EFCC and Recovered Billions: Matters Arising

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Despite calls by lawmakers, labor groups, civil society organizations, and indeed just about any patriotic citizen interested in openness in governance on them to render accounts, the federal government as represented by the anti-graft agencies (EFCC), has pointedly refused to explain exactly how much of the stolen billions have so far been recovered in the ongoing anti-corruption crusade. While it is gratifying that the cases of recovered monies are being taken to court for adjudication, it has become crystal clear to all that Nigeria is a big farcical theatre where bizarre things happen. The EFCC purportedly on the prompting of whistle blowers has, in dramatic fashion, been recovering huge sums of monies from unusual places. So dramatic have been the locations -airport, market isolated air-conditioned bungalow;  and the sheer magnitude of the amounts that anyone would think by now, the security and investigative agencies should have established ownership of the loot. But to refuse to disclose how much has been recovered, and to now attempt mindless shenanigans to shield the real owner(s) of the recovered billions is to portray Nigerians as fools. This is, to say the least, outrageous and unacceptable at a time when the country is facing serious economic challenges. And Nigerians are reasonably anguished.

Let it be stated straight and direct: in this representative democracy, the recovered billions are public money and the anti-corruption and intelligence agencies are public institutions; accountable to the Nigerian people, who are entitled to know how much has been recovered; from who, and how the government intends to spend the money. So the EFCC and intelligence agencies must render account. The latest discovery of $43.4 million, N23.3 million and 27,800 pounds in a flat at the Osborne Towers in Ikoyi, Lagos, has unarguably been the biggest of such discoveries by the EFCC. How so much money could be kept outside the banking system and in a flat whose ownership has generated controversy speaks to the extreme degeneracy that has afflicted us as a nation. Even if Nigerians do not know how their commonwealth is being mismanaged, at least, they should be briefed about this unconscionable diversion of public funds hidden in the Osborne Towers flat.

Indeed, the sheer magnitude of the amount should benumb our sense of sanity. The National Intelligence Agency (NIA) has claimed ownership of the money, but Nigerians have every reason to question their claim, which does not pass the smell test. To begin with, the agency has a well-fortified office in Abuja to warehouse its funds for covert operations. It therefore stretches credulity that the NIA would use an unguarded flat as a safe house to keep such a humongous amount. Nigerians have good reason to ask: who owns the Osborne Towers flat? That can be ascertained. If the owner(s) of the flat leased it; then who leased the flat? That also can be verified. In between the leaser(s) and the lessee(s), the mystery over ownership can be unraveled just by following the trail. It is that simple.

The public is skeptical and has rightly rejected the NIA claim of ownership of the money. And this now begs the question: is the NIA trying to appropriate the monies in the hope that nobody would be courageous enough to come forward to claim ownership? Or, is it acting to protect the real owner(s)? Why did the NIA not deem it necessary to brief either the President or the National Security Adviser (NSA) about the existence of the money, before the discovery? However one looks at it, the whole episode has been deliberately convoluted; and, an otherwise simple matter of identifying the culprit of Flat 7b in Osborne Towers, has been complicated by the insincerity of government and its agencies. This is very depressing and the President should be very embarrassed that this is happening under his watch. The development is a sad commentary on due process of law, administration of criminal justice and the fight against corruption in Nigeria in addition to being the shame of a nation.

These, certainly are not ordinary times in the annals of Nigeria’s search for transparency in public service. But without prejudice to the outcome of investigations over these recoveries, it is curious to find idle billions of Naira and foreign currency in the residence of former office holders. Even as we lament the huge amounts involved, it is pertinent to question the system that allows public officials access to so much cash. How can a public official whose annual salary cannot be more than N5 million have access to N10 billion at the end of a two-year tenure in office? How can the wife of a former president declare publicly that she had deposited millions of dollars worth of gifts, received while her husband was in office? Also, a wife of another former president would report to the police that a house maid stole N90 million cash from her bedroom?

While citizens were still smarting from the traumatic implications of these sordid developments, the EFCC announced it had recovered whopping $9.8 million cash from a private safe in one of the houses belonging to Andrew Yakubu, former Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). Yakubu has since admitted ownership of the recovered money, claiming it came in tranches as gift to him. The question must therefore be asked: what the heck is going on? Why has it been so easy for public officials to dip their hands into the public treasury? There should be thorough examination of how highly placed politically exposed people can have access to huge sums of foreign exchange in the country.

This is a systemic problem which the Buhari administration must deal with decisively. Nigeria’s leaders have consistently and progressively failed the nation in the areas of building strong institutions to fight corruption in the public sector. The most critical assignment before the present government is how to institutionalize the war on corruption through public sector finance reforms. It is still shameful that even after 18 years of democracy, some past and present leaders are still facing investigations into their alleged corrupt practices. Nigerians who voted for Buhari on the platform of his promise to fight corruption can as well begin to sing his Nunc Dimittis as the country’s international image has taken another beating on account of this shocking infamy.

It is received wisdom that if the anti-graft agencies cannot state the exact amount recovered so far, it raises questions whether the figures they declare are credible. It might just as well be that after finding the loot, the EFCC agents help themselves first before going public. In the case of the Osborne Towers cashgate, the amount of $43 million is a weird figure that raises suspicion. Again, it is reasonable to assume, that neither the cause of transparency nor accountability has been served by the opaque and, some would say, crooked, operating procedure. And, since the public is paying these agencies, it is a matter of integrity in governance that for information and records, the details of the recovered billions are revealed as well as the ownership.

In principle, this exercise in transparency should be done quickly to disabuse the minds of the citizens and restore if only a modicum of trust in their government. The bottom line of all these: if the EFCC will not, of their own free will, render accounts to their people, it will be rendered for them and the truth will still be out in due course. A final pertinent point is to remind the APC that in its manifesto, it promised, among other things, to “prevent abuse of executive, legislative, and public offices through greater accountability, transparency, and strict enforcement of anti-corruption laws…” This is the least expected of any responsible government. The President, for that matter, must commit this to heart and should, as a matter of honor, live up to his obligation of full accountability to the Nigerian people for whom he holds their power in trust. Let every corrupt leader or person who enjoys government’s protection today, however, know that the days of reckoning are inevitable, after all.

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