‘Nigerians need moral rearmament if war against corruption must be won’
Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC), Prof. Itse Sagay (SAN), in this interview with ONYEDIKA AGBEDO, expresses disappointment with Nigeria’s ranking in the latest Corruption Perception Index released by Transparency International (TI). While he accepts that corruption still persists in the country, he argues, with facts, that the menace has been widely tamed by the present administration, describing TI’s report as “false and totally unrelated to reality.” Sagay, however, believes that government still has a lot of work to do to win the war against graft and offers the way out.
What is your take on the latest Corruption Perception Index on Nigeria released by Transparency International (IT)?
I think it is an extremely misleading and indeed mischievous report for many reasons. One, if you look at the methodology, it says perception. Perception means that you are not going to do any basic research than simply going to find out from some people or institutions what they think; and regardless of whether what they think is right or wrong, you just put it down and publish it. That’s irresponsible as far as I am concerned.
If you look at this country since 2015, there are a lot of upset and angry elites who had access to easy, unearned money, which they were sharing among themselves. They are no longer having access to such money. They are angry! If you go and ask that sort of person what is his perception of corruption, he will say, ‘oh, corruption has not changed; it’s even worse.’ And most elites are in that situation. I have met a lot of them.
Those who were involved in petrol subsidy scam were all elites but they are no longer having the opportunity. Those who were having many bank accounts in different names have been stopped. The Bank Verification Number (BVN) has now totally limited you to one bank account so all your transactions would be seen; you can be identified. Then there is the Treasury Single Account (TSA). All these things have made the possibility of corruption very, very risky and difficult. And many elites who were enjoying fraudulent money and stolen assets before these controlling measures were introduced are upset. So, if you go to the streets and start asking people and they are mainly people who are not happy, what do you want them to say? So, perception index is a fraudulent method to use to judge any nation state of corruption and transparency.
Two, they could easily have gone to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission (ICPC) to check their records for the past four years and compared it to what it was before. The impression they gave in that report is as if we have gone back and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) had the boldness to come back to say that ‘you can see that it was worse than when we used to be there.’
All that TI needed to do was to check the records. Go to ICPC, Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) and EFCC, and they will see that there have been spectacular achievements with over one trillion naira recovered with the whistle-blower policy and almost 2000 convictions in over four years including three ex-governors. So many other things have happened; I mean the whole anti-corruption struggle has been transformed.
Institutions like PACAC have been created which have been doing empowerment programmes for the anti-corruption agencies, training them in all sorts of things. Even judges are being trained on how to understand and interpret anti-corruption legislation and apply it in their courts. ICPC and EFCC are operatives are being taught how to go through the process of investigation, drawing up of charges and how they should cooperate. This government is doing so many things. But the TI will just come in from nowhere and concoct some rubbish, publish it and just want everybody to applaud it. And it’s just fake! It’s false; it’s totally unrelated to reality.
But do you agree that the TI used the same parameter in assessing all the countries?
Well, you can fool everybody; you don’t have to fool Nigeria. They can fool the whole world but we are not impressed. We know that they are wrong. I have just told you now what the PDP is saying; that the situation is worse now than when they were in power. That is the interpretation of TI’s report. It just shows you that TI’s work is rubbish. Absolute rubbish!
So what do you think should be Nigeria’s position in that report?
Nigeria has been hailed by the whole world. President Muhammadu Buhari was made the champion of anti-corruption in Africa by all other African states. Doors are being opened in Europe and America since this man came to power because they have seen that he has the will power to fight corruption and he is fighting it successfully. So, they are all inviting him – Britain, America, Europe and all over the world. They are all happy to see him because they know he is a man of integrity who is strenuously taking his country on the path out of corruption. It’s going to be a long path; we are still in it but we have made tremendous progress. This is what TI is trying to deny.
Don’t you think the perceived lack of transparency in managing recovered loots and assets could have earned Nigeria that poor ranking?
