Human Rights Lawyer and former President of West Africa Bar Association (WABA), Mr. Femi Falana, SAN, took questions after delivering a paper on “The Vital Link Between Investigative Journalism and People-led Good Governance” organised by TheCable Newspaper few days ago in Lagos. BIYI ADEGOROYE was there
How has investigative journalism been promoting good governance? In consonance with the provisions of Section 22 of the Nigerian Constitution, the media has a watchdog role in the country.
They are the only professionals whose duties are clearly spelt out in the constitution to hold government at all levels accountable to the people. For instance, investigative journalists helped to unearth the truth about EndSARS fatalities. You will recall that initially, the government said nobody was killed at the Lekki Toll Gate.
Later they said no soldier was there, but by the time the journalists proved with verifiable evidence, government said the soldiers were there but shot into the air. When that was faulted and some people were killed, the government recanted and said only two people were killed.
You are all aware that it was the killing of one man- George Floyd, a black in America that led to the Black Lives Matter protest in many countries around the world.
So you don’t say only two people were killed. Now the panel set up by the state government came up with a report, again a journalist got a copy and circulated it, because the government does not release reports of enquiries but only issues a white paper commenting on certain paragraphs in the report. That is why our country has continued to go back to colonialist activities. That is why you need investigative journalism to promote good governance.
What is good governance?
There are eight characteristics of good governance. The type of democracy must be participatory, consensus oriented; it must be accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive. It must follow the rule of law. Once you follow the rule of law, corruption will be minimised. So when they say Nigeria is corrupt, you ask yourself, what do they mean?
It means that the Appropriation Act and the Appropriation Law of the states are violated. It is in the budget for instance, that the Lagos- Ibadan Expressway will be fixed. Once that road is not fixed that year, the law has been violated. If you implement only 40 per cent, that means you breached the law to the tune of 60 per cent. And that should not be tolerated in any civilised society.
Chapter two of the Nigerian Cona stitution clearly spelt out what good governance will provide. It says that the government of Nigeria shall be a democracy and security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government.
Once the government cannot guarantee the security and welfare of the people, in fact, the constitution said that the government, both at state and federal levels, shall be constituted in such a way as to give everybody a sense of belonging. You cannot have a democratic government as far as Chapter 2 is concerned and have lopsided appointments.
Appointments must reflect federal character principle. And when you are talking of federal character, you are not talking of geographical zones alone or regional representation. You are also talking about representation of youths, women and people with disability. So it must be an inclusive government.
The government of Nigeria shall be humane. If the government is humane it will not say only one person was killed. Or like one Vice Chancellor who was once asked by journalists, ‘how many people were killed on your campus? He said ‘only four.’ That statement which was made via 9 o’clock news in 1985 led to spontaneous demonstrations across the country by students. And of course, a lot of damage was done in the process.
That means the government must be humane. The Nigerian President cannot be sympathising with Americans over the tornado that killed 80 people last week, while in Nigeria, children and adults are killed daily.
You cannot be talking about what is happening in another country when yours is on fire because charity must begin at home. In the past when serious tragedies occurred in the country while the President was outside, he had to come back, and not these days where you have tragedies in Nigeria and the President is jetting out.
Every citizen shall have access to education, health and employment as contained in Chapter 2 of the Constitution. If you are not employed, and this will shock you, the government is supposed to pay you unemployment benefits. Under Chapter 2, the government shall pay a living minimum wage, which cannot be N30,000 under the current economic situation in the country. Pensions shall be paid to retirees. Even though this section is not justiciable, the National Assembly shall make laws that will make it justiciable.
One of such laws is the National Minimum Wage Act, while another is the Pension Reforms Act. Others are the Child Rights Act and many more, but these laws which are welfare laws are observed in their breaches. Hence about 16 million children are currently out of school, whereas every child is supposed to be in school.
The government is supposed to build well-equipped hospitals so that our people can live healthy lives. I was shocked after a trip to Cuba, Cona country that has no resources; a country of 12 million people, which depends only on sugarcane and tobacco, that education is free for everybody, while health is guaranteed.
In fact, the life expectancy in Cuba is higher than that of the United States of America. Yet, it is a very poor country by all standards. But it is about the priority of the country. What makes ours different is that our rulers, I don’t call them leaders, travel abroad to treat preventable diseases whereas the poor die here for the same illnesses.
This is happening despite the fact that up to the 1960s, Presidents of foreign countries were coming to Nigeria, especially to the University College, Ibadan, for medical treatment.
Just like our rulers now go abroad for treatment, and shamefully, even when they are in London for treatment, they turn their houses to a Mecca, and expose their country to ridicule. Some of you are in Lagos and have been told that Lagos is working.
How can Lagos work when you have had a ruling party for the past 22 years, yet some hospitals have no beds, no equipment? It is only in Nigeria that that can happen. I have traveled to many countries, about 50 of them, but I have never observed where vendors mount commercial vehicles like Molue, and be selling drugs, or maiguards selling drugs or people selling drugs at motor parts.
