Knocks on Reps over Treasury Looters Bill
The dust raised by the House of Representatives for introducing a controversial Economic Amnesty Bill is yet to settle. The public backlash against the bill shows that Nigerians completely rejected and condemned the proposed law.
The bill, which is for an Act to establish a scheme to harness untaxed money for investment purposes and to assure any declarant regarding inquiries and proceedings under Nigerian laws and for other matters connected therewith, was read June 14 on the floor of the House.
It was sponsored by Mr. Linus Okorie, who represents Ohaukwu/Ebonyi under the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Ebonyi State. The bill was to be read for the second time when legislators returned from their Salah break, but that has not happen yet. There is no doubt that the delay might be linked to its unpopularity.
In summary, the bill sought to grant amnesty to former public officers, who allegedly looted the nation's treasury, but are willing to return same.If passed into law, it would provide a legal framework for amnesty to be enjoyed by persons who illegally acquired wealth, but would be willing to voluntarily declare same before the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) for investment into the economy.
According to the sponsor, the bill was expected to operate for three years from the date of commencement of the proposed Voluntary Taxable income Recovery and Amnesty scheme.
The sponsor went further to provide sharing formula for any declared fund. He had explained that upon declaration, 30 per cent of the sum would be paid as tax into the Federation Account for distribution to all tiers of government, 25 per cent surcharge would be deployed towards agricultural and infrastructural development, while the remaining shall be invested in any economic sector of choice.
Okorie believed that it would be immensely beneficial to the country if its wealth stashed in different parts of the world are repatriated and invested in the country of all.
In his lead debate, Okorie told his colleagues that the bill would allow all Nigerians, who have any money or assets outside the system, or have acquired such money or assets illegally (looted or any variant of the cliché), to come forward within a set time frame, to declare same, pay tax/surcharge and compulsorily invest the funds in any sector of the Nigerian economy; and be granted full amnesty from inquiry or prosecution.
While the CBN was expected to manage the scheme, the declaration would be made to the chairman of the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS). The proposed law equally aimed at exempting all declarations made from further assessment/taxation by any tax authority within Nigeria, outside the tax and surcharge provided therein.
For example, in its Section 3 (1), the bill provided that any person may make on or after the date of commencement of the scheme but before a date to be notified by the CBN in an Official Gazette, a declaration in respect of any income chargeable under the income-tax law for any assessment prior to the enactment of this Act.
Perceived by the sponsor as an interventionist scheme, the bill proposed a time frame of three years for the commencement of its implementation unless extended by the Executive, through the CBN.
He held that in all, the bill proposed a total and comprehensive amnesty for all declarants from all other repercussions under Nigerian laws. "Outside the exception on grounds of national security, no declarant shall be required to state the source or sources of the assets or income declared.
"The proposed bill is a practical, though temporary solution to a national cankerworm - corruption, which has afflicted all generations of our society since independence, and forced us continuously down the development pyramid.
"It provides a window to the quagmire facing all repentant (past and present) actors, who may have assets and resources within and outside Nigeria and find it difficult to acquit themselves under extant anti-corruption and related criminal laws of the land,” the lawmaker stated.
The lawmaker believed that the scheme would be a workable solution to reverse capital flight that has confronted the national economy, and initiate a reverse flow through resultant repatriation. According to him, the quantum of resources envisaged to be declared and invested in the Nigerian economy, micro and macro-economic stability would result, and in turn, engender massive economic growth and prosperity within a short time.
The bill, the sponsor added would enable national institutions and operatives to gain insight and intelligence into assets tracking through professional analyses of generated information. In fact, he was optimistic that a successful implementation of the proposed scheme would engender a new and desired national attitude against primitive acquisition of wealth to the detriment of the common good.
For the sponsor though, the bill was a practical way of curbing corruption going by the explanation thus given. Unfortunately, in spite of his efforts at highlighting the positive implications of the bill, Nigerians appeared obstinately against it.
He said: "In effect, our anti-corruption drive would then be prosecuted on a new paradigm and robust strategy supported by a national consensus built upon a positive attitudinal shift." But his view appeared to have turned unpopular and without national consensus as he envisaged.
The opinion of some lawyers, who spoke to The Guardian, totally varied from his. While some termed it satanic and immoral others said it is self-serving and anti-people.A constitutional lawyer and human right activist, Chief Mike Ozekhome (SAN) outrightly rejected the bill. He described it as scandalous and debasing. “I totally, whole-heartedly and unambiguously reject, with every fibre in me, the proposed bill to give amnesty to treasury looters. The bill is a most scandalous and debasing bill, which was dead on arrival. It was highly retrogressive, immoral, obscene and counter productive. The bill is simply dead on arrival,” he stated.
Ozekhome stated that the bill was not far from plea bargain. He said: "But I do not agree with those who believe that the proponents of the bill, in proposing it, were simply actuated by malice, corruptible tendencies or with a view to protecting themselves in, or after office. Rather, I believe they were simply encouraged by the clear and extant provisions of section 270 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015, which already allows for plea bargain.
"The section clearly provides that the prosecution may enter into a plea bargain with an accused person, either directly or through his representative, before the accused has entered his defence through giving of evidence in court.
"A plea bargain allows for the return of part, or the whole of loot or proceeds of crime by an accused person in exchange for a lesser punishment, where the prosecution's case is weak or where the accused has cooperated with the state and has agreed to make restitution for the victim of the crime.
