By Ehichioya Ezomon
If President Muhammadu Buhari ever needed to reassure Nigerians, and the international community about his commitment to fighting corruption, the financial probes going on simultaneously in Abuja present that opportunity on a platter.
The investigations of frauds at the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) are holding at the Presidential Villa, and the National Assembly (NASS), respectively.
While the alleged heist at the EFCC is in the region of billions of Naira, that at the NDDC is in trillions, stolen in brazen, reckless and unconscionable manner. The interventionist agency has become the ATM for rogues: those in charge of the commission, in cahoots with indigenes of the Niger Delta it’s meant to serve.
It is no coincidence that the Villa (presidency) and NASS are holding these investigations. While the Villa houses the seat of the executive arm of government, the NASS is saddled with legislative duty of making/enacting laws for the executive to implement.
The executive and legislature, and the judiciary that interprets the laws made by the legislature and signed by the executive, are co-qual, co-owners, co-partners and “co-sharer of responsibility” of government. In other words, whatever affects one, affects the rest.
But due to the peculiar nature of the Presidential System in which the three arms strive to assert their independence, they work at cross purposes, and the government has come to symbolize the executive, its head and the political party that controls it.
That’s why in Nigeria, and indeed elsewhere (except in a strict Parliamentary System), corruption in whatever arm of government is placed at the doorstep of the executive: the presidency.
It’s on this pedestal that the Buhari administration, which rode to power on the promise of fighting corruption, has to prove that the anti-graft war is still on, by getting to the root of the probes at the Villa and NASS, and making their findings public expeditiously.
Nigerians have lost count of probes of corruption in government that didn’t “see the light of day” because those saddled with the investigations were directly or indirectly involved in the malaise.
In local parlance, “If you ask a thief to assist in finding a stolen item, they will take you on a merry-go-round from where they hide the item.” This scenario has played out at the NASS probe.
Debunking fraud allegations against her, the former acting managing director of the Interim Management Committee (IMC) of the NDDC, Ms Joi Nunieh, alleged sexual advances from the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio.
Similarly, Mr Akpabio veered to questioning the qualifications of Ms Nunieh to be appointed to oversee the multibillion commission that serves the officially recognized oil-bearing states of Nigeria.
Thus, the probe committee of the House of Representatives is being taken on circus show of sorts, perhaps intended to prevent getting to the bottom of the matter.
In an earlier appearance at the committee’s sitting, the acting managing director of NDDC’s IMC, Prof. Kemebradikumo Pondei, and his team walked out on the members of the panel.
Pondei’s excuse was that the committee’s chair, Rep. Olubumi Tunji-Ojo (APC-Ondo) should recuse himself, having been accused of various crimes against the NDDC, and as an interested party, he could not preside over the probe.
Tunji-Ojo, indeed, recused himself on the next appearance of Pondei at the probe, yielding the chair to the vice-chairman, Rep. Thomas Ereyitomi (PDP-Delta).
On that day, when he’s to submit 41 documents, Pondei came with only four, and each time he’s asked about a particular document, he would tell the panel, “I will supply it to you”.
Then came a bizarrely, but comic relief that would be the envy of Nollywood actors: Pondei “fainted”, his white eyes rolling, and gradually slumped, his head on the table. It’s in the heat of rapid questioning as to how he spent N81 billion within four months.
Breaching COVID-19 protocols, several participants rushed to revive him, and one man was seen, first applying mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and later thrusting his fingers into Pondei’s mouth in order to keep it open.
Revived, Pondei was escorted out of the committee room, and the Reps Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, was quoted later as saying that Pondei wouldn’t be invited again to conclude his testimony.
As this “mild drama” was happening, Senator Akpabio was close by, waiting to take his turn, to defend allegations of fraud, and interference in the affairs of NDDC, supervised by his ministry.
Testifying, Akpabio seemed to open the pandora box, and the committee chair, Rep. Ereyitomi, jumped in to stop him. “Isokaay”, “Isokaay”. “Off the mic, off the mic”, he urged Akpabio.
Why the plea of “It’s okay” and “Turn off the mic”? Well, Akpabio was responding to queries on the unbridled contract awards at the NDDC, many unexecuted, and yet fully paid for upfront.
It’s at that stage Akpabio alleged that about 60 per cent of the NDDC contracts were awarded to the lawmakers, and looked poised to name the beneficiaries but for the committee chairman’s intervention of “Isokaay”, “Off the mic” that’s gone viral.
The probe session’s hilarity initially tickled Speaker Gbajabiamila, who toed a different line when the Minority Leader, Ndidi Elumelu, said Akpabio’s allegation had prompted calls from his constituents, wanting to know if he benefited from the contracts.
The Speaker then gave Akpabio 48 hours to publish the names of the lawmakers he alleged benefited from the NDDC contracts, failing which the House would initiate legal action against him.
At the plenary on Thursday, July 23, Gbajabiamila fulfilled his threats, by instructing the chamber’s Clerk to proceed with the writ against Akpabio. But a few minutes later, he read a letter from the Minister, denying his allegation against the lawmakers.
Akpabio said the only reference he made to 60 per cent during his presentation before the NDDC committee was in response to a question by a member of the committee, on whether a Medical Director can serve as an Executive Director (Project).
The Minister didn’t disappoint Nigerians, as politicians, threatened by lawmakers, always recanted by saying, “they were quoted out of context” by the press, the whipping boy of politicians.
Notwithstanding, sceptics believe the NASS probe of the NDDC would end in futility, especially against the backdrop of the displays by Ms Nunieh, Prof. Pondei and Senator Akpabio, and the “body language” of the lawmakers.”
Observers ponder the motive for stopping Akpabio midway into his testimony, and the Reps’ threats of a court action against him, concluding it’s a ploy to frighten and whip him into line, a gimmick that succeeded in getting him to recant.
While the nation hasn’t been treated to salacious moments at the Presidential Panel on the EFCC, and specifically it’s suspended Acting Chairman, Ibrahim Magu, the presidency has given the assurance that the findings wouldn’t be swept under the carpet.
Dispelling the probe as a witch-hunt, presidential spokesman on Media and Publicity, Mallam Garba Shehu, on July 22, wetted the public’s appetite for a surprising outcome. He spoke on Channels Television’s programme, ‘Politics Today’.
Shehu said: “I am not going to preempt the panel investigation but I just advise Nigerians to hold their hearts in their hands. By the time they are done with this job and they come out with the reports, prepare yourselves for surprises.
“I don’t know what will come out but if the sense we are getting from what is being done over there is anything to go by, I think that Nigerians should not be confused by any outbursts by anybody.”
This is about the last chance for President Buhari to demonstrate that his administration hasn’t ost focus on the war against corruption, and that no one, including the drivers of the crusade, would escape the long arm of the law.
Mr. Ezomon, Journalist and Media Consultant, writes from Lagos, Nigeria