Acting on a recommendation by the Justice Ayo Salami-led panel, the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), has departed from the tradition of appointing police officers to steer the affairs of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. Instead, Buhari has appointed Abdulrasheed Bawa to head the country’s prime anti-corruption agency for the next four years. Backed with 16 years of experience at various levels at the EFCC, Bawa, 40, is taking over after the controversial removal of Ibrahim Magu, a Commissioner of Police, who spent five years in an acting capacity after being rejected by the Senate twice. That Bawa is resuming after being confirmed by the Senate and without any legal challenges should give him the impetus to hit the ground running, a privilege which his predecessor did not enjoy. He must therefore start by reviving the dying anti-corruption crusade.
Without mincing words, the current anti-corruption war started with a bang at the beginning of Buhari’s tenure. It was in part propelled by a whistleblower policy that led to the recovery of billions of dollars in cash and assets. But it gradually began to lose steam due to the legendary detachment of a weak President who relinquished his mandate to a tiny cabal. The activities of the cabal, which was fuelled by high wire politics, reached a climax with the controversial suspension and detention of Magu.
With Magu out of the way, some high profile cases like that of a former bank executive, Dauda Lawal, who was standing trial for allegedly handling the sum of $25m out of a total of $153m doled out by a former Minister of Petroleum Resources, Diezani Alison-Madueke, in the build-up to the 2015 general election, were withdrawn.
The Attorney-General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, who has not denied his role in the removal of Magu, had also used his constitutional powers to withdraw some high profile cases being handled by the EFCC. Top among such cases was that of a former Gombe Governor, Danjuma Goje, who was standing trial for N25bn fraud and had lost his no case submission application in court.
Curiously, the case against Goje was withdrawn barely three weeks after he abandoned his ambition to run for the Senate Presidency and decided to endorse the regime’s choice, Ahmed Lawan. Unsurprisingly, Transparency International made reference to the Goje fiasco when it ranked Nigeria low on its corruption perceptions index in 2020.
Nigeria has continued to drop on TI’s corruption perceptions index under Buhari with its latest ranking worse than the previous. The Chairman, Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, Itse Sagay, recently expressed fears about the role of the AGF in the anti-corruption war and the influence he could have on Bawa and the anti-corruption war. According to Sagay, Bawa will only succeed if he resists pressure from the AGF. Bawa must also understand that his loyalty lies to the constitution and people of Nigeria and not the interests of politicians.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says when anti-corruption agencies work in isolation, without broader public support, they become vulnerable to unpredictable political will. Bawa must therefore gain the support of Nigerians if he is to succeed. While it is true that there is a need for inter-agency cooperation and synergy, the new EFCC chairman must understand that nowhere in the EFCC Act is it stated that the commission is an agency under the AGF and should be subject to the whims and caprices of the AG. Bawa must thus build an anti-graft agency that is not beholden to anybody, including the President.
Buhari must also wake up from his slumber. The panel he set up to probe Magu and other EFCC officials invited 113 witnesses and received 46 petitions. Absurdly, many of the witnesses included defendants facing trial at several courts in the country, which already questions the credibility of the report. Since Magu has constantly denied the several allegations of graft levelled against him, the President must make the findings of the panel public and ensure that things are brought to a logical conclusion.
Incidentally, every EFCC chairman has left office in disgrace and has had to contend with accusations of corruption, which usually fizzle out. This is not how to fight corruption. Buhari must take a step further by making the findings of the Salami panel public and prosecuting those found wanting. Corruption should neither be fought in secrecy nor without the judiciary as is being done in the case of Magu. According to media reports, 10 EFCC officials have remained on suspension without salary, while the President has taken no further action. There must be a logical conclusion.
The President must ensure that the allegations levelled against Malami are fully investigated as they are too weighty and many to be overlooked. Section 174 of the constitution bestows on the attorney-general, the power to commence and discontinue cases being tried prosecuted on behalf of the Federal Government without any explanation or recourse to any authority. It goes without saying that an anti-corruption war without a committed attorney-general is as dead as a door nail. If Buhari wants to really fight corruption, he must be the arrowhead and send the message that the EFCC is completely neutral and the AGF has no say in the day-to-day running of the agency.
In the main, the EFCC has failed to live up its mandate largely due to political interference. Bawa must resist the temptation to bow to such interests by putting public interest first and upholding the law regardless of who is involved. Worthy examples abound worldwide. The United States Attorney-General, William Barr, refused to abuse his office despite pressure from former President, Donald Trump, to discredit the election. When Trump continued to mount pressure on the Justice Department, Barr honourably resigned. The message is that strong institutions are built by honourable men who engender a culture of accountability and deference to the rule of law. Bawa should see his appointment as an opportunity for the EFCC to regain the trust of Nigerians and help in building a corrupt-free society.