You see, this is the other thing I’m even saying. I can forgive TI. They are not a Nigerian body; they are from Germany. But what excuse do you have as a journalist in this country for saying you don’t know how this money has been used? No excuse at all! We have said it more than a thousand times; we have screamed from the rooftops that we are ploughing it back into social investments. We have passed it through the parliament in the budget. They approved it; we are using it. We are feeding 12 million children everyday in school. We are giving poor families N5,000 a month. We are giving free loans to small and micro scale businesses. We are training young people in skills and paying them N30,000 a month. That is where all the money is going into. We have screamed for Nigerians to hear but Nigerians refuse to hear.
But where is the impact of these interventions? It looks obscured from the public whether it’s about the school feeding programme or N5,000 stipend to the vulnerable.
About 33 states are enjoying the free lunch for school children right now. Go and ask the parents of those children and they will tell you whether they are not feeling the impact. Children who were not in school are now enrolling so they can enjoy that meal. We have over 100,000 cooks who have got employment. Farmers who are selling eggs and so on are doing a booming business. So, let nobody tell you that it has not made impact. We have turned out over 500,000 youths with skills. Many traders have got interest free loans ranging from N50,000 to N100,000 and N500,000, which they have used, paid back and got higher loans on the same terms. It won’t come to your level; you are too high. There is no way it will come to your level. The government is attending to the most vulnerable people in the country first.
How are the beneficiaries selected?
Oh! Some are straight-forward. Like the school feeding programme, once a state organises itself, the schools will just benefit. There is nothing to select there. Where selections are made like who is the poorest of the poor that should get N5,000 at the end of the month, it’s the United Nations (UN) that does it, not even Nigeria. It’s their officials who come to institute the programme; all we do is to follow their recommendations. We do not do it. The UN was doing it on their own until we had money to do it and they just started doing it for us too with more money. That is what is happening.
What about the expectation that the government will reduce the high cost of governance in the country?
Well, cost of governance has been tackled to a certain extent in the sense of the systems being put in place to trace ghost workers, like the one the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) is fighting against. So much billions have been saved particularly under the former Minister of Finance, Mrs Kemi Adeosun, and present minister is continuing it. A lot of ghost workers have been discovered and the money that was being paid to those people has gone back to the treasury for use in valid and genuine activities.
But the general economic situation of this country is still dire; there is no question about that. When this government came, it was like they found themselves in the hole economically; they had to dig themselves out. I think they are just getting to the level ground now. So, nobody will feel any major impact yet. May be before the end of these four years we will see our GDP going up. It’s pretty low now but everything will be going up. There will be more employment, people will be earning more and there will be a lot of economic activities, which will make people happier. But it is a long, hard labour or struggle.
Why has the government not done anything about the jumbo earnings of political office holders in the country?
In fact, you will know I’m one of those who have been advocating that what our government officials are earning, particularly the legislature, is immoral. It’s outrageous. Officially they are earning about N15 million a month. The way they deceive us is that their salary is under N1 million but under allowances, there are over 15 items that will bring it to about N15 million a month. That is there. Then constituency projects, they are milking it. Budget padding is also there. All sorts of things! If you want to go for oversight duties, you demand that the host you are going to examine will provide the funds for you to do the job. I mean are you not compromised? So, that problem is there.
Nevertheless, I have found that as far as that is concerned, there is no difference between PDP and APC legislators. They are united when it comes to money. They are so solidly united that even the most radical, most liberal and most socially oriented among them are involved in this money thing. That’s a problem.
But what can the government do? These are people whom you need to pass your legislation. To what extent can you try to strangulate them from having money if you want your programmes to go through? It’s a big dilemma. So, the only way is really to find a way of pricking their consciences for them to agree that what they are doing is wrong; that Nigeria, which is one of the poorest countries in the world, should not have one of the highest paid legislators in the world. It’s a dilemma and we all acknowledge it.
With your submission here, you appear to agree with TI’s position that corruption is still very pervasive in Nigeria?
There is corruption in the country but I don’t agree with TI. Corruption has reduced drastically; that’s the point. It’s not that there is no corruption, there is corruption but it has reduced drastically. The government has moved against it very harshly. And TI is giving the impression that this whole anti-corruption thing is moving in the wrong direction; that it is getting high. That’s a big lie! Things are much better now than they used to be and they are getting better everyday. Now, you don’t have what obtained in those days when politicians shared recovered proceeds of corruption. It can never happen under the Buhari government. Never!
