Conflicting anti-corruption signals!, By Henry Boyo
The Special Presidential Investigation Panel (SPIP) for “the Recovery of Public Property,” was inaugurated by Yemi Osinbajo in August 2017, when he was Acting President, while Muhammad Buhari was away for medical attention in the UK.
The Presidential Panel, since inception, carried out its assignment, under the Chairmanship of Mr. Okoi Obono-Obla, who is also President Buhari’s Special Assistant on Prosecution, until Attorney General, Abubakar Malami’s, November 1st 2018 memo, which suspended further activity by the SPIP, because the Panel’s activities, allegedly, “ran counter to its terms of reference;” furthermore, the V.P. was, reportedly, also concerned that “the Panel’s activities contravened the established Administration procedures and protocol of the Civil Service structure.”
Consequently, Obono-Obla was therefore directed, henceforth “to seek clearance from the Attorney General and Justice Minister, before granting any media interview or making Press Releases on official matters.” Obono-Obla was also asked to “promptly provide the A.G. with a ‘detailed update report’ on the Panel’s activities, for onward transmission to the Vice President”; furthermore, the SPIP was also directed, thereafter, “to cease further activity and await Presidential instruction on the Panel’s future.”
Incidentally, barely a week after the Attorney General’s November 1st letter, which declared SPIP’s suspension, an Appeal Court, in Abuja, also held that SPIP “lacked power to prosecute,” and cannot therefore also “initiate criminal proceedings against any accused persons.” The Appeal Court held that the Presidential Panel therefore “lacked the power to seize the property of alleged offenders.” The judgement, reportedly, followed an appeal filed, by a Staff 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 SPIP”.
The 5-man Court of Appeal, led by Justice Hussein Muktar, on November 5th 2018, also held that, according to the Act that established it, the Panel lacked power to prosecute any offender, since the Panel’s powers were, “legally limited to investigation of any officer, who has corruptly enriched himself or breached the Code of Conduct.” The Appeal Court Consequently ruled that “the ex-parte order granted by the lower court “as regards, the (forfeiture of)properties of the appellant, is hereby set aside.” Furthermore, the Appellate Court, also held that “the Court below lacked the jurisdiction to entertain the matter, let alone enter judgement.” “The Appellate Court therefore ruled that the lower Court was wrong for failing to set aside its forfeiture order.”
In his explanation Justice Muktar, also noted that judgment, was earlier scheduled for November 6th, but the court got the hint that a nationwide strike might begin, hence the need to deliver the judgement after 6p.m. on November 5th” (The Guardian edition of November 6, 2018).
In retrospect, however, in September 2018, Obono-Obla had warned, at an Interactive Session of the African Network for Environment and Economic Justice, in Abuja, that the fight against corruption by PMB’s administration “was total and that Public Officers would be engaged on how they acquired their wealth.” The SPIP chairman also revealed that “I already have 400 names of some past and present Public Office holders who have properties, in Maitama District, Abuja, alone, that we are investigating and I will make them available to you.” “Most of these people who have properties in Maitama and Asokoro are Public Servants, earning less than N2m/year. Where do they get the money? If they cannot explain where they made the money from, it means that it is a proceed of corruption. The money that we would have used to invest in our schools, social infrastructure, and so on are siphoned to build massive estates, in which nobody is living all over Abuja.” For instance, Obono-Obla noted “if I earn less than N7m a year, and have more than N200m or N1bn, you must find out how I make my money. It cannot be from my legitimate earnings.”
The SPIP Chairman, recalled how a Federal High Court, earlier this year, had also ordered temporary forfeiture of 86 Luxury Vehicles, together with 4 houses and a quarry plant in Abuja, belonging to the Director of Finance and Accounts in the Federal Ministry of Power, Works and Housing. Obla noted that all the 86 exotic vehicles were brand new and 23 of them were armour plated! According to Obla, “we first wrote to the Accountant General to give us, how much this Director earned from 2007-2017, and they gave us a figure that the man earned about N30m!”
Furthermore, in October this year, the SPIP Chairman confirmed, in a statement, reported by NAN, that $7m cash was also recovered from the previous Management of the Nigeria Export and Import Bank (NEXIM) “who had illegally placed the funds in Heritage Bank.” The Naira component of SPIP’s recovery, reportedly, also, includes N533m cash, and land valued at N1.5bn from the same, former NEXIM Manager. According to Obla, the recovered assets, “have since been returned to NEXIM Bank.”
In addition, N24m and two hectares of land, estimated at N2bn belonging to the National Council of Arts & Culture were also recovered according to Obla, while, part of the Agura Hotel, which belonged to NPA, but reportedly, “illegally annexed by some powerful persons, with untouchable connections, for over 20 years, were returned to NPA’, while a contract awarded to a company, to “dredge the Calabar Channel, after the company had received $12m, without any work done, was also under investigation.”
Indeed, in a statement in June this year, Lucie-Ann Laha, the SPIP Spokesperson, quoted Obono-Obla, as having informed President Buhari of these recoveries; according to Lucie Ann, Buhari had assured the Panel of his “continued support and non-interference, in line with his administration’s stance on the anti-corruption fight.”
The SPIP Chairman, while speaking to Journalists in Abuja, in September, reported that his Panel will also recover the $7b (Seven billion dollars) “bailout” funds given to Commercial Banks between 2006-2008 by former CBN Governor, Chukwuma Soludo. Obla insisted that the funds must be returned to Government coffers, as it was not a gift. According to Obla, “after 13 years or so, these banks have still not returned the money to the coffers of Government. When we inquired about the status of that money from CBN, the banks told us that the money was dashed (given free) to the Commercial Banks.” Ironically, however, despite these, allegedly, non refundable, nil interest government deposits, the banks have since earned double-digit interest rates on trillions of Naira on its own loans to government and the Nigerian Public! (See article “14 Nigerian Banks to enjoy $7bn Reserves @ www.lesleba.com first published in 2006).
Incidentally, since this article was first published in 2006, i.e barely a week after CBN Governor, Professor Chukwura Soludo gave away $7bn public funds (with no apparent strings attached ) to Nigerian Banks, Okoi Obla is the first government official to ever make reference to this strange donation of public funds to Nigerian banks. It is, regrettable that the media and other social activists have inexplicably ‘refrained’ from any investigation or commentary of this extraordinary scam.
Nevertheless, Obla also confirmed that investigation and recovery of substantial properties belonging to NPA in Calabar, Warri, Koko, Sapele and Lagos Ports was also in process.
The related questions, therefore, that beg for answers, from the foregoing, are where were the Attorney General and the Vice President when the SPIP investigations and the recorded recoveries were being made since 2017? Why did the SPIP suspension come, so late, after almost 15 months of operations and successful recoveries?
Furthermore, in view of the Attorney General’s letter of November 1st and the subsequent Appeal court, order to adopt appropriate judicial process, will Government now return all the assets, so far recovered by SPIP, to those same people who brazenly ripped off our treasury and denied Nigerians, the opportunity of a functional government with improved social welfare and infrastructure?