22 April 2010

Nigeria: EFcc Vs Ibori - The Rule of Law On Trial


Lagos — The English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, in his classic work, Leviathan, posits that man is inherently savage and brutal, that he is moved to action not by his reason or the intellect but by his appetites, desires and passions. Is Nigeria regressing to Hobbes's state of nature, where the life of man is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short"? What has become of the rule of law and due process? Why is the polity being unnecessarily and avoidably heated up?

As is our wont, we do not pull any punches in defending the fundamental rights of the citizen, for it is our firm belief that human interactions in any civilised community should be guided by an agreed code of conduct, the infraction of which should attract sanctions. In this regard, we are mindful that Section 7 (1) of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) Act 2004 states: "The Commission has power to - (a) cause investigations to be conducted as to whether any person, corporate body or organization has committed an offence under this Act or other law relating to economic and financial crimes; (b) cause investigations to be conducted into the properties of any person if it appears to the Commission that the person's lifestyle and extent of the properties are not justified by his source of income."

According to press reports, the EFCC, in exercise of its statutory powers, wrote a letter dated March 22, 2010 requesting Chief James Ibori, a former governor of Delta State, to appear at the Abuja headquarters of the Commission on Saturday, April 17, 2010 "for interview" in "a case in which [Ibori's] name featured prominently" and delivered the letter to his Lagos residence at 4.20 p.m. on April 13, 2010. Curiously, however, at about 10 a.m. that same day (April 13), six clear hours before the EFCC letter was delivered, the air waves had been filled with news that the EFCC had declared Chief Ibori wanted for being on the run! Ibori immediately protested, through press statements, the oddity of the EFCC's action: declaring a man wanted four days in advance of the date chosen for him to turn up for questioning. He denounced it as evidence that the EFCC was on a deliberate mission to persecute him.

Given the available facts, we believe Chief Ibori was right in his conclusion. The EFCC's procedure is strange, nay, ominous, especially as the alleged "impending arrest" of the former governor by the anti-graft agency had been reported in some sections of the press nearly one week earlier. Besides, the EFCC had claimed, without evidence, in its media statement declaring Ibori wanted, that it had previously sent invitation letters to the ex-governor's homes in Abuja and Lagos without response. Who delivered the alleged earlier letters, and when?

Embarrassed by the hard evidence of its mischief, the EFCC next claimed, without evidence or corroboration, that its decision to declare Ibori wanted was based not on the letter delivered on April 13 to Ibori's Lagos residence, but on the commission's earlier informal invitations to the ex-governor, through the Delta State Government - which invitations, it alleged, Ibori had spurned. How strange, that a law-enforcement agency would opt to summon a suspect in a multi-billion naira fraud case, as it currently claims, through an intermediary!

Given the foregoing, we believe that Chief Ibori was justified to have exercised his constitutional right to seek protection in court from the EFCC's acts of persecution. His application to this effect is already before the Federal High Court, Asaba, which has ordered all the parties to the dispute not to take any action that would render the court's eventual decision a fait accompli. We think that by going to court, Ibori has done the proper and civilised thing, and that all the parties concerned should respect the subsisting pronouncements of the court on the matter. Incidentally, the EFCC's counsel is reported to have appeared before the court on Monday, April 19, 2010, when the motion on notice was heard.

Thus, reports of attempts by the EFCC and or the police - the latter citing special presidential orders and even a bench warrant - to arrest Chief Ibori on a matter that is the subject of a court trial are most disturbing. Particularly alarming are the reports of militant youths in Oghara, the ex-governor's hometown, allegedly rising in armed support of their kin. It is a dangerous dimension and we caution all sides to exercise extreme restraint. The path of the rule of law and due process is the only safe and civilised way to handle this matter.

Although this newspaper has consistently argued against any frivolous court injunctions precluding the EFCC or the police from carrying out their statutory duties, it is manifestly clear in the present case that there was a prima facie evidence for the Commission to be stopped in its tracks. Even the EFCC's choice of Saturday, April 17 for Ibori to appear at its office - on a non-working day - smells of bad faith. Was the day picked so that he may be conveniently detained for two days before official working hours? It now appears plausible that the allegation of political persecution against Chief Ibori is an albatross the Commission has to carry, until it can prove otherwise. We caution against any slide to the inglorious past of the Commission under Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, especially as the 2011 elections approach.

That the entrenched culture of corruption, impunity and abuse of power lies at the heart of the present ruinous state of the Nigerian polity and economy is a self-evident truism. Likewise is it self-evident that the government has a duty to investigate and prosecute all those reasonably suspected or accused of having broken the law. This cannot justify, however, the state or any of its agencies breaking one law in order to enforce another. The Mrs Farida Waziri-led EFCC, which, on several previous occasions, had received our plaudit for its preference for observing the rule of law, has manifestly bungled its current case against Chief Ibori. It should own up its error and withdraw from this provocative and malicious offensive against the former governor.

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