How Nigerians can help Buhari to recover stolen funds —Femi Falana

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Lagos lawyer, Mr Femi Falana, in this interview, speaks on the efforts to recover the nation’s funds looted under the previous administration, saying Nigerians must own the ongoing war against corruption to make it effective.

The war against corruption, can it be described as  cosmetic?

The war against corruption that is on-going deserves the encouragement of Nigerians, particularly the victims of corruption – soldiers who were deprived of arms to fight Boko Haram, the people seeking medical attention and could not get, the unemployed masses. Nigerians should  own the war because if you simply leave it to government, of course, you cannot remove allegations of prosecutorial selectivity and the rest of them, but  Nigerians should insist that there has to be restitution from those who have stolen from our commonwealth, and reduce our people to a poverty stricken lot. Nigerians must be prepared to wage the war much more than the government.

What specifically are you asking of Nigerians?

When there was no EFCC and ICPC,  in the 1970s, official corruption was fought by the media.   It was a case of  ‘if you Tarka  me I will  Dabor you’.   It was a story of a very powerful minister under the Yakubu Gowon regime, the late  J.S. Tarka and a  business  man, Mr. Godwin Dabor, who went to a Lagos High Court to swear to an affidavit that the minister was corrupt and, from there, the press feasted on it and would not let go until Takar resigned from that government.

But the situation is totally different now.

And because the media is not doing the same thing it did then, it is also being accused of aiding the untoward act.

Now, religious leaders, traditional rulers, and other forces of influence in the country are being accused of corruption and, therefore, Nigerians must own the fight against corruption or we will not get anywhere.

The issue today is that if anybody is accused of corruption, you don’t just leave it to the  EFCC or the ICPC.   We must restore ethical values.   If a man has been found guilty of rigging an election, you do not celebrate him.   Even some of those whose elections have been nullified are still referred to as former governors, as if they were elected.   That is wrong.

I’m not blaming the press.   I belong to a profession that, perhaps, contributes more to the culture of impunity than the media.   All of us have to agree that we have a serious crisis, much more serious than terrorism, kidnapping which are sometimes manifestations of corruption.

This arms  scandal is spreading like wild fire and we have a President who goes out to tell the who world how corrupt we are…

Corruption in Nigeria is more than what  I can tell you. It has reached a dangerous level. In most parts of the world, it is narco-terrorists, drug barons that are associated with moving humongous sums of money round, but what we have in Nigeria is a situation where officials of a modern state, officials of government will invade the central bank of the nation, like armed robbers, and allegedly order that huge sums of money, on one occasion, $37million, in 11 Ghana-Must-Go bags, be taken out of the central bank or you order people to go to the central bank as if you’re operating an ATM machine, to move out huge sums.

We have never witnessed this primitive level of corruption.

But are we so sure of this?   Abacha was accused of same.

In that instance, again very interesting, it was the office of the National Security Adviser that was also used and at a go they didn’t go beyond $100million.   I have the records.

The Accountant General of the Federation reportedly claimed that they had only recovered $2billion from the Abacha loot.

But I have documented evidence that the money recovered from  Abacha  is about $4billion.

$4billion?

Yes, $4billion.

What are the details?

The Abdulsalami Abubakar junta  set up a panel of inquiry and the panel came up with a report that the late General Sani Abacha  stole about $5billion from the CBN, but identified about $1billion, largely removed in cash and that government recovered  and gazetted it. It is Decree 53 of 1999. President Obasanjo continued with the recovery effort.

In the second volume of his book, My Watch, Obasanjo stated, in black and white, that by the time he was leaving  office in May 2007, he had recovered $2billion, 100million pounds sterling and, N10billion.

Now, when the N446billion theft case was going to be withdrawn against Mr. Mohammed Abacha, the Federal Ministry of Justice  issued a statement to justify the withdrawal that this was meant to facilitate the repatriation of looted funds from abroad under the Jonathan administration and we were told that $930million had been recovered and that excluded the $458m that had been seized by the US government.

Even now, Madam Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, following  a  publication, had now said that in one fell swoop she released $322m to the then NSA and that $700m was expected for development.

When does  this  issue of collecting money from the CBN become an offence?   Is it when it is made public or when someone else takes over power and exposes them or when   court of law adjudicates?

Once those who collected  the money come out  to admit that they collected the money, then it can be used in evidence.

Most of what we are seeing now, we’ve seen before and we are not justifying it?   What raises your hope that this is real?

This one we are seeing now is extremely primitive.

The only hope is that on the part of the government, there appears to be a political will to fight corruption.

You cannot be certain?   You said Jonathan fought corruption.

Whether he meant it or not can be based on the forces against him.

