…Says merging anti-corruption agencies is ill- conceived
Chatting with the Chairman, Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), Mr. Ekpo Nta, you cannot but come away enriched and shorn of your presumptuous street knowledge on the subject of how Nigeria’s war against corruption is being fought or should be fought. Nta, has a way of opening layers of perspectives to issues raised that shames the common run of opinions and understanding of what are involved and thus constituting problems for the campaign. That’s not strange, because the ICPC boss is a lawyer, social scientist and a veteran of public administration, an institution he has been drafted to sniff and clear of bad eggs for the health of the nation.
In this interview with Sunday Sun, the former Director at Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission (OMPADEC), explains why and how Nigeria’s battle against corruption could be different under President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration. He also defended the independence and credibility of ICPC amid charges that ICPC is a tool for political persecution.
Reports have it that the commission is focused on some ex-governors who have allegations of corruption against them. What’s the progress on this?
Generally, when we carry out our investigation, we do not disclose the content or direction, so as not to prejudice investigations or create what later in court could be said to have prejudiced the interest of the various parties. We normally look at governance in states and corruption related matters. We do not target specific persons. We have a checklist of things we are looking at in terms of procurements, approvals and payments made to determine if they were for personal gains or not. Were the items used fully and taken charge of and all that?
But sometimes, people tend to think that the governor and only the governor is involved in the entire process and the target?
No, because in the course of our investigation, you probably would discover that people were simply using the name and authority of the governor. And that is why under the Act, we have penalties spelt out for different infractions. Sometimes, by the time we begin investigation and using our checklist you now discover the petitioner begins to back out, saying “This information I actually got when we were eating somewhere. Sometimes they take those statutory allocations that are given to state and local governments, published by the Federal Ministry of Finance. You know, it is done regularly. They multiply what is going to their state by four years and come up with a figure and lie to ICPC saying we have not seen where this money was used, please investigate.” That is an omnibus investigation. You have not come up with the areas where you think this money had been spent. And if we don’t begin to arrest the next day, they will say: “ICPC has been compromised. We expected that this man should have been arrested yesterday”. And from our experience, they would actually go and lay ambush and tell everybody that he is going to be arrested tomorrow, just for the fun of a smear campaign. Sometimes, we invite you to come and explain what you mean in this petition that you have sent. Can you substantiate some of the issues? But the petitioner will say, “No, you go to the internet and you will see things”. It will surprise you that some pictures that had been attached, as assets of the accused , which they claim are the pictures of the persons’ houses , if you go back to observe, you will discover that they are pictures taken from Spain, etc, other people’s property.
Incidentally, a few weeks before the ministerial list was released, there was an upsurge of petitions being sent everywhere and names were being dropped and we didn’t come up publicly to respond. But now, it’s very clear to me why some of these petitions had come in. That if we rushed in and it’s now published in the front pages of newspapers that ICPC was investigating somebody, it would be easy to now run to the Senate committee and say don’t interview this man. We have to be careful not to be used by any party and that is why there is a bit of reticence on the part of the ICPC. We are very careful not to fall into some of these pitfalls.
We don’t even wait for you to leave office; our operation is a continuous process. We are looking at various states of the federation and collecting intelligence . It’s not until somebody brings a petition as we already know a few of the things that are happening. Yes, this is a proactive approach to what we are actually doing. But we like to thank the credible whistleblowers. Some will insist that we protect their identity. That, we must also respect. And of recent, a lot of these whistleblowers have been coming out with credible information which we have been following. The ICPC approach is not to move in when there is a fire and then put off the fire, go back to the commission and wait for another fire incident to happen. And if you notice of recent, after we set up our training academy, we have started running transparency and integrity processes in governance programmes for legislators. We have covered the country. We started from the North-east. We are explaining how you get into trouble by doing certain acts including going to agencies to ask them to fund your oversight functions but meanwhile, you have collected money in your own agency to perform the same function. We are so happy that this is happening at the commencement of the 8th Assembly, instead of waiting for four years to begin to arrest them for infractions which could have been avoided. Now, we have firm promise from all the state houses of assembly that where they have a problem with any agency, in terms of investigation , they are ready to partner with us and invite us.
