Economy, Corruption and Lawyers


The poor countries of the world lose up to $1 trillion every year to corruption, according to a recent report by Transparency International.

The African Development Bank believes that African countries lose up to $100 billion every year through corruption, an amount that far exceeds what gets into the continent in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and assistance.

Sadly, Nigeria contributes a chunk of those grim continental figures. Corruption has unfortunately gone deep into our national fabric. It is the major reason why we are where we are today. It is also the reason why we are unable to address our problems and challenges.

Economic prosperity, no doubt, depends solely on the integrity of the system and efficiency; two important elements that corruption denies us. When critical infrastructures are lacking, there is nothing to expect in terms of economic progress. Similarly, when the cost of doing business is high and process is compromised due to corruption, no investor would want to invest in such an economy. Fighting corruption therefore is key to the survival and progress of our country.

Years of mindless stealing and waste of public resources has dimmed the light of prosperity that was all over our country when we started off. Little wonder that we find now ourselves in tough economic condition with the attendant security challenges troubling us from all angles.

Ironically, however, there have been a number of efforts in the past aimed at tackling the corruption albatross that has been around our country’s neck since birth.

Subsequent governments evolved one measure or another aimed at tackling the corruption bug, starting with General Yakubu Gowon who promulgated the Public Officers (Investigation of Assets) Decree No 5 of 1966. However, there was no noticeable implementation until the coming of the Murtala/Obasanjo administration. Murtala gave life to the Public Officers Decree and went on to fight corruption practically by establishing the Assets Investigation Panel. He also reinforced the legal provisions by further enacting the Corrupt Practices Decree of 1975. Despite all the criticisms against his methods, it was clear that for the first time in Nigeria, that administration underscored the need to give corruption a fierce and spirited battle rather than tolerating it.

The military government, under Major General Muhammadu Buhari was to promulgate decrees that include Miscellaneous Offences Decree of 1983 and Recovery of Public Property (Special Provisions) Decree. This enabled creation of Special Investigative Panels and Tribunals to try offences under these decrees. Politicians that were tried under these decrees were handed down various prison terms and their assets confiscated. That action was however short-lived as the government was kicked out after just 18 months.

However, with the change in regime, the Ibrahim Babangida administration ordered a review of the cases ostensibly because, just like the case with Murtala about a decade earlier, the method of the Buhari regime was equally considered rather hasty and harsh, and therefore devoid of due process. The regime made series of amendments to the laws, which largely watered down the provisions.

Under Abacha, the government continued with the existing laws it met. The only significant addition was the Failed Banks (Recovery of Debts) and Financial Malpractices decree which also came along with tribunals to try offenders.

His successor, General Abdulsalami Abubakar did not promulgate any law in respect of the fight against corruption but it was under him that the recovery of the Abacha loot began.

On assuming office on May 29, 1999, President Olusegun Obasanjo pressed on with the actions on Abacha loot. And for the first time in the history of Nigeria, Obasanjo went on to institutionalise the fight against corruption by establishing the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC), and later, in line with international requirements, set up the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). These institutions are the pillars of the war against corruption in Nigeria till date.

The Obasanjo administration also went on to evolve other institutional avenues of fighting corruption by carrying out wide-ranging public service reform and establishing pro-transparency agencies such as the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP) and the Nigeria Extractive Industry Initiative (NEITI).

Lawyers as the Fulcrum

In all these efforts targeted at tackling corruption over the years in our country, lawyers, either as advisers, public prosecutors, or judicial officers on the Bench or as private counsels, have played central and momentous roles. There was nothing done without lawyers, and there is nothing to be done in the fight against graft without involving lawyers.

Talking about my observations regarding the fight against corruption and the place of the lawyer in it, would take me into a journey to my life, from my earliest days as a lawyer fresh from the Law School.

As a youth corps member, just out of Law School, I observed at close range the investigations and subsequent trials of Second Republic politicians in 1984. The revelations from the SIPs were quite mind-boggling to my young mind. But I was also awe-struck by how law enforcement officers and lawyers conducted the investigations and handled the trial. Having always had this dream of fighting for justice, I started meditating of which path to take, in line with what I witnessed. I opted to go for law enforcement by enrolling into the Police even though I had some more lucrative offers.

In the 25 years that I spent as a law enforcement officer, mostly as an investigator and prosecutor of economic crimes, I have interacted with lawyers long enough to appreciate their roles in the success of such work or otherwise. I drew inspiration and moral support from several lawyers, just as we battled with some others who attempted to serve as stumbling blocks.

