15 October 2011
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, which was established to combat graft in all its ramifications, appears to have gone into inertia because of its inability to try and convict high profile Nigerians who have allegedly stolen huge sums of money from public coffers. While the commission has been treating powerful politicians with kid gloves, apparently because of their clout, others who were tried at all, were given ‘soft landings’ through very light and controversial sentences not commensurate with the gravity of their offences. In the aftermath, the agency has largely been perceived by many Nigerians as a toothless bulldog or a tool in the hands of the government to fight its opponents.
But following this week’s spirited attempt by the agency to prosecute some PDP ex-governors hitherto considered untouchable, many are wondering whether it is now ready to come out of its shell, bark and bite. Deputy Editor, SONI DANIEL and AHURAKA ISAH report.
Corruption, like a plague, has ravaged the Nigeria’s landscape and bruised its psyche. The cankerworm has menacingly gripped the nation’s life and left many previously flourishing sectors in a squalid state. Its stench can easily be perceived while its untidy hands are manifest everywhere one turns. Overall, the monster has become a way of life.
To illustrate the extent to which corruption has come to be accepted as a norm, passengers in a commercial bus would easily chide the driver for wasting their precious time if he delays in ‘settling’ policemen and other security agents at the multiple checkpoints that dot the nation’s highways.
Similarly, businessmen would rather part with a lot of money in the process of securing government jobs than losing out and the chain continues. Nigeria has been taken hostage by the malaise and many commentators are worried that a large chunk of the country’s earnings has been swallowed by corruption.
Last month the BBC ran a programme which exposed the ease with which a Nigerian passport could be acquired by anyone, including foreigners, provided the price is right. In fact, the foreign reporter, according to reports, spent just a few minutes to secure the services of an immigration official, who was prepared to provide the Nigerian passport at a fee.
The pioneer chairman of the EFCC, Nuhu Ribadu, once pointed out that more than £220billion (about $500billion) of development assistance had been stolen from Nigeria by past leaders since Independence. This amount, he said, was more than six times the value in money that went into rebuilding Western Europe at the end of the Second World.
Ribadu said: “The money that past Nigerian leaders have stolen in a 40-year-time capsule could have created the beauty and glory of western Europe six times all over in this country”.
Today, we celebrate the economic, political and social stability of Western Europe and rue our own vast but lost opportunities,” he lamented.
But in spite of the demonisations at times and lamentations at other sessions by top government officials and the clergy, the looting has not abated. Political office holders and other public workers, upon assumption of duties, go to their offices with a fixation to take their own share of the national cake and in the process confer more status on themselves in the social and political spheres.
In the 2011 Corruption Perception Index, published by Transparency International, for instance, Nigeria was poorly rated in the ranking of countries because of the virus that has refused to die down. It scored only 2.4 on a scale of 0-10.
It was therefore not surprising that when the Presidential Projects Assessment Committee, (PPAC), recently submitted its report of project implementation in the country, the outcome outraged well-meaning Nigerians.
The report has it that no fewer than 11,886 infrastructural projects worth N7.78 trillion that would have given the nation a facelift had been abandoned at various locations across the country even though most of them had been paid for by the government, one way or the other. The report left a big question mark on the administration of government projects by those charged with the responsibility of managing them.
Funds meant for public projects have been easily looted through a phoney contract system that leaves the nation worse off even though more money is being pumped into the system.
It has become a fad by dubious Nigerians who pose as turnkey contractors but are actively fronting for top politicians and government officials to corner juicy government jobs and disappear into thin air after being mobilised. In other instances, the jobs are abandoned or poorly executed after the so-called contractors have been fully paid by the government for purely political or pecuniary reasons.
While the milking of the government through contracts may be seen as old-fashioned and even more laborious, the alleged looting of public funds by ex-governors and other top public officers appears simpler and more rampant since the return of civilian rule in the country. The looting has become widespread in the states with the successful pocketing of the respective houses of assembly by some sitting governors, thereby rendering the lawmakers impotent and incapable of exercising their oversight functions over the chief executives.
But in a move considered proactive, the federal government last year attempted to empower its anti-graft agencies to be able to confront the monster, which had been afflicting the nation. It promulgated Gazette Number 61, vol. 97 dated September 21, 2010 to give more bite to law establishing the Economic and Financial Crimes and Related Offences
Commission. However, it has been discovered that rather than aid the work of the commission, the gazette has tended to whittle the power of the anti-graft agency and leave its work at the discretion of the Attorney General of the Federation, Mr. Mohammed Adoke, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN.
