Ndubuisi Orji, Abuja

What is the objective of the Executive Order number 6 signed by President Muhammadu Buhari last week? Is it to boost the war against corruption or stifle the opposition ahead of the 2019 general election?

While the government says the move is intended to retool its anti-corruption battle, members of the opposition think otherwise.

The Executive Order number 6, entitled “Preservation of Assets Connected with Serious Corruption and other Related Offences,” according to the government is intended to empower the government to seize any assets suspected to be proceeds of corruption, while the owners of such property are been investigated or tried for corruption.

According to President Buhari, the Executive Order is aimed at restricting “dealings in suspicious assets subject to investigation or inquiry bordering on corruption in order to preserve such assets from dissipation, and to deprive alleged criminals of the proceeds of their illicit activities which can otherwise be employed to allure, pervert and/or intimidate the investigative and judicial processes or for acts of terrorism, financing of terrorism, kidnapping, sponsorship of ethnic or religious violence, economic sabotage and cases of economic and financial crimes, including acts contributing to the economic adversity of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and against the overall interest of justice and the welfare of the Nigerian state.”

The President, who spoke after signing of the new executive order, in Abuja last week said it has become imperative to adopt new measures in the fight against corruption in the country, adding that “it thus become necessary to re-kit and re-tool our arsenal to be able to effectively tackle corruption’s perilous counter-attack against the Nigerian state.

“Accordingly, the Federal Government of Nigeria has declared a national emergency to deal with that crisis. In this regard, the Federal Government of Nigeria in line with its anti-corruption strategy seeks to ensure that the ends of justice is not defeated or compromised by persons involved in a case or complaint of corruption.”

However, the signing of the new Executive Order has been trailed by so much controversy, with a lot of stakeholders questioning its legality and the real motives behind the action.

The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)has questioned the legality of the President’s action. In its immediate reaction to the signing of the Executive Order 6, the PDP said President Buhari’s action amounts to a usurpation of the powers of the legislature and the judiciary, noting that it signal a descent to fascism in the country, noting that it is a violation of the 1999 Constitution (as amended).

In a statement by its National Publicity Secretary, Kola Ologbondiyan, the party contended that the “Nigerian constitution does not, under any section, confer such fascist powers on the president under our democracy and there can be no legitimate latitude of interpretation placed on sections 5 and 15 (5) of the 1999 Constitution cited as justifications for this draconian executive order, that can excuse it.

“President Buhari’s unilateral Executive Order is a travesty of justice and rule of law, as it vehemently seeks to hijack and usurp the powers of both the legislature and the courts and vest it on himself so that he can use same at will, as a political instrument, to haunt, traumatise, harass and victimise perceived political opponents.

“In order words, Mr. President wants to change our democratic governance to a military regime, in line with his lamentation, two days ago, that the fight against corruption will be better under a military regime than under a democracy.”

An Abuja-based lawyer, Ugochukwu Ezekiel, concurs. He told Daily Sun in an interview that the Executive Order is a violation of the rights of citizens, as it vests on the government the power to seize the property of those suspected of corruption, without a judicial pronouncement.

“The Executive Order is against the spirit and letters of Section 44(1) of the 1999 Constitution as it violates the rights of citizens to own moveable and immovable property and vests on the state the power to seize the property of suspects without judicial pronouncement.

“It cannot stand because it is inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution. Besides, the president does not have the power to make or issue such order under our democratic dispensation. It is complete usurpation of the powers of the National Assembly akin to Military dictatorship,” Ezekiel noted.

The opposition party, which said it might be heading to court to challenge the Executive Order, noted that although it is not opposed to the anti-corruption war, it must be done within the confines of the law.

It further said “this Executive Order 6 of 2018 is a re-enactment of the obnoxious Decree 2 of 1984, which incidentally was also an enactment under then military Head of State, General Muhammadu Buhari, and this must not be permitted in our current democratic dispensation.

“If allowed, this Order will confer limitless powers on Mr. President, whose administration’s penchant for violation of rules and order already suggests a readiness for autocracy and a drive towards fascism,” it stated.

