Special Assistant to the President on Prosecution, Chief Okoi Obono-Obla, in this interview, says Nigerians should be patient with President Muhammadu Buhari as he decides on the reports on investigation into corruption allegations before him, concerning people in his government
When you featured on Channels TV on Sunday, you were defending a former chairman of the Presidential Task Force on Pension Reforms, Abdulrasheed Maina’s reinstatement; but now, he has been sacked by the President. Why were you defending the indefensible?
Maybe you did not get me; you need to be a lawyer to appreciate the fact that I was not defending the indefensible. I was asking them if he (Maina) had been convicted because they asked me if his reinstatement was not a dent on the war on corruption. Then I said that it cannot be a dent. I say this because if you want to judge this government, you have to do so holistically. You cannot begin to say that Maina’s reinstatement is a dent on the war against corruption based on one isolated incident.
I asked them; has he (Maina) been convicted by a court of competent jurisdiction? I am talking as a lawyer and I don’t want to be emotional and sentimental because Nigerians are very emotional and sentimental. As a lawyer, I was trained not to be emotional and not to be sentimental when I am discussing law or involved in a legal argument. If Maina had been convicted, I want to see the certified true copy of the judgment of the court that sentenced him.
On Maina’s matter; if you are only looking at law, what about the moral aspect?
Law and morality are two different things that don’t mix. There is a school of jurisprudence that says you cannot mix law with economics, you cannot mix law with morals, or sociology, history, culture or politics. So, we are looking at a legal point of view. What does the law say about somebody who has not been convicted by a court of competent jurisdiction? Looking at the moral aspect of it, then it is condemnable. But an allegation has been made against somebody, but that allegation has not been ventilated in a court of law.
But the allegations against Maina are there in public domain.
Yes, to a lay person, the allegations are immoral, but the man had not been convicted. I was saying (in the Channel’s interview) that nobody should blame Mr. President or bring him into this issue. The discipline of civil servants is not the prerogative of Mr. President. There is a body established by law known as the Federal Civil Service Commission; it is one of the executive bodies established by the law. Members of that commission are appointed by Mr. President, subject to the confirmation by the Senate. It is (FCSC) supposed to be a body detached from political interference.
If a civil servant has been charged to court, the normal procedure is that the Permanent Secretary in the ministry he is working would be notified and then a certified true copy of the charge against him would be brought to the Permanent Secretary in the ministry. The civil servant would now be placed on suspension and sometimes, such a worker is placed on half pay. If the court now finds him guilty, it is not enough. Then the ministry has to report to the FCSC. This is because the FCSC is responsible for the recruitment, promotion and discipline of senior civil servants from Level 8 to Level 17. Then they would now initiate disciplinary measures to be meted out to the civil servant. When they find the civil servant guilty or liable, then they inform Mr. President.
We are talking about a man that has been declared wanted by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.
The EFCC is not a court of law. The Supreme Court has said that in several cases. The case against Rotimi Amaechi (Minister of Transportation) and the Independent National Electoral Commission is an example. Amaechi won the primary election in Rivers State. But the Peoples Democratic Party then said he was under investigation by the EFCC and based on that, he should not stand for election. And they gave the governorship ticket to (Celestine) Omehia. Then Amaechi went to court and the matter ended at the Supreme Court. Amaechi won and was declared governor. The Supreme Court said an indictment must be only by a court of law and not by somebody or an investigative body like the EFCC, the police or Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission. So, if somebody is being declared wanted by the EFCC, it does not amount to the person being adjudged a criminal. After investigation, the matter must go before the court.
I understand he (Maina) went to court and the court said his dismissal was wrong. That means he was not given a fair hearing. Maybe it was based on that that the FCSC asked for his reinstatement. I am still maintaining my stand despite what has happened (Maina’s sacking). That is why the President has ordered an investigation. I think we should not pre-empt the findings of the investigation the President has ordered.
There have been controversies over the persons involved in the reinstatement, including the Attorney General of the Federation, Minister of Interior and the Head of Service. What specific role did the AGF play in that episode?
I don’t know because I am a Special Assistant to the President on Prosecution in the Office of the Attorney General. That very responsibility was not given to me. I have read in the social media that it was based on the advice by the AGF. But you cannot fault the AGF. Judgment of court of competent jurisdiction was made available to the AGF and the AGF is the chief legal adviser to the Federal Government, to the President. So, if there is a judgment from a court, it would be wrong and illegal for the AGF not to advise anybody to obey that judgment, no matter how bad that judgment is. You don’t expect the AGF to disobey a court order.
People have even accused the AGF of masterminding the reinstatement, even when the EFCC, an agency under his ministry, has declared him wanted. Was that not impunity at its peak?
