When he embarked on his moral crusade for probity among public office holders, especially in the management of public funds, President Muhammadu Buhari could hardly have bargained for the series of challenges currently emerging. Whether Buhari likes it or not, he cannot avoid the challenges.
The first of them is what, in the Nigerian political parlance, is fast becoming another abandoned project. On trial all along before Buhari assumed office was the scandal of over two trillion naira subsidy fraud. It was straightforward. Paid by the NNPC to oil importers purportedly as subsidy, neither ex-President Goodluck Jonathan nor former Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, knew about the huge payment(s), or so they both claimed. Worse still, the National Assembly never appropriated that huge expenditure.
What, therefore, has happened to the trials of those involved in the subsidy theft. In some cases, trials were adjourned. Indefinitely? President Buhari must demand from EFCC full account of the trials.
The challenge facing President Buhari, therefore, on this particular issue, is that he must not let it be recorded for him in history that he abandoned the fuel subsidy fraud for the arms expenditure theft. None is more tolerable than the other. If anything, the $2.1 billion arms money row (420 billion naira) is chicken feed compared to over two trillion naira fuel subsidy fraud. Buhari must call for the Nuhu Ribadu report on the fuel subsidy widespread looting. After four years, none of the trials is yet concluded.
The second challenge facing President Buhari is the handling of the culprits of the arms money scandal. While some are facing trial in law courts, it seems others are being treated with kid gloves. Consequently, those involved don’t know and do not accept the gravity of their offence. Hence, their arrogance and unrepetance. Nigerians are now being irritated with a nebulous distinction between assumed PDP money and stolen state funds. With that posture (more out of desperation to escape), Buhari is being dared, if not ridiculed. It is a challenge he must confront, by the way, not necessarily for himself but for Nigeria. If some are on trial and cannot even meet their bail conditions, why must others be daring the government?
It is an established fact that PDP committed a crime of collecting state funds unlawfully and distributed some to accomplices. Or does the PDP print the naira? In effect, PDP emerged to have stolen state funds. Anybody who thereafter received in part or whole, is guilty of receiving stolen property. They knew they were stealing public funds. That was why, in the run-up to the election campaigns, Nigerians were deceived with a stage-managed donation of funds by the private sector at the Banquet Hall, Aso Rock.
No matter how tenable was Buhari’s initial policy of stick and carrot or his leniency of allowing the crooks to refund the loot, Nigeria is turning out to be the loser. Those who embraced Buhari’s leniency are cutting a sorry figure for themselves as fools in refunding any money at all. All they too had to do was to defy and dare Buhari, and nothing would have happened to them like the unrepentant ones. It is baffling why these fellows are not being arraigned. By their admission, they knew PDP gave them money and they collected the money. Does their ignorance of the source of receiving stolen property necessarily and legally shield them from returning the stolen property? That is at the most lenient.
If, therefore, even at that, the culprits are daring government, it is a challenge Buhari must pick up by allowing the law courts to determine whether that ignorance is an excuse. Nigerian judiciary is capable of many strange pronouncements and should be allowed to further dent its reputation. What is unacceptable is for President Buhari to be soft with those who stole almost one billion naira while forcing others to refund five or twenty-five million naira.
Buhari is on record that his priority is first to recover the stolen funds, implying that probably, it might no longer be necessary to try such looters. But are those daring him on that score not facing him with a challenge? Yet, these are fellows, who should not only have taken up the offer but should, in fact, have co-operated with Buhari by repenting and apologising to Nigerians. In so doing, the culprits would have merited Buhari’s leniency. But not only do they no longer deserve any mercy, they must also be made to account for their loot.
There is one other compelling reason President Buhari must make the crooks face trial. The 2019 elections are near enough to offer them the notorious self-rehabilitation. The standard practice is to exploit political opportunities by seeking elective offices, to which once elected, even the prosecution will gradually become less enthusiastic.
Without proper trial in law courts for proper conviction, any of these arrogant fellows will emerge as aspirants to public office in 2019. Security reports by State Security Services (SSS) and INEC would not be tenable in law or, at least, never proved tenable in law to bar them from holding public offices for some ten years after their crimes.
Off to the law courts they would take to establish that any such ban, as a breach of their fundamental human rights, is unconstitutional. And the law courts, ever jealous of their supremacy has established that whatever administrative inquiry or even Buhari’s leniency in making crooks refund looted fund, would never be a substitute for trial in law courts for proper conviction.
The latest of such rulings, quite rightly, was the one, which upheld the election of Governor Ayo Fayose of Ekiti State for the second time. It is a point of law, the challenge of which President Buhari must take against both suspects and accused in the arms money scandal. Otherwise, all his vows would amount to empty boast, moreso, if these bad guys are once again allowed on the political scene in 2019.
By the way, it has just been announced that President Buhari is soonest to account for how much he has recovered from the looters. He should be reminded of his full promise. As much as whatever amount he gives will be in line with his pledge, that would be only in part. His full pledge was that not only would he report the amount to Nigerians but that he would also disclose the identities of the crooks, who refunded the money. On top of this, he must make them face trial to establish a judicial point for banning them from holding public office in the immediate future.