“Steve Manson’s magazine dealt in corruption: he attacked the rich, the powerful and the famous – and he made enemies. In a job like that, you couldn’t afford to have dirty secrets of your own. With the whole town itching for you to make a slip, it was like living in a goldfish bowl…” — Goldfish Have No Hiding Place.
I don’t know if the detained acting Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Mr Ibrahim Magu, grew up (like some of us) reading the novels of English writer René Brabazon Raymond, who wrote under the pseudonym James Hadley Chase. Even so, I doubt he came across ‘Goldfish Have No Hiding Place’. As a student of power politics, I am not surprised that Magu—who took on far too many battles while leaving his own flanks wide open—is now caught in a dangerous web from which he may never recover.
Former Defence Minister, Lt General Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma (rtd) was recently at the villa to see President Muhammadu Buhari. It was a visit borne out of rage. A billionaire oil tycoon, Danjuma had paid for the purchase of an aircraft. His cheque bounced! The order to withhold payment, he was told by his banker, came from Magu! From what I gathered, it took some time before the president could convince Danjuma that he knew nothing about what was clearly power mongering by a reckless public official. A few weeks before that incident, the Minna residence of former Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar was raided by EFCC operatives who “turned the house upside down”. The president also got to know only after the deed had been done.
While neither Danjuma nor Abdulsalami is above the law, power should never be used to harass and ridicule people, whether high or low. And even where there are justifications, for citizens at that level, these actions should certainly not occur without the president’s knowledge. Besides, a man who would take on the high and mighty in a society like ours, including members of the president’s immediate family, must also live above suspicion. In the past five years, Magu has at different times made claims about the hundreds of billions of Naira recovered from ‘treasury looters’. But subsequent auctions for recovered assets did not follow due process, resulting in choice properties being handed out to suspected cronies. Since Abuja is a city where residents know the dirty secrets of people in power (including who is sleeping with whose spouse), the president was being inundated with petitions that Magu is not above board in his dealings.
Apparently determined to get to the root of these allegations, the president on 22 November 2017 inaugurated a three-member committee to audit all assets recovered by agencies of the federal government from 29th May 2015. Headed by Mr Olufemi Lijadu, who later became the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Chairman, the two other members are Mr. Mohammed Nami, the current Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) chairman and Mrs. Gloria Bibigha, a respected accountant in the office of the Auditor General of the Federation who is regarded as a specialist in forensic auditing. “It has become obvious that fundamental gaps still exist in ensuring that the recovered assets are accounted for, and managed in an accurate, transparent and logical manner,” the President told the committee.
It is noteworthy that exactly six days after the committee began its session, the then Senate President, Dr Bukola Saraki publicly accused anti-graft agencies of looting the recovered proceeds. Saraki spoke at the opening session of a “Strategic Retreat on Tracking the Progress of Anti-Corruption Bills”, on why the National Assembly had become “strident about the opacity shrouding the management of recovered funds, which in many cases get re-looted by the agencies that investigated and recovered them”. An ad hoc committee of the Senate, according to Saraki, had “discovered that many properties recovered from a fugitive from the law have not been accounted for by the investigating agency”.
Meanwhile, the Lijadu committee was working quietly in the background, obtaining information from government agencies and seeking clarification for inconsistencies. Although they had been given four months to complete their assignment, the trio of Lijadu, Nami and Bibigha ended up spending ten months, rummaging through thousands of pages of documents in dozens of files from the various agencies. But even before they submitted their report, the then Finance Minister, Mrs. Kemi Adeosun, had already noticed discrepancies from the figures that were emerging from their work. She sent Magu a memo seeking clarification on the recoveries “based on the information available to the Office of Accountant-General of the Federation.” According to Adeosun, the attention of her ministry had been drawn to “recovery figures in media reports by the EFCC that do not reconcile with the records of the ministry”, asking Magu to “clarify where these cash recoveries have been deposited and provide accompanying evidence.”
There is no record to show that Magu responded to Adeosun’s memo. But on 11th September 2018, the president formally received the report of the Lijadu committee that raised several unanswered questions about the recovered fixed and movable assets. The Attorney General of the Federation and Justice Minister, Abubakar Malami, SAN, later addressed the media on salient issues in the report. Although he gave no breakdown, Malami said: “In summary, the recovered funds by the three-man committee is N769 billion cash within the period under review”. What Malami did not disclose that day was that there were discrepancies in the EFCC figures and the disposal of some properties were done without transparency.
From that moment, Magu’s fate was sealed. To compound his problem, the president had also received reports from a number of foreign agencies on the “lack of professionalism” by Magu who was said to be in the habit of leaking to the media information that compromises investigations. At home, critical agencies including the Directorate of State Security (DSS) and National Intelligence Agency (NIA) view Magu as a danger to the system because, as a top presidency official told me, “he doesn’t mind bringing down institutions to get at individuals, sometimes just for media adulation”. But in the mutual game of alliances and counter-alliances (often laced with mutual blackmail) used by members of this administration to checkmate one another, Magu remained in office. But despite concerted efforts by members of his own camp to have his name sent to the Senate for confirmation, the president refused to budge.
Meanwhile, the AGF to whose office Magu should ordinarily report (but doesn’t, out of sheer arrogance of power) bided his time before writing a damning memo to the president regarding the report on recovered assets. At the same time, Magu was basking in a false sense of security because he had just recently received approval from the president to auction more than 400 expensive cars forfeited by internet fraudsters. So secure in the fantasy that his name would soon be sent to the Senate for confirmation was Magu that he had begun planning how to dispose through public auction exotic vehicles including Ferraris, Range Rovers and Mercedes. That was before he was upended on Monday afternoon.