How would you react to the fact that the entire anti-corruption efforts appear to be concentrated at the centre with nothing virtually happening at the state and local council levels? Isn’t that a drawback?
It’s a drawback; and it’s a drawback because we are a federation. So, the Federal Government cannot control what the states are doing. But my committee has been going from state to state to engage the state governments on this anti-corruption drive. We have covered about 25 states so far. We have taken the message to them using the facilities of the National Orientation Agency (NOA). We are doing that as a body to try and bring in the state governments to be conscious of this battle, to be involved, to behave like a stakeholder because they have not been doing that. That is going on now.
Has your committee done anything towards curbing corruption in the civil service, which has become more or less embedded?
Yes, it is embedded. It is a culture; it’s a very strong, hard culture. Many of the buildings recovered in Abuja and Lagos belong to civil servants, huge structures with some costing billions and located in the best parts of town. Of course, once the buildings are discovered and you put the initial application for temporary forfeiture and they are invited to declare their interest and explain how they got the money, they deny having anything to do with it and they just let the building go. There are many structures like that that have been taken over by the EFCC and the ICPC because there was no opposition. So, the civil service thing is serious but the ICPC is after them. With Prof. Owasanoye there, in the next three years we are going to see a lot of development and exposure of these people because he is not only very knowledgeable, he is a good strategist. He is also a very strong-minded person of the highest integrity, totally unapproachable by anybody. So, he is going to be a big headache for them.
What has government done to block identified loopholes in the civil service?
I think what the anti-corruption agencies are doing now is that they are sending small teams to monitor what is going on in the ministries and report back so that the anti-corruption agencies will have an idea of the degree of corruption within the ministries. We will see how successful it’s going to be. These are people that would likely be faced with attempts to compromise them. I know the system; we are in this country. But that is what is happening.
In the last four years, there have been a lot of prosecutions but fewer convictions. Why has it been so?
We have had almost 2,000 convictions in the last four years, the crowning ones being the three ex-governors who were convicted. So, it could be better. Before 2015, it was an impossible task because the Senior Advocates would bring in spurious preliminary objections and interlocutory applications that would delay the case for over 12 years without going forward or backward. In fact, in the end we were getting accused people who were neither guilty nor innocent because nothing was achieved.
But with the Act that is now being properly implemented, things are much faster. These Senior Advocates cannot hold the courts anymore. That law says that even if bring a motion or application, the court has no jurisdiction. The court is obliged to hear the main case, hear that application together and deliver judgment together; it shouldn’t abandon the case. That has been yielding a lot of result. Another thing that used to happen was when a judge has heard a case and was almost giving judgment they would promote him. The result was that a new judge would take over the case and start all over again. Now the new law says that if you are promoted you will conclude your case. So, there are a lot of improvements and we have seen the results in increased convictions.
How can the country achieve success in the anti-graft campaign?
We have to go into what I call moral rearmament. Again, that is going on between the EFCC and ICPC. They are going to secondary schools and universities creating integrity clubs to encourage the young ones to be oriented towards integrity. There is also the Nigerian Women Integrity Club instituted by the EFCC.
On our part, we are bringing religious leaders together to discuss the problems in detail and then strategise on what to do. When they leave, they spread the message in their congregations. We also have meetings with Nigerian professional bodies like the NBA, NMA, surveyors, accounts and others. They have an association in which all professional associations are members. We have met with the leaders and we have had conferences with them on how they can make provisions to sanction their members who are corrupt and introduce a whole new set of ethics into their professions. We are also holding meetings with Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) so they too can use their influences. These are proactive approaches and I think over the years it will begin to have an effect. It’s a problem. But we just have to keep on trying.
Do you think the creation of a special court for trial of corruption cases will enhance the fight against corruption?
