SPIDEL 2021: FALANA, OZEKHOME, OTHERS DISCUSS THE ANTI-CORRUPTION FIGHT IN NIGERIA

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Corruption is not a Nigerian citizen.

That was the assertion with which Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN, began his remarks during the first session on the second full day of the 2021 annual conference of the Nigerian Bar Association’s Section on Public Interest and Development Law (SPIDEL) in Ibadan, Oyo State. Jointly moderated by two Senior Advocates of Nigeria – Messrs Femi Falana, SAN and Chukwuka Ikwuazom, SAN, the session was convened to discuss the topic, ‘Anti-Corruption Model: Asset Declaration, Public Access and Emerging Issues.’

In other words, Ozekhome went on to say, corruption is endemic to all human societies. It is a human – rather than an exclusively Nigerian – reality.

And it is age-long; there has always been corruption since the dawn of time.

The question, then is: Why has the Nigerian version had such a devastating impact on the country’s quest for development, corroded virtually every aspect of life in the country, and turned it into the epicenter of global poverty? The answer, according to the lead speaker, Mallam Auwal Ibrahim Musa, who is the executive director of Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), has to do with the lack of accountability and political will to effectively combat the scourge.

Speaking virtually at the conference, Mallam Auwal said that, instead, defections of politically-exposed persons from opposition parties to the ruling party have become a substitute for investigation into allegations of corrupt practices and prosecution – itself an indictment of a party which campaigned

so vigorously on an anti-corruption platform. Even where the government has managed to recover looted funds from foreign repositories, there is little disclosure aimed at giving the full and proper picture of these recoveries – so that there is no guarantee that these monies would not be re-looted.

According to NEWSWIRE Law and Events Magazine’s correspondent in Ibadan, Mallam Auwal also identified other impediments such as the lack of legal mechanisms and an appropriate sanctions regime; bureaucratic disparities; lack of coordination among relevant bodies; and the lack of transparency and ease of access by independent bodies and civil society advocacy groups such as CISLAC.

Mallam Auwal proposed a slew of reforms that can aid the fight against corruption, on both the part of governmental authorities and other stakeholders. They include, among others: the institutionalization of management mechanisms for looted funds; the setting up of a dedicated fund for looted monies, to be overseen by asset managers of proven integrity; full disclosure by relevant bodies; and compensation of immediate and indirect victims of such heists.

Another serious impediment to the fight against corruption, in the words of the co-moderator of the session, Mr. Femi Falana (who also spoke virtually) was the routine disobedience of court orders and routine disregard for the law by agents of the government.

Since its inception in 2015, the Buhari administration has frustrated almost every attempt at access by such watchdogs as SERAP, whose quest for access to the asset declaration documents of public officials has been routinely rejected by the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB).

Falana called on the NBA to open a register to allow its members to lodge formal complaints against incidencies of disobedience of court orders by government agencies.

On the allegation that the government’s anti-graft agency, the Economic And Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) was selective in its investigative and prosecutorial tactics – deliberately targeting opposition politicians, but treating corruption allegations against ruling-party politicians with kid-gloves, as alluded to by both Mallam Auwal and later by Ozekhome – a representative of the EFCC chairman, Abdulrasheed Bawa, denied there was such deliberate disparity on the agency’s part, saying that a number of APC politicians (such as former Plateau State governor Joshua Dariye, among others) had been prosecuted and sanctioned.

Instead of focusing on the party affiliation of accused persons, the EFFC official said, why not try to establish the veracity or otherwise of the allegations against them?

He also spoke on the move by a number of states in Nigeria to set up parallel anti-graft agencies to investigate and prosecute cases in their states, saying such a move was in bad faith and would jeopardize the EFCC’s ability to execute its mandate – unless, of course, these states were willing to work with the EFCC on cases before them.

If, however, such a move was a veiled attempt at shielding exposed persons from those states, then it is an endorsement of corruption rather than a pushback against it.  Declaring corruption to be the 37th state in Nigeria – and the most powerful of them all – Chief Ozekhome, SAN, also challenged the notion (which happens to be the EFCC’s position) that senior lawyers like himself, by agreeing to defend those accused of

corruption, are abetting the practice. No, he said, lawyers are only doing their jobs under the law. The presumption of innocence until proven guilty, he said, was a cardinal principle in the accusatorial Anglo-Saxon legal paradigm.

On the move by states to set up their own EFCC-like agencies, Ozekhome noted that crime and its prosecution was in the residual legislative list of the Nigerian Constitution, and therefore states had every right to proceed in that direction.

NEWSWIRE’s correspondent reports that other panelists sought to, among other things, explore and expand the NBA’s role in the formulation of anti-corruption legislation by the national and state legislatures; and to beam the anti-corruption searchlight beyond the political class. For example, as one contributor noted during the question-and-answer session, the corporate world, and banks in particular, were among the worst perpetrators of large-scale graft in Nigeria.

In conclusion, the panelists called for all stakeholders – public and private alike – to emulate the example of the so-called Asian Tigers. Not so long ago, these South-East Asian nations were engaged in the same economic struggle as Nigeria is today.

But they have since made the leap into middle- and high-income nation status thanks to their obedience to the rule of law, the strength of their institutions, their adherence to global best practices, and the robust incentives they offer investors in the real sectors of their economies.

Nigeria, they said, must to do the same – or risk languishing perpetually in the doldrums of economic and social underdevelopment.   

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