For the first time, counsel to Jide Omokore, Rabana Lawal, SAN and former General Secretary, Nigeria Bar Association, NBA, has debunked claims that his client is a business associate of former Petroleum Minister, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke. He said, in this interview with Yemi Adebowale, that what his client was accused of, was, at best, a civil breach of contract, which remedy lies in the recovery of that money. The allegation, he insisted, was not that his client stole money from the government as being misrepresented in the media, but a case of breach of contract between his company and NPDC
Tell us about your assessment of the ongoing anti-corruption war being waged by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, (EFCC) and its approach to the crusade
Thank you very much. Firstly, let me tell you I’m involved in one or two of the matters which EFCC is either investigating or prosecuting. And my assessment so far is that there is too much sensationalism on the part of the EFCC. There is too much prosecution of people on the pages of newspapers. The EFCC doesn’t seem to observe the basic tenets of what the rule of law is all about. The rule of law is that if you arraign a man in court, allow the court to make its findings, conclusion and pass judgment.
The EFCC from the utterances and the statements they dish out to the public are always conclusive. They will tell you we have investigated A, and we have arrested B, creating the impression that the man is already guilty. Therefore biasing the minds of the Nigerian public against some of these people whom, at the end of the day, may not have committed the heinous crimes or allegations leveled against them.
So, my advice is that the EFCC should talk less and do more of investigations and when they collate their facts, it is sent to the court. Once the matter is in court, then the principle of sub judice should apply. It is for the individuals not to talk, government or agencies should also not talk or comment about the matters in court. There is so much impunity, there is so much comments that ordinary Nigerians reading them would begin to wonder. So, for me the fight against corruption is not what you achieve through newspapers sensational stories. It is through the facts you are able to put together and present to court to secure a conviction and retrieval of whatever is involved in the corrupt practices.
Only recently, the EFCC Chairman revealed that the Agency was tracing about $10 billion allegedly linked to Diezani and her associates in the United States. That figure is huge and sometimes one wonders if it is really possible that such massive amount of money were taken out of the coffers of this country?
Well, ordinarily I would not have join issues with the EFCC. Whatever they alleged; it is for them to prove. But the linking of my client, who is Mr. Jide Omokore, is what will propel me to respond and react. Firstly, the general impression created every time, all day, is that Jide Omokore is Diezani’s associate but he’s not! Jide Omokore is a businessman that has his own companies, bided for jobs, entered into contracts with NDPC and NNPC to provide some services under the strategic alliance agreement and which has being ongoing, and that has nothing to do with his relationship with Diezani. It is an agreement between institutions and the company.
And, therefore, it is very worrisome that any time anything about Diezani comes up the next thing is that they will fly Jide Omokore’s name. So, the EFCC should draw the distinction; if you are investigating Diezani, investigate her and limit your investigation to what has been traced to her either by her conduct, or by her diversion or by her abuse of office, and that is if it has been established. But this should not be extended to independent and third parties whose only offence is that they had a business transaction with the organisation she headed. So, for me, it is a little very outrageous, and I can tell you this is why I am a little worried when statements are made. The totality of the allegations against Jide Omokore and his companies is that they failed to remit some monies to the government coffers, arising from the operations of the strategic alliance agreement. And the totality of that money involved which has always been the source of disputes between the company and NPDC is about 800 million dollars.
There is a charge in court already and the figures have been specified; it is not anywhere near the figure bandied in the media. There is also a civil aspect where the government has gone to seek Mareva injunction, the figures are there. So, where does Jide Omokore and Atlantic come into contact with $10 billion? It is very unfortunate, and that is the impression Nigerians will continue to have. But, let me say that it does more damage to the image of the country and to the government that, if it is true, you have a system, you have institutions and $10 billion of government money is being taken out systematically by an individual to buy properties all over the world. $10 billion would buy a whole county in America; 10 billion dollars would buy six, seven states in Nigeria.
