THE controversy surrounding the agreement between Nigeria and the United Kingdom that facilitated the return of the £4.2 million funds looted by a former Governor of Delta State, James Ibori, raises the need to institutionalise the anti-corruption mechanism at the subnational level. The Federal Government recovered the loot after a Memorandum of Understanding with the UK following Ibori’s conviction. Essentially, if the anti-corruption war in the country is to be more efficient, the disinterestedness of state governments to the diligent prosecution of alleged corrupt practices perpetrated within their jurisdictions has to be reversed. Similarly, to deal a fatal blow to the well-known scourge militating against national development, the aloofness of the citizenry to allegations of theft of public funds by the political class should change. The effect will be far-reaching and salutary.
As a former Chair of Transparency International, Peter Eigen, correctly posited, “Corruption doesn’t just line the pockets of political and business elites; it also leaves ordinary people without essential services such as life-saving medicines and deprives them of access to sanitation and housing. In short, corruption costs lives.” This grim reality, sadly, appears lost to state governments.
It bears restating that the anti-graft war in Nigeria is only winnable if all levels of government and the entire citizens see it as a national imperative and consequently get involved resolutely instead of seeing it as a Federal Government pastime. That appears to be the case now. Currently, only the federal anti-graft agencies such as the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission and the Code of Conduct Bureau/Tribunal are making laborious attempts to rein in corruption. At the state and local levels, there is scanty evidence of any such legal and institutional frameworks, set up or operational, to give a fillip to the war. Even when former state-level political office holders are prosecuted by the anti-graft agencies, there is hardly any buy-in or assistance from the citizens and concerned state governments.
Yet, there are daily reports of cases of alleged theft of public funds and money laundering involving public officials at the lower tiers of government. This probably made the Federal Government believe it is entitled to decide unilaterally to disburse funds that originally did not belong to it for its use, except that it facilitated its repatriation. This leaves Delta people, the real victims of the Ibori heist, to suffer double jeopardy. This should not be so.
Ibori had evaded prosecution in Nigeria years after leaving office in 2007, but was arrested in Dubai and eventually extradited to the UK, where he was subsequently prosecuted diligently and convicted. A ludicrous dimension to his failed prosecution in Nigeria was added when a Federal High Court sitting in Asaba, Delta State, presided over by Justice Marcel Awokulehin, in December 2009, after three adjournments, bizarrely dismissed all the 170 counts of looting and money laundering filed against the former governor by the EFCC. Incidentally, Ibori later pleaded guilty before a London court in February 2012 to “10 offences relating to conspiracy to launder funds from the state, substantive counts of money laundering and one count of obtaining money transfer by deception and fraud,” when confronted with irrefutable evidence. He was sentenced to a 13-year jail term. Reacting to the conviction, the then UK Secretary for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, said: “Corruption is a cancer in developing countries and the (UK) coalition government has a zero-tolerance approach to it. We are committed to rooting out corruption wherever it is undermining development, and will help bring its perpetrators like Ibori to justice and return stolen funds to help the world’s poorest.”
But while signing the MoU for the repatriation of the looted funds, the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, said the funds would be deployed by the Federal Government to complete the work on the Second Niger Bridge, Abuja-Kano and Lagos-Ibadan expressways. But under the terms of a subsisting MoU, these were already being funded by the recovered $311m Sani Abacha loot. Two out of the three projects are located several kilometres away from Delta State, where the funds were stolen from, ab initio. This is where the controversy resides, pitting those who want the money returned to Ibori’s home state against those opposed to the unilateral use by the Federal Government.
Notable lawyers like human rights activist Femi Falana (SAN), and the Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, Itse Sagay, oppose the Federal Government’s decision. Indeed, it will be a great disservice to the Delta people should the Federal Government go ahead and execute its planned use of the money for the three projects.
Besides, unilaterally signing the MoU with the UK government without any thought for the Delta people who had all along unjustly suffered the consequences of Ibori’s theft is an assault on reason, natural justice and good conscience. The most sensible thing allowed for the Federal Government to do in the circumstance is to deduct whatever cost it incurred in the long-drawn legal battle to ensure the repatriation of the stolen funds from Ibori, his family and associates. And if it must spend the money, it would have been more equitable deploying it in rehabilitating existing decrepit infrastructure or abandoned federal projects located in the state for the benefit of the people.
The decision of the Delta State Government to challenge the Federal Government’s decision in court is a welcome development. This option should be comprehensively and conclusively explored. Falana’s contention that the Federal Government cannot convert the recovered sum under local and international law, given that the repatriated funds from Joshua Dariye and Diepreye Alamieyeseigha in the UK were returned to their respective states of Plateau and Bayelsa is unimpeachable.