In the mid-80s when Muhammadu Buhari had a stint as head of the Nigerian government, his reign was hallmarked by war against indiscipline, and most glaringly, the clampdown on perceived corrupt politicians.
The enemy within
Delivering the coup-speech in January, 1984, the General said that, “since what happens in any society is largely a reflection of the leadership of that society, we deplore corruption in all its facets.” He added that his government will not tolerate kick-backs, inflation of contracts and over-invoicing of imports, nor will it condone forgery, fraud, embezzlement, misuse and abuse of office and illegal dealings in foreign exchange and smuggling.
Even when he was afterwards tagged a dictator who cared less about human rights, in 2015, Buhari rode to power, in a now democratic Nigeria, with the anti-corruption credentials he had earned in his days as a military Head of State.
His candidacy became popular and electorates chose him over an incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan who was largely seen as a condoner of corruption.
Like in 1984, Buhari, in his May 29, 2015 inaugural speech as a democratically elected president, maintained that as far as the constitution allows him, he will ensure that gross corruption is checked and that there is responsible and accountable governance at all levels of government in the country.
As soon as he settled into the presidency, the anti-graft agency, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, was nudged out of slumber and many big shots have since been their guests.
Recent developments, however, may have put a setback on the fight against corruption.
Justice Ademola gets victory
On October 7th, 2016, the Department of State Services raided the official residence of a judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Adeniyi Ademola, and $550,000 was allegedly found during the raid. Alongside his wife, Olabowale and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Joe Agi, the Federal Government dragged the three defendants to court on 16 counts bordering mainly on receiving gratifications. Government had alleged that Justice Ademola got N30million from the through the account number 201/110160/1/1/0 of a new generation bank operated by his wife who was the former Head of Service in Lagos State.
On the 5th of April, 2017, a High Court of the Federal Capital Territory sitting in Maitama struck out the corruption charge against Ademola. The court held that government failed to prove any of the allegations it levelled against the Judge. The trial Judge, Justice Jude Okeke, in a ruling that lasted for hours, terminated further hearing on the criminal case, and he discharged and acquitted all the defendants.
Patience Jonathan’s case
In September 2016, a Federal High Court sitting in Lagos ordered the freezing of Ex-First Lady, Patience Jonathan’s multiple accounts over suspected proceeds from crime. One of the accounts, said to be domiciled with Skye Bank plc, has a balance of $5,316.66.
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“Recall that we had frozen the four companies’ accounts, which Patience Jonathan later laid claim to. We have been able to establish that the money was part of proceeds of crime,” an EFCC official told journalists. The official added that, “initially, we had traced $5m to her personal account, which we did not touch but I can confirm to you now that the $5m account, bearing Patience Jonathan’s name, has also been seized since she claimed that the monies in the company accounts and the one in her personal name originated from the same source.”
He further explained that they were tracing other accounts belonging to Patience, and it will interest the public to know that despite all the letters the former president’s wife had written, she never stated where she got the money from, but only claimed to be a housewife and yet has $20m.
Four months after, a High Court in Lagos vacated the order which froze Mrs. Jonathan’s account. In the ruling, Justice Mojisola Olatoregun, set aside the ‘No-Debit Order’ which the Commission had earlier placed on the account on allegations that the $5m found in it was proceeds of crime. The Judge declared that Mrs. Jonathan’s account was unlawfully frozen by EFCC.
Mike Ozekhome floors EFCC
Similar to Mrs Jonathan’s, in February, 2017, Justice Anka, sitting over the case at a Federal High Court in Lagos gave an order that Lagos-based lawyer, Mike Ozekhome’s account be frozen for 120 days on the ground that the sum of N75 million deposited in his GTB account on December 15, 2016, was suspected to also be a proceed of crime. EFCC lawyer, Idris Abdulahi Mohammed, had informed the court that the application was brought before it under section 29 of EFCC Act.
