As the country grapples with the issue of official corruption, which is enhanced by slow prosecution and cronyism, the Executive Director of the Africa Network for Environment and Economic Justice, Rev. David Ugolor, shares his views on the scourge of corruption with Abimbola Akosile, among other development issues
You have devoted half of your life (24 years) to advocacy for a better society…how has the struggle been and can you recall three landmark events that have helped shaped your activism?
Looking back to how I started from Sapele to Iguobazuwa in Ovia South-West Local Government, Edo State, I would say that a lot of water has passed under the bridge. The key to the success of my work which led to the establishment of the Africa Network for Environment and Economic Justice (ANEEJ) is traced to my firm belief in God Almighty and my parents. For the past 25 years I have been deeply involved in defending the human rights and participating actively in the global civil society movement through various platforms and this has attracted obviously, both pains and victory that one can easily ascribe to God Almighty.
Therefore, one can easily point out many landmark events that have helped shape my activism. But for the purpose of your question, I will restrict my response to only three which really impacted positively on my work through the ANEEJ platform. The first one was when I refused to be intimidated by my secondary teacher who took sides with a female junior student who misbehaved during our preparation for final examination at Iguobazuwa Grammar School. My action provided the opportunity for other students to begin to stand up for their rights and we later established a secret students’ team to monitor the corrupt activities of teachers with female students.
The outcome of this bold initiative denied me the privilege of becoming the Head Prefect even though I merited the position. When my name was excluded from the list of those appointed into student leadership, I was not only disappointed but became more inspired to sustain the demand for justice within the school system and remain firm to the cause until I finished from that school. Before then the school nominated me to participate as one of the best students in the Gani Fawehinmi Scholarship in Benin City. I missed the opportunity to be selected because of the large crowd of people who wanted to take part.
But I was not discouraged because I listened to Gani’s speech on that very day and everything about me changed. From that day, I made a commitment that I will always stand for justice and fight to defend the rights of our people. What I was unable to get from that scholarship I received from Gani what I will never forget in my life. I later became an active member of the National Conscience movement which was established by Gani to defend the rights of Nigerians.
The second landmark event was when I recovered my father’s pension money from the Nigerian Police in Iguobazuwa. That action was very historic and it remains a defining moment in my life struggle to survive in Nigeria. My father retired from the Ministry of Agriculture and later died before his pension was paid by the Government. This experience also contributed to what inspired me to always stand up for justice, equity and fairness.
The third one was my experience from the Nigerian Police which was connected to the assassination of my late friend, Olaitan Oyerinde, former Principal Private Secretary to Adams Oshiomhole, the former Governor of Edo State. I was arrested by the Nigerian Police and framed up as the killer. But the response of the people, particularly the people of Edo State and my good friend, Comrade Adams was very inspiring and I was later vindicated after the SSS displayed the real killers. That experience has also helped to shape my belief and commitment to the struggle that light will always overcome darkness. Many things have happened in the last 25 years fighting as a human rights activist and I am indeed grateful to God Almighty that I am still working and defending the human rights of our people.
In tandem with your organisation’s name and vision, do you think economic justice for all is possible in Nigeria?
Absolutely, economic justice is very possible. What we need to do is to continue to demand for economic justice. We will continue to work to promote economic and environmental justice for all in Nigeria and other parts of the world in line with our name and vision. You know that this is a responsibility for all and not only ANEEJ or the government. But the challenge is in getting all parties to play their role. We are playing our role; the government also should be playing its role.
Because of the prevalence of corruption and other anomalies, it is equally difficult for government to meet its obligations to the people. We are all aware that public funds that could be better used to address critical sectors for national development, such as health, education, electricity, roads, and other infrastructural projects for the social, political and economic well-being of the country are diverted by some Politically Exposed Persons (PEPs), civil servants and their agents. This will not lead us anywhere until we denounce this and work for the good of the common man.
As an anti-corruption crusader, which aspect should Nigeria focus on more: preventing official corruption or punishing corrupt acts to serve as a deterrent to others who may be tempted?
Both aspects of anti-corruption are essential but the most important is taking steps to prevent corruption. Unfortunately, the bulk of Nigeria’s effort and attention has been channelled to investigation and prosecution of corruption suspects. The truth is that preventing corruption is more economical than investigating and prosecuting corruption suspects. This is because resources which ordinarily would have been spent on development initiatives that will improve the lives of citizens are spent on investigation and prosecution of suspects. A former chief justice of Nigeria once lamented the slow pace of investigation and prosecution of cases in Nigeria. The Chief Judge also cited the trial of former Governor James Ibori in the UK and said his investigation alone cost the British taxpayers £14 million.
Apart from that, the current system in the country allows corruption to thrive. Many years later after the crimes, attempts are still being made to bring suspects to justice. What I mean is that certain class of public office holders in Nigeria enjoy immunity e.g. the president and the governors. Some of these persons often do two terms in office, in many cases, before prosecution starts, many of the witnesses may have died or the evidence destroyed. Our judicial system adds to the frustration, as cases drag for several years without making headway. This explains why we have many pending high profile cases. It is regrettable that some of the governors who served between 1999 and 2003 and even up to 2007 are still been prosecuted today, with only very few having been convicted in Nigeria like former Edo and Bayelsa State governors.
