By Tade Ipadeola
In the preface to his magisterial book on the origin of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC , titled A Paradise for Maggots, Professor Wale Adebanwi recounts an incident that occurred in Berkeley, California, on Friday, April 3, 2009. The author had accompanied Nuhu Ribadu to the screening of a 55-minute documentary on bribery in the weapon procurement deals between Britain and Saudi Arabia. Sometime into the screening, Mr. Ribadu said to the author that Nigeria would be mentioned before the end of the documentary. Indeed, some sixteen minutes to the end of the documentary, Nigeria was mentioned. The largest punitive award up till that time was in the Halliburton case, a case in which Nigerian officials and personages were bribed to the tune of $182 million dollars in order to secure a $6 billion dollar LNG plant contract in Nigeria. The Americans involved in the scheme were jailed in America but not a single Nigerian involved went to jail in Nigeria.
More than a decade after this incident, it is still difficult to seriously discuss corruption on the global scale without mentioning Nigeria. The notoriety and sheer scale of corruption in the country made Nigeria a pivotal case study in what to do and what not to do when the subject is corruption. Other countries may be older or they may have larger economies but it is unlikely that the daring heists which Nigeria has witnessed since creation in 1914 are equalled anywhere. It is a sick reputation to have, because the vast majority of Nigerians are honest, hardworking and resourceful people who do not ask for too much.
In part to combat this negative image of Nigeria and in part because the global financial system demanded it, President Olusegun Obasanjo set up the EFCC around 2003 and gave it legislative backing by July 2004. After the founding Czar of the Commission was Mr. Nuhu Ribadu, three other persons have headed the Commission since inception, and over the course of the nearly two decades of the existence of the EFCC , a few fundamental flaws have been observed which will need addressing if the purpose of the Commission is to be fulfilled.
The flaws, not in any particular order, of EFCC are a lack of quality assurance metrics, a lack of adequate whistle-blower protection and reward mechanisms, poor synergy with FIRS and State Internal Revenue Services across Nigeria, poor inter-agency coordination generally, an absence of a policy of continuous improvement and a fundamental incapacity to adequately deploy digital technologies in the anti-corruption fight. The existence of sacred cows and the protection of known felons has also been an albatross on the neck of the Commission. All these are surmontable obstacles.
The Japanese have a word which describes a philosophy of continuous improvement: Kaizen. Looking at the trend of the Commission over the years, there is clearly a decline in the reputation of the organisation as well as a glaring lack of effort to try and improve. No one can deny that EFCC has done some commendable work in the course of the years but rather than continuously improve, the Commission has regressed at an alarming rate. From inception, it was clear that Nigeria wanted the finest officers in the EFCC. Nuhu Ribadu was urbane, intelligent and largely accountable, retrieving funds for government, businesses and individuals. The precipitous decline in standards, crystallised in the many pitiable gaffes of Ibrahim Magu, the recently ousted acting head of EFCC, speaks to the absence of Kaizen. No successor in office should be less intelligent or less accountable than the last occupant of the EFCC chair if Nigeria is really serious about the anti-corruption fight.
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There is an argument for a guiding ethos for continuous improvement of a high order which all right-thinking individuals can agree upon, and it is hinged on the many obvious points of pain apparent over the years. The world is watching. We have to realise that we haven’t shown the world a credible picture. If the world cannot be convinced by what it sees in the EFCC, why should we expect Foreign Direct Investment or any other investments in Nigeria from abroad?
The Senate should not, under any circumstances, consider a candidate for the top job at EFCC where intelligence reports are unequivocal about the corrupt tendencies of the candidate and certainly no candidates without a track record of work in financial intelligence and asset recovery should be considered. It would amount to bringing a knife to a gun fight, which is what has happened over the years. Fraudsters have garnered for themselves sophisticated and semi-sophisticated tools for executing schemes capable of bilking the unsuspecting of billions. The offshore accounts of shell companies through which ill-gotten wealth are dissipated or salted away, call for serious concern as at present, there is no serious arsenal of cyber sleuths on the side of law and order whereas—nd to the embarrassment of Nigeria and Nigerians—the cyber criminals we failed to nab at home have gone abroad to do more of the same things they started back home with the exception that eventually, abroad, they are often arrested and their nationality used to describe a broad range of virtual brigandage which much of the world youth indulge in.