I understand that there was a judgment setting aside the warrant of arrest that was issued by the EFCC. Is there any contrary evidence that there was no judgment setting aside the warrant of arrest? The issue of the AGF acting in an improper manner does not arise. If there was a judgment, I have not seen it. But what I read in the media was that there was a judgment setting aside the warrant of arrest. So, if that is the case, then you cannot really say that there was a matter pending against him. Another question is that this man (Maina) has been around; then why did the EFCC not arrest him? If it is on top of its game, then why did it not go after him? It cannot say that it is not aware that this man has been around for the past one year.
Some Nigerians, including Governor Ayo Fayose, have described the sacking as an afterthought. Is that not true, because it was only announced after public outrage?
Fayose is always talking rubbish. He is suffering from Buhariphobia. So, he is always talking rubbish; I don’t want to take issues with him. He is not a lawyer and does not understand the issues at stake. He always talks out of point, out of emotion, out of sentiment, out of hatred. It is like he has pathological hatred for the President. Fayose does not talk with the sobriety expected of a governor of a state. Based on this, I don’t want to take issues with him. He is very immature in his utterances; he is not sober and does not comport himself very well and only plays to the gallery to run down Mr. President.
People believe that there has been serious sloppiness and shoddiness by those advising the President on anti- corruption, including you. Is it not true when people say most of you do not earn your pay?
That is rubbish; it is hogwash, balderdash; if there is something like that. We work till 12 midnight. Most days, we work till 10pm, 11pm and then the next morning, we are in the office. So, why would you suggest that we don’t earn our pay? Nigerians are very funny people, to say the least. The way issues are being looked at; sometimes, you begin to wonder what is wrong with us. It is wrong to begin to suggest that Mr. President is not being advised properly. You cannot use an isolated incident to begin to judge this administration. There is war against corruption, which is unprecedented. If you want to be objective, the number of politically exposed people that are facing trial is huge and so is the amount of money that has been recovered.
You say that some politically exposed persons are facing trial, but the government is losing these cases.
It is not a matter of winning cases. But we have been winning. I read the EFCC saying that in the first quarter of this year, they had 200 convictions. Just last week, the Accountant General of Kebbi State was sentenced to 70 years imprisonment by the Court of Appeal and the press is not making an issue out of this. But if we lose one or two cases, then all hell would be let loose. It is not fair. Fighting corruption is not all about catching people and putting them in prison. If Nigerians were fair-minded and objective and balanced in their view, they would appreciate the fact that this government has put in place institutional reforms to fight corruption.
I can give you many instances. The Treasury Single Account has saved this country so much. Before now, the Federal Government did not know the number of accounts it had. Everybody now knows that all accounts of the Federal Government are with the Central Bank of Nigeria. Before we came in, monthly wage bill was N160bn. But through prudence, accountability and fighting corruption, we have reduced that salary wage bill to about N110bn a month. Again, the pension administration was so chaotic to the extent that the Federal Government was paying N60bn to pensioners every month. Now, it has been reduced to about N20bn. Even Biafran pensioners have been paid. So, all the programmes that have been put in place in fighting corruption should also be counted and not just to talk about the number of convictions that have been secured. Remember that the judicial system is slow.
The most important thing is asking people to account for their stewardship; asking people to account for their deals or misdeals. The stigma of standing in the dock as a politically exposed person is enough to make people not to commit the crime of putting their hands into government coffers to loot money. I can assure you that the level of impunity has reduced. Even the mere fact that Nigerians are outraged if government officials make a mistake like the Maina issue we are talking about means Nigerians are supporting the government in the fight against corruption. It means we are making a point because before now, nobody would be outraged. But note that corruption is a basic human instinct and it is there, even in the Bible. This means nobody can eradicate corruption completely.
The report on the corruption allegations against the Secretary to the Government of the Federation and Director-General, National Intelligence Agency have been submitted to the President since he returned from his medical vacation abroad. Why has the President refused to take action on the issue?
The President has not refused to take action. We are very impatient; we are in a democracy. Some people expect Mr. President to behave like the military potentates, but he cannot. Democracy is slow, it is deliberate. It is not only like that in Nigeria; it is also like that in America. If you want to follow due process in everything, you have to take your time, you have to be patient. Nigerians are very impatient.
But the President did not create this impression when he was campaigning for votes.
No, don’t say that. Did the President say he was going to be a military dictator? As a matter of fact, this President is the most democratic President we have had since 1999, but people don’t even want to appreciate that point. That is where Nigerians have a misunderstanding.
Why did you say that?
