FORMER President Olusegun Obasanjo has queried the capacity of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to successfully subdue corruption in Nigeria. Speaking during his 79th birthday celebration in Abeokuta on Saturday, 5 March 2016, Obasanjo expressed his sadness about the EFCC’s poor achievement record. At the same time, Obasanjo extolled the performance of the first chairperson of the EFCC, Nuhu Ribadu, when he said: “Honestly, when Nuhu was handling EFCC, he handled it in such a way that people coined the saying that ‘the fear of Nuhu Ribadu is the beginning of wisdom’ and then the question you will ask is, how did we go down? How did we lose that?”
Obasanjo’s blanket condemnation of the EFCC since Ribadu was eased out of the agency was so blinkered and so simplistic he did not even accord recognition to the efforts being made by the current chair of the EFCC, Ibrahim Mustafa Magu, to reform and improve the performance of the organisation. Anyone who understands Obasanjo would easily see through his comments as archetypical. Here is a man who believes he has superlative powers to transform into gold everything he touches. Here is a man who spreads the propaganda that God specially selected him so he could fix the problems that have enfeebled Nigeria for decades. Whether he used those overblown powers to improve life in Nigeria is still open to debate.
For the record, Obasanjo’s belief that he is a rare, incorruptible, exceptional, and irreproachable man must be weighed against the findings of a House of Representatives Committee on Power that examined the way Obasanjo’s government mishandled the power sector for eight years between 1999 and 2007. The committee reported appalling cases of abuse of office that led the committee to recommend that the EFCC should investigate Obasanjo and other principal officers who served in his administration. It is useful to note that the 10-volume report produced by the House Committee also dedicated a special section to Obasanjo, with emphasis on the need to scrutinise Obasanjo to determine the extent to which he was culpable for the deals that ruined the power sector.
Specifically, the House Committee reported: “In view of the enormity of issues entailed in the findings above, it is recommended that former President Olusegun Obasanjo should be called to account for the recklessness in power sector during his time. The committee recommends that EFCC and the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences (ICPC) should investigate him.” So much for one man’s spotless character.
Against this background, it is astonishing and odd that Obasanjo should now criticise an agency of government he created while he was president. During Obasanjo’s tenure as president, the EFCC symbolised an agency that overreached its limits and engaged in unrestrained behaviour. Obasanjo seems to have forgotten the vociferous public outcry against the excesses of the EFCC even while Nuhu Ribadu headed the agency. In fact, during Obasanjo’s presidency, the view persisted that the EFCC was set up by Obasanjo solely to serve the man’s interests.
It is easy to see why Obasanjo eulogised the EFCC that Ribadu led. But the EFCC that Ribadu managed was accused repeatedly of selectively arresting and prosecuting only those regarded by the agency as corrupt, including people who were highly critical of Obasanjo’s authoritarian-style government.
Ribadu was also accused of duplicitous conduct in his anti-corruption campaign by shutting his eyes and ears to corrupt practices by privileged citizens who were seen to be close to Obasanjo. This view received further impetus when Ribadu claimed the EFCC could not spot any blemishes on Obasanjo and senior officials of his government. Nevertheless, Ribadu’s attempts to cast Obasanjo as a blameless president were generally mocked by the citizens.
But wait a minute. It is the same Ribadu who was reported, in a set of leaked United States’ embassy cables published by WikiLeaks in 2011, to have whispered to the ears of the former United States Ambassador to Nigeria, Ms Robin Sanders, that during Obasanjo’s government, corruption was far more endemic than it was under the government of Sani Abacha. That was an exceptionally shocking revelation. WikiLeaks reported that Ribadu’s comments were made when he had a four-hour private meeting with Ms Sanders in late December 2007. That revelation cast into serious doubt the truthfulness of what Ribadu told the nation about Obasanjo’s immaculate record as a morally upright man. The disclosure also destroyed the legend about Obasanjo.
Given the unconscionable examples he set when he was president, does Obasanjo have the moral right to condemn the EFCC, including the EFCC that is now led by Ibrahim Magu? Is Obasanjo’s criticism of the EFCC based on the misleading impression that Ribadu must chair the agency before it can make impact on corruption in the society?