How helpful is this hysteria in fighting corruption? And again, is it to say that you can’t find anything against some of these people under such suspicion? Are they clean?
Let me talk about the mass mobilization we’ve embarked on for the first time in Nigeria. Mass mobilization is the answer to fighting corruption. When we had Ebola, everybody stood up as one, even in the churches, people were not shaking hands again. In the Catholic Church; you are expected to greet your neighbour at a certain time during the service; but people would only bow during Ebola epidemic, no more hand-shaking. And you washed your hands religiously, they had hand sanitizers. If we have the same response, mass mobilization against corruption, this country will change immediately. You need the victim to join hands with you. In that respect, there is a total galvanization of the people against the issues of corruption. But at the same time, we must be very careful not to allow it to be mere rhetoric and shouting. They ask for something they did not deserve from you, you say no, and not only saying no, you report; because if you say no and walk away, the person will keep on trying till other people will give. But when you report, the anti-corruption agencies will begin to have an interest in the matter, that many people are making the same report on the same incident that you are denying.
There is this view that your commission, as well as EFCC had hitherto been so docile and seem suddenly to have woken up with the coming of the new administration.Correct?
I find it very interesting when the press describes Nigeria, as a sleeping giant. So, the word sleep, has become generic in describing almost all our systems. I can assure you that the worth of a soup has a direct relationship with what you put in the soup. If you want only animal skin (ponmo) in your soup, it will not be as tasty as the one which has dry fish and meat combined. And then, you can also have a soup that is not as sweet, but some people are happy eating it. So, my attitude is with the enthusiasm of the masses today, the support of government and funding, anti-corruption agencies are very happy to perform their roles as expected.
If I get you right, you were merely barking than actually biting under the last administration?
You must also realize that fighting corruption is a relay; it is not a 100 meters dash. It started from 1960, when institutions were put in place. We progressed from there to 1979 when the Nigerian Constitution now put the Code of Conduct Bureau in the constitution. So, it is incremental. Each government would apply what it thinks is the best approach in dealing with issues.
The last administration was particularly perceived, rightly or wrongly to be very corrupt. Even though the present administration has been cautious in being categorical about the indictment of the past regime, the perception hasn’t gone away. Does this probably also explain why you were not given the free room to operate, particularly in terms of empowerment and funding?
I wish one day, someone will do a thorough study of ICPC from 2011 when we came in. I have always thought that if you give me something small and I spend it judiciously, it will encourage you to give me something big in the future. The poor funding, for example, also generates independent thinking and creativity in ICPC. If you look at the kind of things we have been involved in, you would wonder where we got the money to put such things in place. If you can recall, however, throughout, you will never hear anyone say ICPC was used as a political tool. Never! And it is our independence and creativity that we have strictly abided with. Irrespective of what the funding was, we still tried to be a lot more creative. I still have more arraignments than previous years when I came into the commission with the present board members. I will continue to increase it, but if government funded us like other anti-corruption agencies that are well funded in other parts of the world, which are high on the Transparency International Perception Index, we would surprise this country. And I tell you that with the total support of the masses today, even people are ready to donate funds to fight corruption. Private companies are ready to help government today, because they know the cost of corruption and we will defeat the evil.
What are you doing in that direction to harness and get them involved in the war?
We have gone into partnership with almost all professional bodies in Nigeria. We have signed MoUs with them and that has gone a long way. Now, the professional bodies are watching their members much better than before. And we have built relationship with them. Look at the corruption issue at the international airport, it was the voluntary relationship between us and the aviation sector that catalyzed finding a solution. They were the ones who came to us for help and they have seen the results. They are the ones testifying today. We have seen the difference. Before, it would have been us going to them and they would have seen one as an intruder. I am sure you heard about the money which we returned to the Federal Ministry of Environment. That was possible because it was the Federal Ministry of Environment, the permanent secretary there, that reported about some people who took their money. In the past, they would have hidden that fact so that it won’t defame the ministry and they would have found a way to conceal the case and forget about it. But it was the lady then, who came and reported the matter.