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Regardless, the Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity to President Buhari, Mallam Garba Shehu says opposition to the Executive Order by the PDP is not unexpected, especially as its leaders are already feeling the heat of the anti-graft war.

Shehu said “Every day, harsh word against the government are all that the president gets from Wadata House, the Head Office of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), because their leaders, as do some other Nigerians are already feeling the heat. To say the truth, I am not sure if there are many of our citizens who expected any PDP support for the president in his war against corruption.”

Beyond the issue of the legality of the Executive Order No 6, there are fears in certain quarters that it might be deployed by the government against the opposition in the run-up to the 2019 general elections.

One of those who share this view is the former Minister of Transport, Chief Ebenezer Babatope.

Babatope, who is also a leader of the PDP, says “at this time when we are preparing for a crucial election, he can use it against anybody. The timing is very bad because the president who is imbued with such power can use such power against his political opponents, including those of his party who may not want to support him for anything.”

He further said “at what time do you want to start trying people for corruption when you have been there for three and a half years and you did not do anything like that? According to what we are saying now, presidential election is coming very early next year – January or February. I think preparation
is just being made to injure the opposition and also injure those who may wish to question him from re-contesting within his own party.”

Interestingly, shortly before last week’s Executive Order, President Buhari had while receiving some of his supporters at the Presidential Villa, Aso Rock, had said “I keep on saying, the opposition elements are now sitting on incredible resources which I am afraid we might not match at all. For that reason the opposition is sponsoring mischief from different angles which in spite of the incumbency of government we cannot absolutely stop.”

Analysts say the fears expressed by Babatope and those in his school of thought should not be discountenanced, owing to the fact that the implementation of the Executive Order would be subject to the whims and caprices of the government.

The opposition has repeatedly alleged that the government is prosecuting its members under the guise of fighting corruption, noting that while PDP leaders accused of corruption are hounded, top government officials and members of President Buhari’s party, the All Progressives Congress (APC) equally accused of corruption are allowed to move about freely. Therefore, for the leaders of the PDP, the government’s anti-graft war is a “ruse”.

Apart from the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the Special Presidential Committee on the Recovery of Public Property, headed by the Special Assistant to the President on Prosecution, , Mr. Okoi Obono-Obla, has also been accused of witch-hunting perceived opponents of the government.

Recently, the House of Representatives Ad- hoc Committee investigating the legality and modus operandi of the Special Presidential Panel on Recovery of Public Property issued a warning, accusing the panel of exceeding its brief.

According to the Ad-hoc Committee, although the presidential panel was given specific mandates, it has far exceeded its brief.

The chairman of the Ad-hoc Committee, Ahman Pategi had during one of the committee’s sitting said “the reason we are investigating (the presidential panel) is that there are complaints that you are acting outside your powers. You are the ones that told Nigerians that you are looking for assets of Nigerians abroad. Whose assets are you looking after?”

The lawmaker added that the House of Representatives is aware that the presidential panel is sending out asset declaration forms to public office holders, including the Auditor General of the Federation, Anthony Mkpe Ayine, andhisdirectors, todeclaretheir assets, which is outside its mandate.

“From testimonies we’ve heard and based on petitions with the ad hoc committee, it’s obvious that the panel is acting with impunity. We all support this administration’s fight against corruption but the war against corruption must be fought within the ambit of the law,” he said.

Ironically, the presidential aide has spurned repeatedly summons by the House panel to address the allegations against his committee.

Apparently reacting to fears that the Executive Order may become a tool for witch-hunting the opposition in the run-up to the 2019 election, Garba Shehu explains that “for the Buhari administration, concern lies in the fact that corruption has become a big problem because investigation, prosecution and trial in courts are made harder by persons accused of crimes relating to it. They are using the enormous resources in their possession to thwart the system.”

The presidential aide further noted that it is “in the interest of justice and the welfare of the Nigerian state that persons accused of crimes relating to corruption must be prevented from utilising the proceeds and dissipating such assets suspected to be proceeds of corruption (or associated with corruption) pending final determination of any investigation or legal actions related to such assets or owners thereof.”