Yes! PACAC has a bill in the National Assembly for the creation of a special court for corruption and allied crimes. The bill is there already. Under the bill, every State and Federal High Court will create a special court for only such cases. Corruption is number one but the court will handle things like narcotics, terrorism and drugs. Once you create that court, the cases will be heard more quickly and the judges will specialise and be more efficient in handling such cases. Right now there is a temporary solution. Every court now has created a division for that. So, that is already happening. What we are going to do now is to formalise it into law and create a special court, not just a division.
Why the President, his vice, governors and deputy governors have refused to declare their assets publicly in spite of the agitation by the CSOs?
Legally, they are not obliged to. All that the law requires is that they should declare their assets and file it with the CCB. They are not required to make it public. Some people may feel those who are demanding that they want to see their assets are invading their privacy. People may feel that way.
So, I will not condemn them. If they feel uncomfortable, then there is no need for them to. There is already a sanction if your filing is false or inaccurate and we saw what happened to a former Chief Justice of the Federation the other time. I think that is enough. But if somebody wants to publish his own, let it be voluntary, not compulsory.
Last year, the President suspended the Chairman of the Presidential Panel for Recovery of Public Assets, Okoi Obono-Obla, over alleged falsification of records and financial impropriety. It looks like the suspension was mere smokescreen. What is the state of that case?
I don’t really know. He disappeared from the public. Some said he was out of the country; others said he is back secretly. But I know that he has been removed from the position because it was alleged that he was abusing it. Otherwise the body was validly created; it’s an old provision. It has been there since 1984, the first coming of Buhari. It was then called Recovery of Public Property Special Military Tribunal; that was where people were being sent to 200 or 400 years whatever. But it has now been amended to bring it under the civilian provision and it’s now called Recovery of Public Properties Special Provisions Act. It still contains very stringent provisions; there is life imprisonment in it and so on for corruption.
The panel was created to do the initial spadework. They may invite you to give you forms to declare your assets and after they have gone through it, if they are not satisfied, they will turn you over to the Ministry of Justice to now do the prosecution. So, it’s a long-standing committee. And what was said was that Obla was misusing his powers. I don’t know the facts but a lot of officials complained to me that he was misusing his powers; that he was blackmailing those invited by the committee and that he was demanding some rewards or assets in order not to carry on with the investigation or not forward cases for prosecution.
Another mistake he made was that he was prosecuting directly; he is not empowered to do so under the Act. After doing interrogations, investigations and writing a report, he is supposed to hand it over to the Ministry of Justice to do the prosecution. But he was doing the prosecution directly, which was declared to be illegal. So, he made a lot of mistakes.
That is already in public domain but the case appears to have been buried under the carpet…
(Cuts in) I don’t really know what happened. If he is back to the country we don’t really know. If he is out of the country what can you do?
But the EFCC has been pressing for the extradition of somebody like former Minister of Petroleum, Diezani Allisson-Madueke to the country to face prosecution…
(Cuts in) You can’t compare them. This is a relatively minor allegation. Diezani’s own is mindboggling. A person who can collect jewelries alone of over $40 million, you can imagine what the person has stolen in terms of buildings and cash from oil money and so on. It’s will be unbelievable. I think the day the totality of what that woman took from this country is put together, it will make some people to just go mental, with distress and heartbreak.
With your position in respect of Obono-Obla’s case, don’t you think the PDP is justified when it accuses the Buhari administration of selective prosecution of the war against corruption?
What I’m saying is that it will be foolish to put in the same amount of resources and time into looking for a small minnow like Obla when we have bigger cases to deal with. So, I am not saying that they have given him up. I don’t know what they are doing. We are a think-tank; I head a think-tank. So, I don’t really know what is going on in terms of investigations. Nobody tells me. They tell me when I ask but I am not directly involved. I don’t prosecute; I don’t investigate. We merely empower the anti-corruption agencies via trainings, facilitating communication with each other and providing manuals that they can use in doing their work. Those are the sorts of things we do.
Why this government is fond of disobeying court orders as reflected in Sambo Dasuki, Omoyele Sowore and El-Zakzaky’s?