Also I recall the Niger Delta Ministry, whose staff we seized so much property from, it was the permanent secretary there who reported the matter to us. So, chief executives are coming as well as the Civil Defense who help us confiscate some property. It was the head of that institution that came here and even brought some suspects for interrogation. These things are going on. Look at education too. When I got involved in education in 2012, we did a study of corruption in education. Quite a number of papers were used against us, abusing and accusing us of delving into education; saying that it wasn’t our business; but by the time we came out with the study, we shut down about 26 illegal degree-awarding institutions.That was when they started to take us seriously. Then, female students later were courageous to report to us that they were being sexually harassed and we also got involved immediately. Today, as I speak to you, at the University of Lagos, a candidate was allegedly raped and we are getting involved and after proper investigation, the police will handle the rapist. Here we are looking at abuse of office. It happened in Calabar too and a parent wrote to ICPC. Before who could invite us? We are also going to get involved in what is happening at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and Ambrose Alli University. We are not after the persons, we are after the institutions-to make sure that they put in place a protective gender and sexual harassment procedure. If they fail to do that, we deal with the institution, because if you are going to be pursuing people, it will continue to happen; but if you deal with the menace with an institutional approach, the institutions will regulate and design processes. They can come up with a new process, like, no student should be in the lecturer’s office. I attended the University of Ibadan, I never stepped into a lecturer’s office. It was only the class representative, who had to collect materials that did.
Let’s take a comparative look at the quantum and value of the loot the commission has recovered since you took over and within this year alone. Do you have an idea?
I can do that by sector. The question is taking me virtually unawares. But I do know that even within the first two quarters of 2015, January to June, a small unit, the financial investigation unit has already recovered about N3.4billion. Then my assets recovery unit, what we called Assets Tracing and Monitoring Unit (ATRM), so far for this year, has recovered cash and vehicles worth about N3.3 billion. In the past, our yearly average was not up to that.
But this year alone you have recovered N6.7 billion in the first half of the year? Yes. That suggests a progression of what you have had over the past years?
It is showing progression though it may not be arithmetical, but geometrical, because there are certain things we are targeting. You know when we recovered 25 units of property from civil servants in Nigeria, the cost of property started falling, because of the outcome of the poll undertaken by independent reporters. People started getting aware that you could be asked to explain the source of your wealth. That is the beauty of our job at ICPC. We do not wait for things to happen, we go ahead of you, plan and that was what led me to monitoring the bailout funds. I’m not waiting for the funds to be frittered away to begin to pursue everybody in the street. I made that pronouncement and as I’m speaking to you, my operatives are in all the states that have collected the bailout funds. We relied on data from the banks, their Accountants General and we met the NLC of the various states and if you want to make a payment which is not in consonance with the loans you took from the Federal Government, then we would immediately swing into action. We won’t wait until after three years and then begin to pursue a hole that’s already drilled.
What’s your assessment of the Buhari administration’s anti-corruption campaign?
The whole process of mass mobilization of persons and paying particular attention to eradicating corruption is, of course, paying off and for the anti-corruption agencies too as it makes our work definitely easier, because if we arrest somebody now, it is most unlikely that the community will begin to shout “why are you arresting our person?” Before, they would ask you “Is he the only person that you are focusing on?”
What’s your take on the suggestion for special courts to try corruption cases in order to fast-track dispensation of justice, which, many believe is at present slow and militating against the war?
You see, sometimes what goes around comes around. The very first section of the ICPC Act that was struck out was that aspect that stated “All corruption cases must be resolved within 90 days”. This was tested in court and the court said “No, you cannot dictate to us what time to get justice done in respect of corruption matters that will not do justice to the accused.” Now, we are going back to a situation, whereby everybody has now started to complain that some of those cases have been in court for five years, six years, even seven. We want justice faster. They have come up with an Administration of Criminal Justice Act which also we know and hope will hasten the processes. But in looking at that, we have to look at the institutional processes that could not support anything.
How comfortable are court environments?
If a judge wants to sit from 9am to 5pm, he can’t sit in some of the court buildings that are leaking, without power and airconditioners. They do not even have transcribing facilities like their counterparts elsewhere, they are writing in long hand. So, some of these things must be improved, the processes must be computerized. And I am happy Lagos State is quite ahead in that respect. In fact, the current administration of justice is something that has been borrowed from Lagos State. When arraignments are made in Lagos for ICPC, I get an electronic alert from the court system. If my lawyer does not show up in court, I am able to monitor and say this guy, I have an alert and you must be in Lagos. I have put in place a monitoring unit in my Lagos office and if a lawyer is coming from Abuja, one of the lawyers in Lagos must accompany him and make an official report.
