Several criticisms have trailed some recent moves by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, which observers interpreted to be partisan or politically-motivated
Tuesday, July 24, 2018 started on a dramatic note in the Apo area of Abuja. The neighbourhood woke up to the sight of a contingent of arms-bearing security agents. The security men, comprising operatives of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and over 25 policemen, were visitors to the Apo Legislative Quarters residence of the Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu.
But not wanting to meet with his guests, Ekweremadu shut himself indoors, while the security agents waited patiently for him, blocking both ends of Jim Nwobodo Street where his house is located. The stand-off lasted till 3pm.F
Just as this was playing out in Apo, Ekweremadu’s colleague and President of the Senate, Bukola Saraki, was engaging in a hide-and-seek game with operatives of the Nigeria Police Force, in the Maitama area of the capital city.
While the EFCC said it had a letter, dated July 24, 2018, inviting Ekweremadu to its office the same day for questioning over alleged corruption, the police had on July 23 invited Saraki to appear at 8am in their Guzape, Abuja office on July 24, for questioning over the April 5, 2018 bank robberies in his Kwara home state.
But hinting his unwillingness to honour police invitation, Saraki, in a statement, claimed it was a ploy to prevent him from presiding over the Senate on July 24, so as to frustrate the planned defection of some senators from the ruling All Progressives Congress.
Unlike Ekweremadu, who was effectively holed up in his house, Saraki beat the security agents that blocked his convoy on his way out, surfacing later in the red chambers to preside over the Senate proceedings of the day.
As it turned out, 14 senators defected from the APC during the sitting.
A lawmaker, Chukwuka Utazi, claimed that the invitation of both Saraki and Ekweremadu by security agencies was targeted at stopping the day’s proceedings to frustrate the defections.
Utazi with others criticised the ruling APC for allegedly using security agencies as tools of oppression against perceived opponents. But the Presidency rejected the insinuation that President Muhammadu Buhari instigated security agents against the Senate leaders.
Though Saraki was in the APC – until Tuesday when he left for the PDP – it is an open secret that he and Ekweremadu had, for the most part of the last three years, preoccupied themselves, fighting to stay politically afloat, as they were assailed with one criminal allegation after the other.
Seemingly taking a cue from what happened in the Senate, 37 members of the House of Representatives, on the same July 24, left the APC for other parties at a session presided over by Speaker Yakubu Dogara.
Furthering the gale of defections from the APC, the Governor of Benue State, Samuel Ortom, the day after, announced that he was leaving for the PDP.
Ortom said he was being followed by 10 out of the 17 APC lawmakers in the Benue State House of Assembly; while 13 council chairmen in the state said they would not be left out.
Interestingly, barely a week after leaving the APC, the EFCC released an investigation report, detailing alleged N22bn fraud against Ortom.
The anti-graft agency said it had begun the investigation since 2016 but the allegation became public when the report of investigation was released to the press on July 30.
A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr Babatunde Fashanu, said the timing of the release of investigation report on Ortom smacked of politics. Fashanu wondered why the EFCC waited for Ortom to defect from the ruling APC before going public with the fraud allegation.
Also, a London-based Nigerian lawyer, Mr Femi Aina, while warning the EFCC against descending into the political arena, likened the timing of the release of the investigation report on Ortom to the tweet by the anti-graft agency shortly after the opposition PDP lost the Ekiti State governorship election to the APC.
On its Twitter handle, the EFCC had mocked the incumbent Governor of Ekiti State, Ayodele Fayose, whose ally and Deputy, Prof Kolapo Olusola, lost to the APC candidate, Dr Kayode Fayemi.
The anti-graft agency gloated over the prospect that Fayose’s trial over an alleged N1.3bn poultry project fraud in Ekiti State between 2003 and 2006 would soon be reopened.
“The parri (party) is over; the cloak of immunity torn apart and the staff broken.
“Ekiti Integrated Poultry Project/Biological Concepts Limited N1.3bn fraud case file dusted off the shelves. See you soon,” the EFCC tweeted on July 15, a day after the Ekiti governorship election.
Criticising the EFCC for its seeming partisan disposition, Fashanu said, “The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission is to investigate and prosecute crimes. All the steps they (operatives) are now taking are absolutely partisan. Nobody is saying you shouldn’t go after people who are suspected to be criminals, stealing public funds but when it is too one-sided and inauspicious, in the sense that it is when elections are coming, or when somebody is against the government at the centre that they now know he is corrupt and it is time to pick him up, one begins to feel concerned.
“Why are they talking of the Benue State Governor now? Has he not been there for three years? And what of Fayose? He’s still a governor; so, why don’t you wait for him to complete his remaining few months in office before you start making comments just after the election? And trying to arrest Ekweremadu or stop him from going to the Senate on the day you felt some people wanted to defect from the APC, to the man on the street, these moves are clearly political. I have no qualms about that conclusion.”
Fashanu said it was becoming difficult to argue that the anti-corruption fight was not one-sided, seeing how those in the government’s good book were never questioned, despite corruption allegations.
