It is regrettable that in spite of repeated promises by successive governments to fight corruption, Nigeria is still bogged down by the scourge. It is largely the reason why nothing seems to work and why most Nigerians are poor and unhappy with their country.
So it was exhilarating news when President Muhammadu Buhari stated that the fight against corruption was a major focus of his administration. However, his government has not shown the necessary vigour in that area; there are piles of corruption cases involving government officials and politicians that have lingered for years.
Although no country is immune to corruption, some countries are better off than others. What is not in doubt is that corruption is a complex socio-political and economic phenomenon affecting all countries. Its cost to our democratic institutions, the rule of law and the overall governance system is unimaginable.
It is, therefore, against this backdrop that Prof Yemi Osinbajo, then acting president, approved the setting up of a Special Presidential Investigation Panel (SPIP) for the Recovery of Public Property in August 2017. The Act makes provisions for the investigation of the assets of any public officer who is alleged to have been engaged in corrupt practices, unjust enrichment and abuse of office, or anyone who breached the Code of Conduct for Public Officers in the country.
However, the panel is conducting the anti-corruption fight in a way that is strange to the laws that set it up and the constitution of the country by violating the fundamental rights of those perceived to be corrupt through exercising the powers to arrest, seize property, place travel bans and prosecute public office holders under investigation, which are not provided in the Act that established the panel.
The laws empower the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Independent Corrupt
Practices Commission (ICPC) to arrest and prosecute offenders, while the Recovery of Public Property Act confers on the panel the powers to issue search warrants, to search properties under investigation and the power to avert artificial and other illegal transactions. The Act, however, made it clear that the panel could exercise these powers only when a court of competent jurisdiction gave it the go-ahead.
Sadly, the panel has taken actions which run counter to the laws of the country. For instance, the 1999 Constitution, Section 36(5) states that every person who is charged with a criminal offence shall be presumed to be innocent until he is proved guilty.
It is imperative to point out that the 29 persons banned from travelling have not been tried and convicted. Even where prima facie evidence is reasonably leading to a person being declared guilty, such person remains innocent until the court pronounces otherwise.
The Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, had in a memo dated November 1, 2018, suspended further activities by the SPIP because the panel’s activities allegedly “ran counter to its terms of reference, as well as contravened the established administration procedures and protocol of the Civil Service structure.”
Also, on November 5, 2018, a Court of Appeal in Abuja led by Justice Hussein Muktar ruled that the SPIP lacked the powers to prosecute, to initiate criminal proceedings against any accused persons and to seize the property of alleged offenders. The judgement reportedly followed an appeal filed by an employee of the Federal Ministry of Power, Works and Housing, Tijani Tumsah, who together with his brother had approached the appellate court challenging the prosecutorial power of the SPIP.
However, in spite of the above clarifications, the panel continued its activities without recourse to the rule of law.
The House of Representatives had also investigated the legality and modus operandi of the SPIP and recommended that the president should dissolve the panel in view of the arbitrary use of powers and abuse of office by its chairman.
It also recommended for the Code of Conduct Bureau to be utilised to perform the panel’s tasks in the current anti-corruption drive and that the ICPC should investigate the allegations of corruption contained in the audit report of the Auditor-General of the Federation on the financial transactions of the panel and prosecute the culprits, among others.
We commend the federal government for showing its resolve to combat corruption by creating the SPIP; however, the members of the panel must work in a lawful, effective, honest, unbiased and impartial manner in order to ensure the success of the ongoing fight against corruption. The panel should also collaborate with other anti-graft agencies and share intelligence with them so that, in the long run, there would be greater efficiency and success in the quest to recover stolen government funds and assets.
We are constrained to point out that there are enough laws and institutions to deal with corruption in our country, what is in short supply is the political will to combat the scourge dispassionately.
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