I am not a fan of Magu and I stated the reason why in the past, especially given what my late principal, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua told me about him. Those who may not have read the piece can do so here. I also do not like the cult of personality he has created in EFCC. The ‘Magu Boys’ who throw themselves around within the commission act as though above the law, despite allegations of unwholesome practices against them. And I have in the past five years rebuffed all entreaties from his media minders to meet with him. But the current tragedy raises higher questions about the integrity of institutions and how the cold calculations of factions of the ruling elite can cause rupture within the polity. Besides, I detest the idea of humiliating people out of office, especially by those who themselves are no paragon of virtue. Whatever might have been the excesses of Magu, his current ordeal appears more the culmination of a sinister plot to exact vengeance than any attempt to promote the public good.
On Monday, a member of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC), Prof Femi Odekunle, released a statement which questions not only the entire process but the integrity of the AGF. Odekunle, who claimed to have consulted with other PACAC members, including its chairman, Prof Itse Sagay, SAN, before making the statement said “Malami has been exploiting his alleged loyalty and closeness to the president for his personal /power bloc agenda.” After highlighting a series of corrupt allegations against the AGF, Odekunle stated: “The alleged originating Malami memo, up to the current ’arrest’ seems an outcome of power-play by power blocs in the corridors of power in which Malami appears to be an arrow-head or major agent of a power bloc that is not really interested in, or in support of, Buhari’s anti-corruption fight.”
Although PACAC has distanced itself from Odekunle’s statement, his position represents the dominant view in a body whose members also belong to another ‘power bloc’ that seems to be losing out in this badly divided government. While it is not uncommon to have diverse tendencies within a government, I have never seen one like this where prominent members openly subvert one another without the president calling anyone to order. A March 2018 Senate “Report of the Ad Hoc committee on investigation of the arrest episodes of Tuesday 21st November 2017 among officers of EFCC, NIA and DSS” is illustrative of this state of affairs. The Senate probe followed the scandal in which personnel of the DSS and EFCC were almost exchanging gunshots on the streets of Abuja.
The open altercation, according to the Senate report, “arose from an attempt by EFCC officials to arrest Mr Ayodele Oke (former Director-General of NIA) and Mr Ita Ekpenyong (former Director-General of DSS) and the consequent resistance of NIA and DSS officers guarding their former principals.” With the heads of these security agencies openly attacking one another at the Senate session held in camera, as disclosed in the report, the then DSS Director General, Lawal Daura (who would later be removed by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo in his capacity as acting president) alleged in his written testimony that “The method (brawn instead of brain) deployed by the current EFCC under Magu is a Gestapo style that belongs to dictatorial regimes. The acting chairman runs the agency based on public rumours, maneouvers, gossips, political interferences from certain quarters and Marabouts.”
Now that the Magu saga has reached a denouement, there are several lessons, starting from the manner in which Daura in 2016 openly wrote to the Senate to question the judgement of the President in nominating him for the job. Even if we concede the mischief in that memo, it was obvious from the beginning that Magu lacked both the intellect and temperament to head the EFCC. And the moment the Senate refused to confirm his appointment, the president should have withdrawn his nomination. But whatever may have been his failings, Magu did record concrete achievements given his success in sending a few fat cats to learn from experience the prison conditions in Nigeria. Magu also revived the EFCC and brought in a needed fear factor before he lost his way. Now that it is obvious that the Magu era is over, the issue is about his replacement.
Going forward, there should be an amendment to the EFCC Act to remove the limitation on the pool from which the president can nominate its chairman. The commission should not have to be headed by a serving or retired police officer, as is now the case. As I warned in the past, a Gotcha approach to fighting corruption, which Magu and some of his predecessors seem to favour, can only provide momentary entertainment. What our situation requires is a thorough, methodical and strategic war, anchored on the rule of law. You need people of a different orientation than police personnel for such assignment. Perhaps the tenure should be reduced to one term of four or five years to encourage occupants to put in their best from day one, instead of playing the game of reappointment. This may also be an opportunity for the president to investigate other people in his government who have been accused of sundry acts at odds with his professed agenda and reputation.
More importantly, the call for the reforms of Anti-Corruption Agencies (ACAs) requires urgent attention. In a statement by its Executive Director, Auwal Ibrahim Musa (Rafsanjani), the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC) yesterday advocated that the current system “is prone to mismanagement, embezzlement and political misuse” since there “is no clear framework on who takes custodian of recovered assets and how they are utilized.” The federal government, according to Rafsanjani, “has claimed recoveries of assets worth billions of dollars without accounting (for) who manages these assets, how these assets are utilized and what prevents the re-looting of looted assets.” He added: “The control of lucrative asset recovery ‘business’, confiscations and repatriations has caused inter-agency rivalry among ACAs saddled with the responsibility of fighting corruption.”
Finally, a well-functioning government requires a certain level of cooperation and collaboration between and among senior officials in critical positions. Sadly, that is not the case with this administration. Where mutual suspicions and recriminations run high, as we have witnessed in recent years, the only person who can call a halt is the president. His seeming unwillingness to doing just that has divided the federal government in a manner that jeopardises efforts to tackle pressing challenges. With only two years to go before the 2023 campaigns begin, the administration needs everyone to pull together, not apart, if the president is to deliver on his mandate and cement his legacy.
I hope President Buhari makes a course correction. Before it is too late!