EFCC: Losing the grip on ‘corrupt politicians’

FELIX NWANERI February 26, 2013

FELIX NWANERI, takes a look at the delay in the prosecution of former governors and other public office holders accused of corrupt practices, which has cast a slur on the fight against corruption.

Nigerians were shocked recently when a Federal Capital Territory High Court, Abuja, sentenced a former director of the Police Pension Office, John Yusuf, to a two-year jail sentence for conniving with others to defraud the office and pensioners of N32.8 billion.

Yusuf admitted to stealing N2 billion of the money, but he would not spend the two years in jail as the presiding judge, Justice Abubakar Talba gave him an option of fine in the sum of N750,000 for the three offences he pleaded guilty to. Each of the three offences attracts a two-year jail term or N250, 000 fine.

Whereas Yusuf has been rearraigned on fresh charges by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and presently in prison custody pending the determination of his bail application, most Nigerians seem to be losing hope on the ability of the present administration to fight corruption. The conviction of this pessimists stems from the inability of the two antigraft agencies; the EFCC and Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) to review and prosecute all cases of corruption pending since 2007.

Pending cases

Top among the cases are the trials of former Governors Ayo Fayose (Ekiti), Orji Kalu (Abia), Chimaroke Nnamani (Enugu), Sani Ahmed (Zamfara), Saminu Turaki (Jigawa), Rashidi Ladoja (Oyo), Joshua Dariye (Plateau), Jolly Nyame (Taraba), Boni Haruna (Adamawa), Abdullahi Adamu (Nasarawa) and Attahiru Bafarawa (Sokoto).

These former governors were swooped on by the EFCC then under the leadership of Nuhu Ribadu immediately after they left office in 2007. But, no headway has been made in their prosecution till date, even as some of them have gone ahead to contest and win elections and are in the National Assembly as senators. In the case of Kalu, he was specifically arraigned on July 27, 2007 before an Abuja High Court on a 107-count charge of money laundering, official corruption and criminal diversion of public funds in excess of N5 billion.

After he pleaded not guilty to the charges and his counsel asked for bail, the court presided over by Justice Binta Muritala Nyako ordered his detention in Kuje prison in Abuja. He however regained his freedom four days later.

A court order obtained by the EFCC to freeze his key assets and hand them over to the Abia State government if he is unable to prove that the funds used to establish his companies were not proceeds of graft is yet to be effected as the matter is still pending in court. Another pending case is that of Dariye, who is presently representing Plateau Central in the Senate.

Arraigned before an Abuja High Court on a 23-count charge involving the sum of N700 million, the former governor pleaded not guilty to all the charges preferred against him and was subsequent granted bail. He later challenged the jurisdiction of the court to try him, contending that the offence he allegedly committed took place in Plateau State and the funds involved belonged to the state, so his trial ought to take place in the state, and not in Abuja.

While the presiding judge dismissed the objections, Dariye approached the Court of Appeal with the same application but the appellate court threw it out and ordered him to go and face his trial. While the case is still pending before the court and has suffered series of adjournments, mostly at the former governor’s instance, Dariye won a senatorial seat in the 2011 elections. Nyame, in the same vein was docked on a 41-court charge in July 2007. He was alleged to have embezzled N1.3 billion. A graphic illustration of how he perpetuated the act was given by one Dennis Nev, a staff of the Taraba State Government House at his trial.

The witness told the court how Nyame directed him to raise the sum of N100 million being an amount proposed for the preparations for the visit of then President Olusegun Obasanjo to the state in 2006. He also told the court how he used discretion and raised three different memos for the former governor in which he requested for N323 million, N27 million and N42 million respectively, listing vehicle maintenance, overhaul of power generating sets, security arrangements, general facelift of the capital city (Jalingo), sanitation, civil works, souvenirs and honorarium as the purposes for which the money was to be used.

Nev further told the court that upon the receipt of the three memos, Nyame approved the release of the funds and ordered him to bring the monies to his office, an order he complied with and added that the funds were never used for the purposes for which they were approved.

The former governor was also alleged to have collected N180 million from USAB International Nigeria Limited, a kick back money from a N250 million contract awarded to the company for the supply of stationeries to the state government between January and February 2005. In Turaki’s case, he was docked on a 32-count charge on allegations that he stole about N36 billion from the treasury over an eight-year period and charged along with three companies accused of being used to siphon the funds as accomplices.

The companies are INC National Resources Limited, Arkel Construction Nigeria Limited and Wildcat Construction Limited. He was however granted bail after a brief detention in the sum of N100 million on July 27, 2007 by Justice Nyako although his bail was vigorously contested by the EFCC which accused him of possessing multiple nationality and capable of jumping bail.

Soon after securing his bail, Turaki, who was a senator between 2007 and 2011, successfully secured the transfer of his trial to his home state – Jigawa. Nnamani, who equally spent four years in the Senate (2007 – 2011), was also arraigned before a Federal High Court sitting in Lagos on a 105-count charge for allegedly stealing the sum of N5.3 billion. Like others, he pleaded not guilty to the charges and was subsequently granted bail with the case still pending.

