Human rights lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana, SAN, speaks about the allegation made by the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation, Mr. Abubakar Malami, that a Lagos-based lawyer bought a property recovered from the defunct Presidential Task Force on Pension Reform headed by Mr. Abdulrasheed Maina, in this interview with GBENRO ADEOYE
The Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation, Mr. Abubakar Malami, SAN, said the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission sold to a Lagos-based lawyer one of the properties recovered from the defunct Presidential Task Force on Pension Reform headed by Mr. Abdulrasheed Maina. Since you said that he was referring to you, how would you react to the allegation?
To be honest with you, I was not disappointed because I am used to such reckless allegations made by corrupt public officers to scandalise me or intimidate me. In 1993, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti; Chief Gani Fawehinmi, SAN; Baba Omojola, and I were locked up in Kuje Prison when the then Attorney General held a press conference, where he informed the whole world that we had plotted to overthrow the Ibrahim Babangida-led junta. As if that was not enough, the Attorney General proceeded to charge us with a treasonable felony. But the frivolous charge was eventually dismissed in our favour by the Gwagwalada Chief Magistrate Court as the discredited junta could not prove it. When Mr. Nuhu Ribadu was removed as the Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, he then subjected the accounts of the EFCC to a forensic audit. In particular, the regime wanted to know if it was true that Mr. Ribadu had paid me a huge sum of money for supporting the EFCC. The regime could not trace any money to me. It was thought that I was prosecuting cases for the EFCC which had warranted the payment of professional fees to me. But in spite of repeated requests, I have never prosecuted for the EFCC or the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission for personal reasons.
Another Attorney General, Mr. Michael Aondoakaa, SAN, subjected the EFCC account to a forensic audit upon the removal of Mr. Ribadu as EFCC Chairman. But to his utter dismay and embarrassment, the audit did not trace any payment made to me by the EFCC. So whenever the office of the AGF is put at the service of corrupt elements in the society, I know that I am in trouble. So I was not disappointed but surprised that Mr. Malami could stoop so low to the extent of repackaging a monstrous allegation made against me that had been discredited. In July last year, a dubious attempt was made to scandalise me by some corrupt public officers. At that time, it was alleged that the EFCC had sold one of the properties seized from former Governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha of Bayelsa State to me. The property was said to be worth N1bn. But the lie was exposed when it was revealed that all the properties recovered from the ex-governor were listed in the judgment of the Federal High Court, which convicted him and that the forfeited properties were handed over to the Bayelsa State Government, which has been managing them. That was the end of the matter.
But last week, Mr. Malami claimed that the same property worth N1bn was recovered from the Presidential Task Force on Pension Reform headed by Mr. Maina and handed over to the EFCC, which sold it to a Lagos-based lawyer. Even though he did not mention my name, I knew that Mr. Malami was out to scandalise me. I thought that the Attorney General would have been more creative in his desperate bid to justify his defence of the fugitive from the law. So the same property that was seized from Alamiesiegha and sold to me by the EFCC has now metamorphosed to the one seized by the panel headed by Maina and sold to me by the same EFCC. So I came out to challenge Mr. Malami to substantiate his groundless allegation. But Mr. Malami has not been able to justify the monstrous allegation. Can you believe that Mr. Malami took an oath of office and swore by the Holy Quran to do what is right to all manner of people according to law, without fear or favour, affection or ill-will. Has the fellow done that which is right to me without ill-will?
However, I pity Mr. Malami for exposing himself to such gargantuan ridicule in his rabid bid to destroy me. I watched his appearance at the public hearing conducted by the House of Representatives on Channels Television and I pitied him. I could not believe that the chief law officer of the country could travel all the way to Dubai to meet a fugitive from the law. When challenged by the House Committee to justify the legal advice that he gave to the Federal Government for the recall and reinstatement of the fugitive, he turned round to deny one of the three letters written to the Federal Civil Service Commission on the matter. He had to do that as he could not produce the judgment that informed his decision to recommend the reinstatement of Maina. Of course, the judgment does not exist. Mr. Malami could also not produce any evidence that Maina handed over any single property to the EFCC. So the allegation that EFCC sold a property seized from Maina to me collapsed like a pack of cards at the National Assembly. If Mr. Malami had been more circumspect, he would have known that the allegation that the EFCC sold the N1bn property to me had been discredited.
