Civil Society Organisations and lawyers have faulted an assertion by the Federal Government that President Muhammadu Buhari’s medical bills are “classified” information.
They said it was not true that a document stating how much money was spent on the President’s medical treatment, being a public officer, constitutes a matter of national security.
They also said that non-disclosure of the document would encourage corruption, which the President is renowned for fighting against.
President Buhari has been under pressure of recent to disclose the amount of money spent on his medical treatment in London, the United Kingdom.
After spending 49 days in London on medical vacation, the President had returned to the country on Friday, March 10, 2017, when he confessed that “I have never been this sick.”
Though several Nigerians were happy for his safe return, they said it was important for them to know how much was spent on his medical treatment abroad.
Saturday PUNCH had also, in line with the Freedom of Information Act, sent a letter to the Presidency, requesting it to provide for public consumption the President’s medical bills in the UK as there were speculations that he (Buhari) might have spent between £200 and £250 per hour for medical services abroad.
But on Wednesday, the Federal Government said despite pressure from groups and individuals, it would not disclose the amount spent on the President’s recent medical treatment in London.
The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, made the Federal Government’s stand known while answering questions from journalists at the end of the weekly meeting of the Federal Executive Council at the Presidential Villa, Abuja.
Mohammed had said the request should be considered on the basis of national security and morals, stating that the FoI Act excluded issues bordering on national security.
He said, “This matter (the President’s medical bills) has come several times and our position on the matter is quite straightforward.
“We believe that asking for how much has been spent on the health of the President is an issue that we should weigh very well, both for national security and also for moral issues. I don’t know why we must divulge such very sensitive information.
“Yes, there is the Freedom of Information Act, but it is also carved in such a way that when such information is likely to endanger national security, I think it is an area that is not covered.”
Contrary to Mohammed’s claim that the President’s medical bills are a “sensitive” information, a lawyer, Ebun Olu-Adegboruwa, said there was nothing classified about the health status of the President or any other public officer for that matter.
He said, “So long as they are spending public funds, we are entitled to know the reason why such public funds were spent and not only the reason, but also the details.
“It is totally insulting on our intelligence for any minister to say that Nigerians are not entitled to the details and the amount of the health treatment of the President.”
Adegboruwa added that failure to disclose the President’s medical bills could encourage corruption.
The President, Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, Malachy Ugwummadu, said the starting point is to insist that governance must be demystified from the standpoint of hoarding information.
He said, “I disagree with the Minister of Information that the amount spent on Buhari’s health, by any stretch of imagination, amounts to a security threat or classified issue.
“Saturday PUNCH must hold the government accountable to the people under Section 22 of the Constitution and can proceed to activate the sections of the act that empowers you with legal proceedings with a view to getting that information.
“It is the court that can now decide with all finality whether the government is right or wrong. My view is that the government is wrong and cannot continue to hold that position.
“That information is important to the Nigerian people. With that information, the suffering masses of this country can understand the volume of what goes into medical tourism and what the Nigerian people are losing because government has failed to fix medical facilities in the country.”
Ugwummadu further said “any such action by the government that is lacking in transparency unwittingly encourages corruption because corruption thrives in an environment of secrecy.”
Another lawyer, Liborous Oshoma, said the President’s medical bills could not be considered as classified information as it would in no way harm national security.
He said it would be tantamount to corruption if the Presidency still fails to disclose the President’s medical bills as requested by Saturday PUNCH.
He said, “It is not classified information. He is a public officer and what can be more corrupt when the President refuses to tell us how much was spent during his medical vacation? We need to know whether the amount was budgeted for or where it was taken from. Was it his salary? We should know.
“The President can be sick as any human being, but we should know how much is being spent on his health. Or is it that the amount is outrageous and the Presidency doesn’t want people to know this? Non-disclosure is corruption. Accountability and transparency demand that we know how much was spent.”
The Executive Director, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, Adetokunbo Mumuni, said he still could not comprehend what the Minister of Information, Mohammed, meant when he described the information about the cost of Buhari’s medical treatment as a matter of national security.
He said, “I don’t understand what Lai Mohammed means by the information being a matter of national security; information concerning the public funds spent on our President is a matter of public concern and once is a matter of public concern, that overrides every other thing and that makes it releasable. So I don’t understand what the government means by matter of national security.
“Anybody that has written to get the information can sue the government if it fails to disclose the information and let the court decide.”
The President, Campaign for Democracy, Bako Usman, who described the government’s anti-corruption fight as gradually becoming a joke, said, “The government of the day is making a caricature of its fight against corruption because having seen what is going on in the National Assembly and the executive arm of government and the refusal to release this information about the medical bills, it is laughable in the sense that the information Saturday PUNCH and CSOs are asking for is not classified or national threat in nature.
“So I don’t see why the minister would tell us that it was a matter of national security. Yes, we understand that there are documents that can threaten the nation if they go public but this is not one of them.
“If it was his personal money, nobody would be asking for accountability, but once it is public money, we have the right to know. We would consult with our legal team and see how we can seek redress.”
The Executive Chairman, Centre for Anti-Corruption and Open Leadership, Mr. Debo Adeniran, also said the information could not be said to be classified.
He said, “When any money that belongs to the Federal Government is being expended, those in charge must account for every kobo that is spent, especially on matters that are not strictly security.
“It is only when it comes to matters that have to do with security that they will say they don’t want to disclose so that enemies will not know their strength and weaknesses.
“I believe that they can give a general overview of how much was spent because we need accountability, probity and openness in governance.”
He said, “Lack of transparency will encourage corruption. When government business is shrouded in secrecy, it gives room for those who want to perpetrate corruption to do their thing.
“A government like Buhari’s rode on the mantra that it would fight corruption, which presupposes that there would be transparency and accountability. It should live up to the expectation of the public if it doesn’t want to lose the respect that the public have for the government.”
A presidential aspirant of the National Conscience Party in the 2015 election, Chief Martin Onovo, said “Saturday PUNCH needs to request again. The figure must be obtained. Why are they hiding it? In fact, Nigerians do not only need to know the hospital bills, but even the whole amount spent during the vacation.”