EFCC’s battle to sustain anti-corruption war

afbab tinubu and bawa

many Nigerians, President Bola Tinubu started off on an impressive note despite the controversy surrounding his election in February this year. For many of Tinubu’s admirers, he is the man destined to take over from Muhammadu Buhari and take Nigeria to a more promising destination.

Given his background as a democracy enthusiast, who alongside other prominent Nigerians fought to return the country to democracy, his election is seen by his supporters as an ample opportunity for the country to experience a fresh start across all sectors, including a holistic fight against corruption, which has been identified as a major bane to the country’s development. And for someone who said it was his life ambition to govern the country, he is expected to champion a paradigm shift in the nation’s development.

Interestingly, for many people, Tinubu’s eight-point agenda of ‘food security, poverty eradication, economic growth, job creation, access to capital, improving security of life and property, rule of law and fight against corruption’ capture what the nation needs at this time. They argued that these areas are critical for a nation desirous of finally living up to her true potential as the true giant of Africa and a global player in good governance.

After a few weeks into his tenure, the fight against corruption seemed to take more than a passive outlook when the President ordered the suspension of Godwin Emefiele as the Central Bank Governor and Abdulrasheed Bawa as the Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission respectively. Interestingly, the two men have been in the custody of the Department of State Services, not even the EFCC that is supposed to look into economic crimes.

The EFCC had indicated its readiness to address corruption at the sub-national levels when in May, 2023 it warned in a memo that some of the outgoing governors, starting with Bello Matawalle of Zamfara State, were under the commission’s radar for corruption-related conducts.

Matawalle, now Minister of State for Defence, had accused EFCC of making a financial demand on him and called for the resignation of Bawa.

The former governor had argued that “In a bid to bridge the obvious knowledge-gap and inertia exhibited by the EFCC chair, the probe should be all-embracing and cover all officers. I demand that the EFCC chair extend similar invitations to officers of the Presidency and members of the Federal Executive Council, which is the highest tier of government in the country.”

The anti-graft agency, reacting to the allegation at a press conference addressed by its Director, Media and Public Affairs, Osita Nwajah, had noted that “The real issue with Matawalle is that he is being investigated by the EFCC over allegation of monumental corruption, award of phantom contracts and diversion of over N70bn.

“The money which was sourced as loan from an old generation bank purportedly for the execution of projects across the local government areas of the state was allegedly diverted by the governor through proxies and contractors who received payment for contracts that were not executed.

“The commission’s investigation so far revealed that more than 100 companies have received payments from the funds, with no evidence of service rendered to the state. Some of the contractors who had been invited and quizzed by the commission, made startling revelations on how they were allegedly compelled by the governor to return the funds received from the state coffers back to him through his aides after converting the same to United States dollars.”

The director alleged further that the contractors confirmed that they did not render any service to Zamfara State but were allegedly directed to convert the monies paid to them into United States dollars and return to the state governor through some of his commissioners, notably the commissioners in charge of finance and local government affairs.

“One of the contractors, a popular Abuja property developer, collected N6bn on a N10bn contract without rendering any service to Zamfara State. Another contractor collected over N3bn for a contract for the supply of medical equipment but the commission traced a payment of N400m from his account to a Bureau de Change operator. The contractor confessed the payment was to procure the dollar equivalent allegedly for the state governor,” Nwajah had said.

According to the EFCC, Matawalle’s claims “ought not to be dignified with a response. What is at play here is a pure case of corruption fighting back. Matawalle’s outburst is a product of paranoia – an uncomfortable exertion arising from the heat of EFCC’s lawful activities”.

The director said further, “However, for the sake of some gullible citizens who might be swayed by the governor’s sudden burst of crusading zest, a measured response has become imperative to expose Matawalle’ outburst for what it is, a hollow gambit to deflect attention from the real issue.

“The issue has nothing to do with the transparency of EFCC’s asset recovery and disposal process. Contrary to the claims by Matawalle, the commission supervised an asset disposal exercise that was widely acclaimed as the most transparent in the country’s history. Proceeds of the open and transparent exercise have since been remitted into the coffers of the Federal Government and are being deployed in the provision of infrastructure for Nigerians.

“The issue is also not about plea bargain. Indeed, it is hypocritical for Matawalle to rile a process for which he has been a beneficiary. Plea bargain is a practice established by law, and the commission has never gone outside of the law in the application of this principle. If Matawalle has any evidence of abuse of the plea bargain process, he is at liberty to make the disclosure.”

In a twist about a month later, the hunter became the victim.

Bawa, who vowed to prosecute Matawalle once he left office as governor, was suspended by the President.

A statement by the Director of Information, Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Willie Bassey, noted that the move was to ensure the conclusion of investigation into Bawa’s activities while in office.

“This follows weighty allegations of abuse of office levelled against him. Mr Bawa has been directed to immediately hand over the affairs of his office to the Director, Operations in the Commission, who will oversee the affairs of the Office of the Chairman of the Commission pending the conclusion of the investigation,” the statement read.

