The future of public stealing
One of the conventions since 1998 is that those who will vie for or be appointed into high public offices should at least be cleared by the security agencies, especially the Nigerian Drug Laws Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) and the Department of State Security (DSS). In his quest to look for a successor beyond Vice President Atiku Abubakar, President Olusegun Obasanjo was said to have relied heavily on security reports on those angling for the job.
The man who was given a clean bill of health in the end was Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, the then governor of Katsina State whose prudence and management sagacity attracted the praise of the EFCC. Once he zeroed in on Yar’Adua, Obasanjo decided to persuade in his inimitable way, most of the heavy-weight aspirants within the then ruling Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, including General Ibrahim Babangida, to support Yar’Adua’s bid. One of those so persuaded was Victor Odili, the Governor of Rivers State who wanted to be President. He was summoned to the Aso-Rock Presidential Villa one evening. In the end, he was admitted into the sanctum, told of the new development, and advised to take necessary actions. Dumbfounded, he staggered home where leading members of his campaign committee were waiting in the wee hours of the morning. He broke the bad news to them. Some of them were weeping on hearing the news. They had the money, they had the connections, they had the national spread and they had all the weapons of war. But now this!
The presidential persuasion of other aspirants made it easy for Yar’Adua to scale the hurdle at the presidential convention, or coronation, of the PDP. But there was one problem. The party was in a lean financial state and most of the money-bags were reluctant to fund the Yar’Adua campaign. If the billionaire-club was reluctant, the political class was in a position to help itself. One of those who came forward was the Delta State governor, Chief James Ibori, who was not in the good book of the President. The EFCC, headed by the straight-laced Nuhu Ribadu, had a large dossier on him.
Ibori spent heavily to install a successor in Delta State and then moved in to fill the campaign war chest of the Yar’Adua-Jonathan with petrol-dollars. For him, it was a high-risk bet for he knew he was already in trouble with Obasanjo. After the 2007 general elections, Obasanjo summoned the free-spending governor to the Villa and confronted him with the evidence.
It was an unhappy encounter. The allegation was that Ibori had stolen an estimated 250 million dollars from the coffers of Delta State where he had been governor for almost eight years. He denied that he was a thief. Confronted with the evidence, he agreed that it may not be up to that. In the end, both the President and the unhappy governor agreed to the figure of $150 million because Ibori claimed he had spent money on elections and other matters. The President then directed him to refund $150 million to the Delta State government. Ibori was asked to write an undertaking promising to refund the money in installments to a special account to be opened at the Central Bank. Nuhu Ribadu was duly informed of the deal.
But Ibori was not a man to be deterred by such an instrument as a private undertaken. In his younger days, he and his wife once had a face-off with the police in the United Kingdom when Ibori was a shop attendant in London in the early 1990s. After that bitter experience, Ibori relocated to Abuja, the new Federal capital. He became a free-wheeling businessman who was capable of colourful stunts. He later got involved with politics and dabbled with elements within the security agencies especially those operating from the villa during the era of General Sani Abacha. By 1999, he was one of the newly elected 36 governors; young, handsome, dazzling, full of energy and drive and unperturbed by any code of morality.
As he was concluding his two-terms tenure in 2007 as the governor of Delta State, Ibori was not about to allow any pinch of conscience to weaken him now that he had succeeded in building a formidable financial empire. He reached out to Ribadu with a gift of $15 million cash, delivered in a suit-case to Ribadu’s Abuja residence, telling him to regard it as “a personal gift!” Ribadu, perturbed by this corrosive generosity, took the bribe money to the President who ordered it deposited at the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN.
“The money belonged to Delta State,” the President said. “Make it part of the first installment.”