“What about those people who are considered to be in the good book of the government but we are hearing all sorts of allegations that they are corrupt? Some ministers and all that; why have they not been investigated? When the anti-corruption campaign started, I was for it, going by the reputation of the President coming in; everybody was for it; but with the way things have gone so far, one is getting discouraged,” the SAN said.
Aina, while describing the fight against corruption as a serious business, warned that the EFCC and the anti-graft war risked losing credibility if the anti-graft agency descended into the political arena.
The lawyer said, “The media too needs to be very careful as to how to report press releases from the EFCC, especially in a situation where it appears that the EFCC is now being used as a tool to intimidate opponents and the media and everybody need to stand up against what is going on in the country.
“Number one, how come the EFCC now reports about this Benue State Governor after he defected? And shortly after the Peoples Democratic Party lost the governorship election in Ekiti State, you could see the EFCC saying yes, they could now go after Fayose.
“If you want to fight corruption, it is a serious business. The EFCC needs to find a way to preserve its integrity and avoid a situation whereby it is descending into the political arena. Even though it might say these people have been under investigation for a while, the fact that it is releasing investigation reports on them in this political season is something people might see as awkward. And it is something that we need to look at seriously because the situation seems to be getting out of hand and if care is not taken, the EFCC will lose its integrity.”
Speaking in the same vein, an advocacy group, Access to Justice, expressed displeasure over the siege laid to the homes of Saraki and Ekweremadu by security agents.
In a statement jointly signed by its Director, Joseph Otteh, and Programme Officer, Daniel Igiekhumhe, the group expressed concern that seeming partisan actions of the EFCC might hurt the anti-corruption fight beyond remedy.
A2J said, “It is unfortunate that, as it turned out, the EFCC and the police were involved in this high-stakes episode of political drama. Many will find it particularly disappointing that the EFCC, a leading torchbearer of the fight against corruption, was co-opted into a scheme that was intended, from the beginning, wholly to serve partisan political objectives. The history of the Nigeria Police Force’ biases towards, and attachments to incumbent political office-holders sticks out a mile, so that its involvement in the ploy, though regrettable, will hardly come as a surprise to many.
“The need for the EFCC to remain politically neutral and focused exclusively on fighting corruption is one that cannot be over-emphasised. Using the commission’s powers to serve politically partisan ends will represent an invidiously corrupt use of, and departure from that mandate, and will harm the perception of the commission as an unbiased criminal justice agency. It will also play into the hands of those who are detractors of the commission’s work, and provide them cannons with which to attack the commission’s objectivity and judgments.”
A2J expressed the fear that with the July 24 incident, “the EFCC may have already lost a significant measure of public goodwill, standing and trust, and it will be harder to rebuild its credibility after this stunt.”
Also, Chief Joe-Kyari Gadzama (SAN), disapproved of the timing of the EFCC move against Ortom, saying it smacks of political partisanship.
The SAN said, “The issue of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission’s investigation of the governor; why is it coming after the impeachment notice has been announced? If you set a bush on fire, you may never be able to tell who the victim is. It may be the person’s wife or children. We should be careful about how we conduct our affairs in this country.”
But another Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Prof Fidelis Oditah, said the timing of the investigation report release was secondary to the substance that might be in the corruption allegation.
Oditah said, “The timing doesn’t matter; we’re playing politics; so, people can choose whatever timing they like to make allegations. The important thing is whether the allegations are correct.
“So, I don’t know that if someone is corrupt, the fact that whilst he was in one party no one alleged corruption against him and when he defects, they make allegations of corruption against him, it is wrong. That does not make the allegation incorrect. For me, the important thing is whether he is corrupt or not, not the timing of the allegation.
“So, if someone steals and they turn a blind eye because they thought he is one of them, if he leaves them, why can’t they say, ‘yes, this man is a thief, please, check him?’ I don’t have a problem with that.”
Oditah, however, admitted that security agencies in countries where public institutions are strong would have handled the case differently.
He added, “Generally, our institutions are very weak. You would have expected the EFCC and the police to have investigated these historic allegations of corruption and not to wait until the man ceased to be a member of the APC. It just shows the weakness of the institutions in the country. In Nigeria, no one will touch the director of campaign of the successful candidate. It points to the fact that we must strengthen our institutions.”
But the Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, Prof Itse Sagay (SAN), rejected outright the insinuation that the EFCC was being political or that the anti-graft war was one-sided.
Sagay said, “This is my take on matters like that: is there any basis for the interrogation? If there is, then you cannot say, ‘yes, I have looted; why are you interrogating me alone? The other man looted too’. Why don’t you admit your loot first and be convicted then they will go to the other man.
“In fact, it sounds very absurd in the mouth of any person guilty of betrayal of trust, mismanagement of funds and embezzlement of our assets, to say he is not the only one. If you are not the only one, we will get you first and then move on to the other ones after that. That’s my take. So, I don’t accept that argument that there is selectivity or bias or anything. No; I reject it. If you have a case to answer, you have a case to answer.”