The summary of the law is that the EFCC must seek and obtain the approval of the attorney general before prosecuting any person suspected to have corruptly enriched himself.
Section 10 of the fresh regulation states: “Where the EFCC conducts investigation in respect of a case or complaint which is serious and complex, it shall forward to the AGF the outcome of the investigations with its recommendations on whether there are sufficient grounds to initiate prosecution”.
Nigerians are therefore worried that the new law has effectively handed over the functions of the agency to the AGF and rendered the agency impotent. Even before the promulgation of the gazette, the AGF had displayed to the nation that it was not interested in prosecuting graft cases involving top political figures especially those in the ruling party, PDP, as evidence in the discontinuation of the Halliburton and Siemens cases, which had touched on prominent serving and former public offices holders and members of the PDP.
But the minister has defended his action, saying that he effected the changes in the law setting up the agencies to bring about more efficiency in their performance and not to stand on their way.
He therefore advised the two agencies not to blame him for what they have been passing through but to take a cue from similar institutions in the West, who have become very effective in tacking financial and economic crimes.
But as the simmering row between the chief law officer and the agency rages, it is left to be seen how far they can go in trying and convicting four former PDP governors who are currently standing trial for alleged graft running into billions of public funds.
The former governors are : Gbenga Daniel (Ogun), Aliyu Akwe Doma (Nassarawa), Adebayo Alao-Akala (Oyo) and Danjuma Goje (Gombe) states who allegedly looted their states’ treasury to the tune of N101 billion. The trio of Doma, Daniel and Alao-Akala were arrested by the EFCC on October 6, 2011 and detained in the Commission’s custody in Abuja.
Although Alao-Akala was on Wednesday granted bail in the sum of N500 million and the case adjourned, the others are set to stand trial presumably in their respected states where the alleged offences were committed.
Although the EFCC had dragged the former governors, who are also very influential members of the ruling PDP and had actually contributed significantly to the success of the present administration, it is not clear whether the attorney general will give the nod to their trial. It is not also known whether the agency’s chairman, Farida Waziri had sought and obtained his consent before arraigning them as demanded by the AGF.
In spite of the frenzy with which the EFCC has handled trial of the four ex-governors, it is yet to convince doubting Nigerians that it will be different from previous shams that have become the order of the day in recent times.
There is not yet enough reason for Nigerians to celebrate because there are no fewer than 65 high profile graft cases, which the commission had initiated but are still hanging in the balance. Most of them are pending in trial and appellate courts and the commission appears helpless in pushing them further. As at September 2006 for example, the EFCC had told the nation that it was investigating 31 out of Nigeria’s 36 governors for graft but with alleged ‘order from above’ it suddenly discontinued the so-called investigations.
Even the trial of the 14 former governors, which the commission had started shortly after the former governors who served between 1999 and 2007, vacated offices, is yet to see the light of the day.
That lackadaisical attitude on the part of the agency has been responsible for the return of the many of the suspects to the public space under the guise of ‘rendering selfless service to my people’.
The vacillation by the EFCC aided Saminu Turaki of Jigawa State, George Akume of Benue State, Chimaroke Nnamani of Enugu and Abdullahi Adamu of Nasarawa State to stand election and become Senators despite the huge sums they allegedly stole while in office. Apart from James Ibori, who was recently extradited to London to face trial for alleged graft, the others are still walking the streets of Nigeria free and enjoying the ‘fruits of their labour’ while in office.
Others whose cases are still pending are: Joshua Dariye of Plateau who recently failed in his bid to go to the Senate, Abubakar Audu (Kogi), Orji Uzor Kalu (Abia), Boni Haruna (Adamawa), Michael Botmang (Plateau). Others are Ayo Fayose (Ekiti), Jolly Nyame (Taraba), Rasheed Ladoja (Oyo) and Attahiru Bafarawa (Sokoto) who is trying to recover from the loss of his failed presidential bid.
Before the end of their tenure, EFCC had cited immunity as the factor stopping its operatives from arresting and prosecuting the former governors but it is hardly known what is keeping their trial at bay many years after they left government houses.
Although most of the suspects have fought back by making effective use of the judiciary to hamstring the EFCC, it is clear that the commission itself has been tied to the apron strings of the politicians and does not have the required independence to try suspects based on the gravity of their offences.
