Sunday, July 22, 2007

Implications of ex-governors’ trial

Retired Justices Kayode Eso and Mustapha Akanbi have one thing in common. It has nothing to do with being distinguished jurists in the Bench and indeed in the legal profession. Like another legendary jurist, Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, the views of Eso and Akanbi command a great public appeal each time they choose to speak.

Shortly after he became the Chairman of the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, Akanbi did a critique on corruption in Nigeria and concluded that four main factors were responsible for its being endemic in public life. Then, Nigeria was ingloriously rated the third most corrupt in the world. These he said, include lack of political will to fight graft on the part of successive military leaders and inconsistency in government policies; reluctance by the nation’s law enforcement agencies to arrest and prosecute some “sacred cows.” He said the corrupt few had the effrontery to carry on with impunity and profligacy because nobody challenged their sources of opulence different from what is obtainable in advanced democracies of the world.

In the advanced democracies such as the United States, abuse of public office for personal benefit, constitutes a serious breach of trust. So, any corrupt official, no matter how highly placed, is not treated with kid gloves. Some good examples will suffice. A member of the US Congress, Randy “Duke” Cunningham resigned from Congress after allegedly confessing to evading taxes and being involved in bribes totaling $2.4 million. Another lawmaker, James A. Traficant (D-Ohio) was convicted in 2002 of 10 charges of racketeering, bribery and fraud. There was also the case in the state of Georgia, a former Senate Majority Leader, Charles Walker, was jailed for 10 years for misusing his position as a lawmaker. He was alleged to have stolen about $425,000 from a charity he created.

In Chile, the former leader, Augusto Pinochet was indicted on charges of fraud and corruption, while in Asia, the authorities in Bangladesh, in 2004, established an Independent Anti-Corruption Commission as part of efforts to prove that it meant business in its anti-corruption crusade. It quickly prepared a list of popular persons, including former ministers, legislators, business tycoons and labour leaders. It directed the persons to furnish the ACC with information on their wealth and assets within specific time. Some of those who were considered to be sacred cows because of their awesome influence and contacts were soon rounded up and detained and a few of them were tried and convicted like a former state minister, who was convicted for possessing and earning revenues from illegal assets.

In Nigeria, many blamed section 308 of the 1999 Constitution that protects the president, vice-president, governors and deputy governors against civil or ciminal proceedings while in office. It says, “A person to whom this section applies shall not be arrested during that period either in pursuance of the process of any court or otherwise.”

Former governor of Bayelsa State, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, was the first state chief executive to run into trouble with the EFCC over allegations of abuse of office. His counterpart in Plateau State, Chief Joshua Dariye managed to sustain hide-and-seek with operatives of the commission until last week. He and others like the former governor of Jigawa State, Aminu Turaki; Dr. Chimaroke Nnamani of Enugu state and Orji Uzor Kalu of Abia State, are currently facing the crucible of the EFCC over alleged gross abuse of public office ranging from money laundering to diversion of huge public funds.

The ongoing onslaught against the former governors came at the time most people thought that the EFCC was treating these personalities accused of graft like sacred cows. This was because most of them had begun to assume the role of kingmakers in the present dispensation. A couple of them, who had played a leading role in the eventual victory of Yar’Adua at the poll did not only become regular visitors at the Presidential Villa, but gave the impression that they were soon to be appointed as members of the kitchen cabinet of Mr. President.

Critics even saw the initial invitation of the former governors for interrogation by the operatives as diversionary. It was not until one of them was detained by the EFFC and charged to court that it dawned on some of the critics that the battle against them was after all real. And Chief Edwin Ume-Ezeoke, who is the National Chairman of the All Nigeria Peoples Party, is among Nigerian leaders who saw the EFCC action as a confirmation that the government had derived the political will to confront corruption in the country. He was excited that the authorities were following due process in the matter. He said, “The political implication is that if the trials succeed, it will serve as deterrent to future occupants of such office, to commit any criminal offences of that nature. The process of trials itself has been a bit credible. The legal aspects of this shows that the rule of law has come to stay and the judiciary has finally gained its independence and authority.

“What the government had done was a major departure from what was obtainable in the past. And it looks like we might see more of that in the future. EFCC is now being given a free hand to perform its function. I am satisfied with the EFCC especially its pursuit of due process. I was so impressed that even before they arrested them, the EFCC first of all went to court for clearance. It was after the court ordered for their arrest, that they issued arrest warrants. It was after then that they proceeded to arrest the culprits. I think based on that, they need to be commended.”

Senator Abubakar Makarfi from Bauchi State noted: “The whole process will in a way instill some fears and discipline in the serving governors that government purse should not be looted. It will be in their minds while running their respective states. It will help the polity because we will recover those ill gotten wealth from the looters and there will be enough money in the purse to deliver dividends of democracy to the people. But more important is that it will serve as deterrent to serving governors. Because, if nothing is done to punish the former governors who have looted the treasury, it will encourage those coming in to do even worse.”

