Ten years after its inception, Nigerians still believe that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission is yet to live up to its core mandate of reducing the level of corruption in Nigeria
| By Anayo Ezugwu | Nov. 11, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT
THE Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, is 10 years old this year. Ordinarily, that should have been cause for celebration. But the commission is not in a celebration mood. The reason is not far-fetched. Ibrahim Lamorde, EFCC, chairman, says the commission is neck-deep in debts. Recently, he cried out that the EFCC was too broke to even pay lawyers to prosecute its cases in courts. He said that the anti-graft agency had been finding it difficult to meet its obligations to the lawyers handling cases on its behalf.
The most affected are senior lawyers in charge of cases against influential politicians and suspects who are either involved in high profile money laundering or outright stealing. “It is important to note that for 2012, we requested for N21.8 billion from the budget office of the federation out of which only N10.9 billion was allocated. This represented only 51 percent of our requirement,” Lamorde said.
The EFCC boss further disclosed that out of the N300 million and N700 million for legal services and staff/office equipment insurance premium respectively budgeted for 2012, not a kobo was allocated. Of the N10 billion budgeted for the construction of the head office in the 2012 budget, only N3 billion was appropriated and as at November 21, 2012, only N1.39 billion was released. Besides, the total budget estimate of N10.97 billion for 2012 represented a decrease of N2.87 billion from that of 2011 appropriation figure of N13 85bn or 21 per cent thereof.
Paucity of funds in the commission over the years has caused it to abandon some high profile cases in court. Invariably, many ex-governors and public office holders, who have been accused of corruption, are allowed to walk freely about, enjoying their loots. Many of them are either in the National Assembly making laws for the country, while those who are not staying abroad are carrying on with their lives without any hindrance.
For instance, Orji Uzor Kalu, former governor of Abia State, was arraigned on July 27, 2007 before an Abuja high court on a 107-count charge of money laundering, official corruption and criminal diversion of public funds in excess of N5 billion. Kalu approached the court of appeal to set aside the ruling of the federal high court that he had a case to answer. The appellate court dismissed the appeal for lack of merit and gave the anti-graft agency the nod to prosecute him. But since then, the case is yet to be successfully prosecuted. With the charges still hanging on his neck, the former governor is projecting himself as a possible presidential candidate in 2015.
In same boat is Joshua Dariye, former governor of Plateau State. Dariye was arraigned by the EFCC before an Abuja high court on a 23-count charge involving misappropriation of N700 million. Having been granted bail, the former governor later challenged the jurisdiction of the court to try him. He argued that the alleged offence committed by him took place in Plateau State and the funds involved belonged to the state and argued that his trial ought to take place in the state, not in Abuja. The judge dismissed Dariye’s objection, which prompted him to approach the court of appeal, which also threw out the application and ordered him to go and face his trial. While the case was still pending before the law court, Dariye won a senatorial seat in the 2011 polls. He is now enjoying his freedom as a sitting Senator in Abuja.
The same inability of the EFCC to prosecute Dariye is also hampering the prosecution of Saminu Turaki, former governor of Jigawa State, who was docked on a 32-count charge of stealing N36 billion from the state’s treasury. He was granted bail on July 27, 2007 by Justice Binta Murtala Nyako of the federal high court, Abuja. His bail was contested by the EFCC on the ground that the former governor possessed multiple nationalities and could jump bail. In the course of the lawsuit, Turaki secured the transfer of his trial to his home state and while the argument over his bail was raging, Turaki won a seat in the Senate. He was in the National Assembly between 2007 and 2011. But since then, nothing seems to have come out regarding the prosecution of the case.
Like his counterparts in Abia, Plateau and Jigawa states, Chimaroke Nnamani, former governor of Enugu State, was also arraigned before a federal high court in Lagos on a 105-count charge for allegedly stealing N5.3billion. The case, which was instituted by the EFCC since 2007, is still pending in court. While the case was still on, Nnamani won election to the Senate and sat between 2007 and 2011. Also inconclusive is the case against Jolly Nyame, former governor of Taraba State, who was docked on a 41-count charge in July 2007. Nyame was accused of embezzling N1.3billion and collecting N180 million kick-back from a contractor whose company won a N250 million contract for the supply of stationery to the state government.
