Soldiering may be far from his mind, but if Ekpo Nta, chairman of the Independent Corrupt Practices and other offences Commission, ICPC, were not a lawyer, he probably would have been a military man.
Behind the soft, smooth and urbane exterior, he hides the tough tissues of a soldier. As the head of an anti-graft commission that has to sift through and investigate thousands of petitions, Nta betrays no tension and fatigue as he responds to questions put to him. He says having to work under pressure with inadequate staff is not an excuse for the ICPC not to embark on thorough investigations of petitions before prosecution of suspects. Proper investigations, he says, make prosecution easier.
But with close to a hundred corruption cases in court, and with over 90 percent of them still hanging due to judicial rigmarole, some from as far back as 2006, one expects the anti-corruption chief to spit on the country’s criminal justice system; but not Nta. He said the ICPC Act has defined his job for him, which is to investigate and prosecute. Convictions, he says, are for the courts and he would not be frustrated from doing his job because the courts are slowing him down.
He also explains why the ICPC has been unable to meet the expectations of Nigerians in terms of prosecuting high profile Nigerians, especially politically exposed persons.
But as the reader would soon find out in this interview with Anayochukwu Agbo, general editor, and Tajudeen Suleiman, senior associate editor, Nta, picking his words carefully apparently to avoid giving too much away; sometimes even evading direct answers, exudes confidence that the war against graft under the current atmosphere will yield fruits. Excerpts:
How has it been?
Well it has been very interesting because it has tasked me mentally and physically. You know corruption is a field that has very broad boundaries; you have to be mentally alert to address emerging trends. But I’m happy I’ve been able to contribute my own quota with the present board, to be able to move us forward.
What would you say you’ve been able to do since you came on board?
First we’ve been able to give a new direction and impetus to the interpretation of the Corrupt Practices Act, which directs operations in ICPC by looking at the spirit behind the legislation. We started off with drawing up a strategic plan from 2012-2017 to guide our operations. Targets have been set and we monitor performance. We started with staff. We had to retrain the staff in modern methods of investigating corruption matters, intelligence investigations. We sent them to the best academies and other anti-corruption agencies all over the world to pick up these skills.
We also concluded recruitment exercise, which had been started by our predecessors. But we broadened it to allow for specialization. We included people who had worked in the banking sector; got chartered accountants, lawyers who had worked in the banks, quantity surveyors and so on. From there we moved on to creating specializations in the departments.
We also looked at taxation. A lot of money is lost in this country through tax evasion by very big companies. If you give a company a contract of four billion and you look at the taxes they pay, it is criminal. So we started monitoring all these things and it’s been very wonderful. Because of our success in that area, there was a joint National Assembly Committee that invited ICPC to go into partnership with them to look at high profile companies, and we have started recoveries in that direction too.
We also decided that rather than running round the country doing investigations in every field, we decided to choose specific sectors, sectors that have immediate impact on the society. Education. We looked at what was happening in the sector and decided to set up a system study, what we called “The University System Study and Review”. From the result we got, it structured our intervention and we didn’t have to wait for petitions to come because we knew what we were looking for. And the first target after that study came was the issue of illegal degree awarding institutions in Nigeria, which had been lingering for many years. The NUC has been shouting against it for decades but people were still going and bringing out degrees that were not recognized for promotion and for NYSC.
With the collaboration of the Civil Defence, we were able to eradicate all these funny campuses. But to cap the educational intervention, we have shut down about 26 of these institutions and we are prosecuting the proprietors. We also seal up the property and that has created a serious awareness.
We also got involved in the health sector. We got involved in review of what we call high-risk ministries. Our studies led us to an area most people had never thought of, but which gave Nigeria a bad name internationally -visa acquisition. You would see publications in some newspapers saying we could arrange visa for you without having to appear at the embassy. We discovered that quite a number of government protocol officers were involved in this shady business. They collect money from traders and all sorts of people. We got involved in that and we have had 18 convictions till date. I’m proud to say that most embassies in Nigeria today consider the ICPC a valued partner.
How far have you gone in curbing corruption?
