Damilola Oyedele in Abuja
Despite the looming threat of Nigeriaâ€™s expulsion from the Egmont Group, a 152-nation network of national financial intelligence units, the Senate and House Committees on Anti-Corruption have been at loggerheads over the domiciliation of the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU).
The bill to grant financial and operational autonomy to the unit, which has been passed by both legislative chambers, is before the conference committee of the National Assembly, which is required to harmonise the discrepancies in both versions of the legislation.
But while the Senate committee recommended that the unit be moved from the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), the House committee has remained adamant that the autonomous unit must be retained within the EFCC.
The failure to agree on the domiciliation of the unit has delayed the transmission of the bill to President Muhammadu Buhari for his assent, THISDAY has learnt.
If the impasse is not resolved, Nigeria which was suspended from the group in July 2017, would be expelled at its next meeting expected to hold next month, a development which holds dire consequences for the nationâ€™s financial sector.
One of the major drawbacks is Nigerians may no longer be able to fund international transactions, as the countryâ€™s expulsion could affect the use of Visa and Mastercard credit and debit cards issued by Nigerian banks.
It could also affect the international ratings of Nigerian financial institutions, restricting their access to some big-ticket international transactions.
Speaking in a phone interview Monday, the Chairman, Senate Committee on Anti-Corruption, Senator Chukwuka Utazi, blamed the delay in transmission on the insistence of the House committee to domicile the unit within the EFCC, though it will be granted financial autonomy.
He confirmed that the issues, which led to the suspension of Nigeria â€“ the absence of operational and financial autonomy of the unit â€“ were yet to be tidied up.
â€œThey (Egmont) already said if we did not comply, they would expel us, so there is no fresh news there. They gave a deadline after the suspension in July 2017.
â€œWe are working towards it, nothing has been done. The bill has been passed by the Senate and we are at conference committee with the House Committee on Anti-Corruption.
â€œBut the House is not complying, that is the problem. The Egmont Group said it does not want the NFIU to be with the EFCC, but the House of Representatives is insisting that it must be domiciled under the EFCC, so that is it,â€ Utazi explained.
The Chairman of the House Committee on Anti-Corruption, Hon. Kayode Oladele, however, clarified that the domiciliation of the unit was not the contentious issue that led to Nigeriaâ€™s suspension, but the lack of financial and operational autonomy of the unit.
Also speaking with THISDAY Monday, Oladele said the Egmont Group demanded the enactment of a legal framework for the NFIU, not a fundamental relocation.
â€œThe reason the Egmont Group suspended Nigeria was not that the NFIU is domiciled in the EFCC, but for political reasons. Some people always change the story to justify certain actions which they want to take.
â€œThere are two sections (in the EFCC Act) that were the bone of contention for the Egmont Group, which said the sections tend to fuse the EFCC with the NFIU, making them seem to be the same. That is the fusion they said we should clearly distinguish,â€ Oladele said.
Section 1, Sub-section 2(c) of the EFCC Act states that the commission is the designated financial intelligence unit in Nigeria charged with the responsibility of coordinating the various institutions involved in the fight against money laundering and enforcement of all laws dealing with economic and financial crimes in Nigeria.
Also, Section 6(l) pertaining to the functions of the commission, provides that the EFCC shall be responsible for the collection of all reports relating to suspicious financial transactions, analysing and disseminating them to all relevant government agencies.
Oladele further cited Recommendation 29 of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which permits the domiciliation of the Financial Intelligence Unit in any larger organisation as long as it has its operational and financial autonomy.
He explained further that the contentious sections have been deleted from the EFCC Act during the amendment by the House to remove the clash in functions.
â€œBut people do not understand, and then for some ulterior motives, they believe this is the time to fight the EFCC. But for us, it is the time to properly build a strong institution and strengthen the anti-corruption agency, without bringing into it any extraneous reasons,â€ Oladele said.
The lawmaker said Nigeria might not be able to avert the looming explosion if it relocates the unit to the CBN, as that amounts to a fundamental relocation, which would require representatives of the Egmont Group to first travel down to Nigeria for on the spot assessment and inspection.
â€œWe contacted national and international analysts and experts before we arrived at our decision, and from all their submissions, they advised that Nigeria would be expelled if there is a fundamental change in the structure.
â€œRemoving the NFIU from where it is currently to the CBN would amount to a fundamental change. Germany made such a change and was expelled last year.
â€œI remember when we were working on the EFCC amendment bill, a DSS (Department of State Services) official came and said we should domicile it with the CBN.
â€œOne of the committee members asked the DSS official whether he was aware that Nigeria stands the risk of expulsion if the NFIU is relocated to CBN despite the fact that we may have passed the law.
â€œHe said he was aware but it did not matter and we would get it right later.
â€œI know if at least the Senate leadership was aware of the consequences of the fundamental change, they would have taken a different position,â€ the lawmaker said.
The Egmont Group provides a platform for sharing criminal intelligence and financial information pertaining to money laundering, terrorist financing, the proliferation of arms, corruption, financial crimes, economic crimes and similar offences geared towards the support of local and international investigations, prosecution and assets recovery.
Nigeria was fully admitted into the body in 2007, after operational admittance in 2005.