Since Bawa’s ordeal began, there seems to be a lull in the activities of the commission.

In the past, it had become a norm for many former governors to be EFCC’s guests after completing their tenure. They were often invited by the commission for questioning over corrupt enrichment and mismanagement of funds while in office. More often than not, the information was made available to the public.

One of the interesting cases was that of former governor Ayo Fayose of Ekiti State, who after leaving office, following the pending invitation to him, submitted himself to the commission in a dramatic manner. He went with his bag, containing his clothes and other personal items, hoping to spend some time in the custody of the commission.

Former governor Willie Obiano of Anambra State was also arrested at the airport hours after he finished his tenure and handed over power to his successor, over the same allegations of corruption.

While stealing in public office seems to have gone worse, there are concerns that not much seems to be happening to make corrupt public officials answer for their crimes against the people, most of whom are sinking deeper in the ocean of poverty, while many more are sliding into penury daily on account of the harsh economic environment that should have been made better if there was judicious use of resources.

In fact, prior to the May 29 handover date, the embattled EFCC chairman had said corrupt governors would be barred from leaving the country, and that their details would be sent to the Nigeria Immigration Service to make sure they didn’t escape. But as of now, there has been no report of any former governor arrested, whether at the airport or anywhere else. To public knowledge, only former governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State was invited by the commission in June. He was later released after hours of questioning.

While governors are not the only corrupt persons the commission has investigated and prosecuted, not much has been heard about other sets of people it also focuses on, like lawmakers and big players in the private sector.

Similarly, the initial zeal shown by the Federal Government to stamp out corruption appears to be losing steam, as not much has been heard of government officials alleged to be corrupt, particularly immediate past state governors.

Rather, some who had corruption allegations have been given juicy appointments under the current government. This, according to many analysts, might be indicative of what to expect from the government of Renewed Hope.

A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Chief Mike Ozekhome, speaking with Sunday PUNCH in a veiled dig at the anti-graft agency wondered why it does its job in a manner reminiscent of putting the cart before the horse.

He stated, “In Nigeria, it has always been to first arrest, detain and then fish for evidence, at times, under torturous conditions. That is certainly not how to fight corruption. Journalists however have a duty to investigate what the EFCC is currently doing in the fight against corruption.”

Also speaking, a public affairs analyst, Jackson Ojo, told our correspondent that rather than waning, corruption was on the rise in the few months Tinubu had been in charge of the nation’s affairs. Alleging that Bawa was merely being persecuted for stepping on powerful toes, Ojo challenged the Federal Government to tell the world why it was still keeping Bawa in custody and failing to charge him to court.

He said, “Have they told us the offence committed by the former EFCC chairman? The law is clear on how long a suspect can be detained before he is charged to court. Bawa has been detained for almost three months but there is no pronouncement and Nigerians don’t know what is going on. This means the young man merely stepped on toes. When a man fighting corruption stepped on toes, it means he has fought corruption where people didn’t want it to be fought.

“Nigerians have seen the manner Ibrahim Magu was treated and the way Bawa is being treated now. If an EFCC chairman cleared by the Senate is this shabbily treated, how do you expect an acting chairman to be treated?

“There are toes in the National Assembly today that Bawa stepped on when they were not yet in parliament. Today, they are there and are very powerful. Today, corruption is growing in our country. Nobody is fighting corruption and I doubt if this executive arm of government is fighting corruption. The legislative arm cannot fight corruption. The institution charged with fighting corruption is now under ‘lock and key’. We must admit that corruption is thriving today, uninterrupted, in our country.”

Similarly, a lawyer, Abdul Mahmud, warned Nigerians not to expect much from the Federal Government particularly in relation to its pledge to wage a successful war against corruption.

He said, “How can this government fight corruption? Believing and hoping that this government will fight corruption is akin to believing that predators will always keep their prey safe.”

Meanwhile, the presidential candidate of the African Democratic Congress in the 2023 election, Dumebi Kachikwu, has backed the government to deliver on its promise, noting that fighting corruption is not necessarily done in the media as some people would expect.

He said the All Progressives Congress-led government might be doing diligent investigations behind the scenes, stressing that with little patience, the result of the effort would be out for all to see.

He added, “Crime is not fought on the pages of papers or in the court of public opinion. Crime is fought through diligent and painstaking investigations which ultimately culminate in successful prosecutions. I believe this administration might be adopting this approach. Let’s wait, watch and see.”

Meanwhile, there are also claims that the Acting Chairman of the EFCC, Abdulkarim Chukkol, might be constrained to do much as he is only in acting capacity. This, according to some observers, highlights why the country must develop its institutions, such that whether in acting or substantive capacity, anyone in charge of any institution would be immune from harassment or possible removal by powerful forces.

It is not clear what the commission intends to do in the coming months, but what is not in doubt is that Nigerians are watching, hoping that the way successive governments would fight corruption would renew their hope for a better Nigeria.