Corruption is an opportunistic activity. If you leave your phone on a table in a public place unattended to, somebody may pick it. When you create opportunities for corrupt acts to thrive, you may be able to arrest some of the people, but you may not be able to arrest all. So we said the best approach is to reduce the opportunities that allow for these acts to happen – the preventive approach, and it is paying off tremendously. The Act setting up the ICPC says we can study any MDA (ministries, departments and agencies) and if we think that the practices going on there can encourage corruption, we help you change it and you take ownership. We will work with you to change it. We also have created and expanded anti-corruption and transparency units (ACTU) in MDAs, particularly at the federal level. The people working there are like ICPC staff, if they see any infraction, they will tell you to redress it, and if you fail they report to ICPC. They are like whistle blowers but at the same time they act as ethics and compliance officers.
We have also taken the war to schools. We have anti-corruption studies now at the universities. It has taken off as models at the University of Calabar and the University of Ibadan. Our target is to get the NUC to make sure that all universities in Nigeria run the programme. We are going to run certificates and diploma courses in collaboration with some of these universities.
What have you done in terms of the politically exposed persons as far as corruption is concerned?
When we receive petitions against these people, we sieve through those petitions to look at why, when and how it is coming. ‘When’ becomes relevant because as you’re going towards elections, you have a peak of petitions coming in. So you must be able to decide whether they are targeted at political enemies or not. Even if they are, do you have elements of truth involved? And so we begin to carry out discreet investigations.
I’m saying this because sometimes they give you pictures of properties owned by these persons and you go on Internet and you discover these pictures have been picked from Spain or some other places!
Sometimes they even pick another person’s property, attach it and send to us. When we get these petitions, we do discreet investigations first. But when they wait for two or three days and they don’t see anything happening, they now go to the press and say they sent petition to ICPC and we have not seen them arrest the person. And, by the fifth day they organize placard-carrying protesters.
By the time we have checked out some of these allegations and found out it’s not true, we now invite the petitioners to come and substantiate their allegations, but they don’t show up. So it takes a lot of time to do these discreet investigations. And for those with some substance, we begin investigations. It is when we have all the information we need that we invite the person for interrogation. In ICPC, we do not torture you to get information; we confront you with what we have.
From what you have said it’s obvious you have adequate tools to work with. The issue that is of concern to a lot of people is that in a country where corruption is seen as a major challenge to development, we have not had high profile convictions. Is it that corruption is exaggerated or that the ICPC is intimidated?
When you say adequate tools, it involves having a database of people who have been convicted or being investigated in all the agencies in Nigeria. I should be able to see that with a click on my laptop, but that is non-existent. I should have a good forensic laboratory, and a good one runs into millions. We don’t have it and very few agencies can afford that. Take the budget of agencies in Nigeria and check the percentage of capital against recurrent and personnel. If you give me four billion, for example, and I’m paying 3.5 billion as personnel, and 400 million as recurrent, what is left is a hundred million for capital. It is from this capital that I will be setting up my forensic laboratory; it is from this that I will be buying vehicles to replace aging ones; it is from this that I will be building investigative documentation. For example, if I want to scan your phone, there is an equipment that I need and the minimum cost of that equipment is N5million. So in terms of tools, we’re trying the very best we can.
The business of the anti-corruption agencies is to look at the facts, gather evidence and charge persons to court. If you go beyond charging the person to court and begin to force yourself on it, it becomes persecution. The court determines how that process goes on. But we have decided that to help the court system move faster, our investigations must be thorough. A good investigation would speak for itself and create little problem for the judge. That is why we have invested so much money in improving on investigative skills for our staff here. We have published all the cases that ICPC has been involved in from 2001 till date as part one. Some of those cases have been in court from 2006 till date. Some have moved to Supreme Court on objections by the parties. Some have moved back to the court of first instance, and that have taken about eight years.
But I’m happy to say that the administration of Criminal Justice Act has brought a lot of relief. And the present government is even talking about fast-track special courts for corruption matters. And don’t forget the most critical aspect: that they (accused) are all entitled to defence and they are not going to get new lawyers who just left the law school, they’re going to get some of the best lawyers money can get. And look at the money we spend on our lawyers traveling all over the country. And it is because we use our own internal lawyers most of the time is why we are even able to make some court appearances. If I were to pay external lawyers, by the first quarter of the year my votes on legal services would have been exhausted.
Are you supporting special courts for trial of corruption cases?
