Nigeria Matters

Distinguished Senator or Fugitive?

At last, the senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria has found a way of extricating itself from the patently awkward position that the upper legislative house has found itself in the past few weeks. The members of the upper legislative house have been literally sitting on the horns of a dilemma since one of their number, Dr. Iyabo Obasanjo-Bello representing Ogun senatorial district, choose to vote with her feet rather than take the path of honour by stepping gallantly into the dock to answer charges of fraud and corruption levelled against her by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). The distinguished (?) senator is required to give account of the sum of ten million naira (N10m) which she received as chairman of the senate committee on health from the controversial N300m unspent budget of the Federal Ministry of Health for which the former minister of Health, Prof. Adenike Grange, the former minister of state for health Gabriel Aduku and some officials of the ministry are standing trial.

Rather than respond to the EFCC invitation to make her written statement like a good citizen or appear in court to take a plea, Obasanjo–Bello and her spin doctors have tried to obfuscate the issues with the objective of casting her as a harassed citizen in distress. The Obasanjo family lawyer, Chief Afe Babalola (SAN), lent his voice and weight to the support of this farce through a letter he fired to the Attorney General of the Federation, Michael Aandoakaa (SAN) on April 18. After initial lame-duck defenses and seeming confused signals emanating from their hallowed chambers, the senators have finally come out to wash their hands clean of the undistinguished conduct of Iyabo Obasanjo–Bello in her case with the EFCC. Incidentally, the EFCC was set up by the run-away senator’s father, Olusegun Obasanjo, who preceded Umaru Musa Yar’Adua as President.

For now, it is hard to tell whether the nation is amused or even interested in the latest reaction of senators to the puerile antics of Senator Obasanjo–Bello. In fact, it seems that Nigerians have developed scant regard for the frequent somersaults and populist pretences of some of the gaily dressed men and women that daily strut around the upper and lower houses of national assembly complex with an exaggerated air of self-importance or they regard Senator Iyabo Obasanjo-Bello as worthy of scant regard. This would readily explain the general air of disregard with which the populace seems to hold this sensational absurdity: a dis(?)tinguished senator, a chairman of the Health Committee of the upper house, a daughter of a former president, a former commissioner, a former acting first lady, a veterinary doctor and a PhD that scurries into a secret manhole rather appear in court for criminal trial in a country where the rule of law is held up as both the major goal and foremost achievement by all arms of government.

The initial reason given by senator Obasanjo – Bello for going into hiding was that EFCC operatives slapped her aide which action, presumably, made her apprehensive of submitting herself to the agency. That was only her version of the story. Of course, the senator knows or should know that the laws of Nigeria allow the police to use “reasonable force” to effect the arrest of any criminal suspect. If the senator’s aide was smacked in the process of effecting her arrest, therefore, it is not outside the contemplation of the law without prejudice to the right of the party to seek redress. In effect, a suspect may be subdued or even manacled to facilitate arrest if the suspect – or anyone else at the scene – is perceived to be resisting or obstructing an arrest (which also constitutes an offense on its own). That excuse seemed to be a façade for a deeper paranoia.

So why is Senator Obasanjo–Bello afraid of the EFCC? What is she afraid of? Why does she seem so desperate to evade trial? What skeletons does she have in her closet? Or is she really in any danger? In his April 18 letter to the AGF, Babalola alluded to the fact that “there is something more important at stake”? What is so important that Obasanjo–Bello would submit the entire institution of the senate to public ridicule and the nation to international embarrassment by her ignoble disappearing act? The story making the rounds is that she is evading a compulsory public declaration of assets. Part V, Section 27(i) of the EFCC Act provides that “where a person is arrested for an offence under this Act, it shall be obligatory for such person to make a full disclosure of all his assets and properties by completing the Declaration of Assets form”. Which declaration? Will the new declaration be at variance with the one she made to the Code of Conduct Bureau on assumption of office as a senator? Or is she among the fellows said to have evaded this statutory requirement for public office?

As a law maker, the office of senator in any normal democratic setting is one vested with a lot of respect and high public expectation. Membership of the upper house, therefore, carries with it great honour and prestige – and, of course, the public expectation that the senator cannot violate or even circumvent the law without submitting to the consequence. By fleeing, Obasanjo-Bello has drawn rather than parried attention to herself. She has also raised suspicion as to her guilt because as the Yorubas say, those who act as though they are guilty are the ones presumed to be guilty: “eni ti osa la nle” (People chase only those who flee).

But really, Iyabo should count herself lucky that her father is not the president at this point in history. How time changes perception. When Chief Olusegun Obasanjo as President and Commander-in-chief of the Federal Republic of Nigeria returned from one of his innumerable foreign trips of questionable utility value to receive the report of the N50m budget enhancement lobby scam involving the then Minister of Education, the intellectually fecund Fabian Osuji, senate president Adolphus Wabara and members of the senate committee on education, without even waiting to hear from the parties, he rushed to the NTA network studio with a hastily written “judgement” and presented a national broadcast that remains an unprecedented parody and unpresidential breach of the constitution given that the parties had not been given the opportunity to exercise their right to fair hearing as enshrined in the 1999 Constitution. Is President Obasanjo now silent? Or is he asleep? If the anti corruption Knight Templar has lost his presidential powers, has he also lost his voice?

Regardless of what the senate says or fails to say in this case, till she comes out of hiding, the question in the polity will remain whether Iyabo Obasanjo–Bello should be addressed as “Distinguished senator” or “Distinguished fugitive”?

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