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ICPC: Shifting focus after two decades

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Bolaji Owasanoye, ICPC boss

It is perhaps not a matter of sheer coincidence that as Nigeria marked her 60th year of Independence from colonial rule, the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission, ICPC, was also marking its two decades of existence. Recall that the agency was created by an Act of Parliament in 2000, a year after the country returned to democratic rule after long years of military dictatorship.

In the 20 years of its existence, indeed ICPC has passed through three chairmen before the appointment of Professor Bolaji Owasanoye in 2019. The founding chairman was the late Hon. Justice Mustapha Akanbi, who through a dint of hard work and integrity saw the agency through its milking and growing years. His tenure was followed by that of the equally respected Hon. Justice Emmanuel Ayoola, a retired Justice of the Supreme Court, while
the third Chairman was Mr Ekpo Nta. These three illustrious sons were reputed to have done their best for the country and the commission.

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The mandate of the commission, as spelt out in its Act, is to investigate and where necessary prosecute corruption and related offences; prevent corruption by examining the systems and processes of public bodies that predispose to corruption and direct or supervise a review of such. In its two decades of operation, ICPC has methodically discharged its mandate, albeit with minimal applause from Nigerians who think fighting corruption is a tea party. These functions have not been easy to achieve. However, within the ambits of the law, it has been able to educate and enlist the support of the public against corruption.

The Commission has in 20 years recorded a number of milestones; some of these include but are not limited to the treatment of over 20,000 petitions. Of the lot, 5,000 have been worthy of investigation while no fewer than a thousand cases have been prosecuted.

A casual observer might wonder why such a wide disparity between the number of petitions submitted and the number investigated as well as those prosecuted. The answer is not far-fetched. Nigerians love sensation and bleeding headlines in the media, as long as they are not the one directly concerned! Many have acted as whistleblowers to the Commission and when cases reported are looked into, they are found to be empty and not worthy of attention because they are most time borne out of envy, or lack of proper understanding of what the commission stands for. This is not as a form of excuse for the Commission, but the truth is that if cases are reported and all are to be pursued, the agency would perhaps not be able to do anything tangible.

In order not to dissipate energy on what is not worthy of its resources, the Commission and its board have since changed strategy with the determination to focus on activities that strengthen government’s desire to eradicate corruption in the revenue and expenditure sides of governance and take development closer to the people by ensuring value for money in the implementation of publicly funded projects.

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Truth be told, one aspect that has been of concern to majority of the populace is what has been termed ‘Constituency Projects’, which by its nomenclature are projects embarked upon by the National Assembly in areas of interests to members of the assembly as they may deem fit. However, Nigerians in general feel this concept is open to abuse and corruption. The commission has on its part tried to understand the rational behind this policy and its implementation. Combing through the maze, it has tried to bring some sanity into the scheme and see that it is not such a bad idea as some communities get to feel the presence of their representatives and that of government through diligent implementation of these projects.

As a deliberate policy, the commission embarked on a nationwide community enlightenment and advocacy initiative called “My Constituency, My Project”. This involves sensitization and enlistment of the community in the ownership of constituency and executive projects located in their communities. This has recorded a lot of success as people have identified with this and are cooperating to see to the execution and completion of such projects.

The ICPC, as disclosed by Prof. Owasanoye, has recommended that government must ensure thorough needs assessment before embarking on such projects. This is necessary so that a health facility is not provided for a community that is in need of potable water and vice versa. The agency has also discovered that majority of the projects abandoned suffer from this lack of a proper understanding of specific needs of various communities. There is also the need for synergy and understanding between outgoing legislators and incoming ones to make sure uncompleted projects are not wilfully abandoned.

It is gratifying to note that about 59 contractors handling projects worth N2.25b, who have abandoned projects awarded to them to execute, have been forced to return to sites at the instance of the Commission. Moreso, while some projects have been certified and given a clean bill of health, over N800m worth of assets have been returned to beneficiaries as well as cash of about N200m of recent. These are no mean achievements.
The Commission’s Ethics and Integrity scorecard has been very useful in tracing institutional weaknesses that promote corruption in public institutions. It has been used to assess ministries, agencies and departments in three key areas of management culture and structure, financial management systems and administrative systems. It has also succeeded in asset recovery through diligent investigation. A case in point is the recovery of over N16billion from the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

The success recorded in the past two decades have been outstanding from recovery of 522 physical assets, and 18 business premises. However, all these figures exclude quantum of recoveries on return of contractors to site as a result of project tracking initiatives, even though some of these assets are subject to on-going court cases.

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The Commission has embraced a paradigm shift, consciously promoting strategic partnership with relevant stakeholders to strenghten public enlightenment efforts in discouraging corruption and corrupt tendencies. Working with the National Orientation Agency, ICPC has evolved a National Ethics and Integrity Policy designed to prevent corruption while enforcing ethical codes.

Prof Owasanoye captures the dynamics of the new policy: “Enforcement is important but where corruption is systemic, you need a combination of factors because when it is systemic, everything is affected including the anti-corruption agency. I will not say that we are completely innocent because we are all trying to change, to conform, be it judiciary, executive or legislature, everything is affected.

“So you need to then adopt different measures. For example, to say we are going to arrest all the corrupt people and take them to court, if the court has been affected, you will get nothing out of it; if the people that will prosecute them are also affected, the prosecution will end up nowhere.We need a combination of enforcement and prevention, because if you don’t prevent, corruption weakens the capacity of the state. A lot of prevention methods have been introduced under President Muhammadu Buhari, using technology trying to stop the money from going away.”

Owasanoye said the campaign against corruption this time will engage every strata of the society. “We will ensure citizen by-in. If the leadership continues to make effort to stop corruption and the people disagree, you will be swimming up the creek without a paddle because it will be very challenging for you; you need the people’s consent and support to succeed,” he argued.

The ICPC boss said his agency is not re-inventing the wheel but leveraging on existing platforms, laws and institutions, especially the National Orientation Agency.

“The Constitution already has given us a guide; there are provisions in the Constitution in Chapter Two under Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy about how we ought to behave. We are always talking about the duty of the Government but citizens actually have duties as well and nobody says anything about the citizens. If the government says they want to give us palliatives, for example, and they say we should line up and we refuse to, how would the palliatives be distributed?

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“There are things that Government wants to do for the people but are made impossible because of the conduct of the people, so we feel that the people have a great role to play and the first is that it is already in the Constitution that is governing us. Let’s bring out all those values of dignity, patriotism, cooperation and hard work of integrity and then we need to design a communication strategy around it because it is one to have a good policy and other thing to communicate it.

“We are also mindful of traditional institutions, religious platforms, ethnic, congregation and congregation that people trust and believe in; they need to be part of it,” he explained.

The Commission strongly believes that the fight against corruption should be inculcated from the start of life. That informed the encouragement giving to the young people to embrace anti-corruption campaign.

As part of the Commission’s 20th anniversary celebration, two competitions involving youths were launched. These were in form of creativity and their enrolment in the crusade: the National Music Competition and the National Essay Competition for Junior and Senior Secondary Schools with Anti-Corruption or Integrity clubs. This was done with the support of N20m prize money from MacArthur Foundation. The music competition was won by Opeyemi Peter Adeboye 25, from Kwara State, while Chikezie Favour, 12, from Imo State emerged winner of Junior Secondary School essay competition. Matilda Daniels, 14, resident in Lagos emerged winner of the Senior Secondary school essay competition.

No doubt, it has been a journey with a giant stride for the Commission in the last two decades, but going forward, there indeed is no hiding place for the dynamic anti-grant agency.

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