On the allegations that there are bigger thieves who are allowed to walk freely in the street, he said, “ I don’t want to agree because EFCC has just started and has not concluded. They cannot do everything at once. And the way it is going, if it has to get to the presidency why not? But I think I am truly satisfied. On whether the government possesses the political will to pursue the case; he said, “It is now left to the judiciary. And we must give kudos to the judiciary in this country. It is another arm of government that is handling it and not the executives. Once the EFCC has been able to establish a case against these people and take the case to court, it is left for the judiciary. And I have a very strong confidence in the judiciary.”

A former Chairman of the Onitsha branch of the Nigerian Bar Association, Chief Obele Chika, said, “The EFCC has done well by not engaging in Gestapo-like style in prosecuting suspects. It is commendable that they have taken them to court. On a serious note the EFCC justified the arraignment and we expect it to continue. The political implication is that it has helped the illegitimate government of President Umaru Yar’Adua politically. It is a plus for the government; a government I do not recognise because it was borne out of electoral infamy. It will also serve as warning to intending treasury looters that the anti corruption war is still here with us.”

But another prominent citizen, Dr. Wale Omole believes the action of the EFCC was belated though necessary if the nation must restore its dignity as the leading black nation in the world. He remarked that most Nigerians had hidden under the immunity clause in the 1999 Constitution to pilfer the commonwealth of the people of Nigeria. “Nigeria being severally declared one of the nations with the highest indices of corruption in the world is probably the only nation where the laws permit an incumbent president or governor to keep on committing crimes until expiration of his tenure. The official immunity they enjoy allows them free access to crimes and no EFCC, ICPC, SSS or Police can stop, investigate or harass them even when they steal all the public funds in their care or kill their political opponents. To them all these anti corruption agencies are spectators or noisemakers.”

Omole though, not against the onslaught of the EFCC against the former governors, said the action was coming too late because of the negative consequences of their activities on the society. He blamed the immunity clause in the constitution for the flagrant abuse of office by public officers. He said, “Today, the EFCC is arresting ex-Governors who have been indicted for stealing the state money. Their arrest, detention and prosecution is meaningless. Is this not medicine after death? Is this not similar to a law that prevents a fire fighter from action until after a public property has been fully consumed by fire? People cannot be slaves to their laws. Where is the wisdom in the law of a land that assists and protects a stealing officer while stealing and to keep stealing until official termination of the tenure which may last four or eight years? Can the EFCC recover one quarter of all stolen funds? Look at the huge amount of resources being committed to the arrest and prosecution. All these were preventable. Any law that prescribes deferred justice must be repealed.”

Not a few are still skeptical that the current effort might be a mere smokescreen because of the manner cases of corruption involving some public figures were fraudulently handled in the past. The slogan had always been, ‘It’s a family affair’, each time there was a major scandal involving members of the ruling elite. People are of the belief that the onslaught against the former governors are meant to satisfy certain political interest, which has certain scores to settle with some past leaders. Others say the exercise was merely salutary because it was a case of the bigger thief gaining an upper hand over the smaller ones. The radical lawyer, Chief Gani Fawehinmi (SAN) belongs to this school of thought. Ditto the second republic governor of Kaduna State, Alhaji Balarabe Musa.

The position of both men is informed by some unanswered questions about the billions of Naira that were either siphoned through phony deals during the military era or squandered on the Turn-Around-Maintenance of the nation’s oil refineries beginning from 1999. No one has accounted for the huge public fund channeled into the energy sector that has remained epileptic. Some critics also cited the transport sector where the federal Government pumped billions of Naira into railway and federal highway projects. Yet, the transport is still in a despicable condition.

How far can the EFCC nay the government go on the current anti-graft war? Does the government possess the political will to actually prosecute the war? Makarfi, Omole, and others shared different views on the matter. Omole advocated a drastic change of attitude.

Omole, who is the National Coordinator of a non-governmental organisation, Peoples Problems and Solution, said, “ The Senate should strip all serving governors of their immunities. No honest Governor or President needs immunity. This should be a top priority in the proposed constitution amendment. The president of America, Bill Clinton was investigated for sexual harassment while in office. If all are equal before the law, no one should have immunity. This would earn Nigeria a better credibility in the comity of nations and our anti-corruption crusade would become meaningful to the world.”

Obele said, “ And only that , the EFCC should expect that any evidence that is needed to sustain this case are made available. And if they are not yet available they should try and bring out further evidences that are sufficient to secure conviction of these people at all cost. Because theses treasury looters should face the worst punishment that has not been prescribed for any kind.”

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