Before Obasanjo runs away with the tenuous idea that the EFCC was most active and therefore unblemished during the time he was president, it is important to remind him that the EFCC of his era was an organisation that abused the human rights of citizens arbitrarily, and paid little attention to the concept of the rule of law. The EFCC of Obasanjo’s time operated under the notion that whoever had the power to arrest citizens should use it recklessly and injudiciously regardless of the law, the rights of citizens to fair hearing, and judgments of the courts.
I have heard the notional and unsupported view that in a society such as ours that adores criminals and money, the only way to fight corruption successfully is to disregard the rule of law. The paradox is that when this quaint viewpoint is implemented, it will lead to the emergence of a lawless society. That society will become ungovernable. A society without regard for the rule of law is a society founded on jungle justice. Is that the kind of society we want to cultivate?
Ever since it was established in 2003, the EFCC’s achievement record has been adjudged to be mediocre. Many people view the anti-corruption agency not only as a highly debilitated organisation but also as a deeply disorganised agency that lacks clear ideas about where it is headed. These assessments might be accurate or exaggerated. One thing that must be acknowledged is that the current chair of the EFCC has been making commendable efforts to apprehend people suspected of engaging in corrupt practices, without fear or favour. That is the way the EFCC should operate.
As I have argued previously, an anti-corruption agency such as the EFCC that is funded and supported with tax payers’ money must live up to public expectations and the key objectives for which it was established.
One of the reasons why many citizens have been critical of, and unimpressed with, the performance of the EFCC is that the agency has focused excessively on apprehending small-time corrupt elements in government offices while high profile corrupt politicians, senior public servants, and wealthy businessmen and women have continued to enrich themselves through corrupt practices. This would seem to suggest that the EFCC of the past has a gross misunderstanding of its core objectives and mandate.
If the EFCC wants to show greater commitment to its objectives, it must apprehend big and small fish that swim in the ocean of corruption. The EFCC needs to refocus its anti-corruption campaign. The agency must bark regularly and at the same time have the teeth to bite. No one should be deemed to be above the law. The EFCC needs extra-legal teeth to succeed as an effective anti-corruption agency.
One of the ambiguities in the war against corruption is that the legal instrument which the EFCC uses to apprehend and charge suspects to court is the same tool used by corrupt officers to beat the law. When, for example, the EFCC hauls politicians and public officers to court to answer to charges of corrupt enrichment, the accused persons also use legal loopholes to avoid conviction. The National Assembly must pass laws to get rid of all the ambiguities that make it easy for criminals to flee from justice.
Whatever happens, we cannot exonerate the Federal Government, the National Assembly, and the judiciary from the problems that have undermined the EFCC. Former chairperson of the EFCC, Ibrahim Lamorde, said before a Senate Committee on Drugs, Narcotics and Financial Crimes in November 2012 that the judiciary had frustrated the agency’s attempts to arrest and prosecute masterminds of crime and corruption because the judiciary worked collaboratively with perpetrators of crime and their lawyers to evade prosecution and to delay legal proceedings.
Obviously, one of the problems that has to be sorted in the war against corruption is corruption in the judiciary. If the judiciary is compromised, weak, ineffective, and vulnerable to inducements, the EFCC will never succeed. This is why the allegation that the judiciary has colluded with sponsors of crime to frustrate the anti-corruption efforts of the EFCC deserves to be treated with seriousness.
Corruption in the judiciary is a serious concern. Incidentally, many of the allegations have come from distinguished senior members of the judiciary. For instance, former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mohammed Uwais, said at the opening of the All Nigeria Judges Conference in Abuja on Monday, 5 December 2005, that fraudulent practices had tarnished the character of judges and amplified public concerns about the honesty of judicial officers.
Apart from corruption in the judiciary, one other problem that has incapacitated the ability of the EFCC to achieve the objectives for which it was set up is insufficient financial support by the government. The Federal Government that established the EFCC has the moral obligation to furnish the organisation with adequate funds to enable the agency to fulfil its mission.