"This is to avoid unnecessary expenses and waste of time, resources and energy on the part of the state, where securing conviction of the accused person is not guaranteed by the evidence available to the state.”
However, the SAN was more inclined to agree with those who believed that a wholesome embrace and enactment of such a bill into a separate Act would amount to totally legalizing and legitimizing corruption as a fundamental objective and directive principle of state policy, in a most brazen manner.
To him, that would be quite dangerous, not only to the already battered image of the country but also, runs against the grain of preservation of national ethos, morals and ethics."Such a law would send the dangerous signals that corruption indeed pays, and that all that a corrupt public officer needs to do is to shamelessly steal the country blind and then, quietly return part of the loot, whilst he and his family relax and enjoy the country's treasury for the remaining part of their lives.
"Such a bill will undoubtedly ignite and encourage corruption, barefaced stealing of public funds and daring larceny of our collective national wealth and common patrimony in their naked forms", he concluded.
Another constitutional lawyer and author, Chief Sebastine Hon (SAN) described the bill as not only insensitive but equally irresponsible.His words: "The so called bill is not only insensitive but also grossly irresponsible. It amounts to taking Nigerians for a ride; and I boldly say that it amounts to a breach of the social contract the sponsors and supporters of the bill have with Nigerians.
"Where there is a breach of contract, legal consequences follow. In this case, the Nigerian electorate should apply the hammer of recall of any legislator either sponsoring or supporting this infamous bill - and I will add that no court of law should issue any injunction under any guise, stopping any such recall process.
In his own reaction, an Abuja-based lawyer and former National Secretary, Labour Party (LP), Kayode Ajulo, urged the Police to get the sponsors arrested for embarrassing Nigeria before the global community with such bill.
He expressed fear that with the bill, the long time wish of some Nigerians about legitimization of corruption was about to happen. "They want to legalize corruption. I know that some people will say that it is just for three years. What stops them from extending it after three years?” He queried.
He noted that the essence of government is to uphold the law but in a situation where the law is trying to accommodate illegality, there is a problem."I know many people would want to argue that this is the only way for us to get what has been stolen. But I said no. What is the work of the Police, the law enforcement agencies and the government in general?
"If anything, we have been saying it that law must be followed even though the heaven falls but heaven will not fall because there are some men that will hold the heaven from falling. Government should rather go after corrupt people and deal with them rather than grant them amnesty", he stated.
He further expressed worries that the bill would create erroneous impression among foreigners and rob Nigeria of its pride. "My worries are the impression being created in the minds of the global community and those funding us - donors countries. We need to have our pride. We need to get our ethics right.
"We cannot allow it to go down and that is the reason some legislators will connive with looters to think of sponsoring this kind of bill. For me, Police should go after them.
"If there is anything, for any law to be a law, it must pass through some feasibility test and it must be something popular among the populace. Also, we have a grand norm, which is the Constitution, and our Constitution upholds conscience, justice and even our fundamental rights. When it comes to criminal aspect of it, you know the position of the law.
"We will go to court to set it aside if National Assembly passes it, because any law that goes tantamount to the Constitution will fail. As I said earlier, the intent and purpose of the bill is satanic; it is corruption itself and whatsoever that will come under it would be evil. Aside being contrary to the Constitution, the bill is also said to be contrary to reasoning and good conscience,” Ajulo said, adding that there is nothing good about the bill.
According to him, the bill has raised a question about the kind of people that manage the country's legislative arm. "For this kind of bill to come from them showed that there is something wrong. If not because of the vigilance of some of us, you will be surprised the way they will pass it under the people. The bill paint the country in a bad light", he stated.
For Mr. Olumide Oyewole, the bill seeks to grant some reprieve and encouragement to looters of ‘our common wealth’ to come forward to declare what they have taken and then the bill will seek to grant them some amnesty so that they will not be charged to court for prosecution.
His words: “I am completely opposed to it because the whole essence of administration of criminal justice is to serve as a deterrent to others such that the whole society will be discourage to go into criminality. When you seek to have a bill which states that there would be pardon if you commit a crime, it will encourage people to commit crime, knowing that at the end of the day, they will be granted amnesty the moment they declare what they stole.”
According to him, whoever that commits crime should be punished. “It has never been heard world over that there is a law, which give amnesty to a criminal. This is the first time and it would be out of place. We are already a laughing stuff in the whole world, by the expression that Nigeria is fantastically corrupt. By the time we have such a bill turned into law, whole country will be overtaken by crime. We should continue the way it is. Whoever commits a crime should be punished,” he said.
He advised that Nigeria should improve on criminal prosecution system, instead of weakening it further by aiding criminal elements in the society to commit financial crimes.
Professor Gbenga Ojo said the bill seems to be a rehash of plea-bargaining. According to him, politician are possibly not comfortable with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) plea-bargaining procedures such that they now want another way of doing it and term it amnesty.
“Amnesty presupposes that you have been convicted. And then the state can come in. There is sufficient law on amnesty as it were today, even if we want to do that, everything must be done through the court. You can’t do amnesty without court. They must be arraigned before the court. The court must make a pronouncement that the man has committed a crime.
“They want to avoid the stigma, do the negotiation outside the court, return money, later come back and steal again. Amnesty or whatever name you call it, everything must be done within the ambit of the court. Consequence of conviction must go along with it. I don't care whether it is amnesty or plea-bargaining,” he declared, adding that it is better to first secure conviction before the offenders are made to return their loots.