So, it’s an institutional failure and rather than celebrate that you are investigating; you are probing, you should be looking at the failure of the government institutions, including the EFCC itself, which went to sleep and allowed an individual or some people to take away so much from the system only for it to wake up and say it has discovered this or that amount was taken away. It should have prevented it from happening. So, my advice is that government should begin to look inwards; we have been treated to stories every day of billions of dollars, millions of dollars being stolen. It’s good they are being exposed but government must be very proactive. There must be a sustained policy; there must be a drive by key government functionaries to ensure that it does not happen. It is not after it has happened that you begin to turn everybody into a devil. So, for me, the fight against corruption may hit the rocks if the strategy is not changed. EFCC should talk less; EFCC should not prosecute people on the pages of Newspapers, let them go to court and prove their case.
As a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), I abhour corruption and people who are very close to me know that I am critical about the state of our economy, the poor state of our infrastructure, the near collapse of values. So, nobody is going to say corruption is good but let us fight it, using a systematic way to address it to prevent it, and to genuinely punish those who are involved through a proper legal process. We have a Presidential Committee on Anti-Corruption but all they churn out every day is that lawyers are aiding corruption, judges are bad. Is that their job? Their job is to come out with a blue print to make sure that all loose ends are tied and that no political office holder or any government institution has access to so much money to the point that they divert almost half of it for their private use. These are the things we want the government to put in place. For me, I think there must be a new orientation. Already, I must tell you, Nigerians are getting fed up.
If you open the Newspapers today all you see is that this billion is missing, that is missing. People don’t want to hear that anymore, what people want to hear is that government realising the enormous damage corruption has done has put in place ABC to YZ to prevent abuses in government offices, to monitor government expenditures, to make sure that public funds are not diverted into private hands and to put in place such policies that civil servants, public officers who are usually the agents of these diversion of public funds are put in such a position that corruption is no longer attractive. And I will give you an example and quote me.
There is nobody that can afford a house in Abuja either in Maitama, Asokoro or Wuse with his legitimate earning as a public officer or a civil servant; not even a minister or governor can afford a house in these areas with legitimate earnings. But, what do you have? Because the cost of property in Abuja is outrageous, therefore, what people do is to help themselves to loose money that is not properly monitored by government. So, everybody is involved. That is why you see the ordinary workers live in far distance, as far as Nasarawa State, some as far as Kogi, and Plateau that are close to FCT.
So, if there is a housing policy that makes acquisition of homes easy and less cumbersome then there will be less appetite for corruption. You want to process a paper for title document go to FCDE; it is like a Carmel passing through the eye of a needle; it’s not right. So, government should be flexible in some of these policies that would enable people have easy access to acquiring properties and to, for instance, train their children, provide medical care so that corruption would no longer be attractive to the people. What do people that steal do with their loot? They buy houses, they drive flashy cars; they send their children to schools abroad. Why must you send your children abroad if the schools in Nigeria are okay? And luckily, we’ve had a policy in education, which I think other sectors should emulate.
The NUC has liberalised setting up of schools, once you meet the criteria. That is why there are so many private universities and institutions, and a lot of Nigerians have gained admission, a lot of Nigerians have been employed. So let the housing policy also be put in place in such a manner that if you work in civil service by the time you are getting to level 6 or 7 as a none-graduate you know you can comfortably afford three-bedroom flat. Then when you move into the middle cadre of graduate of level 8, 9, 10 there should be a policy to take care of that too. But, this cannot happen when everybody is left on their own. Abuja land that the Federal Government acquired from the indigenes almost free of charge now goes for outrageous sums and do you expect civil savants to live in the streets. So, there must be a government policy that will make corruption less attractive.
You mentioned your client, Jide Omokore, why was he arraigned in a criminal court when it was purely a commercial transaction?
Again, because of my background as a lawyer, who believes that the ethics and values of the profession should be respected, I have refrain from talking. But, it has gotten to a point that one needs to let the people know that the allegation is not that this man collected money from government and diverted it. The allegation is not that he stole crude oil; the allegation is based on the strategic alliance agreement between his companies and NPDC. He ought to remit X amount of dollars to government coffers, which he had failed to do. He has generated the money through the services he had rendered but they are saying you have shortchanged us. And I think that in the agreement between them, there is a provision for arbitration that when there is a dispute arising from the operations of the agreement, they should go to arbitration.
