MANY LAWMAKERS HAVE RETURNED TO SITE FOR CONSTITUENCY PROJECTS – ICPC CHAIRMAN

There has always been a mix-up between the roles of the ICPC and the EFCC. What is the difference?

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In term of concept, the ICPC was established first and it was mainly to focus on public sector corruption. The EFCC was established two years later in 2002 before it had a reenactment in 2004 to focus basically on economic crime with special reference to money laundering and advance fee fraud.

But with the way we draft legislation in Nigeria, there are usually overlaps. First, the whole concept of corruption is wider than economic crimes, money laundering and bribery. You can commit corruption through those predicate offences. But there are other notions of corruption that do not fall into economic crimes. For example, abuse of office, abusing power and bribery.

In term of policy and conceptualisation, ICPC was designed to focus on public sector corruption while the EFCC was basically established to focus on economic and financial crimes with special reference to those two areas.

But in the format of legislative draft, there is always this window left; that when you are investigating and you want to prosecute, you can do so under your own law or any other law that prohibits that conduct. That is why both commissions have the window in their legislation. The reason is to give law enforcement agency the flexibility to be able to conclude their work.

For example, if we start an investigation and at the end of the day, we found out that what we can charge the suspect with is something more specific to money laundering or advance fee fraud, we don’t then abandon the case at that point. You can then charge the person with the law which is not your own. So, law enforcement agencies are generally allowed in terms of style and standard to prosecute with legislation apart from their own. In ICPC, we are trying to re-establish the standard as a board.

You said there are some cases that had to be dropped because of clash with the EFCC. Have you dropped those cases?

There are cases under us that we found out that they did not fall under our jurisdiction. We have sent them to other agencies where they should belong. Cases that fall within the EFCC’s jurisdiction will be sent to them rather than start working on them. EFCC does the same to us in some cases.

More than a decade after the ICPC and the EFCC have been fighting corruption in Nigeria, people still talk about corruption as if the agencies fighting it are not achieving success against it. Why is this so?

It is a combination of different factors. First, over the years, because of lack of political will to deal with issues around corruption, it has escalated. Impunity has also come along with it. When you have those two factors, there will be more reportage of the issue. In the eye of the public, it is an increase; there is no doubt that this has happened in our system.

Secondly, corruption undermines economic development, physical stability and revenue of the state. That impact is also affecting anti-corruption agencies. Corruption has so much damaged Nigeria that it is not only affecting education but law enforcement so that our capacity to respond is also affected.

It is logical that when corruption ravages a system, no part of it is left unaffected. The corruption that affected the polity, our economy and development has also affected anti-corruption agencies in terms of building capacity, funding and capacity to work.

But with the political will under President Muhammadu Buhari, that has changed a little bit. It has reinforced the capacity of anti-corruption agencies to do their work. It also gives them some leverage. The more they do that, the more it is reported in the media and society. When people read about corruption everyday in the media, they may think that it is increasing. It may not be an increase but more attention and determination to deal with it.

On the other hand, there are new areas of corruption coming up. We have now seen the link between corruption and terrorism. We have seen the link with digital and cyber crimes. These are emerging areas that we must also tackle. Corruption fighting is a cardinal agenda of the current government. Buhari said he would deal with it because it is undermining development.

People say anti-corruption agencies use media trial a lot. What is your response to this?

It depends on what they mean. What is meant by media trial is when the media reports investigations that are going on as if the suspect is guilty. By the time the case is taken through technicalities and court proceedings, the suspect may come out clean or be discharged. But the media will not go back to undo what it has done.

But it is a balance because the public has to know and the media has the right to educate the people. It is the balance that has to be struck between the media demands, the right of the public to know and the right to preserve the integrity of the suspect and not to convict them on the pages of the newspaper. That is the balance we want to strike.

What are the challenges you have faced since you resumed office two months ago?

There are quite a myriad of them. We inherited a number of cases that did not fall within our purview. Motivation of staff is another challenge. We are trying to do that now. Leadership and direction is another issue. Funding is another problem. You cannot fight corruption without good resources.

The reality of this is that anti-corruption agencies are not in a position to pursue all the cases that arise. If someone, who has been defrauded of N5,000, wants justice and the state has also been defrauded of N1bn and also wants justice. To investigate these, you have to put resources behind it. You need to ask yourself which one has more value and impact on the people. When you have a lot of cases, you have to prioritise how you pursue them because your resources are limited.

