Professor Chidi Anselm Odinkalu is the immediate past Chairman of National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). In this interview with LEO SOBECHI, he said Nigeria is not serious about the fight against corruption, even as he accused the Executive arm of treating the National Assembly with disdain.
• How We Arrived At List Of Poll Offenders
• Corruption Has Become More Brazen In Nigeria
• Military Regimes Cannibalized Nigeria Police
In the nation’s history the battle against corruption, which began from independence is still the issue, what do you make of that trajectory?
Corruption has been with us even prior the independence. The colonialists complained about it. Tafawa Balewa, before independence, complained about it, and at the immediate aftermath of the independence. If you remember, Abyssinia Nwafor-Orizu was convicted in 1951 of alleged fraud, and we blamed the white people for it. And the Forster Sutton inquiry into the ACB (African Continental Bank), which was dismissed as a colonial witch hunt against Zik, actually found out that ACB, which was owned by Zik was making stupendous loans to Zik’s group of companies at below market rates of interest. There was serious conflict of interest. And if you go further, the Coker commission into the National Bank found that the AG (Action Group) in the Southwest was using the National Bank for political purposes. All of that was corruption and all of that happened between 1951 and 1962. So, that is my way of saying we have had a long history of political corruption in Nigeria. The only thing now is that it has become more brazen, because by the time General Abacha finished with us, it became a case of taking money from the Central Bank into personal accounts, mostly foreign bank accounts, of powerful people. And then, contractors in political parties in the period since then have began taking multiple billions and it appears, even trillions into their personal bank accounts and personal circumstances. That is the only thing, and in the midst of all that what you ask yourself is, when was the last time anybody was convicted of corruption in Nigeria?
There have been, I believe, three major convictions of people of any significance in Nigeria. The EFCC will say they have convicted a lot of people. The Anajembas, for instance, have been convicted; by the way Mrs. Amaka Anajemba, who pleaded guilty in the biggest 419 fraud in the country’s history is now the managing director of ESWAMA (Enugu State Waste Management Agency). And this was 419 fraud that involved over 300 million USD.
And Tafa Balogun, who was inspector General of Police, was convicted and sentenced to six months. Tafa Balogun is a lawyer; he was admitted into the Nigerian Bar in 199,1 that makes him very senior lawyer. He is still on the rolls of the Nigerian Bar, nothing has happened to him. Mrs. Cecilia Ibru was convicted for multiple million, over 191 million; sentenced to six months, spent in the best hospital in Nigeria, Reddington. Lucky Igbinedion was convicted, sentenced to back pocket fine of two to three million naira. That was paid immediately and he walked away free. You can say the late DSP Alamieyeseigha was convicted, but you don’t have any other people of major significance that have been convicted since then. What you have is a lot of cases of former governors who were charged and the cases are stuck in courts. Essentially, politically exposed persons have been able to get away without being held accountable in Nigeria. That really is the problem. And I don’t think that much has changed in that respect. I know that fighting corruption was number one on President Buhari’s agenda. The fact is, not much improvement has happened on that front in terms of, there is less money to steal now, because of the economic circumstances. But in terms of holding people accountable, the institutions and agencies have not become more professional, as far as, I am concerned. There are a lot of newspaper reports of people, like Dasuki and others, but you don’t convict people on the pages of newspapers. Has anyone been held accountable? Not to my knowledge! That is the problem.
Talking about procedure, a lot of people argue that taking away the prosecutorial powers from the EFCC would imbue the battle with efficiency; what should be the ideal way to make it bear fruit?
Now, I don’t think it is a question of taking away prosecutorial powers from the EFCC. I think we have got to see the entire picture. First of all, over the years, we have grossly and gravely decapitated the police. We cannibalized the police and the most important parts of its work have been taken to other agencies. So first of all, for intelligence, we created SSS out of the police; for drugs, we created the NDLEA out of the police. For corruption, we created the EFCC, out of the police; in fact, there is a part of the law that says the EFCC chairman is got to be of a particular rank of commissioner of police and above, or equivalent rank in the police. Now by cannibalizing the police and each one of those agencies, we put money in, if we had put that money into the police, the respective departments could have been created to do the work of fighting terrorism, dealing with bombing, dealing with corruption, dealing with drugs, providing intelligence and executive protection, all of that could well be done by a capable police force. But instead of keeping all those in the police, we have done what, cannibalized the police.
