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Akume, Tinubu and the fight against corruption

Cynics – or critics if you like – would argue that if there was any doubt, there is none now: Unrestrained by ethics as well as domestic and international legal obligations, the Tinubu administration, speaking through George Akume, secretary to the government of the federation, is not committed to fighting corruption despite everything.

At a workshop in Abuja by the Bureau for Public Service Reforms in collaboration with the SGF’s office, this government once again showed up strongly in readiness to kill the truth. Akume, who was represented by Nnamdi Mbaeri, permanent secretary in the office of the SGF, warned workers in government offices that they would go to jail if they leaked public documents without authorisation—a refreshing yet despicable low in the contagion of lows that have afflicted governance over the past year.
If any government should be fighting corruption head-on and prioritising accountability at this time in Nigeria, it should be an All Progressives Congress (APC) government that has not only zealously labelled itself as ‘progressive’ from the very first day, but also fervently appropriated ‘change’ and ‘renewed hope’ as successive definitive themes of its contract with the country in its back-to-back electoral triumphs.
But that seems not the case. Each of the successive APC governments since 2015 has ironically brazenly launched severe attacks on the voices of truth, be they journalists or whistleblowers, and systematically constricted the civic space in a way that flatters preceding ruling governments since the beginning of democratic governance in 1999.

No doubt, Akume’s latest outing, his resolve to criminalise workers’ exposure to corrupt practices in the public sector is another turn of the screw. It’s a close parallel to what would be found in the opening pages of a despotic regime’s playbook. There is a need to let him know that his decision is wrong as it is aimed at stopping workers from doing the right thing. Sanctions for uncovering wrongful acts will deter workers from blowing the whistle on illegalities in their offices, and this in turn will be seen as a failure of accountability on the part of the Tinubu government.

More importantly, Akume’s option has thrown cold water on two indispensable anti-corruption instruments. It gutted the power of the whistleblowing policy which the Buhari government introduced in 2016 as a strategy to curtail growing public sector corruption, and the Freedom of Information Act enacted in 2011 by the Goodluck Jonathan government to open up the government to the public and promote transparency and accountability in government.

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These two instruments, the former still just a policy to the utter dismay of good governance advocates, are being deployed more than any other tools by journalists, whistleblowers, public interest lawyers and civil society organisations to foster the culture of responsible corporate governance, compliance with rules and regulations and accountability in public/private institutions utilising government funds.

In the absence of protection law, whistleblowers in public institutions have continued to face all kinds of reprisals ranging from outright dismissal to death threats for fulfilling the civic and constitutional duty of disclosing fraudulent acts or exercising the right of refusal to participate in corrupt practices and other illegalities in their workplace. So are journalists and civil society organisations relying on the FOI law to expose corruption and wrongdoing in government offices mostly frustrated by officials who invent all sorts of ridiculous schemes to deny them information.

From Akume’s tone through his surrogate at the workshop, it is obvious that the government is not uncomfortable with the use of FOI law to expose illegalities in government offices. As a remedy, he suggested the “need to regulate activities of the civil society organisations who use the Freedom of Information Act to harass, intimidate and siphon resources from public officers through the dissemination of unfounded and fake information….” This is an unfortunate comment that civil society organisations shouldn’t handle with kid gloves.

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At this point, it is apt to state that access to information is a fundamental right under Section 38 of the 1999 Constitution which says that “every citizen shall have the right to freedom of expression, including the right to obtain information and impart ideas.” That right is equally protected by Article 9 (2) of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights which provides that “Every individual shall have the right to receive information.” And since Nigeria’s FOI Act essentially supports the implementation of open and accountable governance, the law recognises the right of every citizen to access information from any record in government or public institutions.

It doesn’t seem like Akume has read the FOI law. He should pick it up and read it. Then he will know that his plan to jail workers for releasing public information to the public without approval is not feasible. Sections 29 and 30 of the law provide immunity from civil or criminal prosecution for any worker who discloses information on wrongdoing without authorisation.

The FOI law, just like the whistleblowing policy, also has provisions for the protection of whistleblowers. But protection is not real. It only exists in the documents. Maybe Akume does not know this. Instead of threatening to jail workers who unmask corruption and seeking to devalue whistleblowing and FOI, he should rather be organising forums to train public officials on the public’s right to access information on public records and the importance of complying with the law.

Better still, he should sit down with President Tinubu and Lateef Fagbemi, attorney general and minister of justice, and come up with concrete plans on how to uphold Section 15 (5) of the Constitution which says, “The State shall abolish all corrupt practices and abuse of power.” Or does Akume not know that his government, like the ones before it, violates this provision of the constitution?

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Onyeacholem can be reached via [email protected].



Views expressed by contributors are strictly personal and not of TheCable.
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