Governor Ayodele Fayose has said it was embarrassing for a man of your standing to be involved in the scandal concerning some properties seized by the embattled former chairman of the defunct Pension Reform Task Team, Abdulrasheed Maina. What’s your reaction?
There is no embarrassment as I am not involved in any scandal whatsoever. The incendiary statement credited to the cantankerous governor at a world press conference held in his office at Ado-Ekiti was anchored on the unsubstantiated allegation of Mr. Abubakar Malami, SAN. Frankly, Mr. Fayose’s preposterous statement reminds me of what the famous English playwright, Williams Shakespeare, once regarded as “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. I was compelled to challenge Mr. Fayose to prove the allegation that I had bought a stolen property. Up till now, he has not been able to justify his reckless allegation.
Let me say, for the umpteenth time, that I never bought any property from the (defunct) Presidential Panel on Pension Reform or from the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.
The governor also said that it was the reason why you were always on the side of the EFCC and its acting chairman, Ibrahim Magu, whenever there was a controversy regarding the agency. Is that the case?
That statement is completely illogical in the sense that Mr. Magu was not the Acting Chairman when the property in question was allegedly sold. In 2004, he had complained to his adopted father then, (former) President Olusegun Obasanjo, that I was using the EFCC under Mr. Nuhu Ribadu to embarrass him. But President Obasanjo told him to leave him out of the matter as the EFCC had incontrovertible evidence of the criminal diversion of N1.2bn purportedly spent on a phantom poultry farm in Ekiti State. Mr. Fayose has also accused me of using the EFCC under Mr. Magu to harass him. But contrary to the preposterous allegation, it was the investigation of the sharing of the public funds in the office of the National Security Adviser under the (former President Goodluck) Jonathan-led regime which indicted him. When it was reported that N1.3bn of the loot was traced to him, Mr. Fayose claimed that it was Zenith Bank Plc that donated the fund to his political campaign. Can you believe that? But as he could not substantiate the claim the Federal High Court ordered the forfeiture of about six houses bought with the stolen fund. So Mr. Fayose anxiously wants me to join his company. But it does not work that way. I have never held a public office and no stolen fund or property has been traced to me.
On a serious note, my support for the fight against corruption is influenced by my defence of human rights. I have discovered that a coterie of public officers usually take for themselves the funds earmarked for fixing hospitals, roads, schools and for the supply of water and light to the detriment of the masses. So, I support the anti-graft agencies and not the individuals who head them. But mine is a critical engagement with the agencies. Hence, I have taken up allegations of abuse of power with Mr. Magu, like I did with his predecessors. I am very critical of the EFCC even though, I try not to criticise the leadership publicly. Whenever I receive complaints of human rights violations by officials of the EFCC, I take it up with the leadership. For instance, it took me time to persuade the EFCC under Mr. Nuhu Ribadu to obtain a court order if a suspect was going to be detained beyond 24 or 48 hours in line with the Supreme Court’s decision in Lufadeju vs Johnson. I also convinced the EFCC not to engage in the illegal practice of parading criminal suspects. Today, the EFCC is the only law enforcement agency in Nigeria that does not parade criminal suspects. But I have not succeeded in persuading the EFCC to stop the media trial of suspects. Let me say for the umpteenth time that I took a deliberate position not to prosecute for the anti-graft agencies.
Since you claim to support the fight against corruption, why have you refused to prosecute corruption cases for the anti-graft agencies?
