Until the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) decided to focus on it following a media report, very few Nigerians had heard about the report of the United Kingdom-based Bank, HSBC, on Nigeria’s immediate economic and political prospects. The report in question, “Nigeria: Papering over the Cracks,” was routine by any standard, and most probably prepared by the bank’s Financial Services unit for the consumption of its fee-paying clients. Dated July 18 2018, it was on its way to a well-deserved oblivion when the EFCC decided to give it the oxygen of publicity.
For any reasonably informed observer of Nigerian affairs, the conclusions of the report are accurate to the point of being banal. For instance, alluding to what it calls the “unresolved structural shortcomings” of the Nigerian economy, the report notes that “Economic growth remains sluggish, and reliant on the rebound in oil output while the non-oil economy, which accounts for about 90 per cent of GDP, continues to languish with many service sectors still mired in contraction.”
It continues: “Joblessness continues to rise, up almost three-fold in three years to 19 per cent in Q3 2017, pushing the number in poverty to 87 million… All told, we see growth capped at about 2.5 per cent over the next two years- a welcome recovery from the 2016 contraction, but less than half the rate of the previous cycle.” Hardly the stuff of state secrets.
Echoing the growing anxiety among Nigerians regarding next year’s elections, the authors of the report also fear that “Election-related spending may compound these fiscal concerns while the poll itself raises macro risks given political uncertainty, fractures within the ruling All progressive Congress (APC), and President Buhari’s approval ratings.” Apart from the economy, the HSBC report registers other factors likely to shape the outcome of the election, including security and corruption, and President Buhari’s tumbling approval ratings. It notes: “Security concerns persist across the country with the Boko Haram insurgency in the North East, militant activity that has disrupted oil production in the Niger Delta, and more recently escalating violence between cattle herdsmen and crop farmers that compete for land and water resources in Nigeria’s middle-belt.”
As we noted earlier, none of these are unknown to any student of the Nigerian state, which makes the EFCC’s attack on HSBC all the more bewildering. In a September 16 post on its official Facebook handle that bears an uncanny resemblance to an earlier attack on the London-headquartered bank by Garba Shehu, Senior Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, the EFCC accused HSBC of being “synonymous with money laundering” and having paid billions of dollars in fines across the world. It then specifically accused the bank of having “laundered more than $100 million for the late dictator, late General Sani Abacha in Jersey (sic), Paris, London, Switzerland and Geneva. The Bank is also involved with (sic) laundering proceeds of corruption for over 50 Nigerians including a serving Senator.” The EFCC concluded with a promise not to “rest on our oars until every penny belonging to the FRN is repatriated to Nigeria as to improve the lives of the people.”
For watchers of the EFCC, the misguided attack on HSBC is the latest episode in its tragic institutional unravelling, one that begs the question of whether the commission still understands its statutory role, which is strictly limited to the investigation of financial crimes. Yet, this is not the first time that the EFCC has crossed that statutory line, acting more or less like a political pressure group on some occasions, and like a political party on others. For instance, it celebrated the defeat of the outgoing governor of Ekiti State, Peter Ayodele Fayose, handing ammunition to those who have always accused it of political bias. It also acted illegally in freezing the accounts of the Benue and Akwa Ibom governments respectively.
The EFCC needs to rein itself in. It must realise that it is not and cannot afford to be an appendage of any administration, the current one included. Its legal and social obligation is to the constitution and people of Nigeria. Its role is to ferret out financial crimes, not to defend the government against attacks—domestic or foreign. It cannot be a judge, let alone a hanging one.