My encounter with late Chief Gani Fawehinmi at the tribunals in the early 1980s left in me an indelible mark and to this date I hold Gani as the epitome of what a lawyer should be in a system like ours, especially in the fight against corruption, – fearless, honest, determined yet humane and patriotic. For his belief in the propriety of the fight against corruption, Gani alone went even against the NBA to participate in the tribunals. His belief was that to fight corruption was necessary even if one has issues with the method. I continued to encounter Gani at many junctures of my work. He also proved to be a pillar of support even when we were at different poles of a case. His example, more than other thing influenced me in many ways.

The Babangida regime requested review of all the corruption cases done during the Buhari regime. Two colleagues in the police, Pious Usang, Diete-Spiff and I were drafted to review the cases. Working with other legal practitioners, we made various recommendations on how best to carry on. The work however lost steam and vigour due to insufficient political will.

My other experience was with the Failed Bank Tribunals where the focus was also economic crimes. Here, we worked with many lawyers on both sides of the divide. Private lawyers were brought in as prosecutors. We experienced the antics of all manner of defence lawyers some of whom engaged in unethical conducts including hampering our own enquiries, and frustrating the trials.

It was during the Failed Tribunals that I first encountered Chief Kanu Agabi, SAN, who was among the lawyers engaged as prosecutors. Coincidently, it was Chief Agabi who facilitated my appointment as EFCC chairman, when he was –Attorney General of the Federation – in 2003.

Lawyers as Change Agents

By their training and practice, lawyers are very well entrenched in our systems, from politics to business. There are no business transactions that are done without involvement of a counsel, sometimes not just as a lawyer but also as a party to the transaction. Lawyers are needed as company secretaries, as legal advisers, as arbitrators, et cetera. This, in a way has placed lawyers in a position of advantage where they can easily be absorbed in corrupt practices or fight it, if they choose to.

More than any other professional groups, lawyers are in charge of an entire arm of government; the Judiciary. Lawyers are in charge of the Judiciary and by its strategic place in the power equation in democratic setting, the Judiciary has the capacity to bring corruption to its knees and solve myriads of our national problems.

All things considered, one is not amenable to the principal functions of a lawyer, especially a private one, in the administration of justice chain. Similarly, the right of the suspect in criminal prosecution to legal representation is something that is well entrenched in our statues and laws. Therefore, in litigation, like in other aspects, a lawyer’s focus and concern is tailored towards his role for his client and the client’s satisfaction.

This much is captured rather more aptly for our own case today by the English legal luminary, Henry Lord Brougham, when he said:

“An advocate in the discharge of his duty knows but one person in all the world, and that person is his client. To save that clients by all means and expedients, and at all hazards and costs to other persons, and, among them, to himself, is his first and only duty; and in performing this duty he must not regard the alarm, the torments, the destruction which he may bring upon others. Separating the duty of a patriot from that of an advocate, he must go on reckless of consequences, though it should be in his unhappy fate to involve his country in confusion.”

The challenge of the private practitioner is striking a balance between what is in the client’s interest and public interest especially at a crossroads our country found itself regarding the corruption challenge.

Indeed, suspects have the right to representation and a lawyer is legally empowered to offer such services. However, that must be done within the ambit of the law and morality. That is why there is code of ethics. Legal representation should not be seen as an avenue to win a case by all means. A situation where a course of justice is perverted by all manner of antics is costly to the society and the profession. A lawyer serving as a conduit of desecrating the Judiciary by bribing judges and judicial officers is a disgrace to this noble profession. And these are the set of people who plunged the judiciary into the embarrassing trial it faces today.

Agreed, defence lawyers cannot be yes-men of the prosecution or sacrifice their clients for that matter. However, there should be morality threshold that should not allow a lawyer to turn himself into a tout or a charlatan in defence of a suspect through irresponsible tactics, especially in the face of naked obvious facts.

In conclusion, I want to urge our legal practitioners to always put our legal code ethics as your guiding light, set morality as your canvas and carry in your heart the public interest, to avoid harming yourself along with the larger society, as Lord Brougham cited above described.

We must take an active step in self-cleansing. We as lawyers should shun the attitude of playing ostrich for self-preservation. The NBA must be in the forefront of the current effort to cure the justice sector of the evil of corruption and in this there should be no sacred cows.

The talent commonly displayed by lawyers and their training place the lawyer at a comparative advantage for leadership roles, especially at important junctures of history. A number of lawyers have played that role to the admiration of the world. Let us look at our Mandela, let’s look at Ghandi, let’s look at Obama, as lawyers they altered the course of history. We all have similar trait in us. Lawyers are trained to be change agents, and we the Nigerian lawyers should not be any different.