Leadership (Abuja)

Nigeria: Elite Still Looting Country Blind - Human Rights Watch

Almost eight years after the inception of the nation's key anti-graft agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), corruption remains so pervasive in Nigeria that it has turned the public service into a criminal enterprise, fuelled political violence, denied millions access to the most basic health and education services and reinforced police abuses and other widespread patterns of human rights violations.

This was the damning verdict handed down by the United States-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a report, a copy of which was released to LEADERSHIP yesterday.

The body stressed that anti-graft war in Nigeria has been politicized and Nigerian elite and public officers have continued looting public funds, hence the need for President Goodluck Jonathan to urgently fix the EFCC and refrain from political interference in its work.

The Chairperson of the EFCC, Mrs. Farida Waziri, also came under criticism from the rights group for her alleged failure to successfully prosecute any prominent politician in the country since she assumed duty as the head of the anti-graft agency in 2008.

It recalled that acts of spectacular incompetence have afflicted the EFCC under both Ribadu and Waziri, and blamed the operation of the agency under its former Chairman for failing to appeal a 2007 tenuous legal court ruling that purported to bar the EFCC from investigating alleged crimes by former Rivers State governor, Dr. Peter Odili.

Meanwhile, the EFCC has reacted to HRW's position, claiming the agency has done very well in carrying out the requirements of its challenging brief.

According to the 64-page report, "Corruption on Trial: The Record of Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission", anchored by its Nigerian researcher Eric Guttschuss who extensively analysed the agency's record, "Since the commission was established in December 2002, it has publicly challenged the long-time ironclad impunity of Nigeria's political elite - an accomplishment without precedent in Nigeria.

"The agency has arraigned 30 nationally prominent political figures on corruption charges, including 15 former state governors. But many of those cases have made little progress in the courts, Human Rights Watch found, and not a single politician is serving prison time for any of these alleged crimes.

"The commission has secured four convictions of senior political figures, but they have faced relatively little or no prison time. Other politicians widely implicated in corruption have not been indicted.

"There were high hopes for the EFCC as Nigeria's most promising effort to tackle corruption since the end of military rule. But its efforts have fallen short because of political interference, institutional weakness, and inefficiency in the judiciary that cannot be ignored. "The country's governing elite continues to squander and siphon off the nation's tremendous oil wealth, neglecting basic health and education services for the vast majority of ordinary citizens.

"Widespread graft has fuelled political violence, police abuses, and other human rights violations. Human Rights Watch examined court records in key corruption cases and interviewed current and former commission and other anti-corruption agency officials, members of the National Assembly and judiciary, Central Bank officials, prosecutors and defence lawyers, foreign diplomats and donor agency officials, and civil society leaders. In the report, Human Rights Watch lays out concrete recommendations for bolstering the institution and removing impediments to its work."

Comparing the tenures of EFCC's pioneer chairman and its present boss, the report stated "Nuhu Ribadu, the first chairman of the commission, captured the imagination of many Nigerians with his fiery, rhetorical attacks on corruption and his unprecedented efforts to pursue high-level political figures. But his tenure was also mired in controversy that included accusations of political bias and allegations that he ran roughshod over the due process rights of some suspects.

"The current chairperson, Farida Waziri, on the other hand, has been widely accused by many Nigerian observers of lacking the leadership needed to push forward the agency's anti-corruption work. But a comparison of the commission's track record in fighting high-level corruption yields a more consistent and complicated picture than most analysts might expect, with neither Ribadu nor Waziri able to claim many tangible results, Human Rights Watch found.

"The Human Rights Watch analysis reveals that executive interference with the commission, and a political establishment that continues effectively to reward corruption, has undermined the country's anti-corruption efforts and derailed key prosecutions. The commission's chairperson remains deeply vulnerable to the whims of the president and lacks security of tenure.

"President Jonathan should break from the bad practices of past administrations, publicly signal he will not perpetrate or tolerate interference in corruption cases, and grant the chairperson security of tenure by amending the legislation that created the commission.

HRW also blamed the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences (ICPC) and the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) for failing to complement the efforts of the EFCC.

It said: "On paper, both institutions have powers that in some ways outstrip those of the EFCC. Unfortunately, they have been ineffectual relative to their size and statutory power and have displayed little appetite for tackling high-level corruption. They need to be empowered with new leadership and prodded to live up to their mandates and complement the EFCC's own work."

The report further showed Waziri's record against high-level corruption was comparable to that of Nuhu Ribadu who was the former Chairman of the agency in terms of tangible results, stressing that none of them could claim much real success.

On its part, the EFCC yesterday stated that the anti-graft agency had done well in fighting corruption over the last three years.

Spokesman of the agency, Mr. Femi Babafemi told LEADERSHIP, while responding to the HRW report, that the commission under Waziri had surpassed the record of conviction of high profile suspects, but blamed the slow judicial process for obtaining justice for much of the snag in the anti-graft campaign.

"It's clear the report acknowledges the fact that the commission has done much more in the last three years as against claims by its critics and thereafter dwells on what it considers as constraints to speedy trial of over 1500 cases pending in courts."

"This is where lies the challenges for every stakeholder to get involved and get these cases dispensed with," he said.

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