I will answer it but I want to put it in context. If you look at this country, we are one of the freest countries in the world. I don’t think that there is any press in the world that is as free as the Nigerian press. American press cannot boast to be freer than the Nigerian press. We say whatever we like; we write whatever we like. There was somebody on national television station recently who said Buhari should go and bury his head in shame over some alleged infractions recorded in last Saturday’s re-run polls conducted by the INEC in some states. He said it point blank and went home free; you can’t say that in any other country. What level of freedom is greater than that?
So, I want to put it in that context; that we are the freest nation in the world. Yes, there are few cases; three people out of 200 million. I don’t think we are doing badly.
I’m not in the inner recesses of government. But I think that there are things the government knows that we don’t know. As has been said again and again, security is the most important duty of government to the people. And there may be situations where security is so critical that the government may be compelled not to release a person even though there is a court order, because of the safety of the citizens. I don’t know, that’s why I’m just putting it that they probably have information, which we don’t have; because no government will be comfortable disobeying court orders. And it’s only a few; we are talking of three people out of 200 million.
Did the government bow to pressure from the U.S. or it simply chose to release Dasuki and Sowore?
I don’t think the Americans had any effect. Government did it at a time they felt appropriate. America has nothing to teach us at all. They have lots problems, which we don’t have. So, they really need to pay more attention to resolving their own problems. We know our problems and we will deal with them. We don’t need them to tell us.
What is your thought on the controversy trailing the South West security outfit, Operation Amotekun?
I came out very early in support of Amotekun. We are all living in the West. It got to a stage you couldn’t travel to Ile-Ife; you will even be afraid of travelling to Ibadan not to talk of Akure. I used to pray whenever the young lawyers with me travelled out of Lagos to go and handle cases.
It was just too bad. Criminals will kidnap helpless travellers, take them into the forest, rape the women and torture all the others until they get money. It was becoming so prevalent. Everybody was seeking to travel by air and if where you are going does not have an airport, then you communicate by phone. They were going to totally keep us at a standstill in our various stations and prevent us from travelling. People who could go and carry Olu Falae, such a powerful man, what else can’t they do?
So, the level of insecurity was just too high and the states of western Nigeria had no choice but to establish Amotekun and I support them. I know that within the next six months or so we will be free to travel about. These people are going to go into the bush to see the camps these criminals have set up. I’m sure they have over 500 camps inside our forests here. They have to be dislodged. So, Amotekun was rightly established.
Is that the right way to go in tackling the current spate of insecurity in the country?
Very right; because the police as much as they have tried don’t have the capacity to handle the situation. They don’t have the numbers; they don’t have the equipment. So, with all the states now providing their own personnel, equipping and training them and so on to assist the police, the country will be very well policed and these criminals are going to have a hard time in future.
Wouldn’t it have been better for the states to channel these resources towards the police who are trained to maintain law and order?
But that is what they have been doing. In Lagos State, there is the Security Trust Fund where all the banks, big companies and even professionals contribute to support the police in their work. I have contributed to that fund as an individual. They try but it is not enough. So, we need to have what I will call an auxiliary support through organisations such as Amotekun to increase the number so that we will have security in every nook and corner of our territories. With that, these criminals will be so cornered and tackled that they will be compelled to go back to where they came from.
This is not the first time you will differ with government on topical issues in the polity since you took up your present assignment. How do you cope with that?
First, I will say that as far as I know, the government itself is not against Amotekun. You can see the result of the meeting between the Vice President and the governors. It is the Attorney-General who came out point blank and I think he ought to have consulted before doing that.
But more importantly, I have my rights as a citizen. I will never accept any job, which shuts my mouth; which takes away my capacity to express myself. And I think those who put me in this position appreciate the fact that I am a free person and any issue that I think necessary I will express my candid opinion. I believe that has been taken in good faith.
I am a strong supporter of this government. I am for Buhari; I am for Osinbajo. I am for the APC. I will do anything to sustain them indefinitely in government. But there are certain things that I could be critical of. I could be critical of the Attorney-General if he says anything or does anything that I don’t think is right. That doesn’t affect my general support for the government, which remains in tact.