So we rendered the rump of the police, which by the way, remains the oldest public institution in Nigeria, and the biggest employer of labour in Nigeria, and thereby, making it very incapable and unattractive to people of capability and good character. Then we have loaded these little entities we have created with much more responsibilities and packed them with money.
Now, the EFCC is a prosecuting entity, an investigating entity; we have tried to give it autonomy from everything, notwithstanding the fact that the Attorney General of the Federation has powers to supervise, continue or discontinue with prosecution. The problem is that we have created a political situation, in which if the AGF intervenes in an EFCC related prosecution, the AGF is seen as fraudulent, the AGF is seen to have been paid off by powerful people to interfere. But yet, the AGF does have constitutional powers to interfere. So, the point is, I believe your question relates to the suggestion by the NBA president. The suggestion he was making is, why don’t we stop, one, cannibalizing the police, why don’t we empower the police, because the police can still prosecute people for corruption. Why don’t we empower the police effectively, why don’t we separate the conflation that exists in the EFCC at the moment, which is investigating, prosecuting and reporting.
That is the problem. If you look at the PTDF investigation under former president Obasanjo, the investigation of Yusuf Hafiz Abubakar, who was the executive secretary of the PTDF, and of the vice president. Those were investigations by the EFCC, if the EFCC believed all it said in its report, what it should have done was to instigate prosecution against Yusuf Hafiz Abubakar, but it failed to do that. Rather, that was converted to political purposes by the former president who wanted to get rid of his then vice president, because he didn’t like the vice president and he didn’t want the vice president to succeed him. That kind of instrumentalization is possible with an agency in which all these roles are conflated. And as urgent as it is to fight against corruption; I think it is even more important to prevent a situation in which corruption is used in that way.
Now, if you remember, the Financial Action Task Force, FATF, it was based on the pressures of the FATF that the EFCC was created. But president Obasanjo only started making use of the EFCC when he discovered third term. And I do think that kind of thing is wrong. And that trend of instrumentalizing the EFCC will not go away unless, in my view, we separate those roles and then limit the kind of damage each agency can do and encourage them to be more progressive and positive.
When he was appointed, the Acting chairman of EFCC, Magu, told journalists that he was going to fight corruption with the fear of God, according to the rule of law and the constitution; from your perspective as a lawyer and human rights activist, how do you situate the respect for human rights in the fight against corruption?
First of all, I think the fight against corruption deserves the support of every Nigerian, no ifs no buts. Secondly, I think Magu means well, as a person. I also do think that when you start fighting corruption, to fight it you need skilled people. The fact of the matter is that the EFCC Magu met was itself subject of a lot of corruption allegations. In fact, at different levels, I know of at least two cases in which my colleagues and I were involved in which females against whom there were cases in EFCC were being importuned by EFCC operatives to bring their bodies in order to settle the cases. I said I know of at least two cases. Now many more people know of such cases and worse, importuned for sex, importuned for money and all manner of other things. That was the state of the institution that he met. I’m sure he would want to move the institution along, but the reality is that the elements that look for ways and means to do these kinds of things still exist within that institution. There has got to be a way to move the institution along to a path where the allure of corruption is diminished within it. My experience is that trying to do good in a public institution in Nigeria is difficult, but human beings have got to do it and those human beings must be Nigerians. They need to be encouraged and they need to be supported.
The EFCC does face serious issues and serious opposition from within the higher echelons of government. There are powerful people in different institutions of government against whom the EFCC must move if it needs to do its work well. And these people are not going to sit down and see the EFCC move against them. And so, there would be push, there would be pull. There would be tough battles and am sure you do know that the EFCC is involved in some serious turf battles. That is where we are. But we do need capabilities to fight corruption and I must say that I think part of our problem is that we now have too many anti-corruption agencies, without necessarily making progress on corruption. You know in the fight against corruption, we focus too much on EFCC, but look at it: The bureaucracy, the public service, civil service is an anti-corruption agency, the police is an anti corruption agency, ICPC is there, EFCC, the Code of Conduct Bureau, people forget, is an anti-corruption agency.