I cannot prosecute any case for professional and ideological reasons. As a civil rights advocate, I cannot go to court to oppose the bail application of an accused person when the Court of Appeal has ruled in the case of Chief James Ibori vs Federal Republic of Nigeria that every person charged with economic crimes is entitled to bail, regardless of the gravity of the offence. I have tried to persuade the leadership of the anti-graft agencies to stop opposing bail applications, which are going to be granted by trial courts at the end of the day. If you fear that an accused person may jump bail or tamper with the investigation, a prosecutor is at liberty to suggest to the trial court to impose stringent bail conditions. But stop wasting precious time and resources by opposing every bail application as a matter of policy.
I have also criticised the practice of asking criminal suspects to produce sureties with landed properties in choice areas of our cities. Unlike the rich who can meet such bail conditions, it should not be an official policy as it is capable of denying indigent criminal suspects their right to personal liberty. I also believe that the anti-graft agencies have been unnecessarily protective of powerful foreign economic saboteurs, including multinational corporations. Why is it so easy to prosecute Nigerians for stealing some millions of Naira while foreign companies that have stolen billions of dollars are allowed to go scot-free? For instance, the United States government prosecuted the indicted Halliburton officials who bribed Nigerian officials with $180m and recover penalties of over $1bn from them. Siemens and other companies paid huge fines for bribing Nigerian officials. But our country, which is the victim of the corrupt activities of the foreign companies, has not summoned the political will to prosecute and recover fines from the indicted foreign companies and officials. These are some of my fundamental disagreements with the way and manner the fight against corruption is being prosecuted by the Federal Government.
Fayose has called on the Federal Government to investigate you and not allow the matter to be swept under the carpet. What legal action are you taking on the matter or would you rather watch events unfold?
The question of sweeping any matter under the carpet does not arise. Both chambers of the National Assembly are currently conducting the investigation on the Maina scandal. I could have remained silent since my name was not mentioned by the Attorney General. But I decided to expose the official lie woven around me by disclosing that the property in question is a subject matter of a pending suit at the Federal High Court, sitting at Abuja. In the proceedings before the court, neither the defunct Presidential Pension Reform Task Force nor the EFCC has been linked with the property. Mr. Fayose believes that because of his immunity, I cannot sue him for libel but his immunity will soon expire by effluxion of time. So if he cannot be sued now, some of the media houses that published his reckless statements cannot plead immunity in court. I have instructed my lawyers to take appropriate action in the circumstances.
You said the governor’s attack was connected to your calling on the Ekiti State Government sometime back to charge Fayose to court for the alleged murder of Dr. Ayo Daramola and Tunde Omojola. Do you still maintain that the governor has a case to answer in those murder cases?
With respect, it is the trial court that will decide if Mr. Fayose has a case to answer. I cannot determine that. My duty is to ensure that all murder suspects are prosecuted because the right to life is the most fundamental human right. Without the right to life, no one can enjoy other rights. Mr. Fayose believes that he is fighting back because I once defended the News Magazine, which had linked him with the alleged murder of Dr. Ayo Daramola and Tunde Omojola. The evidence led in court was not a figment of my imagination as I had tendered a 33-page report of the discreet investigation compiled by the State Security Service (now Department of State Services) on the killings. The trial court dismissed the libel suit. Mr. Fayose’s appeal against the judgment of the high court was also dismissed by the Court of Appeal. On that basis, he was charged with murder at the High Court of Ekiti State. Since he will soon lose his immunity, he fears that he will be eventually prosecuted for murder.
Some people have accused the government of always looking for whom to blame for its failures, do you share that view, especially now that the pension fraud syndicate has not been unveiled since the incident broke?
