‘Conceal your assets, face 21 years’ imprisonment’–Obono-Obla - Welcome to Uju Ayalogu's Blog

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Tuesday, 22 August 2017

‘Conceal your assets, face 21 years’ imprisonment’–Obono-Obla

‘Conceal your assets, face 21 years’ imprisonment’–Obono-Obla

Chief Okoi Obono-obla

Chief Okoi Obono-Obla, the President’s Senior Special Assistant on Prosecution, can be fiery if the discussion is on corruption. To him, many lawyers and the courts are not helpful when it comes to tackling the malaise.

Obono-Obla, who has just been named chairman of the Special Presidential Investigation Panel for the Recovery of Public Property, tells ERIC IKHILAE  how his panel hopes to operate, his fear for the Judiciary and why it appears difficult to tackle corruption.

The constitution of your panel was announced about two weeks ago. When will you begin work?

We have begun work. Although we are yet to have an office, we have made a request for an office and some other things that we need to start work effectively, and I believe the government is doing something about it.

Currently, we are doing preliminary work and trying to see how we can map out strategies to enable us do our work well. I am very certain that, in the next two weeks, we should take off effectively.
By the law setting up your panel, you appear to have a broad mandate. From where do you intend to begin?

You are right. The law is all-embracing, very comprehensive and broad. But, we do not intend to go on a wild goose chase. We are going to look at certain areas, focus on them and ensure that we do the work the way those who appointed us want us to do it.

So, what areas are you focusing on?

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We will look at the oil and gas industry for instance. Then, the Judiciary and other areas that need to be urgently cleansed up.

How do you react to the argument that your panel amounts to a duplication of effort on the part of the government, because the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission (ICPC), the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) and other related agencies are already doing what you have been asked to do?

Those who hold that position are ignorant, with due respect.  First, Nigeria is a member of the United Nations systems. In 2003, the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) was enacted. Some aspects of that convention make provisions for national governments to set up multiple anti-corruption bodies to address the issue of corruption.

This is because the convention identifies corruption as a threat to humanity, to development, to democracy, to the society, among others. I can tell you that organised crimes like terrorism and money laundering are all a dialectical consequences of corruption.

So, we have the Nigeria Police, which can investigate all forms of crime, including corruption, economic and financial crimes.The EFCC, the ICPC and the CCB are all there doing the same thing.

So, what distinguishes your panel from these bodies?

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Let me tell you, the Recovery of Public Property (Special Provisions) Act Cap R4 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria predates the EFCC Act, ICPC Act and even the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act (CCB/T Act). So, I can say that the law, setting up our panel, is the oldest anti-corruption law in Nigeria.

But, unfortunately, successive governments did not have the will, the commitment to fight corruption. That is why that law was left in a state of limbo. Now, we have a government that is committed to fighting corruption, and the government has gone to exhume the law from where it was buried.

There are differences between my panel and the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCB/T). For example, the CCB/T cannot impose a term of imprisonment. My panel has the jurisdiction to investigate the assets of a public officer.

If we find out that you suppress some information about your assets, then we can file a charge against you at the Federal High Court. And, if you are found guilty, you will be sentenced to 21 years’ imprisonment. Such provision is not there in the CCB/T Act.

In what areas is your panel different from the anti-graft bodies?

Under the law setting us up, if you under declare your assets, or if you have more assets than what your legitimate earnings can accommodate, we can investigate you, send our findings to the Federal High Court. And, if you are found guilty, you will be sentenced to life imprisonment.

This is the only law that has provision for life imprisonment for corruption, embezzlement, contributing to the economic adversity of Nigeria. You will not that the CCB/T covers public officers alone.

The law, under which we are to operate, also extends to those in the private sector. It also extends to relatives of public officers. For example, a lot of public officers keep funds and acquire property in the names of relatives, their children, their wives, cousins, aunties, their friends, among others.

So, this law gives us the power to investigate relatives and friends of public officers to see if they have acquired assets that are inconsistent with their legitimate earnings. So, you can see the differences now between out panel, the EFCC, ICPC and the CCB/T.

If you say your panel can examine issues relating to economic and financial crimes, how will it work around the obstacle created by Section 6 (C) of the EFCC Act, which grants exclusive powers to the EFCC on such matters?

You see, as I noted earlier, that, under the UNCAC, there is room for national government to set up agencies whose functions in relation to corruption overlap. So, there is nothing wrong with that.  We will do what we call, inter-agencies collaboration, partnership and cooperation.

But, I can say that the law that sets up our panel is different substantially from others. The functions may seem similar, but the law is unique in its own way.

I have given you the example of the provision for life imprisonment that is not in the CCCB/T, which only confiscate the assets found to have been unlawfully acquired and bars the public officer from further holding public office. But, under this law, you will go to prison for 21 years.

Do you imply that your panel can undertake prosecution on its own?

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Yes. It will be unconstitutional for us to investigate and pass on our findings to another body to do the prosecution. We will investigate and prosecute as far as the assets of public officers and those in private sector are concern.