The President does not interfere with court processes. Unlike what we heard during the era of the PDP, judges were influenced. Look at what happened at the Supreme Court; we (the All Progressives Congress) lost two cases concerning Rivers and Akwa Ibom states despite winning at the Tribunal and Court of Appeal. Secondly, the battle for the leadership of the National Assembly; the President refused to interfere and he said look, I am in the executive branch of government and I am ready to work with whatever leadership is produced by the National Assembly.
But Governor Nyesom Wike has always accused the Federal Government of intimidating the judiciary, basing his opinion on the recent arrest of judges. What would you say about that?
I don’t want to cast aspersions on him (Wike). But that is not true. He appears not to understand the constitutional responsibilities of the three arms of government. If he did, he would not say that. If a judge breaks the law, who is to enforce the law? It is the executive. If a government fails to enforce the law because the judiciary is involved, then that government has lost the moral authority to enforce the law against any other citizen. We came to power on a mantra of change and we will enforce the law, no matter who is involved. Nigerians are aware that judges don’t enjoy any immunity. The only persons that enjoy immunity are the President, the Vice President, the governors and the deputy governors. All other Nigerians don’t have immunity. So, judges don’t have immunity. In America, judges are also investigated and taken to court. That judges are investigated does not mean that Mr. President has interfered. It is not intimidation to investigate judges.
But how soon would the President take a decision on the SGF?
It is an administrative process because it was not clear if there was corruption or if there was an infringement on the economic or financial laws in the country. The Senate that attempted to investigate it did not have the power (to do so). It cannot investigate crime; the Senate can only carry out its oversight function to expose corruption, inefficiency, maladministration in the process of law making. It should report to the ICPC; it should report to the EFCC. An administrative panel of enquiry has submitted its report to the President. After that, a committee would be set up to review and then come out with a White Paper. It is not automatic. A White Paper would be the government’s position on the issue. The committee can make 10 recommendations and the White Paper may accept two. So, the President is in that process of coming out with a report.
As his adviser on prosecution, have you advised the President on this?
What do you mean by ‘advice’? The President has always been advised. What I am saying is that there are processes, which have to be followed. Corruption is not only about stealing money; it is also corruption when you fail to do things in line with due process, laid-down rules and processes. So, the President must follow due process before coming to a conclusion. Even if that report comes out, the President does not have powers to investigate crime. The Nigeria Police Force, EFCC, ICPC, and so on are the only bodies that have powers to investigate crime. That matter has to be investigated and if a prima facie case is established, then that person can be taken to court. Nigerians must just be patient.
People say the SGF has a case to answer over the grass-cutting scandal. Do you agree with that?
I don’t want to pre-empt the findings of the panel. As I said, we should be patient; the report will come out, but asking me to proffer an opinion on this will be tantamount to prejudging the report. So, let us wait until the report comes out.
The AGF went to court to say Senator Isah Misau made false allegations against the Inspector General of Police. Why didn’t you allow the IGP to defend himself rather than going to court on his behalf?
The matter is in court and I will not want to make any comment. It is sub judice.
Has the office of the AGF investigated the allegations against IGP?
The appropriate body will investigate it. It is not the AGF that investigates matters. Allegations have been made on breach of administrative rules and so on. The appropriate office will investigate.
There are insinuations that this government is hell bent on defending the people in government, at all cost. With the way corruption allegations against Ibrahim Magu (IGP), Abdulrahman Dambazzau (Minister of Interior), Tukur Buratai (Chief of Army Staff) and others have been treated, is that assertion not right after all?
It is nonsensical. The government should not be blackmailed because we say we are fighting corruption. Somebody would just get up and make allegations against a public servant and Nigerians expect the government to crucify the public servant or conclude that the person (public servant) is corrupt? It is not fair. Nigerians are very good at making allegations; sometimes, these allegations are frivolous and sometimes, baseless, just to attract public attention, stigmatise people and label people.
Buratai’s case; they said he had property in Dubai. But the man said no, he had the property before he became the Chief of Army Staff from his personal earnings or extra income he earned. The Minister for Interior was also accused of owning property in America and the man has denied it. The truth is that it is not everybody that is corrupt. Even in (Goodluck) Jonathan’s government, there were people who were not corrupt. So, if you think somebody is corrupt, make evidence available to law enforcement agencies. It is not just about making allegations that are frivolous or baseless. We should change from that mindset of fabricating or making baseless allegations against public office holders just to discredit the government or those public officers. It is not fair.
One of the persons nominated into the board of the ICPC was later found to be under investigation by the same commission. Does the Presidency do any due diligence check at all?
The Presidency does.
How come the person was not found out before the nomination?