In the case of Haruna, he was arraigned before a Federal High Court sitting in Abuja on an amended 28-count charge of embezzlement of public funds amounting to N93 billion, but he equally pleaded not guilty to the alleged crimes and like others, secured a bail from the court. The matter is equally pending. Another instance of alleged corrupt enrichment is the case of Adamu (now a senator), who was arraigned before an Asaba High Court on March 3, 2010 alongside 18 others on a 149-count charge of fraud involving over N15 billion.

Similar to others before it, the case suffered delay right from the beginning with four adjournments between May 24 and September 28, 2011. The matter is now at the Makurdi Division of the Court of Appeal, where it has also suffered four adjournments. The trial of Abubakar Audu, former governor of Kogi State (1999-2003), who was originally arraigned on November 30, 2006 on an 80-count charge of fraud and embezzlement of over N4 billion has equally suffered several setbacks as the accused had thrice approached the Supreme Court and returned to the Kogi State High Court where his trial is ongoing before Justice Saidu Tanko Hussani.

The same delay has been witnessed in the case of Fayose, who was recently rearraigned over misappropriation of state funds totalling N416 million. The former governor of Ekiti State, who was earlier arraigned on an 80-count charge, has been persistently accused by the EFCC of employing delay ploys to frustrate his trial.

An endless list

The pending corruption cases are not only limited to the governors who served between 1999 and 2007. Attempts by the EFCC to have some of their predecessors and other former ranking government officials to answer graft related charges are yet to yield positive results. Among those in this category include the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dimeji Bankole and his then deputy, Usman Nafada; former Governors Gbenga Daniel (Ogun), Adebayo Alao-Akala (Oyo), Ibrahim Shekarau (Kano) and Danjuma Goje (Gombe).

The N894 million contract inflation case the EFCC preferred against Bankole could not hold the last time (September 2012) it came up for hearing due to the transfer of the trial judge, Justice Donatus Okorowo of the Federal High Court, Abuja to Taraba State. National Mirror gathered that while the case file has been returned to the registrar of the court for re-assignment, the former Speaker prefers that Okorowo be allowed to continue with the case even while in Taraba.

According to him, the progress recorded in the matter will amount to naught if the judge is not allowed to continue with it. The trial of Daniel on a 38 criminal charges bordering on illegal conversion of property to personal use and outright stealing of N58 billion during his eightyear tenure in Ogun State, only resumed in December last year at an Abeokuta High Court, two months after the last sitting with the accused urging the court to strike out counts one to 13 of the charges against him on the grounds that the Ogun State government set up a Judicial Commission of Enquiry, which have already indicted him on the counts.

The same delay has characterised Alao-Akala’s case involving N25 billion, His trial could not proceed penultimate Monday due to the imminent retirement of the trial judge, Justice Akintunde Boade. This is coming on the heels of the EFCC’s battle to quash the request by Goje to transfer his trial from the Federal High Court, Gombe to Abuja. He is alleged to have stolen N70 billion.

Pockets of conviction so far

Under Ribadu, the EFCC, for the first time in the annals of Nigeria’s history, successfully aided and abetted the prosecution and eventual impeachment of two former governors, Dieprieye Alamieyeseigha (Bayelsa) and Dariye.

The commission also prosecuted and secured the conviction of a former Inspector General of Police, Tafa Balogun, who pleaded guilty to an eight count charge of money laundering to the tune of N16 billion in 2005 and was sentenced to six months imprisonment. Lucky Igbinedion (a former governor of Edo State), however is the only former governor that has paid back part of the money he stole into the state coffers through a plea bargain. He was arraigned by the anti-graft agency before the Federal High Court, Enugu on a 191-count charge of corruption, money laundering and embezzlement of N2.9 billion in 2008.

But in a plea bargain arrangement, the EFCC through its counsel, Rotimi Jacobs, reduced the 191-count charge to a one-count charge of neglect to declare his interest in an account with a new generation bank in the declaration of his assets, an offence punishable under section 27(3) of the EFCC Act 2004. Interestingly, part of the terms of the plea bargain was that Igbinedion would refund N3.5 million, three properties and plead guilty to the one-count charge which he agreed to, paid up the amount and subsequently let off the hook by the court0.

Civil societies kick

Decrying the lukewarm attitude of the present leadership of the EFCC, the Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders (CACOL) in a statement by its executive chairman, Debo Adeniran, called on President Goodluck Jonathan and the chairman of the EFCC, Ibrahim Lamorde, to review all pending corruption cases since 2006 and intensify effort at prosecuting those involved.

The group said: “Since the exit of Ribadu, the nation has experienced a situation whereby corruption trials do not go beyond the plea stage, some for as long as six years after first arraignment in court and the reasons are not far-fetched as the EFCC’s shoddy investigation of cases it filed for trial and the anti-graft agency’s penchant to repeatedly file for amendment of charges against accused persons after their arraignment.