On a policy level, the Nigerian government first needs to make the work of the EFCC a joy to execute even as it is serious by more active adherence to the Freedom of Information Act. This will strengthen the hands of civil society and community-based institutions interested in making useful information available to the public. Stonewalling Freedom of Information requests should be punishable by both appropriate government agencies as well as parties requesting for information. Failure to deliberately facilitate a more transparent government apparatus only fuels corruption. The maze that is the oil and gas industry alone is enough to keep operatives of EFCC busy as things stand in the country presently.
The Petroleum Industry Bill, which a serious country would have passed into law with necessary amendments in aid of transparency has been on hold till now. As things stand, the room for under the table dealing defines this crucial industry in Nigeria. Since the Halliburton scandal broke, the Shell/ENI scandal has also broken with European courts handing down heavy sentences and fines for corrupt dealings by their companies while no Nigerian involved in the sleazy deals has been convicted.
In the 21st century, it ought to be modal, in fact, necessary, for all government officials to conduct official communications especially those dealing with the execution of items on the budgetary list only on secure government servers and e-mail accounts archived in government servers ONLY. The country has sufficient computer scientists and engineers to complete a transition from paper-based communications to digital communications in 2 years. Such servers are to be backed up with cloud storage and mirrored in strategic government agencies such as the NIA and the DSS. It should be an automatic red flag to see official government business conducted over commercial email servers or more embarrassing still, WhatsApp. The reason Hillary Clinton met with such vehement opposition during her last bid to be President is in part because she conducted official business using her personal email on certain occasions. This seems innocuous enough until we consider how easy it is to hack into these by foreign and domestic interests.
In a global economy, with international criminals constantly phishing and conducting surveillance on different individuals and government agencies, it is suicidal to engage with less than the very best that we have. Much of what the notorious Yahoo-Yahoo boys from Nigeria do is pilfer from abroad. It will be a sad display of failure to grasp the theory of mind for a minute that more and more sophisticated individuals and groups outside the shores of this country are not also intent on stealing as prolifically as possible from a porous Nigerian digital domain. The way these things work, the new buccaneers don’t discriminate and will follow the money into Nigeria if it became necessary to do so.
In the 21st century, the arraignment and trials of suspects cannot be managed without objectives. Public prosecutors must be insured and assured of protection. Their work must be benchmarked and their successes acknowledged in promotions and professional advancement. There is nothing more dispiriting than to watch as dedicated officers get passed over during promotions after recovering billions for the country and private businesses. Private firms to which briefs are farmed out for recovery of asset should have case managers who obtain signed satisfaction reports regarding proof of evidence in briefs. These firms should be paid a percentage of what they recover. A private practitioner who is found to have deliberately bungled a case under management should be disbarred and prosecuted in every single instance. Any judge found to have compromised a case through incompetence or compromise should also be prosecuted.
A rigorous and exact accounting schedule should be put in place for all sums and assets recovered. The office of the Accountant General should oversee a well provisioned and secure digital portal where details of such recoveries and assets are posted MONTHLY so that researches and government itself are kept on the same page. Ideally, this portal should be put in place without delay. Assuming such a dedicated portal is opened in the month of July 2020, it would then run forward with monthly feeds AND digitally back-tagged in reverse for every month of the year until July of year 2004. The reason is simple: Nigerians deserve to know where all their resources recovered went. It will be a form of moral legacy for all Nigerians until such a time in the future when dipping the finger into the till would have been well and truly forgotten because a prosperous country would have been built not from recovered loot but from the common resolve of the Nigerian citizens to keep themselves and their governments accountable.
