The federal government has come under fire for its failure to release the names of public officials from whom stolen public funds have been recovered.
Inibehe Effiong, an attorney and convener of the Coalition of Human Rights Defenders (COHRD), is the latest figure to call on the federal government to publish the looters' names.
During an interview broadcasted on Blaze 91.1 FM, Mr. Effiong explained that President Muhammadu Buhari promised to release the names of the looters but has yet to do so.
Repatriating stolen funds has been a major priority of the Buhari administration, which has been working with foreign governments and the World Bank to facilitate the recovery of the stolen assets.
Last weekend, the federal government released a list of funds that have been recovered throughout the past year, but excluded the names of the individuals from whom the recoveries were made.
Vice President Yemi Osinbajo explained on Monday that the government has not published the names because doing so could jeopardize the ongoing investigations into these persons.
But Mr. Effiong rejected this excuse, emphasizing that the government’s reluctance to release the names contradicts its message of transparency, accountability and anti-corruption.
He further explained that it would not be a violation of the law to release the looters’ names.
“Section 36 (5) of the Nigerian Constitution guarantees presumption of innocence and states that every person is presumed innocent until proved guilty…but the issue is not about conviction because no one is being convicted by the federal government; only a court of competent jurisdiction can convict… It is not an infringement on the right to presumption of innocence because they are not being convicted or sent to prison,” he said.
Mr. Effiong added that the government could not be sued for defamation if the correct names are published.
“If the publication is true, then there is no defamation. There is no litigation that can arise from that because they willingly surrendered theses funds…It can only be defamatory if what the government is saying is false,” he explained.
The attorney argued that the looters who surrendered their funds voluntarily should be prosecuted.
“While we are interested in having money back, there has to be deterrence,” Mr. Effiong said.
Mr. Effiong’s appeal marks the second time this week the government has been called upon to release the names of looters. The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) filed a Freedom of Information request to Minister of Information Lai Mohammed, urging him to publish information about the public officials from whom stolen funds were recovered.
“While we believe that suspects generally are entitle to be presumed innocent until proven guilty by a court of competent jurisdiction, SERAP opposes blanket non-disclosure of names of high-ranking public officials from whom some of the funds were recovered,” their request read in part.
SERAP argued that the public has the right to know the names of the public officials.
Referring to the government’s determination to legally protect the individuals from whom assets were recovered, SERAP stated, “SERAP insists that the public interest to know is greater than any other legitimate interest that the government might wish to protect. The Nigerian government has an obligation to balance whether the risk of harm to the legitimate aim (that is the secrecy of ongoing corruption investigation and presumption of innocence) from disclosure of the names of public officials is greater than the public interest in accessing information.”
At the time of publication, the federal government has not announced plans to publish the names of the looters.