Uzokwe's Searchlight

If there is anything to be changed with respect to the ICPC, it is the chairman - Justice Akanbi. The manner in which his commission has operated so far leaves much to be desired.
Thursday, March 6, 2003

Alfred Obiora Uzokwe


"Corruption, the greatest bane of society today, will be tackled head on. No society can achieve anything near its full potential if it allows corruption to become the full blown cancer it has become in Nigeria".

hose were the words of the Nigerian president, General Olusegun Obasanjo, at the inception of his administration in 1999. As well-meaning Nigerians read or listened to the speech almost four years ago, they could not help but believe that this administration would sanitize Nigeria and put it back on the reputable pedestal she once enjoyed internationally.

Four years after that statement was made, corruption in Nigeria has continued to wax from bad to worse; in fact, it has taken a more brutal turn. International observers see Nigeria as a place one could not do business in and Transparency International has continually categorized the one-time giant of Africa as the second most corrupt nation in the WORLD. What went wrong? What happened to the president's promise in 1999 to "tackle corruption head on"? Did he at least make an honest attempt to fight corruption? Well, it depends on whom you ask. There is a school of thought that he made a dent by the mere establishment, in the year 2000, of the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission, ICPC, headed by Justice Akanbi. There are others, like this writer, who feel that even though the establishment of the commission was the right step in the right direction, the manner in which the commission operated at times, showed that it was not independent at all. There was always this pervading feeling of the fact that the commission was doing the bidding of president Olusegun Obasanjo. Also, after several years of operation, the commission practically has nothing to show by way of tangible results. As a result of these palpable failures and the seeming partisan manner in which the commission operated, Nigerian legislators mustered the impetus to challenge its fairness and independence. Even legislators who are clearly guilty of various corrupt offences like unlawful enrichment and misuse of public funds, have become emboldened and are now using the excuse of lopsided enforcement of the commission's mandate to rubbish it.

This drama has culminated in the passing of a bill in the senate, on February 26, 2003, to repeal the ICPC and replace it with another body to be called "Commission to Prohibit and Prescribe Punishment for Corrupt Practices and other Related Offenses" The new commission, from most people's views, is a watered down version of the ICPC. This latest development has become a source of angst in Nigeria. Most, like this writer, believe that even though the ICPC has been largely ineffective and in many cases selectively enforced their mandate, the mere existence of the commission, with the 52 clauses that define its mandate, would at least force our lawmakers and members of the executive, who have the penchant for corruption, to think twice before they dabble in their seeming 'pass time'. It is clear that those in the senate, who are pushing for the repeal of the commission, are doing so either because of their tendency towards unlawful personal enrichment or because of the offences they already committed for which they are now being hounded. Rather than mend their ways and tow the path of probity, they have chosen to develop an alternate bill with all kinds of wiggle rooms so that they could maneuver their ways out of conviction if caught in the act. They want to water down the authority and reach of the ICPC because it has become the sword of Damocles to them.

To ensure that they could always influence the choice of the chairman of the new commission they want to establish, the senate inserted a clause specifying that they must ratify any candidate chosen by the chief justice of the federation. Now, how much sense does it make that one has to choose the person who gets to investigate him? How many of them would close their eyes and confirm a chairman who they know would care less about their exalted positions in investigating them? This reminds me of when we were in elementary school; if you did something wrong in class, the teacher would ask you to go and get a cane that he would use for spanking you. Of course you would always go for the flimsiest piece of stick; one that would hurt the least or even break on first impact with your body. In the same way, our lawmakers would go for a chairman that would pose the least danger to them and do their bidding.

The Senators contended that they want to take away the power of appointment of the committee chairman from the president. They argue that because Justice Akanbi was appointed by General Obasanjo, he and members of his executive have continually been sparred the hammer of investigation even as some of them were being reported as corrupt. The Senators argued further that the president seemed to be using the commission as a tool for settling political scores; hence every time a lawmaker fell out of favor with him, the person suddenly comes under investigation. These are very valid and legitimate points. However, the way to correct the problem is not by giving the same type of authority to the senators because they are bound to do the same thing that the president is accused of doing.

One of the most preposterous clauses proposed in the new bill by the senate is that the commission must write to and inform someone when the person is to be investigated! As much as this may sound democratic on the surface, it beats the imagination because if one is doing something wrong and suddenly gets a letter from the commission about the commencement of an investigation, common sense dictates that one would stop and then try to cover one's tracks. The success of most criminal investigations stem from the fact that they are done under cover, as long as the privacy or civil liberties of the person is not infringed upon. It is undercover investigations that, in most cases, unearth evidence with which criminals are indicted. One realizes that in a country like Nigeria where corruption has run amok, there is a tendency that undercover investigation could be used to "do in" political opponents by planting evidence at will. This could be avoided by providing strict guidelines for gathering evidence and investigating cases. Any breaches would lead to evidence nullification. It is clear that by this clause, the senate is simply proposing a mechanism to alert them of possible investigations targeted at them.

The alarming rate of corruption in Nigeria, coupled with its attendant effects, warrants that Nigeria should be toughening the punishment for corruption. Every body else understands this except members of Nigeria's senate. They are proposing in their new bill, the reduction in the severity of the penalties prescribed for various corrupt offenses under the ICPC. Now if this is not a self-serving measure to protect themselves and their colleagues, what is it? Just like the senate body pardoned their errant colleagues, they want to water down the penalties for corrupt offenses in order to protect themselves. How would the fight against corruption in Nigeria succeed with lawmakers lessening the severity of penalties hitherto prescribed? This line of action would give our lawmakers and the executive the impetus to become brazen in their unwholesome activities. This is bad for Nigeria.

The senators also deleted sections 64-65 of the ICPC clauses, thereby removing protection formerly accorded officers of the commission in the lawful execution of their duties. It also removes protection for whistle blowers with information germane to investigations. Without protection, officers of the commission would be afraid to do their job and whistle-blowers would not come forward. It is not an overstatement to say that many successful investigations began with information from whistle-blowers so their contributions cannot be overemphasized. If they are stifled by the refusal to afford them protection, then the so-called fight against corruption in Nigeria will, inexorably, continue to meet with failure

The new bill from the senate is yet to go before the lower house. It is the hope of this writer that members of the lower house would not tow the line of the senate. Repealing the ICPC has a lot of terrible ramifications for the country. It will take Nigeria back many steps in the fight against corruption. Also, it should be noted that repealing the ICPC would mean that all the complaints that have been brought against lawmakers and other public officials since the year 2000, would no longer be valid because the new bill would not be retroactive. Inotherwords, we would go back to square one!

If there is anything to be changed with respect to the ICPC, it is the chairman - Justice Akanbi. The manner in which his commission has operated so far leaves much to be desired. They have not shown any tangible results and they clearly favor the executive arm of the government in the discharge of their duties. The removal of the Justice and his replacement with someone appointed by an independent body will help. The independent body will come from a cross section of the country and be appointed to the positions by ordinary people. If this is not done, anything else, as Dr. M.O. Ene would say, is embellishment.