For instance, a drug baron may not be working in the public sector, but he has assets. And if we find out that he acquired these assets through unlawful activities (because that is what the law said), then we are empowered to go after such a drug baron.

Also, somebody who indulges in money laundering, but who cannot be classified as belonging to either the public or private sector, but has acquired assets that are suspicious, we can go after him, seize those assets and charge him to court.

So, you can see the differences and why I said the laws are different, although they may look similar on the surface.

The Executive has consistently accused the Judiciary of not supporting its anti-corruption efforts. But, people wonder why this same Executive has not deemed it fit to reach out to the Judiciary for support?

We do not want to interfere with the functions of the Judiciary. The Constitution has spelt out the functions of the different arms of government. In theory, we are separated, but in practice, we are supposed to work together. But, we will not go out of our way to interfere with the internal workings of the Judiciary.

We will not tell the judges how to dispense justice. They should dispense justice in accordance with their oath of office. If government says corruption is a problem, we expect the Judiciary, that is part of government to also see corruption as a problem. But, we have not seen that.

For instance, we have judges, who have been indicted. Yes, I feel a judge, who has been investigated from criminal allegations for corruption, even if he is acquitted by a court of law, his integrity is at stake. His honour is at stake, because a judge ought to be like Caesar’s wife, who is above suspicion.

So, if a judge has brought himself to the level of being investigated by law enforcement agencies, has been accused of corruption and has been docked, though not sent to prison, that judge has lost his credibility to sit as a judge.

As a lawyer, I will find it difficult to appear before that judge and defer to him/her. You may ask me why. It is because we, in the legal profession, consider judges as representing God.

That is why we address judges as ‘My Lord;’ that is why we bow when we see them. We respect them. We consider the status of a judge as prestigious.  So, a judge, who has lost that toga of integrity, credibility and honour should cease to be a judge.

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So, how do think the Judiciary should approach this issue?

What I expect the Judiciary to do, if it is working in tandem with the Executive, is for the National Judicial Council (NJC) to make a list of all the effected judges and hand to Mr. President to either retire or dismiss them.

The perception out there is that you, as a person, have, in recent time, been hard on the Judiciary. Don’t you think this could affect you when you return to practice?

I will return to practice when I am done here. I am not afraid that the position I take now could affect me, because I am not against any judge. I am executing my official brief and I will do it professionally, conscientiously and diligently, without minding whose ox is gored.

So, that is it. I will return to practice, because I have not done anything wrong. If anybody feels bad that I have done my job professionally, let them forgive me for that, but I have to do my job. I am not hard on the Judiciary.

I want the proper thing to be done, because I have been part of the system and know what goes on within the system. So, I feel for the legal profession.

I am passionate about the Bar and the Judiciary as a whole. I tell you, we are endangered if we do not take steps to restore the confidence of the public to the system. We are on the blink of extinction.

How will you react to the criticism that this administration has not recorded much success in the prosecution of high-profile corruption cases despite its claim to be fighting corruption?

I do not agree with the position, because we have had quite a number of convictions. As a matter of fact, the EFCC said last week that it recently recorded about 200 convictions. That is salutary.

The case of the former Adamawa State governor, whose conviction was reversed by the Court of Appeal, has not been concluded. I believe an appeal should be before the Supreme Court by now. So, we can only conclude on that after the Supreme Court gives its verdict. The Supreme Court can restore his conviction.

So, we should wait until all these cases are heard at the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court before we can say whether or not the cases were properly handled. But for now, it is premature to say so. I believe the EFCC is doing a good work and we are going to see more convictions in the next few months.

The report on bribery and corruption in Nigeria, which was just released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), confirmed that, despite this government’s claim of fighting corruption, it is still prevalent. What do you think is wrong?

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That survey was carried out five years ago. It is not a reflection of the true position of things in the country. Let us be fair. This government has done well as long as fighting corruption is concerned. It is not easy.

Corruption in Nigeria has become endemic. And this government has done very well.  Look at the amount of money that we have recovered. Look at the property we have recovered from looters. Look at the number of cases on-going in court. This is unprecedented in the history of Nigeria.

High placed persons, ex-ministers, ex-governors and others are standing trial. So, you cannot say that this government’s fight against corruption is not yielding results. You know it will be impossible to totally eradicate corruption. We will reduce corruption, because there is corruption in every society.

The most important thing is that anybody that is found corrupt should be punished. And that is what we are trying to do – to punish anybody, who indulges in corruption. But we are not saying we are going to eradicate corruption completely. You know that is impossible. But, we will try to reduce corruption to the barest minimum,

What is the government doing to recover the $15 million seized from the Goodluck Jonathan-government by the South African government? Has Nigeria forfeited it  to South Africa?

I do not have a brief on that. Maybe you should ask the EFCC or other relevant agencies. I also read about the seizure during President Jonathan’s government, but I do not know what the current situation is.

Shouldn’t your panel be interested in such issues?

If it is brought to our attention, we will look at it. We can take steps. We can request for documents relating to the transaction. We can execute bench warrant on anybody. So, maybe we will look into it. We will look into it.

Culled : Nation

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