General Ishola Williams (retd) was not a frivolous officer when he was in the Army. Stories have been told about how upright he was that he had to quit the military when the rot became unbearable during the Abacha regime.
So outspoken, there were instances when he reportedly confronted the powers-that-be on the ills in the society and the role of the military in creating them.
Not done with his campaign to rid Nigeria of bad leadership, he has continued his activism in retirement. Unlike many Nigerian leaders who have benefited from the rot in the system, Williams has left nobody in doubt about his conviction that corruption ranks high among the nation’s challenges.
Among other positions he held in the military, he was the Chief of Training, Operations and Plans (CTOP) at the Defence Headquarters and retired as the head of Nigerian Army Training and Doctrine Command, TRADOC. He is presently on the faculty of Pan African Strategic and Policy Research Group, a conflict resolution forum.
A former head of global anti-corruption body, Transparency International, Nigerian Chapter, Williams, in this interview, speaks on the probe and suspension of ex-acting Chairman of Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, Ibrahim Magu, saying the agency was structured to have leadership crisis.
He suggests how the EFCC can be restructured to ensure that its Chairman does not often have the kind of issues Magu is having today.
As a strong voice in the global anti-corruption space, what does the interrogation and suspension of the former acting Chairman of EFCC mean to you?
The suspension and investigation of Magu make sense to me because people have always wanted to know who is watching the watchdog. Nobody is sure of who the anti-corruption agencies in Nigeria report to. Everybody believes the Presidency can tell them what to do or stop them from doing what they didn’t want them to do. People also believe the Presidency can stop them from investigating anybody it didn’t want them to investigate. It is obvious from what happened that there seems to be a crisis or disagreement between the Attorney General of the Federation, AGF, and the suspended Acting EFCC Chairman.
I think the suspended EFCC boss took things for granted to have believed that the AGF cannot remove him and only the President can remove him. It is true that only the President can remove him but he forgot that the AGF is the legal adviser to the President. Though Magu said he is a lawyer, from the way he speaks, I doubt him. I would like to know his teacher and the university he attended. The point is that he ought to have understood that the AGF is the chief lawyer of Nigeria and has more clout than he had. To prosecute people, the EFCC head has to pass his files through the AGF, who would tell him to go ahead. Magu seemed not to have understood that and the AGF has established that he has more powers.
Are you saying the grounds upon which he is being investigated are acceptable?
There have been a lot of petitions written against him. Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN, wrote a letter about Magu. There were so many like that, but nothing was done. How could they have allowed the man to remain in office after being rejected twice by the National Assembly, NASS? They quoted the Constitution while defending the retention of Magu as EFCC Chairman despite being rejected. They were backing him instead of finding out why the NASS refused to confirm his appointment. The lawmakers even gave reasons he should not be confirmed. They told us that the Department of State Services, DSS, had written a security report about him and, therefore, could not confirm him. Are the President and his lieutenants telling us that they couldn’t find a Nigerian who is honest enough to be the Chairman of EFCC?
With your experience in anti-graft issues, what does the impression that the head of EFCC is being probed mean to Nigeria’s anti-corruption profile?
The plus is on the side of the President or Presidency for saying that he should be investigated to know if the allegations are true or not. For saying that the law should take its course is a plus for the President and a minus for those who had supported him. Events have proven to us know that they were backing the wrong person. Whether Magu is guilty or not is a question he can answer. I would say that he knows that he has not lived up to expectations. The media had reported some of the activities of his boys, but nothing was done about it. There was a recent case where some of his boys were reported to have demanded and given marked dollars from the EFCC. They were reportedly caught red-handed but nothing was done about the issue. What is happening to him is right.
This is not the first time the head of the EFCC is leaving the position unceremoniously. Nuhu Ribadu, Farida Waziri, and Ibrahim Lamorde left under controversial circumstances. What could be the problem with EFCC leadership?
From inception, the structure was wrong. The structure created a bad organisational culture. Why was the structure wrong? If you have any agency, you must separate the board from the operational people. In all the agencies we have in Nigeria, any time a new President assumes office, he appoints board members and Director-Generals. In doing that, the operational aspect is separated from the board. But in the case of anti-corruption agencies, the board and operational people are together. Such a system makes the Chairman of the EFCC or the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission, ICPC, the Director-General of the respective agencies.
