Celebrating Hon. Justice Emmanuel Olayinka Ayoola, CON, (RTD), Former ICPC Chairman, (2005-2010) at 90

2005-2010: Justice Emmanuel O. Ayoola: The Flight of ‘Operation Hawk’

The creation of the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) in the year 2000 by the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo was a watershed for Nigeria and brought a fresh perspective to the fight against corruption. 

The Commission’s pioneer Chairman, retired Justice Mustapha Akanbi showed exemplary leadership, courage, and integrity throughout his tenure and positioned the Commission as a trusted government institution.

Following the expiration of Justice Akanbi’s tenure, there was an expected move to ensure an unfailing continuity in the quality of leadership at the Commission. Consequently, Hon. Justice Emmanuel Ayoola, Commander of the Order of the Niger (CON), continued the anti-corruption administration from where Justice Mustapha Akanbi stopped, leading the second Governing Board from 2005 to 2010.

A retired Justice of the Supreme Court, the tenure of Justice Emmanuel Ayoola was characterized by a good combination of enforcement and prevention interventions. In 2007, two years into his tenure at the ICPC, he piloted a major enforcement initiative at the Commission, which he called ‘Operation Hawk’. Expressing the motivation behind this move, Justice Ayoola made the case that while there was no lack of vigour or commitment in the campaign against corruption, what was then lacking was sufficient public participation in the campaign. This was possibly the informing spirit for mapping out the objectives of the Commission during this administration into different phases. According to Ayoola, the first phase was that of public enlightenment, public education and public mobilization. During this phase, Ayoola believed that the nature of tolerance for corruption within the system declined noticeably. One index of the success of the first phase was the fact that people were adopting an attitude of showing or publicly expressing revulsion for corrupt practices by sending petitions to the Commission.

The goal of the second phase was therefore to consolidate on the success of the first phase by riding on the platform of the new level of public awareness to enhance institutional cleansing. The goal here was to make all institutions, such as ministries, departments and agencies free of corrupt practices in their operations. There was also the major goal of making every citizen an active participant in the anti-corruption war. In the pursuit of this goal, the ICPC developed a very robust public mobilization programme.

Perhaps this accounts for why, in the history of the Commission thus far, the greatest number of Information, Education and Communication (IEC) materials were published in various forms and also distributed widely across the country. The ICPC Monitor made a debut as a quarterly magazine which provided for peer review of Chief Executives of Ministries, Departments and Agencies and of state governors. The publication also featured strategies adopted by successful leaders and lessons learnt in the process.

For Ayoola, perception of corruption is one aspect of a country’s national life that cannot be indexed by any metric framework. It remains, at best, what it is – perception. According to him, while the level of corruption in Nigeria appears to be receding, albeit on a gradual scale, there is yet to be found any clear-cut formula for indexing corruption. However, in taking early steps, the Commission under him promptly gained its ground in collecting data relevant to the fight against corrupt practices in the MDAs. These moves began with the tracking of over 300 MDAs. This basically was the essential part of the third phase of his road map towards cleansing the system of corrupt practices. In scrutinizing the MDAs, the idea was to be able to issue Certificates of Integrity to any agencies of government that were so deserving, especially in terms of effectiveness, transparency and accountability in executing and managing capital projects.

Justice Ayoola was also a strong believer in the significance of providing purposeful leadership, which combined being proactive with operating within the ambit of the law. The proactive practices in any institution does not preclude the existence of extant laws: institutions, no matter how proactive, cannot act outside the prescribed range of existing laws. This also applied to the ICPC. 

Under his watch, the National Anti-Corruption Volunteer Corps (NAVC) was designed with the view to taking the anti-corruption campaign and integrity issues into the public domain and promote voluntary participation of very honest, well-meaning and credible Nigerian in the fight against corruption. More than 20,000  applications were received and processed within a period of time.

The Commission also introduced the Citizens’ Engagement Forum. This was a town hall-like meeting where issues bordering on corrupt practices were critically engaged, with diverse views and suggestions offered to map out new directions in the anti-corruption fight. This new platform provided the unique opportunity for the Commission to interact with citizens in urban and rural areas, and to listen to them. In this process, the ICPC had the opportunity, that were otherwise absent, to clarify public misconceptions about its activities and guide the citizens on how to contribute meaningfully in the campaign against corrupt practices.

