What could possibly be wrong with public office holders becoming more transparent with the way public funds are dispensed? What could possibly be wrong with public office holders being held accountable for how they spend public money while in office? What could possibly be wrong with the public being knowledgeable about how some institutions are maintained or administered with public funds?

 For over a year now, President Buhari has continued with his clamp down on public officers who allegedly stole Nigeria’s money. Of course, it is obviously no news anymore that many politicians in Nigeria have this habit of helping out themselves with public funds. In one instance, for example, documentary evidence indicted members of the National Working Committee (NWC) of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) who allegedly stole funds belonging to the party’s treasury shortly after President Jonathan lost the presidential election on March 28, 2015. It surfaced online.

Photographic evidence were released by close associates of President Jonathan who had a running battle with members of the NWC. Two close associates of the President had spoken to the media on what one of them described as “the shameful stealing of party funds by officials entrusted with running the affairs of the party.” They released photographs of internal vouchers showing that the party’s NWC members shared 250 million naira in unexplained fees to themselves on April 8, 2015. The money was paid out of the party’s Zenith Bank account number ending with 6016.

The evidence revealed that the party’s National Chairman, Adamu Muazu, was paid N100 million through Julius Berger Plc while the Deputy Chairman of the party, Uche Secondus, received N40 million. The documents also revealed that the PDP’s National Secretary, Adewale Oladipo, got N30 million. Other members who got N30 million each included Buhari Bala, who is National Treasurer of the party, Bolaji Akpan Anani, National Financial Secretary, Olisa Metuh, National Publicity Secretary, Adeyanju Fatai, the party’s National Auditor, Abubakar Mustapha, National Organizing Secretary, Kema Chikwe, National Women Leader, Victor Yusuf Kwon, National Legal Adviser, Hussaini Maibasira, and the Deputy National Secretary, Onwe Solomon.

There were several such instances in the various ministries and government parastatals during the administration of President Jonathan.

Yet, when General Buhari and his All Progressives Congress (APC) took over the realm of governance from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) which had ruled (some say misruled) Nigeria for 16 years, there was hope that the PDP would now become a responsible opposition that would enable the ruling APC government to direct its compass appropriately, get closer to the people who elected it into office, know their problems and aspirations, and help them stay on top of those problems. That was the sort of change Nigerians hoped and voted for.

But since then, unfortunately, the PDP has not been able to form a credible or responsible opposition which can challenge the ruling APC to deliver on its manifesto and serve the needs of those who elected it into public office. Gradually, but steadily a situation is beginning to develop in the Nigerian society which, if unchecked, will have an adverse effect on the country’s evolving democracy. It is worrying because it is an issue that can mire the political growth and stability of the country.

The core of the matter is that many politicians in the PDP camp now believe that the current administration is hounding them with its unstoppable inquiry into “stolen money.” They believe that General Buhari is soft with members of his APC party who have been named by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and that basically the touch light is being directed at members of the previous administration.

While it is obvious that the government’s primary concern since its inception is to fish out all those public office holders (now mostly in the opposition party) who stole public money, the result is that many of those in the PDP who have skeletons in their cupboards cannot now concentrate on forming a responsible opposition because they are busier finding ways and means of shielding their ill-gotten money. And as our people say: “you don’t jump a gutter with two legs!”

On 28 May 2011, Nigeria registered one of the important landmarks in its long and arduous journey towards true democratic governance. This is a journey many developed countries have embarked on over so many years, and yet they have not got to their final destination. In fact, only a few years ago, some British parliamentarians and journalists had their fair share of punishment on account of their anti-social behavior towards the trust the British public placed on them. Some of the legislators had been accused of double-­paying themselves for their accommodation. Some allegedly claimed to have two homes, one in London and the other in their constituencies. So, they claimed two housing allowances whereas they lived in only one house. The journalists were alleged to have hacked into the mobile phones of important personalities. The legislators and the journalists who were found guilty were jailed. That was democracy at work.

So, what about 28 May 2011? That was the day President Jonathan signed Nigeria’s Freedom of Information Bill into law. President Jonathan’s signature came to be appended on the Bill eleven years after the first Freedom of Information Bill was submitted to Nigeria’s 4th National Assembly in 1999 and was submerged.

What could possibly be wrong with public office holders becoming more transparent with the way public funds are dispensed? What could possibly be wrong with public office holders being held accountable for how they spend public money while in office? What could possibly be wrong with the public being knowledgeable about how some institutions are maintained or administered with public funds?

The point being made here is that it is time for the Buhari government to absolve itself from this feeling of many Nigerians that it is witch-hunting members of the PDP. The Presidency should begin to encourage Nigerians to make greater use the Freedom of Information Law to assess the public accountability of legislators they voted for and make representations to the EFCC if they feel they have been misrepresented or not represented at all, and that the right thing to do is to lodge a complaint with the EFCC.

That would be a normal democratic procedure. The money belongs to the taxpayers. The taxpayers are the ones who voted in the politicians. So, if money is stolen, it should be the responsibility of the taxpayers to find out what happened. And the means of finding out is enshrined in the law. The executive arm of government should stay completely out of the exercise for two very important reasons. The first is to avoid giving credibility to the theory that it is using the EFCC to get back at its opponents and those who did not vote for their party. The second is not to create the dubious impression that the exercise is simply the same old story with a new caption – get the money from them and share it with us. Many Nigerians feel that when all this money government is involving itself in “recovering” from former public office holders is collected; it simply fritters away into the pockets of the incumbent political class – like jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

Therefore, it has become necessary that Mr. President should look at the hunt for the “criminals” in his opposition party with a second and more politically mature eye. It is important for Mr. President to recognize that most Nigerians feel that the stability of the nation anchored in the nurturing of Nigeria’s evolving democracy is, perhaps, far more important than the current hunt for criminals who stole the people’s money while in public office.

Bearing in mind that whatever concerns the country is more important than what concerns any individual or party, the need to sustain a responsible opposition party has become a great necessity. There are these two national assignments that are yawning for implementation: to get back all the stolen money while weakening the democratic process by not developing a credible opposition or stop at some point so that a responsible opposition can emerge from its ashes and help build a healthy democracy. The President must think about this and make a quick decision. Under his watch, Nigeria’s democracy must not be allowed to crash. What would President Buhari prefer?