A regime where whistle blowers are not protected and adequately rewarded is unsustainable. All anti-corruption agencies, and especially the EFCC and the ICPC must ensure that those who have provided credible information are protected and duly rewarded. The moral courage necessary to disclose potentially dangerous information cannot be rewarded by a mere handshake in a country where the idea is to encourage citizens to come forward with useful information about who is holding what and where. An unserious country will rely on wikileaks but a country determined to get out of the corruption swamp will provide a golden handshake to those bold and good enough to point at the location and at identities that help the country to get back on its feet. A lot of Nigerian money ends up in bank accounts abroad and never make it back to Nigeria. This is tragic because it is precisely the kind of prodigal waste which the country must henceforth avoid.
It is clear that the EFCC needs better synergy with both the Federal revenue services and State tax boards. In the same vein, the EFCC needs better working relations with other institutions in the anti-corruption fight. Too many times, it has been a turf war with these other agencies and the villains have not failed to take advantage of the breaches in the working relationship of these organizations. The job of building this synergy should be a primary responsibility of the Attorney General and the Solicitor General of the Federation. This is yet to happen and in the most recent example of dysfunctionality, the Attorney General of the Federation had resorted to a formal complaint against the acting Chair of the EFCC. An atmosphere of distrust between law enforcement agencies is the most insidious arrangement possible and must be avoided at all cost. Valuable information from tax authorities and sister organizations boost the fight against corruption tremendously. On the other hand, micromanagement of the anti-corruption brief, the encouragement of a personality cult by the head of the EFCC and pointless turf wars with other law enforcement agencies defeat the purpose and weaken the hands of anti corruption fighters.
There cannot be scared cows in the anti-corruption struggle. A situation where the dragnet of anti-corruption catches sardines and croaker fish while sharks and swordfish tear through the nets ultimately defeats the purpose. From Nuhu Ribadu to Ibrahim Magu, there has been pursuit of a class of criminals while other classes, usually deeply embedded in the ruling political party, flagrantly display obscene affluence. Odious opulence is a blight on the Nigerian society. How can the young ones be instructed to apply themselves to work and solutions when everywhere around them they can see the spectacular display of unexplained wealth? What justice is there when a young computer programmer is harrased at every turn by policemen when some politician who had nothing to his name before assumption of office cruise about in the latest cars in town undisturbed? These point to institutional weakness and these have to be addressed.
To clean the Augean stables, a powerful flood of law enforcement has to be let loose on the country. It will involve the very best forensic accountants that the EFCC can hire, the best linguists, the best computing geniuses, the best prosecutors, the best lawyers and ultimately the best Chairperson EFCC can afford. Corruption is bleeding the country dry and the sooner the citizens do something about it the better. Neither EFCC nor ICPC can afford to be shoddy at this point.
An outlook around Africa will reveal that the problem is not really a lack of manpower. At about the same time that Nuhu Ribadu was pioneering EFCC in Nigeria, John Githongo was doing very much the same in Kenya. At a point, the two led efforts that seemed destined to lead these two countries out of the woods and into true prosperity. It is interesting to realize that both individuals were eventually forced into exile at some point. The organizations they led never quite gained the momentum that was lost with their respective ouster. This is another way of saying that the will is what is missing. The will to continuously improve.
It has been argued that Nigeria is too big to fail. This is a fallacious argument at best and a risky pursuit at the worst. Experience shows that this is a dangerous trajectory to pursue. Any entity can fail and fail woefully at that if deliberate steps are not taken to ensure that things are done properly. A culture in which a corrupt public official or fraudster can count on tribesmen to bail him out will ruin plural society. There has to be a society in which the rules are not only fair but are seen to be fair. That society must apply the law to everyone. The result of the just application of the law must be verifiable by all. The EFCC is going to be crucial to the realization of all these. It is a task that cannot be accomplished without embracing a new philosophy, the philosophy of kaizen.
Tade Ipadeola is a lawyer of 30 years standing and a multiple award winning poet.