Farouk Lawan’s Conviction: FG’s Anti-Corruption War Tightens Grip

Corruption has been identified as one of Nigeria’s most stubborn challenges; it has been a recurring decimal in almost every facet of our national life and has been described many times as a cankerworm that has eaten deep into the fabric of our nation. It pervades almost every level of government, the private sector, the informal sector, even religious organisations are not spared from the ravenous fangs of this hydra-headed monster. 

The existential threat that corruption poses to the sustenance of our national life and society prompted President Olusegun Obasanjo to officially inaugurate the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) in September 2000; just a year after the return of democratic rule to Nigeria. Their mandate was to receive and investigate reports of corruption and inappropriate cases; prosecute the offender. Additionally, they were set up to examine, review and enforce the correction of corruption-prone systems and procedures of public bodies, to eliminate corruption in public life, and to enlighten the public against corruption and related offences to enlist and foster public support in the fight against corruption.

In 2003, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) was also established in the country partially in response to pressure from an international body called the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering; which named Nigeria as one of the 23 countries non-cooperative in the international community’s efforts to fight money laundering. Upon creation, the agency was charged to decisively tackle the menace of economic and financial crimes in all aspects of government and the society at large.

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Both the EFCC and ICPC have been operational since that time and both remain in the frontline towards fighting graft both in the private and public sector. Over the years, the agencies have been confronted with some challenges obstructing full efficiency ranging from political interference, judicial laxness, unethical officials, lack of transparency, and so on. 

Regardless of these challenges, however, the two agencies have made remarkable strides in executing the task it is saddled with over the years; securing many high-profile convictions, exposing deep criminal activities, and recovering lots of money, properties, and assets accumulated through illicit means both in the public and private sectors.

Muhammadu Buhari came into power in 2015 on the wave of a passionate electoral campaign hinged on three cardinal points; one of which is a solemn promise to combat corruption hands-on if elected. The President was critical of the cosmetic approach corruption has been handled with and has been quoted many times as saying there should be no sacred cows in the fight and that “if we don’t kill corruption, corruption will kill us”. In August 2015, the President set up a Presidential Advisory Committee against Corruption (PACAC) to serve as an internal guide in this task

In the initial years of his first term in office, there was an air of public opinion that nothing much has changed in fighting corruption and the President was accused of being lacklustre in this regard. The constant freefall of the country on the Transparency International Annual Corruption Index also did his administration no good; as analysts noted it was an indication that nothing concrete was being achieved in that area; and pointed to perhaps, even more, deeper rot. The President was quick to absolve himself on any laxity and instead accused the judiciary of slowing him down in the fight with their bureaucracy; he however said that won’t deter his administration as slow and steady wins the race.

In 2018, the EFCC was able to secure the morale-boosting conviction of 2 former State Governors on corruption charges. Jolly Nyame, former governor of Taraba state (1999-2007) was sentenced to 12 years in prison after being guilty of corruption charges up to the tune of N1.65Billion. It is pertinent to note that the conviction was achieved 11 years after the EFCC charged him with financial misappropriation in 2007. Joshua Dariye, former governor of Plateau State (1999-2007) was also convicted of corruption charges to the tune of N1.6 Billion and was sentenced to 10 years in prison; similarly, the EFCC filed the charges against him in 2007. 

In December 2019, another former governor of Abia state, Orji Uzor Kalu (1999-2007) was convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison for defrauding Abia state of N7.65 Billion when he held sway as governor. In May 2020 however, the Supreme Court ruled that the trial that led to his conviction was wrongly conducted and released him from prison while ordering a retrial. The development highlighted the increased importance of following the legal steps holistically and meticulously in the trial of corruption cases to prevent occurrences of lapses that could be exploited during appeals to higher courts.

Recently, the EFCC has been able to secure another set of confidence-boosting convictions that is a testament to the renewed efforts at eliminating graft in the country. The commission in June 2021 secured the conviction and sentencing of Musa Ibrahim Datti, a director of Katah Property and Investment Ltd to 7 years imprisonment in a N6 Billion fraud case, in the same month, Francis Atuche; a former Managing Director of the defunct Bank PHP (now Keystone Bank)was also convicted and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for N25.7 Billion fraud. The conviction was secured after 11 years of trial that witnessed many twists and turns. The EFCC has also previously in January 2021 secured the conviction of a former managing director of the defunct Finbank PLC (now FCMB), Okey Nwosu, and three other former directors to 3 years in prison over stealing and illegal conversion of the sum of N10.9 Billion, they were arraigned in 2009 by the EFCC following a petition by the then CBN governor.