Also, the lawyers to the accused persons always seize the opportunity of the demand for the amendments of the charges to ask for adjournments to enable them study and respond to the new charges. “Moreover, unending demands for adjournments and amendments of corruption charges by lawyers engaged by EFCC have contributed to the setbacks experienced in prosecuting its cases and suspicions that many of the lawyers hired by EFCC for prosecution of cases may be conniving with the defence teams for elongation of cases, especially those involving highly placed persons for their mutual benefit.

Also, former governors on trial followed a familiar pattern and adopted it which became a trend by challenging the jurisdiction of courts trying them.” CACOL however added that the EFCC complaints of not getting enough funds to embark on investigations of its cases and prosecute indicted corrupt persons, shows a clear demonstration of the government’s near-nil support for the war against corruption, as the commission revealed that the United Kingdom Metropolitan Police spent more money to successfully prosecute the former governor of Delta State, James Ibori, currently serving a 13-year jail term than the amount allocated to the agency for a whole year.

Also decrying the snail-speed at which corruption cases are prosecuted by the relevant government agencies, the Conference of Nigerian Political Parties (CNPP), said the essence of trying and sentencing accused persons is to punish offenders and deter would be offenders.

Secretary General of the group, Willy Ezugwu, told National Mirror that no amount of plea for leniency or plea bargaining should earn any self-confessed thief the pampering that has made mockery of Nigerians who worked hard daily for their income.

His words: “We have been clamouring for the judiciary to give teeth to the fight against corruption because of the compromised executive arm of government that is presently in place, but it is now obvious that there will be no positive steps in that direction. This makes Nigerians deride the judiciary, asking that its functions be outsourced to the UK where former Delta State governor, James Ibori got the kind of prison sentence that can truly deter thieves.”

Challenge to President Jonathan

CACOL urged the President to show serious commitment, zeal and determination in the war against corruption by fully supporting the EFCC morally, financially and technically to prosecute the accused former governors and other indicted public officials including serving ministers in his cabinet who have been trailed by various allegations of corruption.

It said: “We maintain that the Attorney- General of the Federation and the Minister of Justice, Mohammed Bello Adoke is a clog in the wheel of progress of the EFCC, therefore the anti-graft agencies in the country should be given autonomy from the influence of the AGF if corruption must be reduced in the civil and public service.

“This is also to put Lamorde and his team on their toes for a renewed and rejuvenated cause in the annals of antigraft crusade of Nigeria history, which will serve as deterrent to others and put a check on the wanton impunity at which the corrupt elements in our society loot our collective patrimony and commonwealth.”

Lamorde’s defence

While Nigerians have continued to fault the plea bargain arrangement and the lingering cases, the EFCC chairman recently explained that big fraudsters – mostly former governors and politicians – have continued to evade justice, as result of their huge loots, which they deploy to lengthen cases filed against them. Lamorde said over 200 convictions were recorded in 2012 alone, but National Mirror findings revealed that nearly all those involved were relatively low-scale pilferers, 419 scammers, Yahoo Yahoo boys and dubious bank officials. When it comes to multi-billion naira fraudsters, the stolen resources have been deployed to delay justice.

Lamorde, who justified this, said: “The truth is that no case has been concluded. But I don’t think it is correct to say that the charges were not properly framed or the prosecution is not putting the case properly. We have example of a case we charged to court in 2006. For this very case, we have gone to the Supreme Court twice on just interlocutory applications.”

He further explained that when such cases are lost, the Supreme Court orders it be returned to the trial judge for continuation, adding that a fresh application will emerge anew. “They will come with another application and certainly for lawyers among us, we know how long it takes for a trial to go to the Court of Appeal and get listed, then go to the Supreme Court, get it listed and decided upon. This is the fate of most of the cases we have in court,” he said. To put a stop to the frustration, Lamorde said the commission’s priority now is to forfeit the assets of the accused, to freeze the resources that would have been deployed in prolonging cases.

He said: “The first thing we do now is that we try to recover and confiscate the assets of individuals that we are investigating because it is only when you deprive them of their resources that you will be able to force them to stand trial. Once they have access to their resources and asset, they will use it to continue to delay and drag some of these trials.” He also raised the issue of poor funding, which has impacted adversely on the operation of the agency.

The agency’s proposed budget for 2013 is over N21 billion – capital expenditure, N11 billion; personnel cost, N6 billion and overhead cost, N3 billion – out of which N9.3 billion was approved by the Budget Office of the Federation, leaving a gap of N11.3 billion. This surely will hinder the commission’s effectiveness. Against this backdrop and the recent ranking of Nigeria as the 35th most country in the world by the global corruption watchdog, Transparency International (TI), and with the 2015 general elections fast approaching, Nigerians cannot wait longer to see the conclusion of all the pending corruption cases, as some of the accused persons have already started oiling their political machineries to get elected into various public offices.

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