To me, without prejudicing what the outcome of the court trial would be, it’s a civil breach of contract, which remedy lies in the recovery of that money, and the Federal Government did the right thing by approaching the Federal High Court through a Mareva Order of Injunction to say that these companies are owing us so much money and we fear that they might not be able to pay us at the end of the day, therefore hold on to the their assets. That is a civilized approach, and it is in accordance with the rule of law. Even though that procedure is a subject of litigation I don’t want to go into the merit. Therefore, if a breach of every agreement becomes criminal, then I can tell you 90% of Nigerian businessmen would be in jail or would be facing prosecution either from the Police or the EFCC. People don’t go to arbitration; any little thing that shows that there is a disagreement between you and government the EFCC is coming in. Like this particular one.
Are you saying that the government did not even explore the arbitration clause in the contract?
No! As a senior lawyer involved in the matter in one way or another, I know that has not happened and I’m aware that several meetings, letters, correspondents have been ongoing, trying to give an ultimatum to Atlantic Oil to pay the money. Atlantic Oil is saying no, we don’t owe this amount of money, let us sit and restructure; this agreement may bring in new investors that will pump in more money into this venture. All these have been ongoing until the EFCC came in to say they are investigating the agreement and, all of a sudden, it has become a criminal matter and then it is in court.
So, for me, we must be able to draw a distinction between matters that are outright corrupt practices, outright stealing of government money, outright diversion of funds as against where there is a breach of contract between anybody and government agencies. There must be a line and I believe that today, from what you read and hear, government is also a huge debtor to oil companies, contractors in the construction industries and most of them are yet to be paid; does that make it criminal? So, if it is not criminal for government to owe people and not pay on time, then why should an individual owing government and not paying on time become a criminal? The rule of law is applicable to all. So, my plea is that it is very important that both the Attorney-General of the Federation, a very decent young legal practitioner, should be able to sit down with all relevant bodies and agencies and be able to draw the line.
Nigeria does not benefit from statements made every day you wake up to say billions of dollars have been stolen. The international community is reading and that is why they have lost confidence. They have lost trust that if your own people can wake up and steal so much money, then how do you expect us to bring our money into your country? If we bring our money won’t it be stolen too? So, there should be less newspaper propaganda on this war against corruption. There are very bad cases which we all read and feel very sad about, like money meant for security services being diverted to pursue political interest and all that. It is sad and there is no reasonable Nigerian that will support that. But, where there is a breach of contract that is well documented, government should explore the terms of contract. We are all Nigerians and this country belongs to all of us, and not only those in government alone. It belongs to the ordinary man who is walking on the road; it belongs to the vulcaniser by the roadside, it belongs to the woman selling fish at Eti-Osa. The country belongs to all of us and there must be respect for everyone.
While the government puts a policy in place to give us good governance, to provide security, to give us infrastructure, they must also allow their own citizens the presumption of innocence. Don’t blackmail a man, don’t scandalise a man, and don’t kill him before he is certified dead. I think these are the areas that government would have to look into. And they should not think that anybody who goes to court to take up a matter against the EFCC has become an enemy of the government; no that can’t be. The legal profession would forever remain in this country, the Judiciary would forever remain in this country; it is even those agencies and the individuals that may fizzle out.
Let me also state that the right to counsel, the right to be defended is a constitutional provision that nobody can take away. And government in its own wisdom has set up institutions and bodies, pumping millions of taxpayers’ money to provide legal assistance to people. As bad as armed robbery is, if you are arrested as armed robber, government is enjoined to provide you a lawyer to defend yourself. If alleged murderers are charged to court and they have no counsel, the court will direct the government to provide them with representation.
So, if armed robbers, if murderers are being provided defense at the expense of the state, what then is wrong with an individual going to look for the best lawyer to defend him. We should imbibe the philosophy of every man is innocent; every man should be afforded the opportunity to defend himself. As it is now, any lawyer that is defending any person EFCC arraigns has become the enemy of the state. It is wrong! I can tell you that some of us are more patriotic and more committed to the unity, peace, progress of this country than several of them that are in government. So, I think the time has come for them to know that this country, Nigeria, belongs to all of us and not to just those who are privileged to be in government offices or high positions.