ICPC legislation covers a whole range of measures which include enforcement, prevention and public education. You need to focus a lot on the preventive mechanism because it is expensive to enforce. If you can stop corruption from happening, it is cheaper than to correct or impose punishment after it has happened.

When corruption is systemic as we have it in Nigeria, you cannot solve it by enforcement alone. Many of the institutions and structures you need are probably compromised. You need investigating capacity, prosecution, judiciary and other agencies. When corruption is systemic, you can assume that some of these are in one way or the other contaminated. You have to choose your battle and design other methods to fight corruption which include campaigns, public enlightenment and doing enforcement that sends signal to the public. We met all these problems and we are trying to deal with them.

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Have you encountered interference in the cause of doing your job?

If you mean interference from people trying to plead for someone in a case, we always have this directly or indirectly. This is not necessarily from government. I can tell you that the political will to make anti-corruption agencies do their work is very strict. We have not experienced any interference from there.

Is ICPC actually independent?

The answer to that is yes. There is a way you measure independence. You measure it by legal and operational issues. If you want an institution to be independent, it must be established by law. There must be clear cut provision for appointment and removal of people working there which must insulate them from risk. ICPC has these.

I cannot be removed by the President without the input of the National Assembly just like I could not have been appointed and confirmed without the input of the Senate. There must be agreement between the two bodies. These are what guarantee independence. The law allows us to design our framework, select our own staff and regulate our own conduct.

There is also operational and financial independence. In terms of financing, we would wish that we had more than we are getting, but we are not the only one with that desire. Virtually all agencies of government are underfunded. If all these are not there, they will undermine independence. It is not as if government has decided to starve us but the reality is that all agencies are taking money from the same pot and you have to share the money somehow with other sectors. If I tell you we don’t have enough money, it is not as if there is a grand plan to undermine our independence.

People say anti-corruption agencies are used by the government in power to fight opponent of the government. How would you react to this?

That is perennial because when the present government leaves and another government succeeds the All Progressives Congress and begins to look at what the APC did while in government, the APC will say the same thing.

As I always say, if someone charges you to court, your strongest defence is to say you are innocent and present the proof of innocence. Your defence cannot be that you are charged because you are in another political party; that is not a defence.

If I have 10 suspects, it is my decision who I start with. If I choose to start with you and you happen to be in the opposition, your defence cannot be that it is because you are in the opposition. If I do not charge others, there is no limitation of time for offences, time does not run out against the state, there will be a time when a Pharaoh, who does not know Joseph, will come and they will be charged.

Experience has shown us that people who are so politically astute and who have managed to dance away from being prosecuted for their offences are now being prosecuted for their offences. In order words, let everybody be assured that with your wealth and connections, you can only delay justice, you cannot avoid it.

How is the ICPC coping with what has been described as slow justice system in the country?

The architecture for justice system in Nigeria needs to be reviewed. It is work in progress and we have to keep at it. Over the years, we have allowed a number of factors to negatively impact the criminal justice system. The number of court, judges and welfare issue and the rule of court; many of these are outdated.

We also have the challenge with the role players – the prosecution, the defence and the judges. All of these have to be reformed. To make matters complicated, we have subscribed to constitutional democracy which guarantees and preserves certain rights. We must keep within legal parameters. There is no way that the public, no matter how much it is thirsty for justice and no matter how thirsty the media is for things to move quickly, we have to follow processes bearing in mind all the challenges I have talked about.

The truth of the matter is that the presumption of innocence, fair hearing, rights to dignity of the person, freedom of association are not presented to be roadblocks but safeguards. If they are removed, everybody is at risk. We just have to be tolerant of the process and to continue to look at areas of improvement. If you don’t go through these, you are not following due process and if you are not following due process, the whole thing will be challenged and they can fall flat.

You declared a fight against non-execution of constituency project recently. Surely, you will be stepping on some big political toes. Are you prepared to go all the way?

I don’t know about stepping on toes. A lot of people have misread the intention of this issue. What is our focus as a commission? We want to look at the kind of corruption that affects ordinary people. There has been a lot of focus on grand corruption and politically exposed persons. I am not saying they are not relevant. But what about corrupt practice that directly affects poor people for which there has been budgetary allocation and project intention?