Another side of the matter is that, often times, the ruling party is reluctant to expose and prosecute their party loyalists. A lot of red flags have been raised among politicians belonging to the ruling party in Nigeria. Yet action has not been taken in many instances. This was not different from what happened in previous administrations when a different party was in charge.
That is why I would suggest that Nigeria should pay more attention to corruption prevention. Institutions should be strengthened to make it difficult for corruption to take place in the first place. People who have corrupt tendencies can operate in a system but the system will prevent them from doing otherwise. I particularly appreciate some of the work of ICPC that is directed at corruption prevention especially the effort to establish anti-corruption and transparency units across MDAs and schools outreach.
In the course of your global sojourn, what is the best lesson you have learnt on how to curb official corruption and from which country or region did you learn this?
Working together through collective action has more impact in anti-corruption work than in silos. The best option for tackling corruption is for the leadership to exercise the political will and avoid state capture. The government has to strengthen the anti-corruption agencies and provide them with the right tools to fight corruption. Institutions have to be strengthened to avoid manipulation. Countries like the US and other western countries also try to fight corruption and the best option is by adapting the laws from time to time. The media and citizens should have access to public finance information. The government should provide the enabling environment for citizen engagement.
You were an active participant at the recent Global Forum on Assets Recovery held in Washington DC, what was your major takeaway for Nigeria and Africa from this forum?
The MoU between the Nigerian and Swiss Government was officially signed and both countries made a public statement at the GFAR in Washington to continue to work together to promote transparency and accountability in the use of all recovered Stolen Assets. The MoU also acknowledged the role of civil society which was very good and it reinforced the need for collective action towards asset recovery. The MoU was a great outcome and also helped to encourage other countries that are still working hard to recover their stolen assets. The GFAR Commitments/communiqué was also a great outcome that will define future global engagement on the issues around asset recovery.
The meeting also provided opportunity for countries like Nigeria to engage their citizens. For example, the Minister of Justice Malami Abubakar was able to meet with Nigerian Civil Society which included Dr. Otive Igbuzor, Eze Onyekpere, Musa Auwal Rafsanjani, Yusuf Shamsudeen, Timothy and myself. The meeting also provided opportunity for us to raise questions and also secure the commitment of the AGF to support civil society to monitor the recovered $321 million.
We have just launched a new project with support from DfID/UK Government to monitor the MoU and also engage in public advocacy to demand for the passage of the Proceeds of Crime Bill and other legislative reforms that will strengthen the asset recovery regime in Nigeria. For us this is also a fallout from the GFAR process. We have also seen that the US and Swiss Government /Embassy are very keen to continue to support the Post-GFAR work in Nigeria. Through the DfID support we are looking forward to increase the public advocacy on asset recovery in Nigeria.
Despite Nigeria’s signing onto the Climate Change treaty in Paris in 2016, do you think the country is doing enough to combat climate change arising from flooding, desertification and even the shrinking Lake Chad?
Obviously, we have not done enough as a country. It is unfortunate that since Nigeria signed onto the climate change treaty in Paris, in 2016, nothing significant has happened. That is usually the case; year in year out discussions take place at both national and international level and agreements are reached and signed. But the real actions thereafter are not taken. The interesting thing is that the impact is affecting millions of people across several countries. For instance, there are reports which show that Lake Chad has shrunk by about 90 per cent since the 1960s due to climate change resulting in an increase in the population and unplanned irrigation.
The basin covers parts of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon, and has been a water source for between 20 million and 30 million people. You can imagine what will happen when the Lake finally dries up. I am aware efforts are on to check this problem, for instance, a restoration plan for the Lake was launched some years ago, and a restoration action programme was designed and money was raised at some point to support the project. Not much has been achieved yet.
The problem of flooding is still prevalent, even during the last raining season, a couple of States experienced severe flooding and people were affected. With the pace we are moving, we will keep lamenting over the problem and never do anything concrete until serious damage has been done. So, I encourage the Nigerian government to do more to combat climate change because the long term repercussions will be devastating to say the least.
Stolen assets involve both a source and a destination and some foreign countries are complicit in these illegal transactions… To you, how can these foreign destinations be dissuaded from receiving funds siphoned from the treasuries of African countries, including Nigeria?
It is a bit difficult to ask countries not to receive funds stolen from other countries. It’s just like asking a foreigner who has permit to work and stay in Nigeria not to open a bank account in the country. That may not be possible, but there are regulations and laws covering the operations of banks globally, such regulations should be properly followed and the regulators should be up and doing. For instance, in Nigeria, there are deposits and withdrawal limits set by the CBN on individuals and companies. Anything outside the limit requires some explanations regarding the source. So, if the regulators in Nigeria and other parts of the world do their job diligently, it will be difficult for anybody to do otherwise without being questioned, except with the connivance of the banks.
