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Reopening former governors’ corruption cases

We live in decadent times. It is one where top officials loot the public treasury with impunity and enjoy their ill-gotten wealth without any repercussions whatsoever. Yet, there is a ray of hope. Acting in line with President Muhammadu Buhari’s anti-corruption stance, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission plans to reopen high-profile corruption cases involving some former state governors and ministers. This is a belated move, but if renewed dynamism is injected as mooted, it could trigger a dramatic change in the crusade against theft of public funds.

Some of the ex-governors have been on trial since their tenure ended in 2007, but socio-political and judicial conspiracy and lack of political will have combined to produce half-hearted prosecution and even outright abandonment of some cases. Yet, the war against corruption appeared in 2007 and 2008 to be experiencing a breakthrough. This was because, with an uncommon zeal, the EFCC, then under Nuhu Ribadu, its pioneer chairman, probed the activities of several state governments.

In the end, it committed some of them to trial. They included Lucky Igbinedion (Edo State), James Ibori (Delta); Joshua Dariye (Plateau); Boni Haruna (Adamawa); Achike Udenwa (Imo); Jolly Nyame (Taraba); Peter Odili (Rivers); Saminu Turaki (Jigawa); Chimaroke Nnamani (Enugu) and Orji Kalu (Abia). But the trials have largely stalled, with the exception of Igbinedion’s case, which attracted opprobrium after he pleaded guilty in 2008 for embezzling $3.57 million and was asked to pay a puny fine of N3.5 million as punishment in a notorious plea bargain deal.

Judicial hanky-panky ensured, however, that Odili’s corruption trial never saw the light of day. In 2008, the former governor secured a perpetual injunction from Ibrahim Buba, a judge of the Federal High Court in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, which restrained the EFCC from “investigating, detaining or prosecuting” him. That order has not been vacated. Such legal moves are aimed at the core of the anti-corruption war.

Similarly, a substantive case of fraud against Dariye was on hold for years because of interlocutory injunctions granted by the courts since 2007 when he was arraigned. It was only this year that the Supreme Court ruled that he should be tried. The money laundering case of Nnamani, was stalled for seven years following innumerable adjournments. The delays enabled some of the accused governors like Turaki, Nnamani and Dariye to win elections to the National Assembly as senators.

But the biggest judicial shenanigans occurred in the case of Ibori, who governed Delta State from 1999 to 2007. He was freed on all the 170 charges preferred against him by the EFCC by a judge, Marcel Awokulehin, of the FHC Asaba. But in 2012, Ibori was sentenced to 13 years in prison by a London court on similar charges. In a recent speech, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, said of the case: “People like convicted Nigerian fraudster (James) Ibori, owned property in St John’s Wood, Hampstead, Regent’s Park, Dorset all paid for with money stolen from some of the world’s poorest people.” In other stalled cases, a former governor of Gombe State, Danjuma Goje, was arraigned for alleged embezzlement in 2011. A member of the House of Representatives, Farouk Lawan, was arraigned in 2012 for allegedly collecting a bribe of $620,000 from businessman, Femi Otedola, in the messy N2.53 trillion petrol subsidy bazaar of 2011, in which no high-profile person has been successfully prosecuted.

Corruption has become the norm in the country’s public service architecture. The three tiers of government have been tainted by sleaze; but corruption manacles development, encourages terrorism (as seen in the unfolding $2.1 billion arms purchase scandal, for which a former National Security Adviser and others are being tried), and fuels transnational crimes. As soon as oil money flows into the country’s purse, it disappears, and contracts cannot be funded. The Global Financial Integrity, a US-based NGO, said that greedy officials stole $157 billion of public funds in the 10 years to 2014; the African Union said that government officials expropriated a quarter of Africa’s GDP through graft in the 1990s.

Corruption is one of the greatest enemies of progress in our time. Consequently, governance has failed abjectly, with nothing concrete to show in terms of infrastructure. Nigeria, according to the Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index, is a very poor 136th out of 176 countries rated. “Corruption creates and increases poverty and exclusion. While corrupt individuals with political power enjoy a lavish lifestyle, millions of Africans are deprived of basic needs like food, health, education, housing, access to clean water and sanitation,” Jose Ugaz, the TI Chair, said. We couldn’t have said it better.

To make a bold and clear statement that corruption does not pay, the Buhari administration has to strengthen and fund the EFCC and the other anti-corruption agencies. Looters of public treasury must be denied the benefit of permanently enjoying their ill-gotten wealth. These critical measures helped Singapore, which was once one of the most graft-ridden countries in the world in the 1950s to overcome venality. Sickened by corruption, (the late) Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, implemented a rigorous anti-corruption law that nailed serving ministers like Wee Toon Boon (1975) and Teh Cheang Wan (1986). Teh, who was accused of taking kickbacks from two real estate companies, said in his suicide note, “It is only right that I should pay the highest penalty for my mistake.”

Nigeria has a lot to learn from this. According to TI, the political will to prosecute offenders “is a key ingredient for success” in the fight against corruption. Prosecution and punishment are a strong deterrent, as Singapore has shown, and there is no reason why this cannot work here.

One of the most under-stated, but most important elements of a rules-based world order, is a commitment to transparency and to tackling corruption. Buhari should deepen transparency in governance with a robust implementation of the Freedom of Information Act. Judges that desecrate the temple of justice by granting doubtful adjournments in criminal trials should be flushed out of the judiciary, investigated and made to face prosecution if found culpable.

If these former governors and ministers are brought to justice, the current crop of officials will think twice before abusing their office. The present leadership must enable a well-funded and truly independent EFCC, which is free of government control. Internally, the organisation itself must be incorruptible so that it can diligently prosecute all cases of graft.

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