The difference now is that you have a President who says ‘I will not cover up for anybody’, there is a difference between that and another who tries to rationalise the difference between corruption and stealing.   You allow people have a field day in terms of mismanaging the nation’s resources.   Or a President who says he was in Kenya for a week and a number of private jets accompanied him so much so that Kenyans were debating the level of prosperity of Nigerians. In that situation, you are likely going to have a problem with fighting corruption.

In 2008, the Yar’Adua regime simply tried to  decapitate the EFCC.

It was so bad that I know of a governor who was on trial who sent  an  aide to head a  division of the EFCC. It was that bad.

What about the Halliburton case?

Good.   An Attorney General once told the British  people that ‘you cannot cry more than the bereaved and that the so called money stolen is Nigeria’s money’.   And other countries simply said ‘these guys are not serious’.

What about the people involved in the Halliburton case?

The Halliburton case went to court.   A  former NBA  President prosecuted the matter and because the last administration did not mean to prosecute, after about a year, the court struck out the matter for want of diligent prosecution.

A  former American Vice President, Dick Cheney, who was head of Halliburton, was charged here but the case was never mentioned and  the case was struck out.

The US government made about $1.3billion from fines imposed on those who bribed the officials.   In Nigeria, I think we made just about $120million.

In the US, all the suspects were prosecuted but here, because there was no political will, the case was bungled.

Nigerians must insist.

Some  people don’t believe this government has the will to handle the Halliburton case because it is seen as untouchable.

The Halliburton case is bigger than this administration, I must tell you.

President Buhari went to the US and told Obama that over $150billion had been stolen from Nigeria and the country would need the help of Western countries to get the money back for development.   And the heads of those governments have said ‘we will collaborate’ and Halliburton case is one of the cases that have  to be re-opened.

Why is it beyond this government?

Falana

Falana

You are asking for assistance from foreign countries, all those cases in which they have prosecuted people in their countries and you say you will not re-open the cases here.

It is like asking for assistance from people in the recovery of your looted wealth while you are turning blind eyes to the same cases.

This country can make over $2billion from the Halliburton case and, apart from the fines, the banks involved can also be fined for warehousing looted funds or funds from bribery.

What is the role of  banks in all of this?

I have often challenged Transparency International and Western countries that accuse us of corruption because it takes two to tango.   If you make it impossible for the financial institutions to warehouse the funds from corrupt practices, it would not be this high because the monies will not leave the country, then you can domesticate it.

But where banks abroad – and in this instance – some of the funds removed from the CBN have been located in foreign banks and you must pursue them and charge them to court for violating money laundering laws in your countries and you cannot just say you are returning money that was warehoused in your bank and, therefore, we must clap for you.   What about the interests?   What about the costs and damages suffered in the process?

There has to be a dedicated account for all the funds that are recovered so that, at the end of the day, it will not be like the Abacha loot that has been re-looted.

What roles will the court play

There is no doubt that the courts are the theatre of this war.   No matter what EFCC and ICPC do, the courts must be prepared to change because a new attitude is needed.

Why do you say so?

Between 2003 and 2007, nobody standing trial for serious case of fraud  was granted bail. None.   Go and check.

Was it because the cases were not bailable cases or what?

No.   The courts looked at the gravity of the offences but with Ibori’s case, in December 2007, the policy changed and so, today, it has become automatic that people get bail easily.

For instance, since 1970, no armed robbery suspect has been admitted to bail in this country.   The same policy can be applied to terrorism cases because of the dangerous implications of such offences.

We must look at the effect of corruption on the society and have a new thinking.

The Supreme Court has given leadership on the cases of corruption.   There were cases attempting to nullify the laws setting up the ICPC and the EFCC, but the Supreme Court refused. But when you have High Courts now granting perpetual injunctions.

So what is the place of the NASS in terms of oversight function?

In all fairness, Senate President Bukola Saraki said something last week to the effect that if the NASS had carried out genuine oversight function, this scandal may have been avoided.   I agree with him.

Military/Shiite killings.

When the killings in France occurred, our President was one of those who condemned it.

I also expected this time around that our President would have condemned the mindless killings in Zaria.   It was uncalled for.

There must be a civilised way of controlling crowd since we are agreed that people have a right to protest; you must learn to respect that  right.

Unless  government comes out to insist that any member of the armed forces or security agencies that causes embarrassment to government or  violates peoples rights and the cases go to court and damages are awarded against  government, that the officers have to bear part of the responsibility, our armed forces will not respect anything.

In three cases, Odi, Zaki Biam and Gbaramatu, the Federal High Court  a warded damages of over N200b against the government.

They still have the colonial training as set up pre-independence. We still call ours our police force whereas other nations call theirs police service.

 This interview was first aired on Channels TV

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