When you are nominated, before you go for screening, they will ask you to go to the Department of State Services for profiling. You don’t expect the DSS to have a profile of everybody. If we commit crime in this room, and nobody is here, how will the DSS know about it? The DSS does not spy on everybody.
Don’t you think that a situation where the person that was initially nominated and later dropped over allegations of corruption could embarrass the Presidency? Wasn’t the Presidency embarrassed by that episode?
No. The Presidency did the needful. She was discovered to be under ICPC investigation and then she was dropped. I don’t think there was any embarrassment. Like I said, you don’t expect government to have information on everybody. Even in America, it is people who bring information if someone does something wrong. Sometimes, Nigerians don’t even make information available; they try to protect people.
The report by the Health Minister indicted the NHIS boss, Usman Yusuf, in a scam involving N919m. Shouldn’t he have been prosecuted by now?
It is an administrative panel. They can investigate inefficiency; they can investigate maladministration, but they cannot investigate crime. There are so many authorities that say so. For instance, one of the most celebrated cases was Garba vs. University of Maiduguri. Students went on the rampage and destroyed property in the university. The Vice-Chancellor set up a panel, which made findings to the effect that the students were involved in the destruction of school property. They went to court and the argument was that an administrative panel could not investigate crime. If they (students) were accused of arson or destruction of the university’s property, they ought to have been investigated by the appropriate authority and then charged to court. So, that panel you are talking about cannot investigate crime. It is an administrative panel and at the end of the day, another panel would be set up to review that report. Then a White Paper that would be issued would be the position of the government on the matter.
But some Nigerians are saying the current administration is quick to prosecute persons in the opposition party. What is your take on this?
Is Bukola Saraki (Senate President) not in the APC? Saraki was charged to court for forgery of Senate rules. Saraki was also before the Code of Conduct Tribunal. The matter is on appeal. Is he not an APC member? In the national hierarchy of the government, he is Number three. Orji Uzor Kalu is the former governor of Abia State; is he not a member of the APC? Is he not facing trial? Former governor of Adamawa State, Murtala Nyako; he is also an APC member. Is Joshua Dariye, an APC member, not facing trial? Is the former governor of Zamfara State, Sani Yerima, not facing trial for corruption before a High Court? So, what are they talking about? It is not true.
In the case against the FG by Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, the court ruled that looters should be named. Why is it taking forever to reveal those names?
I am surprised you are asking this question because last Thursday, SERAP visited the AGF and he said the President had ordered that all the names should be compiled and such names should be published. The AGF said he had directed all the law enforcement agencies that made recoveries to publish them. But these things take time. They have to sit down and compile the names so that no mistake is made. Nigerians should just be patient. They should have faith that this government is a transparent government.
Is it possible to give a time when these names would be published?
As we receive all the reports from all the law enforcement agencies. There are many agencies of government involved in recovery; the EFCC, ICPC, police, DSS, the Office of the National Security Adviser and also the Ministry of Finance. There is a new panel, which I chair; it is the Special Investigation for the Recovery of Public Property.
In all fairness, would you say the anti-corruption war has been successful without meaningful convictions?
I was telling you that fighting corruption or crime is not about the number of convictions you secure. That is why in America, sentences are suspended. We also have what they call parole, community service, which we as a country have adopted. We now have suspended sentence, parole and community service. Fighting crime is not all about putting people in prison.
What then would be the punitive measure?
Investigation alone is enough. If you are a man that has a high sense of morality and you are subjected to investigation, it is very traumatic. Also, being arrested and put in the cell with criminals, being taken to court. When you are taken to court, many people will come, journalists will come and they will see you. So, that is the deterrence. Even naming and shaming, which we practise in our native jurisprudence, is also a form of social control. That is why some Nigerians are opposed to the publication of names of looters because they will be stigmatised forever and their children too will be stigmatised forever.
When the President was campaigning, he said he would build more prisons to accommodate looters. But you are saying something that appears contrary to what he (President) said in the past.
The prisons are still there, but what I am saying is that you do not expect us to have very quick convictions. We are not the courts. Our duty is to investigate and charge to court. It is the duty of the courts to hear cases expeditiously and sentence people who are found guilty. So, if that is not done, will you blame us? We have been trying to reform the system. That is why we are calling for cooperation from the judiciary and that this war against corruption should not be seen as only President Buhari’s war. It is a war of all of us, including the judiciary and the legislature, which we have not seen. If everybody supports that, then we would be having convictions. It is not the job of the executive to do the work of judges. We have charged so many cases to court and this is unprecedented in the history of Nigeria. It is left for the judges to try and sentence them. Then we will build more prisons and put them there. – Punch.