Apart from dragging its feet in prosecuting some high profile cases, the commission’s efforts to get conviction on some other high profile cases of corrupt enrichment equally failed. One of such cases was that involving Dimeji Bankole, former speaker of the House of Representatives, alongside his former deputy, Usman Nafada, for obtaining N10 billion questionable loan for members of the House. Both Bankole and Nafada were arraigned in court on a 17-count charge, on June 8, 2011. However, the case was thrown out on January 31, 2012. And so was the case against Ndudi Elumelu, former chairman, House Committee on Power, who was docked over a N5.2 billion fraud charge. But Justice Garba Umar of the Abuja high court ruled that Elumelu had no case to answer. Not satisfied, the EFCC re-arraigned the lawmaker before Adebukola Bolajoko, a justice of an Abuja high court. The case is yet to be concluded.
All these have made some Nigerians to feel nostalgic about the era of Nuhu Ribadu, pioneer chairman of the commission. Since the exit of Ribadu, a lot of people believe that the war against corruption in Nigeria has been waning. Ribadu, who instituted the cases against some of the former governors and some public officials, has been adjudged the best chairman ever produced by the commission. Reflecting on his appointment in 2003, Ribadu said: “My appointment as the chairman of the EFCC was a call to take up a turbulent task. I had to follow the statements of my previously written will to serve in a country where there is a lack of functional institutions to check the mismanagement of public funds and related criminal misconduct. Trust in public institutions had been demolished and perpetrators went about wearing their crimes like badges of honour. I was given an appointment to stand in the way of these celebrated fraudsters, without an office and funds to launch my operations. But we went on to form what became a prime anti-corruption body in the country. Our activities are left for history and honest critics of political evolution to gauge and tell of our impact.”
Indeed, under Ribadu, the commission had a high profile corruption charge against Tafa Balogun, the then inspector general of police, who pleaded guilty to an eight-count charge of money laundering to the tune of N16 billion in 2005. The former police boss was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. Ribadu similarly convicted Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, former governor of Bayelsa State, for money laundering, but he was later released on plea bargain. Another landmark conviction recorded by the agency under Ribadu was that of Olabode George, a PDP chieftain and former board chairman of the Nigerian Ports Authority, NPA. He was sentenced to 30 months’ imprisonment over a N85 billion fraud involving him and some senior members of the NPA. George was convicted without an option of fine by a Lagos high court. Of the 68-count charge, the PDP chieftain was convicted of 35 involving contract splitting, inflation, abuse of office and disobedience of lawful order.
By September 2006, the agency had concluded investigations on 31 out of 36 governors accused of corruption. But after parading some of them before the courts of law, the cases fizzled out as the person who took over from Ribadu was not ready to follow his radical line of action. In April 2008, the agency under Ribadu investigated corruption allegation against Iyabo Bello, a senator and daughter of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, for allegedly receiving N10 million from the ministry of health. Nike Grange, former health minister and her deputy, Gabriel Duku, were tried for stealing over N30,000,000 from the ministry’s unspent funds, but the court later exonerated them.
But the steam to go on as before was no longer there as the frosty relationship between Ribadu and the late President Umaru Yar’Adua’s administration was apparent as a lot of things began to go awry for the charismatic chairman. In December 2007, the administration announced that Ribadu would be attending a management course at the Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru, Jos, in the new year and picked Lamorde to act while he was away. The ploy was to allow the agitation that the government was not interested in corruption war to cool off. Hence, Farida Waziri, his successor, was sworn-in on June 6, 2008.
While still on course, Ribadu was on August 6, 2008, demoted from the rank of assistant-inspector general of police, to deputy commissioner of police. In any case, the hope of bringing to book some of the indicted former governors faded with time as the EFCC lost interest in prosecuting them because the new boss said she could not locate some of the files relating to their cases.
Waziri was on the hot seat for three years. During her tenure, critics always used the Ribadu era as a yardstick to judge her performance. Waziri was dismissed by President Goodluck Jonathan on November 23, 2011, without achieving any conviction, but instead used the instrument of plea bargaining to recover some of the funds stolen by politicians. Lamorde, who succeeded Waziri, was confirmed as the chairman of the commission on February 15, 2012 by the Senate.
He is a pioneer staff. He has been described by some people as the valiant heart of the commission and the rallying point in the partnership between the EFCC and its strategic allies. He was a member of the pioneer officers drafted from the Nigeria Police who mid-wived the EFCC in 2003 under the leadership Ribadu. He supervised the prosecution of 522 advance fee fraud cases at various High Courts between April 2003 and June 2008. Of the number 253 of them were successfully prosecuted and convictions secured. The efforts led to the extradition of three fugitives to the United States. Lamorde, being the pioneer director of operations, has greatly helped to change the public perception of law enforcement, locally and internationally. He has also helped in fostering international law enforcement cooperation in the country.