No doubt, the Muhammadu Buhari-led administration is overwhelmed as it never appreciated the enormity of the socio-economic malaise confronting the country. Hence, it has resorted to blaming other people for its shortcomings. But having been in power for two and a half years, it is too late in the day to hold the Jonathan-led administration or any other administration vicariously liable for the worsening state of our roads or hospitals. In the instant case, the decision to scandalise me was not taken by the government because the leadership of the country has never shown any displeasure over my critical stand on the state of the nation. In June last year, I attended the Anti-Corruption Summit in London. After the programme, I congratulated President Buhari for asking the then British Prime Minister, Mr. David Cameron, to return our stolen wealth in the United Kingdom as a reply to the latter’s comment that Nigeria was a fantastically corrupt country. Since I was probably the only guest from Nigeria who was not sponsored by the Federal Government, the President asked me how I made it to London. I said: “Thank God, as a successful lawyer, I can sponsor my trip to any conference.” On his part, the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, SAN, tries as much as possible to address my concerns on the state of the nation whenever we meet. Both leaders are aware that I am critical of the human rights record of the Federal Government. So, they could not have directed Mr. Malami to scandalise me.
The property in question has been described by some people as a subject of a pending suit before the Federal High Court and that the house was only forfeited to Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria in the interim. If this means that the judgment could still go either way, why did you buy the property?
The sale of the property cannot be consummated until the case in court is concluded. That was why I said that the transaction is inchoate. Since the case was not decided on time , I have pulled out of the transaction. But the issue of ‘caveat emptor’ (buyer beware) should not be confused with the monstrous allegation that the house is proceeds of a crime. Even though neither Mr. Malami nor Mr. Fayose has proved that the house was sold to me by the EFCC. I was the one who disclosed that it is a subject matter of a pending litigation between AMCON and the owner, who had used it as collateral to obtain a loan from a bank. The records of the bank and the land registry at Abuja confirm my account of the legal status of the house. I challenged them to contradict my account because it is based on the processes filed in the court by the parties. I am not a party to the case. So, the allegation that the EFCC sold the house to me is the height of blackmail.
In 2015, you asked the Buhari-led government to sponsor a bill for the establishment of an anti-corruption court. The bill has been sent to the National Assembly but in the meantime, a National Judicial Council panel has been inaugurated to look into corruption cases. Do you think that will do the job?
I had called for the setting up of an anti-corruption court long before 2015. The executive submitted a bill to the National Assembly for the creation of the court. as the bill has not been passed into law, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, the Honourable Justice Walter Onnoghen, has come up with the ingenuous idea of the creation of social judicial divisions of the High Courts and the appellate courts to try cases of corruption cases.
I believe that the special courts will accelerate the trial of politically exposed persons if the Administration of Criminal Justice Act and practice directions issued by the head of the courts are religiously applied by the courts.
The anti-corruption fight does not seem to have achieved much in view of inter-agency rivalry and lack of cooperation between the EFCC and the office of the Attorney General of the Federation. What is your view on the way the anti-corruption war has been prosecuted so far?
The adoption of the Treasury Single Account policy by the Buhari-led administration has substantially reduced the criminal diversion of the revenue of the Federal Government. The guideline of the Central Bank of Nigeria on Bank Verification Number and the adoption of the whistle-blowing policy by the Federal Ministry of Finance, coupled with the creation of Special Anti-Corruption Courts have given impetus to the fight against corruption. The setting up of a committee to audit the funds and assets that have been recovered is also a good development. The Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, headed by Prof. Itse Sagay, has assisted the government to fashion out a national anti-corruption policy. The think tank has also contributed to the enhancement of the capacity of the anti-corruption agencies to fight corruption. But notwithstanding the adoption of such progressive anti-corruption strategies, the fight against corruption is not being properly coordinated. The dangerous impression has been created that no one is in charge. It is high time the President compelled the security and anti-graft agencies as well as the office of the Attorney General of the Federation, to work together with a threat to sack the heads of any of the bodies that sabotage the fight against corruption.
