The Sun News

Chasing corruption or tracking shadows

The highly orchestrated anti-corruption campaign of the government appears to be falling apart almost with the same passion it was celebrated at the inauguration of the government. In the past two years, a number of high profile senior public officials were arrested on charges of corrupt enrichment. Almost immediately, they have been acquitted by the courts for lack of evidence. This raises the question: Did anti-corruption agencies, such as the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), among others, do a thorough job before arresting suspects?

If the agencies conducted detailed and systematic investigations, did they access strong and irrefutable evidence that could lead to conviction in the courts? Were these anti-corruption agencies merely interested in celebrating the arrest of suspects rather than gathering unimpeachable evidence that would lead to imprisonment of the suspects?

The release by the high courts of people arrested on charges of corruption has thrown the government’s so-called anti-corruption war into some kind of tragicomedy. Surely, something must be wrong with the way suspects are chased around and arrested arbitrarily with or without sufficient evidence. It would seem that people are picked up in dramatic fashion and hauled to the courts even before anti-corruption agencies have gathered sound evidence that could lead to successful prosecution. What is the purpose of arresting people based on orchestrated, flawed, and unsustainable evidence that they committed a crime? Shouldn’t meticulous investigations precede the arrest and prosecution of suspects?

Across the world, anti-crime agencies are known to be patient when investigating people allegedly involved in criminal activities. Sometimes, investigations can take up to a decade before the agencies are satisfied they have amassed sufficient proof against suspects. Once they have gathered incriminating evidence, they move in quickly and arrest their targets. In many cases, arrests are made not in front of a gathering of a horde of television cameramen and women who may have been tipped off about the impending arrests.

In the past two months, quite a number of people arrested on charges of corruption have been acquitted by the courts. Here are some of them. Last week, a Court of Appeal in Lagos reversed a five-year conviction of Raymond Omatseye, former Director-General of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA). He was previously tried on a 24-count charge of contract splitting. He was arrested and charged to court by the EFCC. Although Omatseye was on 20 May 2016 convicted by a Federal High Court in Lagos, the Court of Appeal acquitted him last week.

Here was a man, who was tried and convicted in 2016 by Justice Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia only to be freed by a Court of Appeal months later. Omatseye is free because the prosecution didn’t have evidence to convince the courts. The man was acquitted because our courts do not convict suspects on the basis of gossip, rumour, or opinion. Earlier during his trial by the Federal High Court, Omatseye was found guilty of engaging in a N1.5 billion contract scam. He had been dragged to the court by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). However, in discharging Omatseye, the Court of Appeal held that the trial court did not accurately assess the evidence tabled before it.

In freeing Omatseye, Justice Yargata Nimpar, who presided over the Court of Appeal made an important statement that deserves to be reproduced here because of the weight of the message embedded in the statement. Justice Nimpar said: “The judiciary will do the war on corruption more harm by declaring someone a criminal, where no offence has been committed.”

Omatseye’s lawyer, Edoka Onyeke, made an even more profound statement when he said: “This is another decision of the court that has put impunity in abeyance and right the wrongs done on a person convicted wrongly under a non-existent law. This will help in shaping our jurisprudence and ensure that justice is not turned upside down in whatever way.”

This raises the question: Do anti-corruption agencies drag suspects to court on the ground that they might be lucky to secure conviction without producing strong evidence?

Omatseye’s case is not the first or the only embarrassment the EFCC had suffered in the past two years. In April 2017, the EFCC withdrew a case it instituted against a Federal High Court, Lagos, that had reopened the bank account of Mrs. Patience Jonathan, which the EFCC had previously frozen. Mrs. Jonathan had been prevented by the EFCC from accessing the over $5.8 million in her account on the basis that the EFCC suspected the money to be proceeds of crime. Strangely, the EFCC gave no explanation or reason for discontinuing with the case. Again, another embarrassment for the EFCC.

In another celebrated case that ended in victory for the defendants, an Abuja Federal High Court judge, Justice Adeniyi Ademola, was freed in April 2017 by a High Court of the Federal Capital Territory of the 18-count charge of fraud brought against him, his wife (Olabowale) and a lawyer, who is also a Senior Advocate of Nigeria. All three were charged with fraudulently diverting large sums of money in local and foreign currencies as well as possession of firearms, and engagement in illegal collection of money.

This was a case that attracted public interest and attention right from the beginning because of the high profile of Justice Ademola and his wife. His wife was a former Head of Service in Lagos State. Justice Ademola was one of the judges whose homes were ransacked in the middle of the night in October 2016 by the Department of State Services. If he and his wife had been convicted, it would have done irreparable damage to their years of service, their professional reputation, their public image and standing, and their ethical values. Justice Ademola, his wife and the senior lawyer were acquitted because the court found the prosecution failed to produce verifiable and unassailable evidence. The court ruled it could not convict the defendants based on speculations. On that basis, the case collapsed.

In another case that exposed the substandard level of investigations conducted by the ICPC, an Abuja High Court in April 2017 acquitted Elder Godsday Orubebe, the former Minister of Niger-Delta Affairs, of a six-count charge brought by the ICPC against him. He was alleged to have been involved in a N1.97 billion contract scam.

This case collapsed because the ICPC did not do a proper job of investigation before it alleged that Orubebe had diverted N1.96 billion money that belonged to the ministry. It was the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami, who wrote to the chairman of the ICPC in December 2016 to confirm that the N1.96 billion allegedly diverted by Orubebe had not yet been spent but was awaiting further decisions and directives from the Ministry of Niger-Delta Affairs. This was a case of wrongful accusation that sullied the image of the accused.

What the case showed was poor investigation by the prosecution. The ICPC also embarrassed itself by taking Orubebe and others to court without hard evidence to convince itself about what happened to the large amount of money, belonging to the Ministry of Niger-Delta Affairs.

All these cases have exposed the weak foundation on which the government’s anti-corruption war has been mounted. It is a foundation constructed on loose soil.

In an interview published in The Sun newspaper of 30 April 2017, a lawyer and former governorship candidate in Enugu State, Chima Nnaji, made some important remarks about the shoddy nature of processes adopted by overzealous officials of anti-corruption agencies in their fight to rid the country of corrupt practices. He said: “Now, because there is an attempt by some people to be seen as working hard, they are so frenetic in their attempt to do the job. So, when they see N10,000 somewhere, they begin to shout, ‘we have seen N10,000’. That’s not how to do it because the issue is that you have to define who the owner is. And if you find the owner, is the source legitimate or illegitimate? Or are we saying that it is criminal for somebody to have N1 million in his house? Has he laundered it? Has he used it for illegitimate or criminal purposes? So, you must have proven that the source is criminal before you begin to shout. And that means that you have to do your job.”

Nnaji said further: “So, because they place the cart before the horse, most of the time, the horse would stumble on the cart and fall. If you don’t do your investigations, when you come to court, the court is interested in processes and procedures. There are rules of evidence. You cannot tell the court to convict someone because you saw him and he looked like an armed robber… The security agencies hardly prepare their cases and they naturally lose when they come to court.”

Nnaji has summarised it all. Anti-corruption agencies in the country must do a proper and clinical job of investigating people suspected of engaging in corrupt practices. In our legal system, trial of people suspected of corruption is based on the weight of evidence. Evidence is critical. You cannot win if you cannot produce and present indisputable evidence. No amount of media circus or shadow chasing will convict an innocent person.

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