THE recent judgement of the Federal High Court in Abuja that struck out a Federal Government suit seeking to recover N70 trillion of public funds held in 29 banks is another major blow to the anti-corruption mantra of the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.). Unmistakeably, it underscores his lack of commitment, and the required political will to stamp out graft. The anti-graft agencies should rise above the regime’s public posturing and instil greater efficiency in the crusade.
The case typifies how Nigerians are being short-changed. The government had sued 17 banks, and some oil companies, including the Nigerian National Petroleum Company while seeking the recovery and forfeiture of allegedly looted funds. Ultimately, the suit was struck out due to the government’s lack of diligence in prosecuting it. Peter Lifu, the presiding judge, could barely contain his anguish at the botched prosecution. Lifu said, “It has been back and forth, with various excuses, applications for adjournment at the instance of the plaintiffs/applicants’ counsel.
“From all indications, the instant case has clearly lost its stance as the plaintiffs/applicants seem not to be interested in the matter any longer, having failed consistently to be present in court since December 9, 2021.”
For the umpteenth time, poor prosecution has cost the country dearly. This was after the government had obtained an interim forfeiture order in 2021issued by Tijani Ringim, the judge that was initially handling the case before it was transferred to Lifu.
As in far too many corruption cases where the government has lost either through poor prosecution, clumsy investigation, or technicalities, Nigerians wonder what went wrong. Hiring reputable senior advocates of Nigeria and other senior lawyers as prosecutors has not yielded significant convictions of highly politically exposed persons, and other influential individuals and corporate organisations. In the instant case, Lifu was exasperated at the hesitancy of the prosecutors, wondering how government lawyers “suddenly developed cold feet over this alleged public interest case.”
In his eight years in charge, Buhari has made hardly a dent on the corruption train. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index had in 2014 –just before Buhari assumed office –ranked Nigeria 136 out of 175 countries, with a score of 27 out of 100. Despite the regime’s rhetoric about fighting corruption, Nigeria has dipped further down, scoring 24 out of 100, and is currently ranked 150 among 180 countries.
Contrast this with China where President Xi Jinping’s anti-graft drive has since 2012 seen over 500 senior officials punished among four million party, city, regional, provincial, and national cadres investigated and sanctioned.
In fairness, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission have made brave efforts. But they are subverted by a disinterested President, an often ambivalent Attorney-General of the Federation, influence peddlers and institutional weakness. But sometimes, their investigations are not thorough, and prosecution is sloppy.
Shoddy prosecutions lead to botched trials, obligating judges to acquit accused persons. This invariably fans the embers of corruption and emboldens criminals.
The judiciary has also not been enthusiastic in Buhari’s fight against corruption. Critics cite the shielding of some accused judges, and the striking out of cases on technical grounds. Its impact in nailing high profile treasury thieves has been underwhelming. Judges however blame faulty investigation and prosecution for the collapse of many cases.
A former governor of Abia State, Orji Kalu, who was initially sentenced by a Federal High Court in Lagos to 12 years imprisonment for a N7.1 billion fraud, was able to get out of prison based on a Supreme Court judgement. A high court subsequently stopped the EFCC from retrying him.
Former Delta State Governor, James Ibori, whose 170 corruption charges were dismissed by a Federal High Court, Asaba, pleaded guilty in the United Kingdom and was sentenced to jail terms for some of the same charges.
A survey by the ICPC alleged that about N9.4billion bribes exchanged hands in the judicial sector between 2018 and 2020. The report said that corruption in the justice sector increased because of the “stupendously high amounts of money offered as bribes to judges by lawyers handling high electoral and political cases.”
From the lack of political will to prosecute those tainted with corruption, to the issuance of state pardon to those already convicted of graft, the anti-corruption war under the Buhari regime has floundered.
Apart from his lethargy, the pardon Buhari granted to ex-governors Joshua Dariye (Plateau) and Jolly Nyame (Taraba) for many critics, finally removed the regime’s façade of rectitude.
Worried by the ability of accused high-profile individuals to escape punishment, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project in 2017 advised Buhari to “adopt a revolutionary approach,” and refer high-level corruption cases to the International Criminal Court for investigation and possible prosecution. Buhari has not taken this advice.
Another NGO, Human and Environmental Development Agenda assessed the volume of money linked to ignored corruption cases since 2015 at about N900 billion. Activist/lawyer, Femi Falana, asked the Senate in 2019 to facilitate the recovery of $103billion lost by Nigeria on sale of oil. He was ignored. A PwC survey said corruption would cost Nigeria 37 per cent of GDP by 2030 if not controlled. “This cost is equated to around $1,000 per person in 2014 and nearly $2,000 per person by 2030,” it said.
To defeat sleaze in any democratic society, synergy between the various organs of government is ineluctable. Also, other federating units must buy in to the anti-corruption drive. The executive must enforce the law by prosecuting corrupt individuals; the legislature should enact stricter anti-corruption laws. The judiciary should dynamically interpret the law to ensure that justice catches up with the corrupt. The National Judicial Commission should intensify its house cleaning and purge the system of unfit judges. The prosecuting agencies, EFCC, ICPC, the AGF and the police, should ensure strict diligence in investigation and prosecution, and arraign suspects with watertight cases to secure convictions to revive the flagging anti-graft war.
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