Worse still is that a lot of these drugs have expired. Look, no responsible government will allow that. Look in Benin Republic, our next door neigbour here, it is a criminal offense to sell drugs outside a pharmacy.
So when you are talking of good governance, it covers all aspects of our lives. Rule of law is key and human rights must be respected. And when you talk of rule of law, it means that the government must rule according to law.
How do you see the recent travel ban on Nigerian and other countries by the UK over the COVID-19 pandemic?
Recently, our country was stigmatized because of the Omnicron variant of the COVID-19 virus and many of us engage in what I call COVID-19 nationalism. How can we do that?
Many Nigerians travel abroad with COVID-19 certificates but it was discovered that many of the certificates are fake. What a serious government should do is to verify where such certificates were issued to ensure that the colossal international disrepute to which our country is exposed is stopped.
But we failed to do that. We resorted to ask how can Britain, our former colonial master, stigmatise Nigeria? Instead of asking us to do the right thing. I’m not talking about what I read, but look, four weeks ago, I traveled to Ghana, whatever test you have carried out, you are subjected to another test in Accra, whoever you may be.
By the time I was coming back, another test was conducted on me. But when I go to Nigeria Airport, lo and behold, they said “Oga, we know you. You can go.’ They said Oga, ‘you are a big man. You don’t need COVID-19 test.’
But the fact is that I could have caught the virus aboard the aircraft, hence I told them ‘you must carry out your duty,’ but they said ‘this Oga with his wahala,’ and went ahead to carry it out. Sad to say, many people quickly paid to get the certificate without conducting any test. Look, our country must be governed by laws and regulations in the interest of all.
So when you are on the highway and a policeman has arrested a traffic offender, you don’t harass the policeman and say: ‘allow this man to go now, because he has settled.’ No. if you do that outside Nigeria, that is obstruction of justice and you will be penalised.
But in Lagos here, a policeman stops you and you say ‘this are my papers,’ but he tells you, ‘I’m not interested in your papers. Give me N200.’ And the driver says ‘On what basis?’ passengers would say, ‘give it to him, and don’t waste our time.’
How has the issue of good governance been a challenge as regards the economy?
I will just address two issues- one is the politics of our country and the other one on the economy. You are surely aware that even though INEC has not lifted a ban on electioneering, campaigns have started.
Or are you not aware? We already know those who want to be President in 2023. If you don’t know, I think I know some of them, but since they have not declared officially, I won’t name them.
This is a challenge to all of us. What do they do abroad during campaign? It is not about the size of their pocket or their religious inclination. It is about their values. The media take the aspirants to task.
How do you want to address the problem in the country? What do you want to do about governance that would be different from what Muhammadu Buhari is doing? How do you want to run the economy? Will you increase fuel prices? What are your plans for our roads and hospitals? How do you want to restore the lost glory of Nigeria?
Will you as President travel out of Nigeria for medical treatment or raise the standards of our hospitals so that you can be treated here? Will you send your children abroad for education or improve on the standards of our schools so that the demands of ASUU are met? Unless we challenge our politicians, we are wasting our time and 2023 will be another mirage, a joke.
And that is why the media must take the lead in engaging those who claim they are consulting and make these issues part of the consultations. This must include giving us answers to the various problems in the country.
If they do that for the youths of this country, the EndSARS movement should vote for people who are ready to address the problem of youth unemployment, insecurity and underdevelopment and not politicians who will distribute money to buy votes on election day.
If you collect money from them, that is you own dividends for the next four years. Fortunately, recently in a community in Ghana, politicians came to them to distribute rice ahead of the elections.
They collected the rice but threw it at the politicians. That is what we must do during the elections in 2023. Vote for people who are prepared to say a new Nigeria is possible in 2023.
Now, President Buhari before the whole world in a virtual conference organised by the President of the United States, Mr. Joe Biden, announced that he is going to conduct a free and fair election. With profound respect, that was wrong in the first place.
The President does not conduct elections but INEC does, except he is giving the impression that he directs INEC on what to do but INEC is independent as we are made to realise by law.
It is not enough for you to assure the world that you are going to conduct free election if the 2021 Electoral Bill that is meant to improve the standards of our election; that is meant to ensure that people can vote wherever they are, through electronic voting, the bill that is meant to guarantee free election, the President is reluctant to assent to it, because the powerful governor in the ruling party are saying ‘it is going to be more expensive for us to run direct primaries, so throw away the baby and the bathe water.’
But where they are actually going is that those governors have not recovered from the shock of having electronic voting, where manipulation would be reduced to barest minimum, included in the Bill. That is why they want to throw away the entire Bill.
They are not saying ‘return it to the National Assembly so that the area of Direct Primaries can be removed,’ but that the entire Bill should be thrown away. Let me refresh your mind, the Electoral Act Amendment Bill, 2018 was rejected on December 7, 2018, by President Buhari on the grounds that it was too close to the 2019 elections.