Despite the initial good start, the work of the EFCC has become politicised prompting the accusation that the commission embarks on selective prosecution by targeting political enemies of the government, especially the president. It has not recovered from that damaging public perception of its work, despite a couple of changes in its leadership. Conversely, corrupt elements, mostly politicians, have found a useful excuse in alleging that they are victims of a witch-hunt every time they come under the EFCC investigative spotlight. This, to some extent, justifies the claims in some quarters that the commission is often used as an attack dog by the government to cower its oppositions. In the 2007 general election, former President Olusegun Obasanjo used the EFCC to disqualify the candidature of opponents of his third term agenda.
Yusuf Ali, a legal practitioner, said the apprehension by the public over the fate of the corrupt cases filed by the EFCC is not misplaced. He observed that the time frame for disposing of the cases had been unduly long as a result of protracted litigations. According to him, if the EFCC has qualified people to handle its investigations, it wouldn’t be suffering from the series of adjournments.
“The question one could ask here should be whether the EFCC has done its assignment properly before heading to court. Second, the defendants often fight back through their lawyers, who capitalise on the loopholes in the charges preferred against them and apply for frequent adjournment. The EFCC prosecution needs specialised training so that they could file the charges properly and appear at every hearing. Again, Nigerians attitude to cases of corruption is not helpful. There is no pressure on anybody to do the right thing,” he said, adding that the judiciary must be well equipped to perform.
Chidi Ewulum, lawyer and human rights activist, has blamed the slow dispensation of justice on EFCC’s shoddy investigation and the penchant for filing amendment charges against accused persons after their arraignment. He said the defendants’ counsel always seize that opportunity to ask for adjournments to enable them study and respond to the new charges. He observed that the lawyers hired by the EFCC for prosecution of cases have contributed to the setbacks. He suspected that many of them could connive with the defence team to prolong the suits, especially, those involving highly placed persons for their mutual benefits. He also observed that former governors on trial follow a familiar pattern of challenging the jurisdiction of the courts as a strategy to prolong their trial.
According to Ewulum, the office of the Attorney General of the Federation and minister of justice is a clog in the wheel of EFCC because the minister dictates to the commission the case to prosecute or not. He called for full autonomy for the EFCC, if corruption must be reduced in the civil and public services.
Cardinal John Onaiyekan during a recent visit to the chairman of the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences, ICPC, said that Nigerians have lost hope in the ability of the two anti-graft agencies to tackle corruption. “Many Nigerians have very little good things to say about the ICPC and the EFCC and also there’s a lot of cynicism out there. Nigerians see these bodies as part of the whole system. They set up a smokescreen that they’re doing something about corruption. I’m sure you’ve heard the same thing too. I don’t really share those views, maybe because I know some people working here at ICPC. I encourage you to continue to swim against this current,” the clergyman said.
Obasanjo, in an interview with Zero Tolerance, a television programme sponsored by the EFCC, said that those running the commission, were not doing well in some areas. “I feel concerned about Nigeria and I will never stop feeling concerned and that’s why occasionally, I speak up. Even now, I am speaking up to say that all of you in EFCC, there are areas where you should be ashamed of yourselves. If you take an organisation which took Nigeria from level two to level 43 and then it starts coming down to level 34, then, something is wrong,” he said.
Like Obasanjo, many Nigerians are also not comfortable with excuses of inability to perform. Consequently, there have been strident calls for it to be merged with the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, ICPC. Mohammed Adoke, attorney-general and minister of justice, said at the Senate ministerial screening that the two anti-graft agencies should be merged. “Most of our anti-corruption agencies lack the capacity to do thorough investigations. They lack the capacity to collate evidences to sustain a charge and secure conviction in court and until we properly reform these agencies, we will continue to experience the problems we are experiencing today. More often than not, people are arrested before they are investigated; they are arrested even before there is evidence, they are traumatised them and dramatically tried on the pages of newspapers and at the end of the day, when they are unable to prove their case, they end up blaming the courts. When we, the ministry of justice try to guide these agencies, they complain of interference. It will be appropriate to merge these agencies so that they can effectively fight corruption,” Adoke said.
Despite the criticisms, the EFCC still boasts of some major achievements it has recorded in its fight against corruption. Wilson Uwujaren, its spokesperson, said a lot has been achieved under Lamorde. He recalled that on July 26, 2012, the EFCC announced the commencement of the trial of suspects indicted in the fuel subsidy scam. On that occasion 20 suspects were arraigned in various courts in Lagos. At the last count, the commission had arraigned 42 suspects in the fuel subsidy scam. They were accused of obtaining a total of N20, 564,542,103.1 as subsidy from the petroleum support fund.