Apart from the shortcomings of the anti-graft agencies, the neoliberal policies of the peripheral capitalist system operated by the government are sustained by corruption and fraud. In directing the government to abolish corrupt practices, the Constitution has provided that the economy shall not be managed in a way that is concentrated in the hands of a few people or a group. But the economy has been sold to a few interest groups by the government. The ruination of the economy through the imperialist-inspired Structural Adjustment Programme has accentuated poverty in the land. The crisis of the economy has been compounded by the inability of the majority of state governments to pay salaries to workers and pension to retired people. In the atmosphere of want and destitution to which people have been consigned, you cannot seriously talk of fighting corruption. Instead of mobilising the people to embark on massive production of goods and services to feed our large market, we depend on importation of virtually all goods. The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation has just decided to sell 40 marginal oil fields. Why are they going to be sold to individuals and not to state governments? The National Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative, a Federal Government agency, has disclosed that the NNPC has failed to remit $21.7bn to the federation account. Why has the Federal Government refused to recover the fund and several others worth billions of dollars instead of incurring more external loans?
The race for the governorship election in your state, Ekiti, is on already and you once contested that election under NCP. Since then, you have not shown any interest. Have you called it quits with politics or you still plan to recontest someday?
I cannot call it quits with politics but I am involved in political activities of ideology and principle and not politics of opportunism. At the tail end of the titanic battle for the restoration of civil rule, the leaders of the pro-democracy and human rights movement assumed that the inbuilt institutional mechanisms for development, good governance, rule of law, and human rights would work. But our hopes have been dashed. Hence, we have resolved to return to the barricades. That decision has imposed a greater responsibility on me as some of the leaders of popular struggles have passed on. Under the Buhari-led administration, human rights infringements are on the ascendancy which the human rights community has to attend to. Meanwhile, the Federal Government has refused to reconstitute the National Human Rights Commission. Beyond the burden on me at home, I am also involved in the struggle of the African people for democracy and social justice. A few days ago, the ECOWAS court declared illegal, null and void the removal of Mr. Samuel Sam-Sumana, the Vice President of Sierra Leone by President Ernest Koroma. I had the case together with Dr. Raymond Atuguba, a leading human rights lawyer in Ghana. The government of Western Sahara has just instructed me to challenge the validity of the bilateral agreements signed by Morocco and Nigeria for the importation of phosphates for the production of fertiliser in Nigeria. The phosphates are illegally mined by Morocco in the territory of Western Sahara. I have also been briefed by some victims of human rights abuse in the Gambia to represent them before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission being set up by the Adama Barrow-led administration. With such engagements in and outside the country, I cannot possibly combine my professional and political commitments in Africa with a provincial gubernatorial race.
What do you think about the calls for restructuring, especially as the Southern Senators’ Forum recently agreed that the country should be restructured?
The members of the political class who are campaigning for restructuring are missing some valid points. Hence, the demand is being turned to a North-South affair. Nigerians need to be reminded that the founding fathers of the nation had opted for federalism as the best form of government. To a large extent, federalism contributed to the physical development of the country before the intervention of military rule in 1966. To facilitate military rule, the country was turned to a unitary state. Since 1999, all the 36 states have adopted constitutional pressure to challenge the overconcentration of powers in the centre. Many of the cases were won by the state governments. Specifically, the states have won the legal battle against the Federal Government’s seizure of local government funds. As far as I am concerned, the struggle for restructuring is a national matter. Political restructuring is incomplete without economic restructuring. It is meaningless without the democratisation of political powers. Under the current rickety democratic process, a state governor is much more powerful than the President. Unlike the National Assembly which monitors the activities of the President and other members of the cabinet, all state Houses of Assembly are totally controlled by state governors. Hence, the budgets of states are passed as presented by governors; nominations of appointees made by governors are automatically approved. In fact, no one can be nominated for election in any state without the imprimatur of a governor. Whereas the Constitution recognises democratically elected governments, state governments are run by sole administrators and caretaker committees handpicked by governors.