A Lagos-based lawyer, Jiti Ogunye, in this interview with TOBI AWORINDE, faults the claims of the Federal Government and the Accountant General of the Federation that expenditure of the Paris Club refund by states is confidential

What is your reaction to the argument by the Federal Government that the expenditure of the Paris club refund is confidential?

I was shocked when I heard the position of the Federal Government of Nigeria on the issue. I’m a Nigerian and I don’t expect an official of my country at the federal level to say such provocative things, which are not supported by the constitution and the laws of our country. My belief is that the government is a legal entity which should not engage in illegal and unlawful acts. If what the Accountant General said is the position of the Federal Government of Nigeria, it would be tragic. Expenditure of government cannot be a secret thing; it cannot be confidential. It is not covered by the Official Secret Act. It is expenditure, for God’s sake. It is not personal expenditure; it is public expenditure. Therefore, that statement to us is regrettable. No accountant general that is worthy of his position and is conscious of his responsibility should ever say such statement. If the argument is that “this is money that has been paid, these are the figures that we have,” and he then gives the figures and says, “You can then go to the state to further confirm,” we can understand that. Don’t forget that even without Nigerians asking, the Ministry of Finance periodically tells Nigerians how much money is shared among the states in terms of statutory allocations. It gives figures of this expenditure. Not only that, it tells us — and they did that recently — who is contributing what, in terms of tax, value added tax, and so on — things that Nigerians do not even consciously ask for. So, it therefore beats my imagination that an accountant general can defy common sense, public morality and the principle of equity, accountability and transparency, to say that the details of such money is confidential. There is nothing confidential about it and I want to assume that the accountant general had a slip of tongue. If he could assume, he then has to go back and make amends. I think that the Federal Government of Nigeria, especially the President, ought to be scandalised that such statement was uttered. I am expecting them to retract that statement, or direct him to eat his words and say, “You are not representing the Federal Government of Nigeria.” This is not a secret organisation. This government is a public property. This government was voted into power by the people of this country openly; so, we cannot conduct our affairs as if we’re running an armed robbery government. What is the secret about that? That statement is condemnable and it shouldn’t have a space in our public administration and public expenditure management generally.

Can you elaborate on the Official Secret Act?

The Official Secret Act is an act that deals with classified information. It is an ancient act, a colonial act. Our government has secrets and therefore these secrets are supposed to be preserved. So, they are classified information and those who handle this information are not expected to make it public. But with the Freedom of Information Act, it reiterates the necessity to run government openly — in a transparent manner. And in spite of the provisions of that act, if a piece of information is required, the fact that we have an Official Secret Act will not mean that that information that is sourced cannot be retrieved. That’s why I just made a point that public expenditure generally cannot be (kept secret). When you are talking about secrets, maybe you talk about military secrets or trade secrets. You don’t talk about expenditure secrets; that is the point I’m making, because if you embezzle public expenditure, it’s not your personal money. So, what’s secret about it? There’s nothing secret; that the account general can even come up with such puerile position beats my imagination. What was going on in his mind when he was saying that? I read it in the papers also; I just looked at it and said, ‘This is madness’. What is the secret about public money? I have just argued now that even when we didn’t even request the information, they would tell us how much money they have received. And they do that maybe to make the people to be aware that it is not the Federal Government alone that is spending money. It was a style — a policy, if we call it that — which was inherited from the (Ngozi) Okonjo-Iweala era. They even published in the newspapers, the monies that have been released to the states. So, if this refund has been given to the states under the auspices of the Federal Government, so what is the secret all about? This is my agony: people in government who talk to the people don’t weigh their words. Sometimes, they assume that they are talking to morons, idiots or people that have no choice anyway, so they will lap up what they are saying. And I use my words carefully. Otherwise, there is no responsible government official that ought to say that. If you ask the question, it is even better to say, “Although I am the accountant general, I still need to make further consultations to give you that information.” Although that would not be acceptable, it would be less condescending, less provocative. But for you to say to Nigerians, “It is confidential,” it is the height of insult.

Are you saying that it is wrong for the Federal Government to say it doesn’t have any record of how the Paris Club refund is spent by states?

What would be unprofessional is for them to say that they don’t have records of the release of the funds or, as you are now being told, that the details of the releases are confidential. You don’t expect any responsible government official to say that. It has that responsibility to disclose. But as to how the states spent the refunds disbursed to them, the Federal Government may not have that responsibility to give out such details because it may not know. So, it may now be the responsibility of the people to go to the states and ask those questions. But what is unacceptable is for the Federal Government to say, “We do not have records of the refunds we made,” or “We may not give you the details of the information because it is confidential. That is not what we expect definitely. The Federal Government has a duty to provide the information so that the people, including workers, who are dying because they are not being paid their salaries, can confront their state governments and say, “This is what you received as refund. What have you done with the money?” So, by keeping that information secret, by saying the information is confidential, they are disempowering the people and making governance at the state less accountable to the people. Now, Section 15 (5) of the constitution says that the state shall fight corruption and abuse of power. So, when you don’t have people with the information — because information is power — you have prevented them from being able to ask questions they ought to ask to establish the truth. So, the information that people want to have is in tandem with the rights of the people to know; Nigerians have the right to be informed and that kind of mindset is an infringement, I would say, of the right of the people to know. Under the constitution, Nigerians have the right to information. They have the right to receive information. They have the right to impart information, and I’m referencing Section 39 of the constitution. That right is directly breached by an accountant general who says, “I can’t give this information because it is confidential.” And that was why I used my words advisedly that it is irresponsible. There is no way you want to look at it. It is just plainly irresponsible. After all, we’re not asking you to disclose how much Nigerians spent on (President Muhammadu) Buhari’s (medical) trip. It is money disbursed to the states.

In trying to buttress its claim to confidentiality, the Federal Government also argued that its relationship with the states was like that of a bank with its customers. Do you agree with that position?

With the analogy and the comparison, they are just playing silly. I’m saying that the argument, as wrongheaded as it is, is very provocative. So, the Federal Government is like a bank to the state; so they cannot be compelled to release the information? Where do they get these arguments from? From what section of hell do they get these arguments? What has happened to running an open government? It is a ruse; it is a lie. The problem that I see, and that is the question you have not asked, is that there is a suggestion in the policy today that this money or a substantial part of it is stolen with the knowledge or connivance of the Federal Government or some of its officials. The office of the accountant general is doing what is unethical; they are engaging in a cover-up. They are engaging in suppression of information. They are engaging in an act of complicity and deception. They don’t want the Nigerian people to know. Otherwise, the information doesn’t harm anybody. So, it is now the duty of the states to tell the people of their states how they spent the money. You have discharged your responsibilities. For you to now start arguing against the disclosure of information pertaining to the amount that has been released to each state amounts to engaging in an act of collusion or conspiracy. He has no justification to hoard that information. That information ought to be given out even without the media asking. That is the issue.

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Accountant General engaging in Paris Club scam cover-up — Ogunye
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