In March 2017, the Senate, headed by Bukola Saraki, rejected the nomination of Mr Ibrahim Magu as chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), few months after it passed the same verdict. The man who headed the Senate Committee on Anti-Corruption and Financial Crimes in the eight Senate, Chukwuka Utazi, opens up in this interview with FRED ITUA on what transpired. He also spoke on other salient issues.
Some people were shocked when you were named chairman, Senate Committee on Primary Health and Communicable Diseases, having headed the Anti-Corruption Committee in the eight Senate
As a lawyer and a political scientist, we are trained to do anything. There is a law for any aspect of life. As a lawyer, you can fit into any position. So, I don’t see anything wrong with it. When I came in 2015, I didn’t make any choice to head the committee I was given. When I was eventually named, I used the internet to search for all the information I needed. I started doing the job. I am doing the same thing. I am studying. With time, I will get used to the work. Besides, our job is administrative. And we also carry out oversights.
In the eight Senate, you headed the Anti-Corruption and Financial Crimes Committee. Your Committee was at the centre of a controversy on the non-confirmation of Ibrahim Magu as chairman of EFCC. How did you react when you were bypassed and the entire Senate had to handle the confirmation hearing?
There was nobody that shortchanged my office. Any confirmation on Anti-Corruption, ditto EFCC and ICPC, passed through me. I was part and parcel of it. The only confirmation that had to come to the floor was that of Magu. That was what the Senate wanted then. So, they asked him to come. But members of the board of EFCC came to me.
If you were allowed to screen board members of EFCC, why were you not allowed to screen Magu too?
Some critical confirmations like that were done on the floor of the Senate. Like the CBN Governor, for instance, he was asked to face the entire Senate. As I said, I screened board members. They couldn’t go through because they didn’t meet the geopolitical spread. The Federal Character principle was not adopted. I presented the report, but the Senate decided not to confirm them because the appointments were lopsided. Other geopolitical zones were complaining.
There is this accusation that the non-confirmation of Magu was a personal vendetta. Is that claim true?
As chairman of Anti-Corruption Committee, I worked well with Magu. I supervised him well and ensured that the budget of the Commission was increased. I did what no other person before did as chairman of that committee. It’s on record. I know what their budget was before I came. I was instrumental to the completion of that EFCC building. I went to the presidency and complained that it was wrong for the EFCC to have offices scattered across Abuja. I convinced them to raise the budget since President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration was based on anti-corruption. They listened to me and I came to the Senate, discussed with more people. We were able to jerk up the budget. That was what I did.
What about those who still hold the view that former governors, including Bukola Saraki who were facing corruption charges, frustrated the confirmation?
What happened on the floor of the Senate was not under my control. If the Senate had issues with Magu, that’s their own. I made all the efforts humanly possible to ensure that Magu was screened and confirmed. Ask Magu and he will tell you. I went out of my way to reconcile Magu with Saraki. I took Magu to the house of Saraki in Maitama. I did everything to reconcile them. I told the two of them that they were performing institutional roles. I told the two of them that nothing should be personal and that the two institutions- Senate and EFCC must operate. I begged them to forget about everything and look at the institutional roles.
I prepared questions for Magu during the confirmation hearing that will guide him. I went that far to assist him. I looked at all the questions that border on his office. I also asked him the ones that suited him. I had worked with him for a while and I could tell of his strengths and weaknesses. I prepared those things. It was unfortunate that at the end of the day, we had a logjam. Some other people were thinking differently from the way I was thinking. I didn’t have control over events at the Senate to have pushed through with Magu’s confirmation.
As chairman of the committee then, you led your members to offices of EFCC and ICPC across the country to ascertain the condition of facilities there. Your findings were never made public.
When I went for those oversight functions, it was not at the prompting of the Senate. There was no resolution asking me to do that. If there was a resolution, I would have come back to the floor of the Senate with a report. We went round on our own to see things for ourselves. With the information we got, we were able to sit down with the heads of the various agencies to discuss our findings with them. If you remember when you accompanied me, I didn’t tell EFCC or ICPC that I was coming for a visit. That’s the essence of oversight. You need to see things the way they are. You don’t have to announce that you’re coming and they begin to prepare for your arrival. We did that to make the agencies better. I know the headship of the two agencies benefited from the visits.
During your oversight visits, I recall some suspects were kept in detention facilities for months without being charged to court. Did you also resolve these issues with the two agencies?
We received several petitions that most of the detention facilities, especially that of EFCC, were converted to other uses and were doing routine police work. We went there and confirmed those things in their various offices. By the time we returned to Abuja and confronted Magu, he removed the person in charge of Lagos office. If we had not gone there, he wouldn’t have known what was happening there. We also engaged with the staff during our visitations. That’s the essence of oversights.
The last ministerial confirmation was condemned by Nigerians. There are also claims that this is a sign of things to come and that the Senate will not be independent. Do you subscribe to these claims?
That is the perception and it is different from the reality in the National Assembly. These appointments made by President Muhammadu Buhari were different from that of 2015. The essence of the screening was to get the necessary information. We did the best of our ability. We didn’t need to abuse or harass those nominees. We did it well.
What about the fear that it will be a rubber-stamp Senate?
Is there anybody who has ever headed the National Assembly that is more qualified than Lawan? We have seen his profile. He’s the man for the job. We have seen him under crisis. In 2015, he was almost going to be the President of the Senate. We knew he would be Senate President. If you conduct the election again, he will win. He lost so many positions and didn’t fight with anyone. He didn’t lose his cool. I know with Lawan’s experience, he will manage the National Assembly well. Currently, he is mounting pressure on the Executive to submit the budget and return the country to the January to December budget circle. He doesn’t need to shout. Everyone has his style of getting things done. Lawan will come out as one of the best leaders the National Assembly will ever have.
Recently, the ICPC claimed that you held on to items meant for your constituents. What happened?
For those who know me, they know what I can do. I got materials like every other person. The contractors don’t come at the same time. They come at different times. As I am talking, some books are still coming and some are yet to be supplied. Elections were around the corner. 2018 up to 2019 were election period. I didn’t want to share those materials during the elections. I didn’t want to be accused of using the items to induce voters. My people were aware. I told them I had these things and that I was going to distribute them after the elections.
After the elections, I returned to Abuja to conclude work on pending bills on anti-corruption. It’s on record that all the anti-corruption bills that were there for over 14 years were passed during my time. The NFIU bill was a private one I sponsored and it was the fastest ever passed. Then we had the retreat and the inauguration. I was also named as a member of the Welfare Committee. That was what happened. In selecting those to benefit, we used churches to get the people. It took them over four months to get these people who were to benefit.
I don’t have any issue with ICPC tracking these things. They came to my house in Enugu to check. The next morning, trouble started. I complained to the chairman of ICPC about the publication in the media. I went about my business. Then all the stories followed. We distributed the items to the people. Whatever anybody is writing doesn’t bother me. A clear conscience fears no accusation. Maybe some people wanted to malign me. As a politician, it’s expected to happen.
What about the controversy over the CBN empowerment for your people?
It’s the same thing with the CBN issue. They said I collected N5,000 and couldn’t keep the agreement I had with the people. Part of my mandate is not to create jobs. I went out of my way to solve a problem. I discussed with the CBN Governor to empower my people. He said they had an office in Abia State. I had to move them to Nsukka to train 1,500 youths. These people paid the money into the account of those who trained them. If you add up the money, it will amount to N7.5 million. I spent money on their accommodations and other costs. Those who are envious are doing everything they can to bring me down. I am a faith-based politician. My Bible tells me that I will face persecution. That should not scare me away from public life.