•‘The many road blocks to the anti-graft war’
•Explains why the agency body is back in the universities
By Soni Daniel, Regional Editor, North and Caleb Anyansina
Mr. Ekpo Una Owo Nta, lawyer and administrator, currently presides over the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission, ICPC, an agency charged with the task of fighting corruption in the country. Although Nta assumed office at a time the public perception of the anti-graft agencies in Nigeria is at its lowest ebb, the former OMPADEC director believes strongly that with proper education and determination, the scourge will be brought under control. He describes plea bargain as an acceptable international tool that Nigeria needs to move the corruption war forward.
What are you bringing differently on board to fight corruption in Nigeria?
I might not be coming to do something drastically different because we are guided by the rules and regulations and the Act establishing the ICPC. But the whole essence is that given the time we are in, our approach we be different because if we say we want to do things differently, it might sound as an indictment of my predecessors. The essence is to improve on what they have done. They have already put the structure in place and what am doing now is the proactive interpretation of what the Act intended that we should do.
What is the difference between ICPC and EFCC?
The major different between us has to be with our power of system study and system review, that gives us the latitude to look at any organization particularly in government, look at the processes and the structures that support or promote corruption and, on the basis of that, we recommend a new alternative and impose it on them if need be and, when those infractions continue, the Act also gives us the power like it does to EFCC to arrest and prosecute. The EFCC, if you read their Act, like the name implies, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, was set up as a response to money laundering activities, what you call 419 activities, internet scam, etc. We were principally set up to look at the abuse of office and engage in public enlightenment and education, which are very powerful tools that have been given to ICPC, and that is what most other commissions in other parts of the world have been charged to do, dealing with ethical issues. In some countries, you might find ethics and anti-corruption commission dealing with the kind of matters that we are handling in Nigeria. So, we are also looking at reforming ethics, which on its own, is a full-time engagement and we have started at the primary school level, collaborating with the Nigerian Education Research and Development Centre. We have succeeded in developing a curriculum for ethics and civics at the primary school level and we should be launching that very soon.
What’s the essence of this?
The essence is to reawaken Nigerians to the core values that make societies great. My desire is that ethics and civic will become a compulsory subject in Nigeria just like you have English and Mathematics, because we cannot be raising children in isolation of what is happening in their country and what is expected of them. We have engagement with the secondary school level through our Anti-corruption Vanguard, and, recently, you must have noticed that I have started serious interaction with the universities in a bid to reach out to the Nigerian youths. We are currently carrying out very ambitious system study of all Nigerian universities. We started with the pilot and, from the result that we saw; it was alarming enough for us to decide to do the entire gamut of the 127 Nigerian universities. It appears you may have an uphill task in checking illegal campuses in Nigeria since the Ministry of Education and the National Universities Commission, NUC, have not been able to checkmate the illegality despite strident efforts over the years.
Is that to say that they have the mandate to run illegal campuses? If you look at the name ICPC, you will notice that it is ‘Independent’ Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission. So, I will not close my eye when other offences are being committed, particularly, where I can trace the impunity of continuing to run such facilities might be getting assistance from officials that are not in the position to do so. I am sure you are aware that satellite campuses have been banned; if you do your research, you will find out that a particular polytechnic had satellite services going on at Nyanya and the main polytechnic outside Abuja was not even aware that it had a full satellite campus going on and issuing certificates to unsuspecting but desperate Nigerians until a ‘graduate’ of one of those so- called programmes graduated and took her papers for upgrading in the ministry where she was working. In turn, the ministry wrote back to the polytechnic to confirm and the main polytechnic said it was not aware of the existence of our institution in that part of the world. ICPC has raided that place and, any moment from now the promoters of the fake school will be charged to court to account for their actions.
Having been in the saddle for a few months now, are you satisfied with the law that set up the ICPC or do you think that there is an ingredient that is missing and should be strengthened to enable the commission bark and bite?
Let me say that the existing laws we have in this country are good enough to give us what we want if they are effectively implemented. It is not the issue of amending laws all the times, it is the will to execute those laws by the different agencies that are charged to execute those laws at whatever levels, be it education, information or regulatory processes. Maybe the only that should be looked into in our laws is the weight of sanction. If I were to say I have a problem with the way the present law was constituted that would be giving myself and this commission an excuse not to perform and that would not be acceptable to me and this commission. That is why I insist that we will work effectively with what we have on the ground. Whatever review that is going on will meet us on the way.
What is the relationship between ICPC and the judiciary in the effort to fight corruption?