Most of the suspects have been admitted to bail by the court except one Oluwaseun Ogunbambo, who was denied bail based on antecedents. According to Uwujaren, “2012 was a year of rebuilding the commission from the ruins of professional tardiness and integrity deficit. True to Lamorde’s promise to cleanse the commission, a department of internal affairs was established, and commenced the task of policing the workforce. The lie detector machines ordered by the commission for the implementation of polygraph tests are due to arrive in the country in the next few weeks while officers to man the equipment have been selected and will shortly commence training,” he said.
According to Uwujaren, “those accusing the commission of abandoning the case files of corrupt politicians and governors do so out of ignorance.” He said the anti-graft agency has done so much and had taken high profile cases to court for determination. He lamented that, in spite of the commission’s efforts to change the mindset of Nigerians that culprits are gradually facing the law, corruption seems to pervade all the facets of the economy. “The trials are going on. We may express concern about the pace but they are going on. A few of them had to be re-arraigned because either the judge handling their case was transferred or because of issues of jurisdiction. “This is another challenge we face. Many of our cases have to start afresh because trial judges were transferred. This is the case especially at the Federal High Courts.” But critics of EFCC’s non-performance are not impressed by Uwujarens’s litany of excuses for non-performance. They insist that the number of people arraigned in courts does not count as the number convicted.
Besides, the EFCC is also accused of abusing the plea bargain option. One of the known cases where plea bargain was grossly abused was in the recent conviction of Yusuf John Yakubu, a former assistant director, Police Pension Board. Yakubu was accused by the EFCC of embezzling N32.8billion from the Fund he was appointed to oversee. Yakubu entered a guilty plea and Justice Mohammed Talba gave a ruling many Nigerians are yet to forget. Justice Talba ordered the forfeiture of 32 choice assets acquired by Yakubu and sentenced him to six years’ imprisonment, two years for each of the three counts the accused faced or an option of N250,000 fine for each count.
The money laundering case of Alamieyeseha was resolved through a plea bargain. He forfeited some of the assets believed to be fraudulently acquired while in office in order to escape a harsh sentence. Lucky Igbinedion, former governor of Edo State, went through a similar process. Cecilia Ibru, former chief executive officer, Oceanic Bank, who was accused of mismanaging depositors’ funds got light sentence in a plea bargain.
Plea bargain has been seriously criticised as a system that supports corruption. Justice Dahiru Musdapher, former Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, once said the concept of plea bargain was not only dubious, but was also never part of Nigeria’s legal system until it was surreptitiously smuggled into the statutory laws with the creation of the EFCC.
“The essence of the concept is the recovery of stolen money and therefore not subject to negotiation. What is subject to negotiation should be the prosecution and punishment for embezzlement. Even where the stolen money is returned by the offender, he has committed this offence of theft or abuse of office for which he must still be tried and punished. I would say that the concept of plea bargain is, indeed, a threat to our criminal justice system in Africa and can only turn into a promise with the eradication of corruption and the right application of the concept,” he said.
Before the commission was established, the country’s reputation had been smeared by graft. Efforts by successive administrations to curb the menace were abortive. When Obasanjo took over in 1999, it was obvious that he had a lot of work to do to stem the drift. The EFCC, therefore, was established as a response to pressure from the financial action task force, FATF, on money laundering, which named Nigeria as one of the 23 countries that have refused to cooperate with the international community in its avowed commitment to eradicate money laundering.
According to the EFCC (Establishment) Act, 2003, the agency is the designated Financial Intelligence Unit, FIU, in Nigeria, which is charged with the responsibility of coordinating the various institutions fighting money laundering and enforcement of all laws dealing with economic and financial crimes. The commission exists to investigate all financial crimes including advance fee fraud, money laundering, counterfeiting, illegal charge transfers, futures market fraud, fraudulent encashment of negotiable instruments, credit card fraud, contract scam and so on. Its powers also include the adoption of measures to identify, freeze, confiscate or seize proceeds derived from terrorist activities, economic and financial crime-related offences. A particular provision in the Act, which the commission has used to maximum effect in chasing corrupt politicians, is the power to examine and investigate all reported cases of economic and financial crimes, with a view to identifying individuals, corporate bodies or groups involved; determine the extent of financial loss and such other losses by government, private individuals or organisations.
It is obvious that the ten years down the line, the level of corruption in the country does not appear to have changed and the public perception remains that the government officials are the most corrupt in the country. And the EFCC must clean up its house because it has a crucial role to play in the fight against corruption. It must resist pressure from well-placed Nigerians or public officers to turn it into an instrument for settling scores with business or political rivals and must redouble its efforts in carrying out its assignments without discrimination to reassure Nigerians of its commitment, sincerity of purpose and fairness.
Reported by Vincent Nzemeke