The code of conduct tribunal is an anti-corruption agency. And TUGAR (Technical Unit On Governance and Anti-Corruption Reforms), for instance, is an anti-corruption agency. Amidst all these, what do we have?
The Code of Conduct Bureau refuses to release asset declaration forms (of politically exposed persons); as a matter of fact, the AGF (Abubakar Malami) has advised the Code of Conduct Bureau that you cannot have access to the asset declaration forms, notwithstanding that the FOI has provided for that. The code of conduct tribunal is not fully constituted and so you have a situation in which in a trial before the code of conduct tribunal, you have only two judges, whereas you need at least two judges to sit; all you need to cobble a prosecution is to get one of the two judges. So we have this multiplicity of anti-corruption institutions and none of them works. The question is, how do we make atleast one or two of them to work? At the moment we don’t have a solution to that and we have now ended up in a situation where the EFCC, instead of doing the high profile prosecutions of politically exposed persons as it must do, is arresting bloggers for alleged cyber stalking of its chairman. I think that is disgraceful, I think that is mission compromised there. And that says everything you got to say about the state of the fight against corruption. We are distracted, and needlessly too.
Looking at the legislative perspective, do you think the National Assembly is of help or a cog in the wheel?
The National Assembly has not covered itself with distinction. But I also don’t think Nigerians have treated the National Assembly with respect. And there is a history to it. The National Assembly, parliament; is the least evolved and the most raucous among the arms of government. Parliament was abolished throughout the years of military rule. Between 1983 and 1998, we only had the appearance of a parliament for less than two years under Ibrahim Babangida, between 1991 and 1993, when parliament was reconvened. And so, we don’t have a memory of legislative continuity, we don’t have a memory of legislatures and parliamentary processes. And the military who have dominated us, both before we returned to civil rule and since civil rule, have treated the legislature with disdain.
President Obasanjo treated the National Assembly with disdain; I think the present regime is treating the National Assembly with disdain. I think Nigerians have come to treat the National Assembly with disdain. That has been the dominant attitude towards the National Assembly. Of course it has not helped that a lot of the retired senior politicians who should have cases against them have ended up in the senate, in particular. And so, increasingly they have also pushed the narrative that the senate or the National Assembly, is a retirement home for politically exposed persons and where they seek to manufacture solidarity for one another. But I continue to believe that the National Assembly is not the den of robbers that people suggest it is, that there are very decent persons in the National Assembly. In fact, I know of very decent people in the National Assembly. We have very good people who go through there and this fight between the executive and the legislature under this current administration has really been allowed to snow ball out of context and out of all proportions.
And as a result, the National Assembly is not doing what it supposed to do. For a regime that was elected, for instance, with a tremendous public goodwill, the political capital has been wasted without being spent. In the first year of this administration only one major bill was passed. What is it? The appropriation bill! It was passed in the eleventh month of the administration. That is not good enough, because an administration is only as good as the measures it is able to get into the books. And with all the criticisms of the Jonathan years, Jonathan is going to have a long term impact on this country: Freedom of Information Act, Cyber Crimes Act, Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act; now there are lots of legislations that were passed in the Jonathan’s years that will have long term impact on Nigeria. That is the kind of thing an administration that wants to put Nigeria on a path of fundamental change should be looking at. At the moment we are wasting time, because we are not treating the National Assembly with respect. I am not of course saying that if there has been stealing by the leadership or members of the National Assembly that should not be prosecuted. No. What I am saying is that at the moment we are continuing a narrative of demonizing and trivializing the National Assembly, it goes back to the origins of military rule in Nigeria.
