Another distressing news in the long line of the farce the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) came to the fore recently. The former Rivers State Governor, Peter Odili, who has been facing prosecution since 2007 for stealing his state blind in the multi-billion naira graft case brought against him has been handed a clean bill of health! The charges against him are alleged to have been dropped! Peter Odili, was the profligate medical doctor governor of the oil-rich state between 1999 and 2007. His tenure was marked by widespread evidence of mismanagement, organized political violence, corruption and electoral fraud. But now he has been told to go home and sin no more! Strange times indeed! The dropping of charges against Peter Odili is not entirely surprising. Is it? His is a metaphor for all previously charged elected officials whose graft charges have gone cold. What is news is that letting Peter Odili and his likes off the hook underscore the fear of many that the commission has become a clog in the wheel of the attempt to rid our country of the cancer of corruption.
The sloppy and incompetent manner the commission has been handling past and present corruption cases puts a question mark on its continued relevance. Does it have the institutional capacity and competence to fight corruption? What is the extent of the rot in the commission and its willingness to compromise with reactionary forces that are hell-bent on stalling the war against corruption? Is the commission not a part of the problem it was created to solve? Since its inception under the government of former President, Olusegun Obabsanjo, the agency under its first Chairman, Nuhu Ribadu had some measure of success in bringing to book some corrupt politicians including advanced fee fraudsters. But he was also accused of acting a well-rehearsed script of selective prosecution of corrupt politicians who were thought to be enemies of the government. Ribadu departed in a blaze of controversy; leaving the agency in disarray. Then things began to fall apart. Frivolous and perpetual injunctions by defense lawyers feeding fat on clients’ stolen money came in handy for stalling proceedings; questionable ruling by “dubious” judges and other technicalities became the commission’s Achilles’ heels. At another time, government interference hovers like a shadow over the commission, pulling the imaginary strings to protect the untouchables. In the case of Peter Odili, apart from a “subsisting” injunction granted by Justice Ibrahim Buba in 2008 against the EFCC, the commission did not appeal the ruling nor sought to proceed to charge Odili to court when it had all the legal ground to do so. Several years on, the agency did absolutely nothing and effectively let the investigation die until the recent abandoning of the case. Subsequent chairmen, faced with the “Odili question” simply played the ostrich. And therein lays the question. What is the point of keeping an agency that has continuously shown its incompetence? The handling of the Halliburton scandal, for example, demonstrates EFCC’s clumsiness in prosecuting high profile cases of global dimension. A suit against three persons named in the $180m Halliburton bribery scandal, and the 26-count charge of financial impropriety and alleged stealing of N364bn brought against a former Managing Director of Intercontinental Bank Plc, Mr. Erastus Akingbola, were dismissed by the courts in March and April 2012.
The shoddy manner in which the EFCC went about prosecuting the Halliburton suit, prompted the presiding judge, Justice Abubakar Umar, to wonder aloud whether the anti-corruption agency was indeed prepared to prosecute the suspects. The court got tired of the prosecution after the EFCC failed to arraign the suspects, and produce witnesses, more than a year after the case was filed before the court, despite numerous assurances it gave the court in the course of seeking and obtaining several adjournments. The judge simply struck out the case. The same scenario played out when another judge struck out the long, winding suit against Erastus Akingbola with clear evidence showing that he stole billions from his bank, breaching depositors trust. When the news of the Otedola-Farouk Lawan fuel subsidy broke, EFCC joined in the fray. But after all the noise of arrest, it seems the file case will end up among the many dusty files in shelf of the commission. The arraignment and subsequent suspension of the trial thieving oil marketers among who were sons of prominent PDP party chieftains is another case that the same fate awaits the case.
In recent years, many celebrated cases handled by the EFCC have suffered a natural death. For example, the cases against bank chiefs are still pending in court because EFCC prosecutors failed to prove their cases beyond reasonable doubt or in most cases fail to bring on witnesses. The question is; is the commission taking more than it can chew? It seems that the sheer cases of corruption, fraud and other sundry crimes the agency is handling are overstretching its capacity to pursue and investigate cases thoroughly before arraignments of suspects in court. There are three agencies saddled with the task of fighting corrupt practices- the Code of Conduct of Tribunal and the Independent Corrupt Practice Commission (ICPC). Proper delineation of roles among the agencies will afford the EFCC to focus on the task of fighting political corruption. In the meantime, the agency appears to be fighting too many battles with no success. It also needs to re-appraise its team of prosecutors as presently constituted. Why retain a prosecuting team that has have continuously failed to collate convincing evidence or bring witnesses to court? The agency should have in its fold crack team of prosecutors’ capable of bringing criminals to justice. The team of prosecutors paraded by the EFCC in all the cases handled recently has demonstrated incompetence, sloppiness and may even be compromised.
This was demonstrated in the Halliburton trial when the commission failed to produce witnesses and kept asking for adjournments to the annoyance of the judge who subsequently struck out the case. Public confidence in the ability of the agency to fight corruption has waned in recent years. The commission thus needs to reopen all the previous cases of corruption brought against former governors and other accused officials. Government interference has also been the bane of the agency. If it is being surreptitiously done now, it was carried out with impunity by previous governments. The conviction of James Ibori by the British government was an indictment on the EFCC and the judicial system which had freed him unconditionally in Nigeria before the UK courts convicted him. The EFCC needs to strengthened its institutional capacity and streamline its activities for effectiveness if it hopes to be successful in the war against corruption. The situation where cases are handled half-heatedly will always lead to a cul-de-sac. If the agency hopes to achieve any measure of success, it must resist any interference. No doubt the monster of corruption can be daunting; the agency needs to put its house in order. The Jonathan administration must live aboard board and provide the necessary support for the agency if it wants to be taken seriously as a government that abhors corruption. The judgment of history lies in wait…