportunities between the wealthy few and the teeming majority; insecurities of life, property and personal possessions; unemployment and bleak prospects for the future for our youths; and rising tides of state-sponsored and non-statist violence. The very survival of the country is at stake and has been so almost since 1999, the year in which the present Fourth Republic came into existence.
Many pundits now openly talk of the possibility, if not the necessity or the inevitability, of the end our present experiment in democratic governance in a violent bloodbath. Quite possibly, the Freedom of Information Act is the only remaining legal and moral instrument that we have for making the revolution that is coming a peaceful one. It remains to be seen whether the most patriotic, progressive and selfless individuals and groups in the country will wake up to this vital aspect of the FoI. But this line of reasoning requires another lecture, another set of reflections.
Prof. Jeyifo is Emeritus Professor of English, Cornell University and Professor of Comparative Literature and of African and African American Studies, Harvard University. He delivered this speech at The Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism at the 5th Annual Lecture, Saturday, July 13, 2013, at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Lagos.