Vincent Obia writes that EFCC cannot wage an effective anti-corruption fight by shouting out its activities at the government’s pleasure
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission is not an organ to shy away from media opportunity, so it was not surprising on Wednesday that it thought it necessary to declare Dr. Wale Babalakin wanted when, as it turned out, the multi-billionaire lawyer and businessman was always available. EFCC had said in a statement on Wednesday, “The businessman, who was supposed to report to the commission today preparatory to his arraignment on a 27-count criminal charge before Justice Adeniyi Onigbanjo of the Lagos High Court tomorrow, January 17, 2013, failed to do so, and has gone underground.”
It reeled off detailed descriptions of the chairman of Bi-Courtney Highway Services Limited, whose contract to manage the Lagos-Ibadan expressway was recently revoked by the federal government, saying anyone with useful information about his whereabouts should contact any of the commission’s offices in Enugu, Kano, Lagos, Gombe, Port Harcourt and Abuja.
But Babalakin, who had been on administrative bail, responded almost immediately the EFCC statement became public knowledge, saying, “I have been in regular touch with the EFCC and have reported to the commission every other day.” He said he was in touch with the commission by 5 pm on the same day he was declared wanted and said he would be in court the next day, Thursday. He did.
Babalakin and his co-accused, Alex Okoh, were granted bail without opposition from the EFCC lawyer Rotimi Jacobs who said they had met their bail conditions. The question then: why the sensational build-up to Babalakin’s Thursday arraignment?
Experts say an accused person can be declared wanted if he failed to report to the relevant law enforcement authorities on the day fixed for such appointment. “But it is something that should not be used whimsically or abused to embarrass suspects,” says Mr. Emeka Ngige, SAN. EFCC has seemed to be merely interested in embarrassing its suspects, especially those that have fallen out with the government of the day.
Another case that has seemed to be an object of sensationalism for EFCC of late is that of former Bayelsa State Governor Timipre Sylva. Only recently, the media was awash with reports credited to EFCC about its seizure of 48 properties in Abuja, allegedly, belonging to Sylva on the order of the court. But the court’s interim order contained only nine properties, which the commission had sought to include in the properties it was investigating. And of the nine, the former governor said only two belonged to him – which he said he had built even before becoming governor and declared to the Code of Conduct Bureau.
The commission’s interest in those two cases is widely believed to be a function of political disagreements with President Goodluck Jonathan. EFCC will pursue perceived opponents of the government suspected of corruption to all ends of the earth, but it is rarely so painstaking about probing friends of the administration.
The commission, which was set up in 2003 to investigate and prosecute financial crimes such as advance fee fraud and money laundering, has seemed to be no more than an advertiser of fairground attractions. The commission has developed a funny inclination for shouting out its activities without producing any measurable shift in corruption, especially in public offices.
Outside government circles, however, EFCC could be applauded for a humble success in busting financial crimes. But this would only do society modest good, as most high profile corruptions in the country happen in government or involve government functionaries or persons with links to the government. The commission has seemed to be more interested in whipping political figures back to line than really prosecuting them for alleged corruption.
In September 2006, then EFCC chairman Nuhu Ribadu told the world that 31 of the country’s 36 governors were under investigation for corruption. When a year after, most of the governors ended their constitutional terms and, thus, dropped their immunity from prosecution, EFCC could not properly prosecute them. The best the commission could secure was plea bargain with a handful of the former governors.
EFCC seems to have a fundamental conceptual problem. It begins with the idea of leaving the appointment of the commission’s leadership to the discretion of the president. Experts have argued that changing this practice to make for more democratic and transparent appointments is a good place to start the anti-corruption war.
The other aspect of the problem relates to the impetus for the establishment of EFCC by the former President Olusegun Obasanjo government. The birth of the commission is largely believed to be a response to pressure from the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering, which had named Nigeria among 23 countries said to be non-cooperative in the international fight against money laundering. FATF was formed in 1989 by the Group of Seven Most Industrialised Countries (G-7), the European Union, and eight other countries to coordinate a global effort to fight money laundering and funding of terrorism.
EFCC has tended to merely pander to the whims of the government of the day or the international community. Its prosecutions have not produced any measurable shift in corruption among public officers.
In his new biography, titled Conscience and History: My Story, former Rivers State Governor Peter Odili, who left office in 2007, chronicled how he and other officials of the state government were hounded by EFCC until he gave up his presidential ambition at the time. He alleged that there was unmistakable jubilation at EFCC at the break of the news of his withdrawal from the race, which led to the release of Rivers State government officials held in apparent effort to implicate him. Obasanjo had favoured Jonathan as running mate to the late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua in the run-up to the 2007 general election.
Odili currently has a perpetual court injunction against prosecution, which EFCC has shown a curious unwillingness to appeal, in what analysts believe is not unconnected with the achievement of the original goal of dropping him from the presidential race.
The Odili case has also brought to the fore questions about the powers of EFCC to probe or prosecute persons for alleged corruption involving state government funds without the consent of the state legislature. The court had ruled that only the Rivers State House of Assembly had the right to undertake such corruption probe of the governor. EFCC has refused to test this conclusion to the fullest extent of the law to afford the country a better understanding of its powers.
EFCC’s current posturing is certainly not the character of an agency prepared to fight corruption. The re-orientation and reform of the commission, therefore, would be a good place to start an effective anti-corruption war in the country.