As you are saying, there seems to be a subtle but pernicious campaign suggesting that the nation can do away with the National Assembly…
It cannot! The military did away with it and that brought us to where we are. The military did away with parliament, particularly following the enactment of the federal military government supremacy of military powers decree number one of 1970, which was an effort to abolish the Supreme Court decision that said what happened in 1966 was not a revolution, that the military should turn over power under proper terms to civilians to manage. We did away with that by military decree and the military took over powers of legislation. And that’s why we are where we are. Now you can seek to retrench the legislature how so ever you wish to do, but we need a legislature that is independent of the executive. The conflation of legislative and executive powers under the military did a tremendous damage to the country. And trying to suggest we can do away with the legislature; look at it this way: People who complain about the National Assembly, yes I also do have complaints about the National Assembly, but compare the tons of money that people keep complaining about over seventeen years, how much has been spent on the National Assembly? We are talking about one trillion naira or thereabout. If you do the annual calculations, it averages to about one hundred billion, give or take. There are high years and low years. Compare that to the money that has gone to waste in the executive. Still nobody wants to hold the executive to account for the humongous waste. Now, sixteen billion dollars spent on energy under the eight years of President Obasanjo to bring power from 4, 000 megawatts to 1, 500 mega watts. The money spent in the National Assembly is less than a fraction of that. Nobody sees that. So, in terms of just cost, the National Assembly is not that expensive, relatively. I know that in a democracy, we should make every penny count, but let us also be very clear the National Assembly is not as expensive as people make out. And the monies that we wasted and lost in our democratic dispensation had been in the executive at the state and at the federal levels. An advocacy to retrench the National Assembly or retrench the legislature is effectively an advocacy to create a Nigerian strong man. We have seen what Nigerian strong men can do, it is very terrible and we don’t need another Nigerian strong man.
Talking about the co-efficiency of cost and the suggestions for a part time legislature, what do you think is the ideal way for Nigeria to go?
Look, we can’t run the country on private members’ bills. Executive bills have got to drive the parliamentary agenda. The fact that most pieces of legislation are private members bills is a problem. Because, if you have a government that had a vision, private members bills will struggle for legislative traction of time, because you would have back to back legislative measures from the executive. You have to do a lottery to get private members’ bills to make it through parliament or to get parliamentary time. At the moment, the fact that we are getting lots of private members’ bills getting parliamentary time means the executive is not serious. I am sorry. And the fact also, that the National Assembly is actually getting a lot of vacation time, and spending most of its time traveling out of Abuja on alleged oversight is also evidence that the executive is not keeping the National Assembly as serious as it should be.
So I am sorry, if there is anybody to be blamed for the state of the National Assembly, or its efficiency, effectiveness or seriousness or not, I think the executive should take a lot of the blame as well. And it is not just that, the talk about budget padding, I keep asking people, what budget padding means. If you are saying figures were inserted, were they inserted before the president signed or after the president signed? If the figures were inserted before the president signed, there was no padding. That is the role of the National Assembly. You may not like it, but that actually tallies with the constitution. The executive makes proposals; the National Assembly considers and passes the appropriations Act. Now if the executive does not like it, it can veto. But to the extent that the budget went through parliamentary process and the president signed, it is law. If there were things sent in that he did not like, the president would have sent it back. Or having signed it, he can put together supplementary appropriation bill or an amendment for the appropriation bill and send it back to the National Assembly to have it amended, so as to excise those things. But the reality is that in a democratic dispensation, the money has got to go around the country into many constituencies as possible. And influential members would seek to help their constituencies.
If the allegation is that people put in the budget money to go into their pockets, or into the pockets of their mistresses directly, I will understand. But if these are monies to go into particular locations in Nigeria to help the communities, I don’t see padding there. That is a democratic process. It is messy, but that is the way democratic money goes around. If the allegation is that this happened after the president signed it, then that is not part of the budget. It does not exist. So this whole business of padding does not make sense to me, as far as, I am concerned. The point in the pushing and shoving of the parliamentary process, some people will lose, some people will gain and some parliamentary members would prove to be more adept at getting their matters into the budget than others. That is the nature of the parliamentary deeds. What happened in this particular budget process was, the president was sworn-in in May, and he got his cabinet in November. The budget was sent in less than three weeks or thereabout, the budget was done by civil servants.
And if you remember, the president said civil servants were the people who did all the work; that the ministers were noise makers, suggesting he did not even need the ministers. Those were his words, ministers were noise makers. Now the administration had also said initially that it was going to do zero budgeting, that means zero out all the figures and have everybody stand and justify items they need. But no mechanisms or processes were put in place to train the civil servants on budgeting system or zero budgeting system. What they are used to is the envelop system. The envelop system is to keep topping up figures from existing ones, that was what the civil servants knew and that was what they did. When the budget went in and people have lived by the envelop system, people started making noise.