Again, when a suspect is being moved from the investigating agency to court, in the court environment, do you have a Holden facility? If you go abroad, most courts have a small detention centre, where you keep a person until you are ready, for security reasons. But, here you are all sitting under a tree because the court is in session and they are waiting for you to come in and you are sitting under the tree. You are waiting for your case to be called, or maybe in some instances, you are inside the court.
So, it is a whole lot that must be done and you are asking for special courts. Yes, it might fast track the processes but you are using the same judges who are facing the same situation unless you make special provisions that would help them fast-track the process. You see what is happening in election tribunals, you are getting faster results right? It’s because special processes have been put in place. Now are you’re calling for a re-visit of that provision of the Act you spoke of? It’s only for us to see how we can make the process faster from the anti-corruption agencies’ perspective. The best way to help a court is to have very good investigations. If you carry rubbish to the court, the judge will not follow public opinion; the judge will follow facts available to him to take a decision. And in some cases when he takes that decision, based on facts available to him, the judge is being abused, but by the nature of his profession, he cannot defend himself publicly. So, it is my function as an anti-corruption agent to make sure that I give him that support by providing core evidence.
Now, with the apparent seriousness of this government against graft, your organization obviously has a battle ahead of it, what will you require to deliver?
First, is a Marshal plan for the anti-corruption sector. When I say Marshal plan, you must invest in the institutions that fight corruption in terms of offices, equipment, logistics. It would not happen if we are going for the present budget processes. I will explain. If you give me N5billion to fight corruption and I’m spending N4.5billion on salaries and I spend N300million on overheads and the balance is N200million for capital, that is not a budget. The development and strengthening of that institution must come from capital vote. For instance, we will need forensic laboratories. I’m going to need to buy new vehicles; the ones in our fleet now are about nine years old, they have broken down. And if I arrest a suspect in Jos or Enugu, I have to use public transport to bring him here. Are we serious? I need vehicles for my staff in carrying out investigation, they need to stay in good hotels or the government may give me an office building prototype and beside it, a secured accommodation, where staff and everybody can stay, so that they would not be vulnerable to attacks by suspects they are investigating. Give us safe houses.
You cannot have a successful whistleblower protection if a whistleblower is under threat, I should be able to move him from Calabar to Sokoto and put him in a safe house and take good care of him until I finish my case. In essence, combating corruption is not wishful thinking, it’s not simple. I should be able to have funds whereby if something is happening, I can put four operatives on a flight immediately without anybody asking me where I got the money.
If in the course of the operation, one of my staff gets injured; I should be able to get him to the best hospital in the country or anywhere in the world. That will ginger the fight. I should be able to have a kind of equipment and database that my counterparts anywhere in the world have, to develop research. If you fight the corruption war without running research to show the typology of the crimes, how do we effect the changes, or know what to expect? I have gone to the United States of America to request for software and hardware and I have just been given a good case facility, which analyses the trend for me automatically, what my colleagues in other parts of the world have had for the past 20 or more years! Talking about infrastructure and training, corruption is not limited to Nigeria alone, because whoever is taking your money is taking it abroad and my investigators must go to the same training academy like any investigator anywhere in the world, so that if he is investigating, he knows who to call, the person he can interact with and so on. If you say investigators cannot get specialized training, then we are not serious.
So, we can safely say Nigeria has not been serious about fighting corruption, can’t we?
It’s for you to decide, but if we are going by the funding pattern of the anti-corruption agencies and what I expect now, with the right funding and total support of the population and government, we would be able to address the issue of corruption once and for all.
Are you getting the support of the president in this regard?
Even if I don’t tell you privately, from the pronouncements that come out of the Presidency, principally, it should give you a clear picture that he’s serious about the independence and success of the anti graft agencies as created under the Acts. So, I don’t have any reason to doubt that.
Culled from The Sun.