The AGF and yet another Responsibility

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Abubakar Malami
Abubakar Malami

John Akpan

The Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN), now has an additional job schedule besides the ones he’d been saddled with since 2015. He will now also manage all assets recovered as proceeds of crimes under a new regulation that came into effect on October 24, 2019.

It was announced as “Asset Tracing, Recovery and Management Regulations, 2019,” and published as Government Notice No. 88 in the Federal Republic of Nigeria Official Gazette No. 163, Vol. 106 of 29th October 2019. The notice says all anti-corruption agencies, including the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), have ceased to have power to manage assets whether recovered in the interim or final forfeiture.

The regulation applies to illegally acquired assets and proceeds of crime by a person, corporate bodies, including financial institutions and designated non-financial institutions investigated or prosecuted under any relevant Act in Nigeria.

By the regulation the AGF will also coordinate all inter-agencies investigation in recovery matters within and outside the country even as he would also co-ordinate tracing of proceeds of crimes within and outside Nigeria.

Section 10 empowers the AGF to set up a structure for the transparent management of all final forfeited assets, which includes operating and maintaining a “centralized database for the storage of records of all recovered assets within and outside Nigeria.”

While some reports chose to see the development as a whittling down of the powers of, especially the EFCC and ICPC, it is hardly the case. There is nothing in the new regulation which decreases the prosecutorial powers of those anti-graft agencies. Instead It seeks to relieve them of the additional burden of managing assets forfeited to the government. The task of managing those assets has now been added to the responsibilities of the attorney general’s office.

It is not surprising that the management of asset seizure has been taking away from anti-graft agencies. For one, it is a responsibility that are unrelated to their main mandate of investigation and prosecution of crimes. Anyone who knows about the law would admit that investigating and prosecuting corruption related cases is a huge burden for any agency, not least the EFCC or ICPC that are believed to be cash strapped.

While these agencies have done commendable work in fighting corruption, it had been difficult to secure convictions of high-profile suspects in many cases. Part of the reason is that some of these suspects had access to huge financial resources to frustrate their prosecution. Another is the occasional lack of diligent investigation of cases before they are prosecuted. The AGF had in the past faulted the case files of EFCC for lacking diligence, and for being too weak to secure any conviction in court.

This is also not due entirely to sloppiness on the part of agency investigators or prosecutors. A major problem of anti-graft agencies in Nigeria is funding. The EFCC cannot hire senior advocates of Nigeria to prosecute it cases due to inability to pay the bills. It also cost so much to conduct diligent investigation of the legion of case that come before them.

This is one of the reasons why President Muhammadu Buhari signed the Executive Order 6 in 2018 to prevent suspects in corruption cases from having access to stolen funds. The Order empowers government to temporarily seize funds belonging to corruption suspects until after the courts decide their fates.

Thus, in my view, the new regulation has empowered the anti-graft agencies to be able to carry out their mandates better. It has freed them from the encumbrance of having to trace and manage assets. They are not equipped for asset management and taking that burden off them should improve their efficiency.

It is now the burden of the AGF to trace and manage those assets which may include cash in banks, landed properties, vehicles, jewelries, electronic items and others. This is an added responsibility for the AGF, but one he may relish due to the opportunity it would afford government.

One, it is a measure that has the potential to check corrupt agency officials from squandering seized assets. There have been reported allegation of mismanagement of seized assets made against the anti-graft agencies in the past. The aim of this directive, among others, must be to ensure better accountability in the management of forfeited assets.

And when the courts grant final forfeiture order on assets of suspects, a more transparent management of those assets would ensure they support the revenue drive of the government. Granted that there is no guarantee that officials of the attorney general’s office would be immuned against corrupt acts. But the probability of mismanagement is reduced when the assets are centrally managed, unlike the current scenario where every prosecuting agency manages its own seizures with little of no accountability to any superior authority.

Now that the AGF, in exercise of the powers conferred on him by the EFCC (Establishment) Act; the ICPC Act; Administration of Criminal Justice Act, Money Laundering (Prohibitions) Act, Terrorism (Prevention) Act, National Drug Law Enforcement Agency Act and the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit Act (NFIU), among others, oversees all forfeitures to government secured by all these agencies, there would be more transparency and accountability in the management.

The regulation is undoubtedly a courageous executive action that better streamlines the anti-corruption drive of the Buhari government. Public officials who had benefitted and are still benefitting from the previous arrangement would try to resist, and even fight back. The government must be aware that the backlash would come, and the AGF would be the soft target because the directive would be seen as a win for his office.

But rather than for the office of the AGF, it must be seen as a win for the Buhari administration which had demonstrated the vision and determination to move the country to the next level of development. It is a step higher on the ladder of progress in the fight against corruption. Malami, by design or fate, has become the standard bearer of the Buhari administration’s war against corruption.

It is now a burden that Malami carries, which makes him a critical stakeholder in the success or failure of government’s anti-corruption drive. He deserves prayers and support, not envy.

*John Akpan writes from Uyo, Akwa Ibom State