Tuesday, July 14, 2020 12:48 pm
By Olatunji Dare
“We have been there before,” not a few Nigerians would have said with more than a touch of cynicism, having regard to the dismissal of Ibrahim Magu, most recently chair of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
Weren’t his predecessors in that office – Nuhu Ribadu, Ibrahim Lamorde and Farida Waziri – hounded out in roughly the same circumstances by panicked political officials concerned that the threesome were pursuing their remit with an excess of zeal and fearful that the layers of protection they had woven over the decades to cover up their corrupt dealings might be yanked off?
So, they struck first.
From their strategic positions in the legislature and the higher bureaucracy, they waged wars of attrition to frustrate, distract and undermine the EFCC. With help from compromised media outlets, they planted in the public consciousness and embellished at every iteration and reiteration information designed to discredit its chief executive and its key operatives. It is as if they were following the old boxing maxim that if you kill the head, the body will die.
None of the officials left the agency on his or her own terms. None received even a grudging commendation for achievements ranging from the modest to the substantial on a mission ranked among the most dangerous of national assignments. Each departed damaged by a trainload of scurrilous allegations – the more scurrilous, the better; let them prove the charges false, or shut up and put up.
Magu’s on-going predicament is at bottom a variation on an old theme. Even so, the differences between how his predecessors were sent packing and the bureaucratic cum pseudo-judicial torture to which he has been subjected, especially this past fortnight, are startling.
I exaggerate, but not by much, when I compare the manner of his arrest to a kidnapping. He was on an errand when security officials, armed for lethal combat, besieged his convoy, re-routed it to the Presidential Villa and hauled him before a Presidential Investigation Panel (PIP) which immediately slapped on him a battery of charges ranging from criminal breach of trust to incompetence and “insubordination.”
His trial had begun in earnest, before a panel assembled in secrecy by the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN), reportedly with the backing of President Muhammadu Buhari. Since his arrest, he has been held in detention by the police.
It is notorious that Buhari had been under tremendous pressure from key figures in the National Assembly, business barons who operate on the principle that nothing succeeds like wheeling and dealing in public contracts, and by some so-called politically exposed persons who command vast wealth of dubious provenance.
Buhari appeared to be resisting these loud, well-orchestrated demands. When Magu’s term ended, he did not name another official to replace him. But he did not nominate Magu for fresh term nor extend his tenure, perhaps fearing certain defeat in the National Assembly. And so, by design or default, Magu remained in office, lulled into a false sense of security – until they came for him.
The trial, beg your pardon, investigation, is being conducted in an atmosphere of intense prejudicial publicity. Hardly a day passes without some new elements added to the Magu’s alleged misdeeds in office. A visitor to Nigeria might indeed be led to believe that Magu has been the trouble with Nigeria since he took office if not much earlier, a personification of the corruption that is synonymous with Nigeria’s international profile; an official who, given a remit to check official corruption, turned it into a licence to transfer public assets to himself and his cronies on a scale almost beyond belief.
There is something almost Kafkaesque about some aspects of the proceedings. Effectively in captivity, Magu has had no access to material witnesses and documents that would enable him respond to the charges he is facing. Even Magu’s attorney, Wahab Shittu, has complained that he has had no access to the panel’s terms of reference, without which he cannot represent his client robustly.
As I have noted, the battery of charges is truly formidable. It is not a rushed job, and certainly could not have been prepared overnight. The attentive public has a right to assume that the allegations would have been painstakingly investigated before they were parlayed into substantive charges. And from there, the logical recourse would be to a court of law.
Instead, we have a panel whose brief, it must be supposed, is to investigate the allegations and determine their validity. And then, what? Recommend a substantive trial if it is satisfied that the established facts warrant prosecution, or in the absence of such a determination, dismiss the charges.
In the United States, it belongs in the province of a grand jury that makes this kind of determination. Our body of laws makes no provision for such an institution. But I have it on the authority of the Attorney-General that the special investigation panel is fully backed by our laws. That may well be the case.
But is the whole thing, not just another judicial fudge, one of the many that have dogged the tenure of one of most inventive and intensely political attorneys-general (shades of ROA Akinjide, without the forensic brilliance) of the federation ever. Making sweeping, categorical charges first and investigating later does not accord with the spirit of our laws.
Nor do our laws permit any official to be a judge in his or own cause, as the Attorney-General appears to be doing. Of the six members of the investigating panel, two are from his office and report directly to him. At least one other, is a department over which he has jurisdiction.
One cannot assert categorically that the panel is rigged, despite Malami’s scarcely-veiled resolve to see the back of the former EFCC chief. But the whole thing raises questions of fairness, and of due protection under the law.
Nor does the appearance of a conflict of interest end there. One of the charges levelled at Magu is “insubordination” to the Attorney-General. That makes the whole thing appear personal – and petty, too, it is necessary to insist. Even in the elastic mandate Malami claims, at what point did Magu’s “insubordination” to a superior in a bureaucracy governed by the General Orders and administrative rules morph into a penal crime?
As the Bard might have said, the man doth complain too much. And he doth overreach, too.
To lend a veneer of respectability and legality to the proceedings, they trotted one of Nigeria’s most respected jurists, the Hon Justice Isa Salami, out of retirement, and named him chair of the investigative panel – the same jurist that a posse of powerful political figures who share Malami’s world view had tried to destroy in a sustained campaign of calumny, besides which Magu’s current ordeal almost seems like a compliment.
It is with great pride that I number myself among a handful of influential media figures and well-regarded legal scholars who defended Justice Salami’s honour and integrity at every point, culminating in his rehabilitation and in his being restored to his rightful place in our judicial history.
Something tells me that Justice Salami will have satisfied himself that the panel has proper legal standing, and had agreed to serve from a sense of duty. But there are duties and there are duties, and I must say, with all due respect, that he should have in this matter exercised a finer sense of discrimination. He should have advised that Magu be brought to trial before the regular courts based on the indictment, without the mediation of an investigative panel.
We must hope that this troubling expedient does not go on to constitute a precedent. The panel is not exactly a kangaroo court but in concept if not in practice, it bears striking resemblances to one. Magu should be granted bail and, together with his attorneys, granted access to all the human and documentary material he needs to respond to the grave charges he faces.
Nigerians, even those suspected of high crimes, deserve better. So does our fledgling democracy.
Credit: The Nation