By Simon Kolawole
I will be honest and admit today that when Candidate Muhammadu Buhari promised to fight corruption, I was not overly excited. In my mind, I was asking: how? Many lawyers specialise in frustrating and truncating justice. Many judges are for sale. Some prosecutors are not interested in getting convictions. Accountability institutions are pretty weak. Meanwhile, politicians have enormous influence on the media, either as owners or friends of owners. Many have heavy budgets to prosecute massive media campaigns to discredit their trial by whipping up political and ethnic sentiments, with the help of some highly commercialised commentators and activists.
With the Nigerian judicial process utterly polluted, how then do we fight corruption? When bandits know that for the right price, some lawyers, some judges, some prosecutors, some journalists and some activists will stand in their corner if they are put on trial for corruption, they only get a licence to loot. Impunity becomes the name of the game. That is why public officers steal with this “in-your-face” glee. They make you wonder if stealing is not corruption. They make you believe that corruption is a medal of honour to be worn with pride, with dignity, with smiles. And so we cry that Nigeria is underdeveloped while the architects of our misfortune get chieftaincy titles.
Since our judicial system is rotten, what next? Should we throw up our hands in surrender and conclude that it is “God’s will” for our commonwealth to be cannibalised? Should we wait for when our judicial system can deliver justice before we begin to tackle graft? Or should we just go through the drill: charge suspects to court, for the record, and move on to the next one? Perhaps, there are more options. I know of at least one: since those who loot Nigeria manage to launder their booty abroad, we may have stumbled on an elixir. They so love life in foreign countries that they unwittingly get trapped. There is always a trail, a footprint that gives them away.
That is why I now talk about an “Ibori Model” in the war against corruption. James Ibori, the former governor of Delta State, was all over town in 2007 claiming to be “in charge”. He had spent heavily, of course from his state’s funds, to help install President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. And Yar’Adua was all too eager to repay his benefactor who loved to eulogise himself as “larger than life”. Because Ibori had a large file at the EFCC, the first thing he did — in “collabo” with Michael Aondoakaa, the attorney-general of the “rue of raw” fame — was to begin the process of castrating the anti-graft agencies and making sure they did not have balls.
In December 2007, EFCC, under Nuhu Ribadu, arrested Ibori at the Kwara governor’s lodge in Abuja where the former Delta governor was a guest of his bosom friend, Bukola Saraki, who was then governor. Ibori was charged to court and remanded in prison custody in Kaduna, but he managed to find himself “detained” at a well-furnished guest house, with all presidential privileges extended to His Excellency. His lawyers later managed to get a court to declare that since he allegedly committed the offences in Delta, he should be tried in Delta! Suddenly, we entered a new dispensation in a federation where a federal agency must now prosecute you in your bedroom.
A federal high court was immediately built in Asaba, Delta State, to try Ibori. The EFCC brought 170 charges against him. Ibori cheerfully pleaded “not guilty” and the honourable judge agreed with him, discharging and acquitting him in flying colours. But, as life goes, Yar’Adua soon departed. The new government under President Goodluck Jonathan — whom, we heard, had been treated with scorn by Ibori when he was vice-president — was not in any mood to protect him. As EFCC chased Ibori, amidst demonstrations against his “persecution” by “his people”, he ran away to Dubai into the cold embrace of the British police in 2010 after a prolonged legal process.
Flown to London and charged to court, Ibori, ironically, pleaded guilty to similar charges and was jailed for 13 years. Laundering always leaves a trail: expensive property purchased abroad, foreign bank accounts, investments in some offshore company, all sorts of footprints. You are one million times more likely to get convictions in a European court than in Nigeria. But as I doubted Buhari’s ability to fight corruption in view of our peculiar circumstances, the “Ibori Model” never crossed my mind. I just felt fighting graft was going to be tough in a country where many lawyers and many judges think more about their pot bellies than the poor people’s empty pots and empty bellies.
Now that Diezani Alison-Madueke, former minister of petroleum resources, is preparing to face charges of money-laundering in the UK, my hope is finally renewed in the anti-graft war. Those who were hoping to exploit the sick Nigerian judicial system have been put on notice. There has been enormous pressure on Buhari to adopt the “Nicodemus” option in recovering looted funds — by allowing the culprits to quietly drop a fraction of their booties and walk away. This was based partly on the fear that a judicial process may last forever. Well, maybe not. The “Ibori Model” shows that if you don’t face justice at home, you can face it abroad. Simple.