A common practice that the agency has deployed in recent times in a bid to hoodwink Nigerians to believe that it is working is to publicise the arrest and detention of top politicians and charge them to courts only to soft-pedal once the powerful and well connected suspects are granted bail.
Those who lose their bail bids are quick to approach appellate courts for review and often return with favourable verdicts, as evidenced in the case of Lucky Igbenedion of Edo State, who floored the commission in its bid to slam him with fresh corruption charges shortly after the same agency, had granted him a contentious plea bargain that outraged the nation.
In most of these cases, political affiliation rather altruism seems to determine who is taken to court and not. The same criterion may also determine whether the petitions written against suspected looters are ‘strong enough’ to warrant investigation, arrest and prosecution by the agency. Those who are well connected may have their case files ‘missing’ or no prima facie case established against them, depending on which side of the political divide they belong and the expediency of the time.
A case in point is the controversy currently surrounding the first lady over her alleged laundering of funds running into millions of Naira when her husband was the governor of Bayelsa State.
While Justice Auwuli of the Federal High Court Abuja had on August 22, 2006 heard the EFCC suit number FHC/ABJ/M/340/06 brought against Mrs. Jonathan, then the first lady of the Bayelsa state for allegedly laundering a sum of N104million, the EFCC is now denying ever having any information on the matter. Its chairman, Farida Waziri, recently came out openly to say that she did not have any information on the matter and that it was wrong for Nigerians to continue to talk about the matter when her predecessor did not find it strong enough to pursue. “I have no case file like that in my office,” Farida stated.
Presidential spokesman, Reuben Abati, also rose in stout defence of the first lady, describing the allegation as the figment of the reporter’s imagination.
“The incident described above never happened and is at best a figment of the reporter’s imagination. Let me state categorically that at no time was $13.5 million or any other sum seized from Dame Patience Jonathan at the Lagos airport or any other airport,” Abati stated.
Although the case file might have developed wings over time, the moral question lingers and lowers the EFCC in the estimation of right-thinking Nigerians who expect it to treat corruption cases strictly on merit and not on the political weight of the individuals or groups.
The same scenario recently played out when the lame duck Code of Conduct Bureau Bureau, which has never convicted any known figure in the country for graft, suddenly woke up from somnolence and dragged former Lagos State governor, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, to the CCT for allegedly operating foreign accounts while in office. The fact that the CCT singled out Tinubu, whose party, the CAN floored the ruling party in the South-West in the last election, leaves the nation with no option than to suspect that Tinubu is being prosecuted. The CCB is yet to give convincing reasons why former governors mostly from the PDP who served along with Tinubu, were not charged.
A political analyst, James Matthews, says the EFCC and other anti-graft agencies in the country were merely being used by the government to hound their perceived opponents. He says the commission and its sister agencies like the Code of Conduct Bureau are not sincere in the fight against corruption as long as they were taking orders from the government on who to prosecute.
According to the analyst, the ongoing media hype by the EFCC over the prosecution of the four former PDP governors is intended to give the impression that it was committed to trying politicians from all divides and justify the attempt to try former Lagos State governor, Ahmed Tinubu by the CCT.
“The current anti-corruption agencies are a sham and nothing concrete will come out of them unless the government hands off the appointment and dismissal of its officers and men,” said a top player in the current administration, who did not want his name in the print.
Adoke has defended why some high profile cases were not tried and others given plea bargains, a reticent nation is not amused by the double standard that has been used in handling corruption trials in the land.
He insists that even if the criminal prosecution is successfully carried out, Nigerian courts would not be able to collect more than N250 from a single convict because our criminal laws allow them to part with a paltry fraction of their loots as fine.
“The time our criminal laws were created we were still measuring our wealth in hundreds and thousands,” he moaned.
An EFCC prosecuting counsel, Godwin Obla , also shares the same opinion, lamenting that the criminal laws are outdated and needed to be updated to cope with the prevailing financial crime challenges in the land.
Chief Mike Ozekhome (SAN) lends credence to the position, arguing that the current criminal laws in Nigeria are archaic and asked the AGF and the National Assembly to take urgent steps to amend them to cope with the current realities.
But whatever happens, the EFCC appears to be standing on a quicksand, tossed by political currents and is fast drifting towards a moribund state. The situation is not likely to change in a jiffy as long as the decline in its performance serves the pecuniary interest of individuals and groups in government that brought the EFCC chairman and her operatives aboard. A bad omen for the country and its people, one would say..