By Femi Falana
In January this year, Channels Television broadcast disturbing stories on the dilapidated state of the Ikeja Police College. Embarrassed by the disclosure, President Jonathan paid an unscheduled visit to the college.
The authorities decided to sack the Police Commissioner in charge of the college for allegedly allowing the Channels Television expose. We dared the authorities to remove the police officer. However, sanity prevailed. The plan was dropped while the renovation of the college was approved.
Having not learnt any lesson from the shameful episode, the federal government is currently looking for those who leaked the story of the scandalous amoured cars for the Aviation Minister, Ms Stella Oduah.
Having not challenged the story on the N225 million armoured vehicles the threat to deal wit the whistle blowers credited to Captain Fola Akinkuotu, the Director General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) is the height of official insensitivity, arrogance and impunity.
The aviation minister and her cohorts who should have been fired by President Jonathan have the temerity to insult Nigerians by threatening to deal with those who leaked information on their criminal activities.
Since Captain Akinkuotu has not been properly advised in the circumstance he should be told that by virtue of section 39 of the Constitution the citizens of Nigeria, in and outside the public service, have the fundamental right to freedom of expression including the right to disseminate information on public affairs.
As far back as 1983 the provisions of the criminal code pertaining to sedition had been declared illegal and unconstitutional in Arthur Nwankwo v The State. In that historic case the late Olatawura JCA (as he then was) cautioned public officers thus:
“Those who occupy sensitive posts must be prepared to face public criticisms in respect of their office so as to ensure that they are accountable to the electorate. They should not be made to feel that they live in an Ivory Tower and therefore belong to a different class.
They must develop thick skin and where possible plug their ears with cotton wool if they feel too sensitive or irascible. They are within their constitutional rights to sue for defamation but they should not use the machinery of government to invoke criminal proceedings to gag their opponents as the freedom of speech guaranteed by our Constitution will be meaningless.”
Indeed, in addition to the guaranteed freedom of expression, access to official information has since been liberalised under the current political dispensation. Thus by virtue of the Freedom of Information Act, 2011 hoarding or hiding of information in the custody of the government has become a criminal offence.
Incidentally, it was the Jonathan Administration which enacted the Freedom of Information Act.
Specifically, section 1 of the Act provides that the operation of the law shall be without prejudice to the Official Secrets Act. Therefore, gone are the days when public officials could be intimidated or sanctioned for leaking information designed to expose corruption and abuse of office.
In the case of Dododo v Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (2013) 1 N. W.L.R. (pt 1336) 468 the Court of Appeal held that a tax payer who is aggrieved by corrupt practices or misappropriation of public funds cannot be described as a busybody or meddlesome interloper. Since the whistle blowers in this case are civil servants who tax payers they cannot be sanctioned for performing their patriotic duty.
In the light of the foregoing the Aviation Minister and the NCAA management should be removed for engaging in grave economic crime and for exposing the federal government to ridicule. Since the whistle blowers have not committed any offence known to law they should ignore the provocative threats of Captain Akinkuotu. However, should they be identified, sacked and charged to court we shall defend them pro bono publico.
Mr. Femi Falana, SAN, is a public interest lawyer in Lagos.
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