But Ibori had other ideas. He reached out to the President-elect who knew his election was bankrolled by Ibori and other willing politicians, especially PDP governors. Yar’Adua was obliging. When Yar’Adua came to power, Ibori, instead of standing trial for stealing public fund, became a member of the inner sanctum of power. He had arrived. He ordered for two private jets and bought properties in choice capitals of the world. Ribadu, whose tenure had been renewed by Obasanjo, found himself at odd with the new President. He became an orphan. Soon, he lost his job and was soon hounded into exile. Then Yar’Adua died and the equation changed. Vice President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, whom Ibori had treated with generous condescension, took over. He dusted the Ibori file and gunned for justice. After a series of braggadocio, including a gang-land-like shoot-out in Delta, Ibori fled to Dubai where he met his Nemesis and ended up in a British prison. Now he is back.
The Ibori club is a small but powerful one. Its members have infiltrated every segment of the Nigerian society where power is exercised and money is to be made. We have seen since President Muhammadu Buhari came to power, the mind-bungling revelations about how some powerful and influential Nigerians have misappropriated the national commonwealth, how they have stolen billions and billions from the national till. They are well armed and well protected by their private armies made up of the sharpest shooters among our Senior Advocates of Nigeria. Who would not fear them?
Few weeks ago, a former Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, was revealed to have a private farm of silos filled with dollars, pounds and other precious currencies. So far only one farm, in the heart of Kaduna poverty ravaged city, has been discovered. One is almost sure there are other farms. The bold man has gone to court to compel the government to release his left-over fund.
There is no doubt that this is a challenging period for Nigerians and our leader, President Muhammadu Buhari. In electing Buhari, Nigerians have invested high hope in the old soldier that he would bring discipline, probity, integrity and competence back into fashion. With each revelation about the big men and women thieves, we have realised that the problem was worse than we thought. The Buhari regime has been fighting public stealing, but there is still a lot to be done so that the menace, instead of being a roaring lion, can be reduced to the size of a menacing mouse lurking about furtively in the dark recesses of public life. Indeed, we must insist that public stealing must have no place in the future of Nigeria unless Nigeria itself would have no future. Public stealing must be made totally unattractive.
Now that he is the UK on vacation, President Buhari should take all necessary steps to ensure that those top Nigerians who are wanted for stealing in England are encouraged, with the help of the EFCC, to face trial in England. I am also looking forward to the day when that Ogun State senator, who is fighting through the labyrinthine of our legal system, would be made to take the one way trip to the United States to answer drug related charges.
But as Obasanjo knew when he was negotiating the return of Delta State money from Ibori, the greatest institutional obstacle to fighting the public thief in Nigeria is the judiciary. He knew that relying on the Nigerian court system to retrieve stolen money from public thieves is a difficult, if not impossible, task. It is time the judiciary is made to join the fight. How can we say we are fighting corruption when some suspects have been on trial for 10 to 15 years? The President should meet the leaders of the judiciary to ensure that cases on public stealing should be tried and concluded within 100 days. In that way, those who are innocent would be freed to pursue their businesses beyond the shadows of perennial suspicion. Luckily for us, Acting President Yemi Osinbajo, is also a lawyer of high rank.
We know there are other obstacles. What system would allow its managers to steal so much that he would have to keep the proceeds in silos and soak-away pits? How have we degenerated so much that our leader’s success can now only be measured with money? Yet this is the land once bestrode by the likes of Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo and Ahmadu Belo. Our law says no public officer should maintain a foreign bank account or hold double citizenship, but many are doing so openly, daring President Buhari to do his worst.
In 1984, while appearing before a military tribunal set up by the junta of Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, Gani Fawehinmi, the great lawyer had declared: “Experience has shown that corruption in public life in Nigeria cannot be obliterated by mere probes and commissions of enquiry or by the invocation of the criminal code under the ordinary legal system. The compelling need, therefore, arose to evolve and devise a system of justice swift enough, fair enough and serious enough to deal a lethal blow on corruption in public places.”
Recently, the Lagos State Government passed a law prescribing the death-sentence for kidnappers. My friend, Professor Hope Eghagha of the University of Lagos, a past victim of kidnapping, disagrees. He wants kidnappers jailed for life. But what of those who have kidnapped our past and are busy kidnapping our future and the future of our children? Let then be permanently kidnapped by justice so that they are kept in prison for life.
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