The ICPC launched the Local Government Integrity Initiative to enhance public and political awareness at the grassroots. The aim was to mainstream the culture of integrity and public accountability at the local government level. This was in tandem with Justice Ayoola’s conviction that, for the battle against corruption to be successful, there must be a commendable level of community acceptance of the war. Fundamentally, the war against corrupt practices would not be achieved if the cultural foundations and general attitudes of the people are not refocused through an ethical reorientation.

In 2006, the Justice Ayoola-led Commission also introduced the Good Governance Forum which provided an exclusive platform for seniorpublic servants and elder statesmen who had excelled in their various endeavours to share experience with Nigerians on how they wereable to do it with integrity. Thus far, the Good Governance Forum has featured personalities such as Joseph Makoju, former Senior Special Assistant to President Obasanjo on Energy; Dora Akunyili, former Director General of the National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control; Cardinal John Onaiyekan, former Catholic Archbishop of Abuja; Mr. Yayale Ahmed, a former Head of Service and secretary to the Federal Government; Chief Afe Babalola, a legal luminary, and a host of other prominent public servants.

Justice Ayoola was indeed of the view that, for the fight against corruption to be effective, the Legislature at all levels must be involved. Hence, he created the Zonal National Assembly Conferences, which was intended to make the National Assembly take leadership in organizing anti-corruption conferences in the six geo-political zones of the country. Participants at the conferences included all National Assembly members from each zone, state legislators from all of the states in a zone, as well as permanent secretaries and top government functionaries in the various states.

One of the major challenges faced by the Ayoola administration was the lack of willingness, readiness and cooperation from the National Assembly, especially in the area of creating the context for an open system. The state assemblies were also found to be blameworthy in this respect. A typical reference was when the ICPC sent requests to the national and state assemblies to ascertain their level of compliance with extant laws in the areas of generating, executing and managing constituency projects. Part of the Commission’s finding at state levels showed prevalent disparities in processes and standards. For instance, while some states had constituency projects as part of a ministry’s active projects, other states simply gave out the monies to the legislators. There were states that had no constituency projects of any kinds going on at all. 

There were many cases in which projects that were claimed to have been executed and commissioned had no contractors to step forward to claim the cheques for such ‘projects’, even when the concerned ministries were willing to pay out cheques upon the certification of due process. Situations such as these were some of the ‘mysteries’ that the Ayoola team encountered in the process of carrying out the duties of the Commission. A lot of frauds were committed under the guise of ‘constituency projects’ against the law which clearly stipulated that no public officer must take up interest in any public contract. Many public office-holders had defaulted in this respect by setting up private companies to be awarded contracts tied to constituency projects, against the position of the law.

Another challenge that militated against the work of the ICPC during Ayoola’s tenure, as would later apply to other chairmen after him, was the issues of inadequate funding. A critical work such as the Commission was and is doing need not suffer any forms of setback because certain institutions of government believed lobbying must be done to get funding. The ICPC at this time was denied required funding even after undergoing the due process of presentation of proposal. In one particular instance, programmes that were proposed for the Commission, upon getting to the National Assembly for approval, were replaced with the purchase of computers, which the Commission did not ask for. A passionate public followership of the ICPC could have been highly strategic in rescuing the Commission from many unnecessary structural shackles and impediments it had to go through. 

While giving the anti-corruption battle all the intellectual, moral and legal support that it required during his administration, Justice Ayoola took as priority the welfare of the Commission’s personnel. This welfarist disposition was informed by his understanding that an effective prosecution of the anti-corruption crusade could not be achieved by officers whose salaries could not take them home, thus leaving them vulnerable to all kinds of possible compromise. He therefore sought and got approval for an enhanced living wage for the Commission’s officials. This well-thought-out philosophy and practice have been sustained and remains operational in the Commission to date.

For much of his tenure, which ended in 2010, Justice Ayoola upheld the view that the Commission has a mission to bring about transparent ways of conducting elections, to foster corruption-free ways of administering governmental agencies and parastatals, and entrench new modes of governance that are averse to nepotism, misappropriation and embezzlement of public funds, and the betrayal of public trust.