Now, in December 2021, the same Bill, with some improvements, has been rejected by the same President. This time the President may also say it is too close to the elections because you are going to have Ekiti and Osun states governorship elections in 2022.
And that may cause confusion and that is why all the media houses and those of us who are interested in credible elections must insist that the President assents to this bill and if he is not going to do that we must be ready to mobilise the National Assembly to override the President.
Some people said that it is difficult having regard to the type of leadership of the National Assembly, but I think a miracle may happen, just like in the case of electronic voting. The Yorubas have a proverb.
If you are being pursued by a masquerade, just keep on running, just as you are getting tired, the masquerade too is getting tired. So we must just keep up the struggle. But the media, apart from other people in the country, has been singled out by the Nigerian Constitution, to promote public accountability. Section 22 of the Constitution has imposed a duty on the media to promote public accountability and transparency.
No other group in Nigeria is given such an assignment. It was very difficult to carry out the assignment until we mobilised the National Assembly to enact the Freedom of Information Act in 2011. Since then, it has been much easier to insist on demanding information from the government.
Regrettably, many media houses have not used the law before, but it says you have the right to demand within seven days any information in the custody of the government apart from such exceptions, having to do with fighting a war and so on and so forth.
Some of our courts have said that that law is not applicable in the states, but I submit that that is not correct, because the Supreme Court has said that any law made pursuant to Chapter 2 of the Constitution is of general application in the country.
If you don’t agree with me, go to Section 36 of the Constitution where the law is talking about freedom of expression, and also Article 19 of Universal Human Rights guarantees right to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. So in Nigeria, you can demand information from the government within clearly defined limits and if you are not given the information, you can go to court and it shall be speedily determined.
Where does the economy lie in this regard?
On the economy, the government has made it clear that next year will be tough for Nigerians. It intends to increase fuel prices with all its implications. Because when it is increased, it would have reverberating effects on prices of foods, transportation and others. I am saying here that Nigerians are being punished for what they call the activities of smugglers.
The government claimed, and this is where I’m challenging the Cable Newspaper, to embark on investigative journalism. The Directorate of Petroleum Resources, (DPR) claimed that Nigerians consume 38.2 million litres of fuel daily. But the NNPC says ‘No, we consume with smugglers, 102 million litres per day.’
In other words, over 63 million litres are smuggled out of Nigeria daily by criminal elements. And we have looked at the figures, bogus figures, and challenged the NNPC to provide evidence, because to smuggle out 63 million litres of fuel daily you will need about 2,000 trucks.
The question is where do they pass? Where are the Nigerian Customs Service and other security agencies? And that is what they want us to pay for next year. We pay more to smugglers than to Nigerians.
So we must get to the root of this criminality, official criminality, and I’m suggesting here that the Federal Government, through the NNPC is spending $1.5 billion of repairing the Port Harcourt refineries, and it has expended $2.7 billion on Dangote Refinery, and that is $2.5 billion. We have also been told by this government that through this refinery the country will be able to refine 250,000 barrels per day.
On what basis do you want to punish Nigerians for the criminal activities of these smugglers? There is another one- alternative to PMF- that is PMG which we have in abundance. The government announced a few years ago that the use of PMF to PMG.
The Minister of Petroleum announced this on the 15 of January, 2019, and the Central Bank of Nigeria said N250 billion has been set aside to build the factories where these vehicles will be converted, and at the end of the day fuel will be sold for N90 to N94 per litre.
Sadly, the government has abandoned that programme because of the pressure of the smugglers and other criminal elements. But we must insist, of what benefits is the allocation of the $4.2billion and the N250 billion if you are still going to punish Nigerians with fuel price hike?
I therefore want to say, because I belong to the Alternative Political Movement, that is in consultation with Nigerians to fight any attempt by this government to impose further harsh economic problems on Nigerians.
For us, enough is enough. And we are warning the members of the political class, and this is the point I’m making, all of them, irrespective of their political or religious inclination, who are united in this in inflicting this policy of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, these are not measures of economic policies of the government but that of the IMF.
During the COVID-19 pandemic the government took a loan of over $3billion from IMF under these conditions – that Nigeria shall remove subsidies from electricity bill and fuel.
We want to say that pursuant to Section 15 of the Constitution and Article 21 of the African Charter, the economy of Nigeria shall be controlled by Nigerians, in the interest of Nigerians not in the interest of the imperialists. I, therefore, what to urge all Nigerians to be prepared for a long-drawn battle for the reclaim the soul of Nigeria and that campaign is going to start very soon.
If the government wants to deceive Nigerians by saying they are going to give out N5,000 to 40 million poor Nigerians, (that is N2.4billion) how did they come about that figure?
This is enough to fix our comatose refinery, or even build a new one that will address the problem of fuel importation. Our country is the only oil producing country in the world that imports fuel. This country was not like this before.
So we should not allow those who claimed they will solve the problem- President Buhari told us (during his campaign) that he was a Minister of Petroleum when they built three refineries and that when he comes back to power, he would to fix the refineries and build new ones. But what are we seeing today? For seven years nothing has been done