Also in June 2021, the ICPC was able to finally secure a judgment and conviction in one of the country’s most publicised trial case ever; involving the former Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Fuel Subsidy Probe; Farouk Lawan; who was sentenced to 7 years imprisonment after a tortuous and tenacious legal case that was beset with many stiff hurdles. The ex-rep was found guilty of demanding a sum of  $3 million from the Chairman of Zenon Petroleum and Gas Ltd, Chief Femi Otedola as a bribe to give his company a clean bill of health in the fuel subsidy probe initiated by the Green Chambers in 2012. The Court, a Federal High Court sitting in Abuja in its ruling said it was satisfied that the ICPC successfully established a criminal case against the defendant and he was convicted on all three-count charges against him. He was also ordered to return a $500,000 bribe he had collected from Chief Otedola.

The recent successes buoyed the Chairman of EFCC, Abdulrasheed Bawa to declare that the commission is set to file 800 new corruption cases in court. He said the cases bordered on public corruption and cybercrime, the cases were largely delayed by the judiciary whose workers shot down courts in Nigeria for over two months and only recently suspended the strike, Bawa also categorically mentioned that the retrial ordered in the Orji Uzor Kalu case will be thoroughly carried out, the Chairman also said since his assumption of office in February 2021; the commission has recovered over N6 Billion, $161 million, £13,000, 1,730 Euros, 200 Canadian Dollars, CFA 373,000, 8, 430 Yen in four months. Other assets recovered included 30 real estates, 13 pieces of electronics, one farmland, one factory, one motorcycle, one filling station, and 32 automobiles. 

He claimed not all the recoveries belonged to the Federal Government as some were recoveries made for victims of crimes. He further disclosed that since he came into office, about 1,502 internet fraudsters across the country has been arrested; while decrying the stubborn menace of cyber-crimes and pleading to those involved to turn a new leaf to prevent arrest and prosecution.

The convictions secured recently by the country’s anti-graft agency have raised public expectations and hope that perhaps the war on corruption is achievable after all. The fact that many of the recent convictions are cases filed many years ago and have undergone many challenges and hurdles will also breathe a new lease of life into the litany of such cases in different courts nationwide which will be pursued by the anti-graft agencies with renewed vigour. 

A quick check on the ICPC official website indicated that currently, a total number of 378 high-profile criminal cases are ongoing nationwide; ranging from different periods of filing in different courts nationwide. The EFCC official website also revealed up to 43 ongoing cases which are high profile cases or oil subsidy related filed at different periods ranging from 2007 to 2015 in different courts nationwide. Nigerians will be expectant and yearning for more successes to be recorded in the ongoing trials. All possible assistance; be it technical or financial must be given to these agencies to hasten the ongoing trials.

The conviction will also resonate significantly with public and private office holders who may think the war on sharp practices has been suspended and the era of financial recklessness and fiscal impunity on public funds is back. It serves as a quick reality check that if they don’t desist; the long arm of the law will eventually catch up with them. 

The Judiciary is very fundamental to these successes and more must be done to consolidate the working relationship between the anti-graft agencies and the Bench. The recent unfortunate scenario where the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) went on a strike and locked up all courts nationwide is detrimental to the progress of this fight; a recurrence of such must be avoided by all means. 

The government needs to prioritize the Judiciary as an equal arm of government that deserves absolute independence and adequate funding to discharge its duties effectively. Additionally, a smooth working relationship between the anti-graft agencies and the Judiciary is hugely paramount to a speedy resolution of cases. The Judiciary should also endeavour to reduce instances of unnecessary adjournments where sufficient evidence or witnesses are available to prevent giving culprits ample time to cover their tracks or intimidate witnesses or even tamper with evidence. More also needs to be done in protecting and compensating witnesses coming forward to testify or assist the agencies in their investigations. 

The whistle-blowing policy introduced by the Federal Government in 2016 seems to have witnessed a lull due to some challenges; the policy is a step in the right direction; it should not be entirely abandoned; it should be modified properly to enhance its efficiency in the fight against corruption.

The anti-graft agencies must not let overzealousness replace meticulousness; as the Orji Uzor Kalu case proved that setbacks can be encountered even after convictions. Full attention must therefore be paid to the prosecution process to ensure all is in good order and goes by the full letter of the law. Their staff should be continuously trained and properly motivated; robust national and international cooperation with other anti-corruption agencies will also be beneficial. Total dedication, integrity, professionalism, and high ethical standards of the officials of the agencies will also go a long way in increasing the rate of success in the fight.

Categories: Features, Nation