Allegations were made that civil servants had padded the budget. First of all, civil servants who helped to bridge this system were alienated, because they were said to have padded the budget. It now went into parliament, parliament was said to have padded the budget. Somehow, nobody is asking what kind of executive is this that fails to take responsibility for its budget. You criminalize civil servants that helped you, you criminalize the parliament that helped you and you don’t want to take responsibility for your own budget that you have signed into law. I am sorry, that is irresponsible government. Political leadership is what we elected and politicians must take responsibility for their measures, for good or for ill! And I do think that the whole business of antagonizing every institution; the judiciary has been antagonized, said to be corrupt; the police is antagonized for whatever it is; the civil servant is antagonized, parliament is antagonized, who are you going to change Nigeria with, if not Nigerians? And if you antagonize all the major institutions with whom you need to do change, how are you going to bring about change? That is the problem I saw at the moment. And that is why in my view; change is not working yet for Nigerians, I am sorry.
Is it time to revisit leadership selection in Nigeria, party nomination down to election?
I have just been trying to, researching part of that. I am reading a few books on Nigeria’s leadership history; Bola Ige, Peoples And Politics 1945 to 1979, which he wrote in prison. I have just finished Segun Adeniyi’s one hundred days of General Sani Abacha. There are few other titles, Bishop Kukah’s witness to justice and Steven Ellis’ most recent book on the history of organised crime in Nigeria. And what you discover is the continuity of Nigeria leadership. David Mark emerged in the 1970s at the end of the civil war and he has been in government since then. President Buhari has been in government since he was thirty or less, military governor northeast, minister for petroleum, retired as head of state as a general when he was forty two. President Obasanjo has been in public service since 1960s.
If you come further; look at Abacha’s transition, if you remember, during the Abacha’s senatorial process in 1995, somebody like Ali Modu Sheriff, lost in his constituency in Borno State and he lost by a wide margin. Jim Nwobodo was allegedly pronounced winner in Enugu east, but then he was shoved aside in favour of Ken Nnamani. And you have things like this happening that during the youth earnestly ask for Abacha rally in March 4, 1998. Do you remember the list of those who addressed that rally? I was not in the country on that day, but I remember Ojo Maduekwe, Barnabas Gemade and a lot others. Almost all those personalities became major actors in our transition to civil rule. What am I saying? We have had a tremendous continuity of “leadership.” And it is not an accident that we have also tremendous continuity of misses. You cannot keep doing the same thing the same way and expect to manufacture different results. We have had the same generation of leadership.
All the soldiers, who have ruled us, none of them went to the Nigerian Defence Academy. Every one of them was commissioned before 1967. The course one of NDA is Ali Gusau. General Gusau was course one and every person that has ruled us is senior to Ali Gusau from the army. And how many people have ruled us from the army? Tafawa Belewa, Shehu Shagari, Ernest Shonekan, Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan. If you exclude Yar’Adua and Jonathan, everyone of those ones are currently above 80 years. Tafawa Balewa is dead, Shehu Shagari is ninety, Shonekan is over 80, Yar’Adua is dead and Jonathan is in his fifties. So Nigeria has been ruled by one generation effectively. One generation of leadership and that is part of the crisis. The fact is unless we create leadership succession that is prepared for the role of succession we are not going to make any progress. And why is it that we don’t have leadership succession?
Because we have not diversified our country and the way it is run. What do I mean? The problem we got is there is only one source to wealth and power in Nigeria, government. You don’t have multiple sources of power and wealth, entertainment, industry, sports, media, academia, intellectual work. We don’t have that. There is only one Nigerian who had made GCFR without being a head of state, Obafemi Awolowo. He was a politician. He was not given GCFR for being one of the brightest lawyers in Nigeria or one of the greatest businessmen. It was for politics. You have had Aliko Dangote make GCON, but GCON is given generally to chief justice of Nigeria, president of senate and equivalent. But really, with all due respect, can you tell me that Pius Anyim, my friend and classmate and Aliko Dangote have made the same contribution to Nigeria? Pius Anyim, what was his contribution? He became senate president. Aliko Dangote has created jobs across the country and quite literally made the same contribution any politician has. But he is planting GCON, because he cannot be GCFR.