People in a community may not care about you pursuing a minister but what resonates with them is the fact that they need health centres, water or schools in their communities. The project is designed to help Nigeria meet sustainable development goals and help people feel the impact of governance. Many people have erroneously said the project is designed to target legislators. But we have legislators who said they are happy that we want to do the project because they were almost lynched in their constituencies when the people said they have collected money for constituency project but did not do it.

They (legislators) facilitate the placement of the projects in the budget but it is the executive that decides the contractors that handle them. Of course, there are situations where we have rumours that some legislators influence who gets the contracts but such situation may be few and far at the end of the day. We have politicians who want to clear their names. I appreciate the legislators who said they are ready to work with us. We know that not all projects in the budget are eventually funded. This move will help us remove rumours surrounding project funding and execution.

The steering committee we put together for this project has the civil society groups, media and the Nigeria Institute of Quantity Surveyors who are professionals that can help us evaluate projects. The ICPC is not selecting the projects that will be investigated alone, that group will select projects. Because of cost, we are limited in finance but we will do it gradually. We expect that when we start our work, so many people will go back to site and complete their work. Those who have diverted funds will also channel them back. In some cases, which are egregious, we may have to enforce. At the end of the day, it is the ordinary people that will benefit.

We will also look at Universal Basic Education Commission projects. UBEC has supported projects that have not been done and money has been put behind it. Already, we have signal; some legislators and other people have been coming to say that they have done their projects or that they have gone back to site. We hope that the recalcitrant ones will go back to site before we get to them. This is going to be a challenging assignment but we look forward to doing it. There are projects in 36 states of Nigeria and we have limitation in terms of personnel and capacity but we will do it gradually.

Are you looking at projects that date back to 1999 when the current democratic dispensation began?

We cannot do it. We are looking at Buhari’s tenure. If you want to go back to 1999, you are looking at thousands of projects. Where are we going to start from? But if this gains traction and we get more resources and partners, we can move back. We are not locked in any period.

This initiative will also help to introduce discipline into the kind of projects approved as constituency projects. If they are projects that cannot be monitored, are we getting value for money? If you divert money meant for projects described as empowerment, how do we track it?

You called on the National Assembly to be transparent in its funding. Can you tell us more about this?

There is a lot of misgiving in the public domain about the budget of the National Assembly because it is opaque. I advise that the National Assembly make its budget open because it has a moral duty to do so. When other agencies appear before the National Assembly, the legislators demand a breakdown. They invite them to come and explain their budget. Why should they not do the same thing? They should be able to tell us what their budget covers. Maybe they are even under-paying themselves. Maybe they are not getting enough to enable them to do their work effectively.

What is ICPC’s budget in a year?

Our budget for capital personnel and capital procurement is about N5bn. I have always said we don’t have enough. Our budget is not a secret. It is in the public domain.

In which area are you having funding challenges?

Government funds personnel fully. The challenge is in operational and capital expenses. As an anti-corruption agency, it is difficult for you to have enough in an operational year. Things can come up anytime that you will need to investigate and deploy your operatives and security to go with them. You do not envisage them. How do you know the number of crime that will be committed this year and the number of cases you have to pursue? But in spite of this, government has to give you a budget.

Our argument is that there is problem with operational fund. It is not enough and it does not come on time. Part of what we are requesting is that operational fund should be prioritised because if you are dealing with systemic corruption, government needs the anti-corruption agency to improve on the situation. We must be ready at all time to diminish corruption so that government can save money from revenue and on expenditure.

This office building in Abuja has not had a facelift in many years. We have offices that are not up to standard. We need operational vehicles and forensic infrastructure that we do not have or that we do not have enough. We need to deal with all of these. If we have only one operational vehicle, it means we can only go in one direction at a time and this will slow our operation. These are the argument about improving on our financial situation so that we can do our work well.

There are states where the ICPC does not have offices. Are you planning to establish offices to fight corruption in those states?

The law says that we must have offices in every state but right now, we are not able to meet up with that statutory standard because of paucity of funds.

In how many states do you have offices?

We have offices in 15 states. They are cited in such a way that they cover all the geo-political zones so that one office can cover a number of states.

Copyright PUNCH.