However, international collaboration to deal with the issue has improved beyond what it was in the past. During the London anti-corruption summit in 2016, several countries including the US, UK and others in the EU committed to collaborate in the tracking and repatriation of looted funds back to the country where such funds were stolen. You may have heard of the Unexplained Wealth Order (UWO) issue in the UK and even the Voluntary Asset Declaration Scheme (VAIDS) in Nigeria.
All these are targeted at reducing illicit transactions and preventing corrupt persons from acquiring property without following due process. Nigeria as a country has benefited from such international collaboration with the recent return of about $322.5 million Abacha loot. Similar process has been concluded in the past where such looted funds were returned to the respective countries including Nigeria.
The federal government has said it plans to inject the retrieved $322 million Abacha loot into social investment and safety nets…can the civil society possibly follow this money to avert diversion?
The total money returned is $322.5 million comprising $321 million loot and $1.5 million interest on the loot. Nigerian government received the money in December 2017 and has said the money will be channelled into the social investment and safety nets. CSOs have been following the process and we were even consulted by the Nigerian government during the negotiation and drafting of the MoU. We supported the process and we are delighted the money has finally been returned.
Let me recall quickly, that in 2004, the first tranche of the money illegally taken outside Nigeria by former Military Head of State, Sani Abacha, was returned. President Olusegun Obasanjo’s government which received the $480 million had claimed that it was used for various projects across Nigeria but when CSOs carried out investigations, we could not locate some of the projects and we prepared a shadow report on it. So, now that the Nigerian government has received another tranche, we have decided to monitor its utilisation closely to prevent a re-occurrence of the past.
Let me use this opportunity to encourage other government including the US and UK to walk the talk to see that all loots are returned to the respective countries where such monies were stolen so that the money can be used to finance development initiatives that will address the needs of the poor who are victims of corruption.
In your own view, has the anti-corruption drive of this current administration waned, and if yes, how can it be successfully revived, aside the whistle-blowers’ commission?
The current administration is working hard to address issues of corruption even though there are questions around the integrity of some persons in the president’s cabinet. One of the products of the London anti-corruption summit is the commitment to join the open government partnership (OGP) and the country is currently implementing a 2-year National Action Plan. The OGP is revolutionary and is capable of addressing issues of corruption and opacity in governance. The country has made commitment in four thematic areas which include fiscal transparency, anti-corruption, citizen engagement and access to information.
As we speak now, NEITI is currently working with others on the issue of beneficial ownership register especially for companies operating in the extractive sector. The Bureau of Public Procurement is implementing the open contracting data standard and has now designed the open contracting portal to make public procurement data easily available to the public. I have just cited two instances of what the currently administration is doing and the beauty of this is that it targets improve transparency in critical areas where corruption thrives – public procurement and the extractive sector.
However, the government needs to tackle corruption in Nigeria. For instance, a number of bills are currently pending before NASS that have the potential to support anti-corruption in Nigeria. Other are still being drafted. The omnibus PIB is a good example. Luckily, the PIGB has just been passed, now awaiting presidential assent, the three other bills are being finalised before it will be subjected to National Assembly consideration. The Proceed of Crime Bill is another which is intended to set the framework for looted asset management in Nigeria among other things. These bills and others intended to support anti-corruption should be given speedy consideration.
Anti-corruption agencies need to be strengthened and given the needed support to facilitate their work. Again, judicial processes are very slow in the country. Cases drag for several years without end. This is not good enough. With the birth of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, one would expect that the dispensation of justice would improve. A lot still needs to be done to implement the Act.
Lastly, you believe in innovation as a development tool…how can Nigerians, especially youths, build capacity on this to engender positive change and development?
With the way the world is moving at jet speed, conventional approaches will no longer work or yield desired results. That is why there is need to be innovative in the way we do things. The current system needs to be disrupted by new ideas for us to make headway. I give you an example: in development work, the application of technology is becoming increasingly important, and you recall how Reclaim Naija used the Ushahidi platform to monitor elections in Nigeria. That was innovation and the success of the model has been studied for possible replication in other parts of the world. Currently, online newspapers like Sahara Reporters and Premium Times have taken over newspaper reporting in Nigeria and in the near future, the conventional newspapers may be out of business if the owners do not evolve alternative ways of doing business.
It is common knowledge that Nigeria, like many other countries in Africa suffers severe leakage of its public resources through corrupt means. Public funds are diverted by some Politically Exposed Persons (PEPs) and civil servants. The proceeds of such crimes are often times hidden in foreign safe havens or are used for the acquisition of private properties within and outside Nigeria.
As a direct response to the situation, ANEEJ has designed a project entitled “Tackling corruption through improving transparency in property ownership”. One of the objectives of the project is to develop an online platform to map and share information on ownership of property in specific districts of Abuja. The idea is to identify persons who own specific property and see if such persons are meeting their tax obligations to the government.