Whatever will lighten the work of anti-corruption agencies, bring faster dispensation of justice and restitution. I’m in support of any process that will do that. If you look at the Code of Conduct Bureau, they have a code of conduct tribunal that addresses infractions in that sector. The Federal Road Safety Commission has powers to set up mobile courts and you get instance justice when you drive one way. So, whatever will address the problem of corruption in terms of equipping the anti-corruption agencies, I am in support. Each state has been mandated to provide two anti-corruption judges. We can even increase the number to say five. We can also say if a judge is sitting on an anti-corruption matter and he’s elevated, he should be given special license to continue hearing that case to conclusion. These are aspects we can look at.
And when you talk about high profile, if somebody sits as a middle level pension officer and steals five billion, will you describe him as high profile? At times we concentrate on high profile persons and miss the quantum of what is involved. Some of these low-key persons have done more damage to our systems hiding under the cover of low profile. Look at a local government chairman; does he qualify as high profile? But he’s getting the kind of funds some ministers will not see. So we must begin to prioritize those we are looking at. Yes, its good to look at politically exposed high profile that you’re talking about, because if you’re able to punish those ones the message is bigger.
From your investigations, how serious is the issue of corruption in Nigeria?
If I say corruption is going down, those who are shouting corruption today will say crucify him. So let’s use objective indices. The objective indices I will prescribe to you, now is the Transparency International Reports. Go and start from 1995 when we were at the bottom of the whole world and track it from there. Have we not had a massive improvement in our telephone system? You don’t need an intermediary to charge you money before your line is fixed. So corruption has been almost totally eradicated in the telephone sector.
It appears that the anti-corruption agencies are afraid of the “big men” in Nigeria. The processes appeared to be targeted at the small men while the big ones – governors, ministers, presidents and so on are left to walk away.
Go through the list of the cases we published from 2001 till date and you will see what we are doing. Conviction is not my area; it is the judiciary. If I have powers to arrest and convict, that would be wrong. Another party should be able to review what I have done, and that’s the court.
Are you frustrated by the judiciary?
I am not frustrated by the judiciary; they are doing their own function.
Would you consider what the judiciary is doing as being enough to support what you are doing and achieve results?
I have told you my own constraints and problems in my own sector; it is your job to find out from the judiciary what their problems are. On my own part it is to deliver you to the court and have my evidence ready.
Are you not frustrated that after a good investigation and getting your evidence ready for the court, you still don’t get convictions?
I don’t bring in emotions because the moment I bring in emotions into those things, then it becomes persecution. I have an open mind about it because if you want to go the extra mile, that is not acceptable.
If you’re satisfied with the performance of the judiciary, then why are you advocating for a special court?
No, I’m not saying I’m satisfied, but what I’m saying is that you should go and find out their constraints. How many matters is a judge handling? What is the court environment like? We watch films of court processes abroad and I see the judge sitting comfortably because there is a verbatim reporter who is recording everything very fast. There is an electronic recorder too. The power is on permanently and the air conditioner is working. That same judge has as his legal aide somebody with a master’s degree in law going through all the citations you’re giving to him. It will be unfair for me to sit here and say I condemn the judiciary.
President Muhammadu Buhari has repeatedly said that if Nigeria does not kill corruption, corruption will kill Nigeria. He has also gone on to set up an anti-corruption panel. Is that not an indication that the president may not share your optimism that we are making progress in the fight against corruption?
Let me put it this way. If you’re producing a hundred bottles of soft drinks a day, won’t you want to increase it to one thousand? No institution in the world that needs to succeed that will not keep on improving on its systems. Even in the United States they are still improving their anti corruption systems. Otherwise the developed world would not be members of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime or subscribe to the United Nations Convention against Corruption. For countries like Norway or other countries to remain number one, do you think they will relax? They will keep improving. So, whatever the president is doing is in the right direction. If you’re producing rice in Nigeria, the ultimate is that you want to export rice. The fight against corruption is not the business of the anti-corruption agencies alone; it is for everybody.
Lets talk about funding. Do you have all you need to pursue and get the result that Nigerians expect from ICPC?
I think funding plays a very critical role in the success of any organization. You can have all the funds you need, but if it did not come at the right time, it may not serve good purpose. I do not want to use the issue of funding as if it’s an excuse for non-performance. But most anti-corruption and law enforcement agencies can do with more rational funding. When you’re spending everything on personnel and recurrent and very little on capital, which drives development, then there is problem.
A former chairman of ICPC once told us his frustration about getting fund approvals, and that sometimes they even shift the funds away from where it would be useful to others that the commission considered not as priority. What’s your own experience?