I cannot say that the judiciary is my main problem. Whatever the case is, I believe that we can do better. Don’t forget that if you don’t have good investigation, you probably would find it a bit difficult to secure conviction. So, we are all working together now with the judiciary. We are attending the same programmes, they are doing mentoring programme for us, we are also highlighting some of the problems that we face in the field and I am seeing a better synergy between us and the court system and it can only get better. It is gratifying that they have also put in place a self-cleansing mechanism which you have seen. We commend them for that and the interface that is required will continue at the level of my office and at the level of the Chief Justice of the Federation. We are also have a good working relationship with the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation and we believe that, at the end of the day, we can effect the needed change in the system for the good of all Nigerians.
You recently tried to track unspent funds from Ministries, Departments and Agencies of the Federal Government. How much have you recovered so far?
I don’t have the exact figure of what has been returned with me here but we have informed all the agencies of the deadline we have set to check what they have given back to the Central Bank of Nigeria. It is only after that we would have known whether what we set out to do is being achieved. We want to see a percentage increase over what we recorded in 2011 and that will further trigger certain areas that we intend to look at. As a matter of fact, following the declaration by the Minister of State for Finance that they had discovered 45,000 ghost workers in the MDAs, I have instructed my staff to get information on the agencies where the ghosts are working because it will tie in to where we say that unspent money must be returned. We need to take it from the base and we know where we heading.
Do you think you have the capacity to deal with the growing number of vices in the educational system?
We have already built that into our system study and we have developed a template that will assist us in that regard. Part of what you must have read and seen me doing is to give ownership of that ultimate cleansing to institutions and bodies that operate within the educational sector. ASUU is ready to collaborate with the ICPC to clean up the system and bring sanity to the sector. As we speak, I have a letter signed by the Chairman and Secretary of ASUU in one of the southwest universities reporting an infraction in their university and an in- house committee has been set up to sanction all those found to have been involved in the infraction. The mere fact that they have written to the ICPC means that they are ready to partner with us and we are going to move into that immediately. I have already asked my staff to go into that university and collect the conclusion of the disciplinary committee that met on it.
Let me also use this forum to say that we have anti-corruption and transparency unit (ACT) in all the universities. I have also issued a circular directing that, henceforth; we must get status report on what is going on in all the universities on monthly basis. The moment the university lecturers and non-academic staff and those that work in whatever capacity in the university system begin to understand that routine report is going to ICPC, they may begin to have a rethink of their actions. By the time your names surface two, three times, then we will bring you in and you know what will happen there after. So, that check is there. I have had responses from students’ unions from various universities that they are ready to partner with us and I have had students calling me directly, I gave my telephone numbers and email address to students in each of the universities I visited to enable them call me directly and give me an idea of what infractions are being committed in those places for immediate actions. May be I should use this forum to sensitize Nigerian students that if you face a challenge which resulted from a consequence of corruption or negation of duty, it is much better to have second opinion from the ICPC than block the street in the name of protest, which could turn violent and lead to the loss of precious lives. We have done something already to resolve the problem in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. The institution decided to impose internet access charge on their students and the students felt aggrieved and were about going on demonstration. Others opted for peace and called in the ICPC. As soon as they reached the ICPC, I put a call through to the Vice Chancellor and put an officer the next morning on a flight to Enugu and I had one of my board members who is a professor here to speak with the Vice Chancellor and the matter has been resolved amicably just because of a phone call and a trip.
I think it is right to focus our attention on what is happening in the universities today because the students are the future leaders of our country. That is why we are also looking into the contracts which the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, gave out for the building of hostels for students across the region. We are interested in making sure that the contractors who collected billions of Naira as mobilisation fees complete the work as scheduled. We have complaints that some of the contractors have abandoned the work after collecting mobilisation fees running into billions of Naira. I am telling you that ICPC will take that up.
Why is it that the ICPC has not successfully prosecuted and convicted at least one top politician?
I must make a distinction between prosecution and persecution. We have to follow the courts in whatever we are doing. Don’t forget that there is a matter we thought we had concluded only for the Supreme Court to return it to us to start afresh at the lower court. Do you think if we had the opportunity, we would not have finished that matter many years ago? When you investigate a very complex matter, you may discover that the person who wrote the petition is not willing to come forward to testify when the matter goes to court. Some are not even willing to give further information or clarification on the petitions they had sent to the ICPC. In fact, you will find out that some petitioners change their minds in the middle of prosecution, saying that they were misled or something forced them to write the petition at the time they did. Successful prosecution must be evidence-based and your evidence must come through prosecution witnesses and, if you don’t have witnesses who are ready, you begin to rely on having to build strong circumstantial evidence.