Why can’t he be GCFR, because he has not been head of state? But you don’t have to head of state to acquire the highest honour your country can give. Now we have got to break the country down to those levels so that the highest attainment in particular fields of endeavour are equalized. So when you look at the United States of America, for instance; from where we borrowed our system, the presidential medal of honour is the highest award that the country gives. And the presidential medal is given across board to people in different spheres of life. Rosa Parks gets it, Bill Clinton gets it, both for having attained excellence. That I think is what we should strive for, but we also have to diversify the sources of influence, power and advancement in Nigeria. We end up with the only place is in the state sector and as a result we have created succession of capabilities in Nigeria.
Not long ago, the human rights commission released a list of poll offenders, what do you make of that list and absence of electoral offenses tribunal?
I don’t think we need an electoral offences tribunal. We are not in a military government. All this tribunal business, I cannot understand. We have got to normalize accountability. I started that work in the national human rights commission and I finished it. And I personally transmitted the list with the report to this current Attorney General on December 1, 2015. And before that, to his predecessor we had transmitted the interim list of 41 people. And for that I was under tremendous pressure from my colleagues in the human rights commission and from outside the human rights commission. I can’t specify the kind of pressure I was under, but I faced a lot of pressures from all around; from the security services before that, from politicians after that. And my view was, what exactly did we do?
The joke is that if you want to hide something from a black person, put it in a written word. It was tremendous electoral adjudication in Nigeria historically. And what we did was take the 2007, which was historically terrible as an election and go back to all the decided cases and see what the courts said about people who were involved in the elections. And we discovered that the courts indicted too many people: Electoral officials, politicians, security agencies. There were cases in which police officers signed papers as electoral agents of party candidates. in one particular election in Edo State, a superintendent of police, serving, with uniform, signed as the PDP electoral agent in Edo State. In Lagos here, there were cases in which candidates, in Lekki, I believe; forged his papers and was shown to have forged his papers and the court said so. And his election was set aside. And there were cases in Kogi State where a former acting governor lifted ballot papers and ran with them. And all of these are in black and white, it is not hidden.
And it was from judicial decisions that were not appealed. From a particular point, I said okay what are we going to do? We document all of these and put out the names of all the people. So we were not inventing anything. I said, I did not pronounce these indictments; we put down the form of words that the judiciary used. You see, it is the nature of impunity in Nigeria, because these things were said and done by the judiciary, the courts which made the pronouncements could not refer the people they indicted to the prosecutorial investigative authorities. They did not need an electoral offences tribunal to do that. All they had to do was that we made these findings of fact and send them to the AGF or IGP to do something about it. And if they fail to do that the people against whom those indictments were made by the courts refused to appeal them, because they believe what, it is a written word; black people don’t do anything about the written word. And when we put these things together, we didn’t claim powers that the NHRC don’t have. It is up to the administration, if they choose to act on them or not. But we have done our work in good conscience. And the people whose names were mentioned know that it was devastating that is why they are making much noise about it. But I actually think it is routinizing accountability. I think we should go down that route more often that is across all parties. People mentioned in the report cut across party leanings. Leadership ethos that we have in the country is very bad. In fact, terrible ethos are no monopolized by anybody, all the parties have terrible people. And there are a few good people but they don’t at the moment accumulate critical mass to overwhelm the terrible people. Terrible people also have the big money, so they can manufacture the outcome they want. And we have got to begin to find ways to frustrate the terrible people from our political process, to make it a little more difficult for them to get to political power.
If these people want to return to power, let them first of all go and set aside the judgments that said those terrible things about them. But you cannot have a court say a governor carried ballot papers and carried arms in an election, name him, name the location, name the time, name what he did and then that person returns in four years time and presents himself as governor and we cannot as a society to do something about that? This is the stage we are. So I personally take full responsibility for that document. I began it to the point of the indictments, officially under my hand, that document is with the AGF, and he got to determine what he does with it.