Should we needle the president? - By: Dan Agbese | Dailytrust

Should we needle the president?

President Muhammadu Buhari

Government archives here and elsewhere bulge with reports of commissions, committees and panels set up by governments to get at the facts of matters of public interest.

Some of such reports see the light; most do not. The public is kept in the dark and thus none the wiser.

This hacks to the struggle by the people seeking to exercise their right to know what each hand of their government is doing. It is also a struggle by governments to create the impression they respect the right of the people to know but reserve the right to let them know only what they want them to know. The struggle has a long and frustrating history.

It befuddles the mind. Governments take the trouble at public expense to find out facts about what went wrong, why it went and the implications it might have for the country and the people. The purpose is for it to properly inform the people and re-assure them that it is willing and capable of setting matters aright.

You then wonder why the same government would place the findings of the panel or committee on the shelves and leave them to gather dust and deny the people the right to know. The government knows that by treating the report of its own panel or committee this way, it solves no problems. More importantly, the perpetuation of the ignorance of the people somehow hinders rather helps government. I suppose some things are beyond our common ken.

This is where the press comes in. It is the only social institution with the duty and the capacity to needle government to do right by itself and by the people. Since the business of the press is information dissemination, it behoves it to get at information that faces the risk of being suppressed by the government for any number of reasons.  It must tread gingerly.

Here is where it gets tricky for the press. Although section 22 of the constitution obliges it to freely “uphold….the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people,” government does not quite share that high sentiment because it believes that when it commissions a report into a matter of public interest, it owns that report and cannot be compelled to open it to the public before and if it chooses of its own free will to do so.

The usual excuse for government sitting on the report of an investigation empanelled by it lies in the vague but popular definition and application of national security, a phrase deemed to legally and morally authorise a government to keep its secrets always secret, even when doing so is counterproductive. It bears repeating: governments hate being held accountable to the people. Those who try to force it risk the hammer coming down on their heads. I should know. The irony is that governments do not often recognise the duty of the press to help them do a better job as envisaged by section 22 of the constitution. To be sure, that section does not seek to create a supra-government organisation; it only seeks to aid open government.

Part of the reason for government taking refuge under national security to sit on such reports is that government investigations always have to do with its failures. Here is a recent case. President Muhammadu Buhari came into office in 2015 waving the sword in the face of corruption. The anti-grant war is the longest running war in our land. It had got a new commander who was prepared to wage the war more in deeds than in precepts.

The president promised to prosecute the anti-graft war in a manner that no one before him had done and that by the time he was through, corruption would be lost in the annals of our national history. Future generations would only read about rather than experience it. He has been as good as his word: running after treasury looters and Abacha loot wherever EFCC could find them.

It is not foolish or inconceivable to expect that given Buhari’s robust promise, six years into his two terms in office we would hear the groans of the mortally wounded corruption drawing its last breath. Here is evidence that the medical record on the state of corruption does not bear out our hopes for a more acceptable image for our country. Buhari’s ant-corruption czar was a senior police officer, Ibrahim Magu. The president appointed him as acting chairman of EFCC on November 9, 2020, despite the refusal by the senate to confirm him as required by law. Buhari ignored the senate because the upper chamber, in rejecting Magu was questioning his judgement as presidential. The right of the African big man to treat the rule of law with contempt when it suits is tradition with a tap root reaching into the bowels of the earth.

On July 7, 2020, the roof caved in on Magu. And the president had rotten eggs on his face. On the basis of a petition written against him by the attorney-general of the federation and minister of justice, Abubakar Malami, Buhari suspended Magu from office and shunted him aside so he could look into the facts of the petition before acting. The president appointed a seven-man panel headed by Justice Ayo Salami, to investigate the allegations against Magu. The panel has since concluded its investigation and reported back to Buhari. And wall of silence want up around the report.

The president has kept the public in the dark about the findings of the panel. Did it find Magu guilty as charged or was he a victim of power-play in the administration? Mum is the word. But the president gave Magu’s job to another man. He had become history in the commission. He is neither retired nor dismissed but the police service commission would not give him the promotion he has earned.

I thought this was such a weighty matter that it ought not to have been treated so cavalierly. The press has failed to interrogate the attitude of the president to the findings of a panel set up by him. Is he right to say nothing about the report and leave the public and Magu in limbo with the unsightly necklace of corruption around his neck?

The allegations against Magu were/are of major public interest. I suppose that was why the president set up the panel because he wanted to treat them with all seriousness. He needed no one to tell him that suspending Magu on those allegations had implications for the anti-graft war and the manner it is being prosecuted under his watch. The allegations bordered on the integrity of the anti-graft war. If they were false, then the president should tell the public and free Magu from his suspended limbo. If they were found to be true, then Buhari needed no one to tell him that he must make an example of the former EFCC boss to save his anti-graft war and himself from public ridicule.

The press needs to needle the president to do right by himself. The anti-graft war is a public war. It rides on the public hope that this nation shall one day be unshackled from the millstone of corruption and enjoy a better international image among nations that refuse to make corruption a way of life, individually, officially, and nationally.

It may be difficult for the press to obtain the full report of the panel but if a newspaper shows more than casual interest in it, its reporters could find cracks, no matter how tiny, in the wall of silence built around the report. Once a crack develops, there would be leakages. Bits and pieces of nuggets would tell the public what it wants to know about the report of the panel. If the press fails to use its nose, it offends section 22 of the constitution. For the people, it is the right to know; the government has a duty to let them know.