How are you catching up on the preventive mechanism mandate of your commission?
If you look at our Act, 50% of our functions should be based on prevention, and the other 50% is shared out equally to investigation, prosecution, public enlightenment and education. On the 50%, which is prevention, that is where the present focus has been really intensified. This trend is not only being promoted in the ICPC but also around the world. We attend meetings of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes and people come there with their best practices and the general agreement is that prevention is better than cure. That is why we have started strengthening the capacity of our staff in the area of system study and the Act permits us to hire consultants in areas where we do not have enough hands to carry on with our work.
I have exercised that power particularly in the education sector. That is how I was able to bring in Prof. Okebukola to head the committee on the University System Study and Review, based on his intimate knowledge of the university system. As a matter of fact, we are looking forward for collaboration; there are certain international agencies that have indicated interest in that particular study and it can be replicated and used in addressing the problem of universities, polytechnics, colleges of education, etc.
What are the challenges the ICPC is grappling with?
The immediate challenge I face has to do with the apathy of Nigerians in corruption-related matters. The average Nigerian seems to see corruption as something that does not concern him and, as such, shies away from giving information about those who are aiding and abetting graft under their nose.
I have been tried to raise their consciousness that corruption war concerns everyone and must be taken seriously by all Nigerians if we must have a breakthrough in that regard. This is because if your child, wife or associate dies in an ill-equipped maternity because he or she does not have the right drugs or equipment despite the money released by government, it becomes a big loss to you and the nation just because of silence. Similarly, corruption can affect you and your children who are studying in substandard schools after the administrators must have pocketed the money meant for the proper equipping of such schools. But I am happy that the apathy is beginning to change because after the fuel subsidy issue many Nigerians now ask questions on what has been subsidised and how they must get real value for their money: they don’t want to be short changed anymore by anyone.
What legacy are you leaving behind at the ICPC?
I am looking towards leaving behind a legacy where every Nigerian will be conscious of his rights and insist on those rights without having a policeman behind him. I want to awaken the consciousness of every Nigerian to the rules that govern the society and make him to live by those laws at all times, as is the case in other societies.
I want to change the mentality of a Nigerian from the carelessness that has been driven into his head to a situation where he drives to the traffic light; there is no policeman or traffic warden but he stops once there is red light and moves when the green light comes on.
I want to see a situation in Nigeria where a man takes his daughter to school and they say he must pay a bribe and he refuses but insists his child must be enrolled in that school on merit.
I am dreaming of a situation where a woman goes to hospital and demands and gets service and goes to get justice if she does not get what she wants from the health facility.
Do you believe in plea-bargaining?
I am asking because the way it has been applied in Nigeria makes it look like a 419 tool. If you goggle the world plea-bargaining, you will have a lot of materials on it. Why? Are we not the same people applauding the British government for incarcerating James Ibori after he escaped punishment in Nigeria? Ibori’s incarceration is the product of plea-bargaining. It would have cost the British government £26 million to secure his conviction for the offences that he was facing in the UK, but he had an option to plea-bargain and took the lighter sentence and the cost of the investigation and prosecution came to only £14 million. That arrangement saved the British taxpayers £12 million, but he got punishment for owning-up immediately. Plea-bargaining is an acceptable tool that aids law enforcement, but it must be judiciously used, because if you don’t use it judiciously, it can also turn out as an abuse of office.
When your name was announced as the ICPC boss, how did you feel? Excited, anxious or challenged as the one being saddled with the risky job of fighting corruption in Nigeria?
Supposing I am walking in the street and a car hits me?
That would be regarded as an accident. Well, the truth is that somebody has to this job. The job you think is really dangerous is because you have not looked at the other person’s job. The surgeon who is busy operating on an HIV patient might in the process of the operation nit himself. I know of doctors who have died in that respect. I am not even talking of commercial bus drivers, who take up a journey and might not get to the end of the trip. Everybody has risk factors. What of the risk in journalism? Dele Giwa is a classic example but that does not mean that this job must be abandoned. I will do it to the best of my ability because the effect of corruption also tells on me and my family. No matter who you are, when you go outside the country, they check you as if you are nobody whereas others are treated with respect when they come to Nigeria. That is why I am ready to put in my best and change the way things are being done in this county. I am not afraid to do battle corruption in all facets of our national life to as to give Nigeria a new lease of life and prepare a better future for our children. That is my goal and motivation.
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