The judge, however, noted that any party that is not satisfied with the ruling can appeal. Reacting, the lawyer explained that the N75 million was paid into his account by his client, Governor Ayodele Fayose of Ekiti State — who is believed to have received a share from the money allegedly stolen by Sambo Dasuki– as part payment of Professional Fees for the numerous cases his chambers is currently handling for him (in his personal capacity) and his aides across Nigeria.
The lawyer had represented Fayose in court when the anti-graft agency froze the governor’s accounts in Zenith Bank. “The money is neither ‘’suspected proceeds of crime’’ nor of money laundering,” the lawyer argued. Even in that case, the court had also lifted the EFCC’s seal placed Fayose’s account, and the governor made a public show of it by withdrawing about N5million from the account.
In less than 40 days, the Federal High Court in Lagos lifted the order barring the lawyer from accessing his account. Justice Anka who again sat over the ruling, dismissed the EFCC’s case, saying he found it very doubtful if the objection of the EFCC can be lawfully sustained.
Orubebe versus ICPC
After the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, ICPC, had alleged that Godsday Orubebe, an ex-minister, was involved in a N1.97billion contract scam while he was in charge of affairs at the ministry of Niger Delta Affairs under the Goodluck Jonathan administration, an Abuja High Court has now dismissed this claim.
The charge was withdrawn on a day the court earlier gave the anti-graft agency to produce its witnesses to establish that Orubebe diverted funds meant for the compensation of owners of properties on Eket Urban section of the East-West Road in Eket, Akwa Ibom State. The trial Justice, Olukayode Adeniyi further discharged and acquitted Orubebe.
Is the anti-corruption war now a mockery?
Divergent interpretations have continued to trail these developments, since all happened within a short span of time from each other, with different courts giving similar judgements as though a coordinated attempt to frustrate President Buhari’s efforts at curbing corruption.
In a statement entitled ‘The discharge of Justice Niyi Ademola, Wife and Joe Agi, SAN; Matters Arising,’ Ozekhome described the event as “obviously laughable and anti-climax after all the “gra gra”, grand standing, posturing, rabble rousing and wanton degradation of the judiciary by their transducers.
“We were told to shut up, not to complain, because the government was fighting the monster called corruption. Never mind that the inner corridors and dark recesses of the same government reek and stink of putrid and horrendous corruption, with the very government rising up on each occasion to defend its corrupt officials.
“A case of wanting to sweep your neighbor’s house clean when your own house is dirty and stinking. A clear case of attempting to remove the mole from your neighbor’s eye when a log is embedded in yours.”
A new action plan required
It is unclear how Buhari’s government intends to pull through this. In 2015, Buhari, while calling for a judicial reform had accused corrupt lawyers and judges of sabotaging his efforts to recover stolen assets.
“Government’s attempts to recover such assets in accordance with the law are often faced with dilatory tactics by lawyers sometimes with the apparent collusion of judges,” he said, adding that these tactics are often not directed at reaching any conclusion or affirming innocence or guilt, but at stalling trials indefinitely, thus denying the state and the accused person the opportunity of a judicial verdict.
“I wish to echo the sentiments of the vast majority of Nigerians in saying that we cannot afford to continue on this path”, he had said, even as government continues to assert that corruption is fighting back.
Well, as to if we cannot afford to continue on this path, Buhari, in his remaining two years, may have to re-strategize in this fight against corruption.
That much was mooted by Mr Femi Falana, a legal practitioner, and rights activist who noted that the government stands to lose more corruption cases unless the it is prepared to reorganize the anti-graft agencies and review the anti-corruption policy in line with the proposals designed by the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC).
He also argued that “realizing that there are powerful forces in the public service who are currently profiting maximally from corrupt practices, the government cannot be relied upon in the fight against the menace of corruption” and called on CSOs to take advantage of the political will of the nation’s leadership to push for radical reforms in the fight against corruption.
Will the Buhari administration live up to its promise to prosecute the anti-corruption war to a logical conclusion? The answer lies in the future. However, the government has acknowledged the various setbacks and this has set off a flurry of activities at the presidency.
By Femi Owolabi
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