Some countries have gone round this issue of funding anti-corruption agencies by taking it as a percentage of the national budget. It will remove the problem of subjectivity, and I think the anti-corruption panel set up by the president would be looking at all of these options.
We read in the papers that the ICPC investigated some allegations against Mike Okiro, the chairman of the Police Service Commission, and asked him to refund some money. But the commission later came out to debunk the report and said it never asked the chairman to refund any money because the said money was still in an account of the commission. What is the truth about Okiro’s case?
We are coming out with our own position on it.
You can tell us now…
No! No! No! I won’t tell you right now. There are certain unconcluded aspects that we need to conclude.
We also read media reports that the Osun state Judge who wrote a petition to the State House of Assembly was invited by ICPC?
Yes, I also read that she sent her petition to ICPC and that she had been invited. The day I read that report we combed through our petition registry and didn’t see anything like that. We read a lot of things in the media. Sometimes I wake up to discover that an investigation is going on in ICPC that I’m not even aware of. I woke up one morning and read that ICPC puts all federal permanent secretaries on a watch list, and the report went ahead to mention some permanent secretaries. We immediately sent a rejoinder to that and it was tucked into an inner page.
But if you know the way ICPC has been functioning, for example, in the last two years we have been having annual retreats with all permanent secretaries where we sit down consciously and say these are the infractions. The Bureau for Public Procurement is also part of that annual retreat with the Head of Service. We spend serious time and go through all these processes. And it has paid off tremendously. Movement of funds in two key ministries, ministries of the Environment and Niger Delta were reported by the permanent secretaries to the ICPC. In fact at the Ministry of Environment, as soon as the alert of the movement of that fund, almost a billion Naira, came in, the permanent secretary called by phone to report it. It was on Friday and we moved in immediately and we were able to secure N640 million of the money that same day before it moved into other banks. By Monday and Tuesday of the following week we were able to recover the balance and the matter is in court now, they are being prosecuted. We have already seized about 24 properties of three officials involved in the sleaze and hopefully more will come. The permanent secretary of the Ministry of Health has also made similar reports to us.
Why are you not doing the same thing in the states and local governments where people believe a lot of sleaze is also taking place?
Yes, that’s why the law provides that ICPC should be in all the states of the federation. But we don’t have the resources to be in all the states. We only have offices in 13 states and created zonal offices in the six zones so that we can cover all the states where we don’t have offices. When we have the resources we would be in every state.
How many former governors or serving ones are you investigating?
As far as ICPC is concerned, every petition we receive we are bound to investigate. But like I said, we first check when, why and how, because if I go by the tweets I see then every governor would have this process going on.
How would the ICPC support President Buhari’s anti-corruption campaign?
That is what the ICPC was set up to do. We are giving the president a hundred percent support. I am happy as a person because we have always wanted a way to bring corruption to the front burner and let people understand that this is a major problem for us, and everybody. What the president has done has made corruption an issue that is being discussed everywhere today, and solutions are being offered and volunteers are coming out.
What do you think has changed in the war against corruption since Buhari came on board?
Oh, very sharp focus on the issue of corruption. Mass mobilization, everybody is speaking with one voice on the issue of corruption. From all the public talks that have been given and the happenings, I will say the climate supports the assertion that the president has the will to fight corruption. But the best support we can give to the president is for us, citizens, to also walk the talk by resisting extortion from public offices, standing up for what is right. They should not only resist such infractions but also report it to relevant anti-corruption agencies.
If President Buhari asked you to give him advice on how to be a great president for Nigeria at this time, what advice would you give him?
I probably would be telling him that I like our country to go back to what it was when I was growing up, where as a child in primary school at Ibadan, I looked forward to going to school because the teachers were good and I was sure of lunch. My parents would take me to hospital at Jericho Nursing Home and I will see doctors and nurses welcoming you, smiling and you were given immediate attention and given drugs. I could walk from my school with my friends without fear of being kidnapped. I took common entrance into Loyola College, Ibadan without knowing anybody and my name came out in the newspaper. I took entrance to University of Ibadan; my name came out in the newspaper without knowing anybody. I was interviewed, by Federal Civil Service Commission that came to our campus to interview us and we were given letters of appointment without knowing anybody. My parents could travel to any part of Nigeria without fear of armed robbery. I think this is what many Nigerians want to see.