Nevertheless, we need to be ashamed of ourselves that we only get justice when we outsource prosecution to foreign countries. We are the ones suffering the consequences of corruption. We are the ones gulping guinea worm-infested water. Millions of Nigerians are homeless. People die because they cannot afford to buy drugs as cheap as N2000. Public schools are a study in illiteracy. Living in Nigeria is so hard that I am often inclined to think this may be the hell we read about in the holy books. A few people use our commonwealth to acquire islands, jets and mansions home and abroad — and get away so easily. We are not united in fighting graft. What is wrong with us?
This is one thing I will never get to understand about Nigeria and Nigerians. We seem to all agree that corruption is killing our country, yet we are not angry enough to fight it. There is crime, we all seem to agree, but there should be no punishment. We seem to agree that we deserve better roads, better schools, better hospitals and better life, but when those who deny us these basics by pillaging our commonwealth are called to account, we — for some strange reason — begin to stammer. We don’t ask the key question: “Did you steal or not?” Rather, we talk about “persecution” and “selective justice”. We favour sectional sentiments, yet we are all victims of this mindless corruption.
We have seen judges grant “perpetual injunction” to prevent people from being quizzed or arrested. In 2007, an injunction in that category was granted to Peter Odili, former governor of Rivers State. It subsists till today. He had immunity in office. He has immunity after office. We have seen judges impose a fine of N3.5m for massive corruption charges. That was what Lucky Igbinedion, former Edo governor, got in 2008. Of the Class of 2007 ex-governors that went on trial, not one is in jail. It took a UK court to jail Ibori. DSP Alamieyeseigha, former Bayelsa governor who was impeached in 2005, was effectively jailed for only a few hours after a plea bargain. He has since been pardoned.
My biggest disdain is not for the treasury looters, or their lawyers, or their defenders in the media and the civil society. It is reserved for those judges who allow lawyers to use them to prolong and pervert justice. Without those judges who adjourn cases forever for a fee, without those judges who grant frivolous injunctions for a mess of pottage, lawyers cannot get away with their evil antics. Show me any society where the judiciary is largely compromised, and I will show you a society that is going nowhere. Many of our judges should, in moments of introspection, ask themselves if they can sincerely defend their actions before God on Judgment Day. Unto thyself be true.
The multiple bomb attacks in Abuja suburbs on Friday night should be a reminder to us all that Boko Haram is far from defeated. The armed forces are doing a very good job in tackling the insurgency in the north-east, but ending insurgency is not the same thing as ending terrorism. Insurgents capture territories and hoist flags: you can engage them in conventional combat. But terrorists simply hit and run. While President Muhammadu Buhari has given the military a timeline to end the insurgency, we shouldn’t lose sight of the asymmetric warfare which has been perfected by Boko Haram. Crucial.
When the inspector general of the Nigeria police force gives 170m Nigerians a piece of information no-one can trust, then you know we are in real trouble. Solomon Arase made a fool of himself by declaring that no ransom was paid for the release of Olu Falae by his abductors. When Falae himself later admitted that ransom was paid, Arase said that information was not available to him. This calls to question the quality of intelligence-gathering by the police — if the head of the force could not even get such simple information at his disposal before going public. Scandalous.
The senate should start screening the first batch of ministerial nominees any moment from now, all things being equal. But I have been wondering: who originated this idea that President Buhari said he was looking for angels or saints as ministers? At no time did I hear him say anything of such. In truth, he was always going to appoint people with flesh and blood from among us. He was never going to appoint those in whom there is no blemish. My own worry is different: I can’t see enough women on the list. It is just too masculine. Change.
When I started out as a young man looking for direction in life after my national service, there were two corporate giants that I idolised as my role models for their integrity and character: Christopher Kolade and Gamaliel Onosode. I read up as much as I could on them. I admired them from a distance. Onosode recently died at the age of 82. Even though no human being is perfect, he will forever be my idol. He belonged to the “old order” — people who would be at a 9:00am event by 8:30am while the organiser is yet to arrive. Discipline.
- This Best Outside Opinion was written by Simon Kolawole/Thisday