It is wrong. There is nobody except the President who can watch over the head of EFCC and ICPC. It is wrong. Selecting the Chairman of the EFCC from the police alone is also absolutely wrong. It was the fault of General Olusegun Obasanjo when he was President. He deliberately did it because he didn’t want anybody to watch over him. Therefore, that created a culture for Ribadu at the time to believe that apart from the President, he didn’t need to be answerable to anybody. In the end, he was pushed out because he was becoming political. When Ribadu was leaving he too had issues. He was just a Deputy Commissioner of Police at the time. When Farida came, she was recommended by a former state governor. Lamorde came and was happy to leave as soon as Buhari came on board because of issues that were already being raised about him at the time. The culture has been bad from the beginning.
Those who have been heading the place came from the police and we know the culture of the police. Recruitment of the EFCC Chairman should be open and done through head-hunting. Police or soldiers should be not be recruited into the commission to avoid what is happening now. The recruitment shouldn’t be done by government but a reputable recruitment agency. The board should be separated from the Director-General.
The board should be a non-executive board and its members should not be appointed by government. The South African model should be copied here. An advertorial should be in the papers advertising that a board is needed for the anti-corruption body. The message should be that government believes the people know the honest citizens.
Therefore, such people should be recommended for membership of the board. If the people now send the names of those they think are honest, the DSS would go through their background to know if they are truly people of integrity. In fact, it should even be made a selfless service that does not attract sitting allowance. I know that many people would run away from such an arrangement if Nigeria uses the method. If the members of the board are selected through that process, they can now meet later to choose their Chairman. The names would now be sent to the NASS for final approval. What is good about such a board is that it is the board of the people and not the board of the government.
ICPC and EFCC
It is meaningless having the ICPC and EFCC as different entities. They should be merged. It is also important for us to have the Office of the Public Defender. People have been telling the AGF about the need for that. The Public Defender should be independent of the AGF, who is the legal adviser to the President. The Ministry of Justice should be headed by a Solicitor-General. We should have a separate prosecuting agency.
They were trying to set up that before. About 40 young lawyers were recruited for the purpose and someone from abroad was brought to train them on the prosecution of anti-corruption cases. What happened to them? We should have a separate Ministry of Justice, Public Defender and a separate prosecuting agency. The police should stop prosecuting people. It should be applicable to criminal and anti-corruption cases.
For the civil service, they should have administrative tribunals. That means that a law needs to be made by the NASS. What the tribunal would do is this, if someone is giving a bribe to a civil servant and takes a photograph of the receiver, he can take it before the tribunal. The administrative tribunal may not send the person to jail, but it would make the person pay more than the amount of money received as bribe. The Ministry would also pay the whistleblower while the civil servant is punished according to civil service rules. That will reduce corruption to a large extent in the civil service.
Code of Conduct Tribunal
Since 1999, Obasanjo created a wrong culture at the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT. There is a bill in the NASS which has not been passed into law because lawmakers are part of the problem. The bill says that all disclosures must be published openly. But what the law says now is that they can only be published at the discretion of the NASS. The lawmakers have refused to pass the bill which should have strengthened the CCT. The tribunal should be like a court of law with equal powers with the conventional court.
Nigerians encourage the culture of corruption. Why should people not question the source of wealth of a Permanent Secretary who organises a multi-million naira wedding for his daughter? How much does he earn? Corruption is now systemic and endemic in government agencies. There are so many corruption stories today that can’t be published owing to interest. How can the NASS justify the payment of salaries to former Governor Joshua Dariye who is serving a jail term? If that is the case, who would not like to be imprisoned like that? This type of culture makes the world to see us as unserious people. That is why a former British Prime Minister, David Cameron, said we are “fantastically corrupt”. Some Nigerians felt bad, but it is true, we are fantastically corrupt.
If things are going to change, four professions need to change. First is the media. If Gen Williams is a crook, it should be stated that I am a crook without fear. I shouldn’t be painted to look like Pope Francis if I am a crook. Unfortunately, so many journalists, who are out of job create online sites where they do public relations jobs and write nonsensical stories. For instance, a former Chairman of Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund, NSITF, Ngozi Olejeme, who is being investigated today, had the best publicity when it was obvious that she was not doing well.
Nobody ever mentioned that this lady was not doing well. How can one person own 47 houses? If it were in China, she would be tortured before being shot. The funds she is being accused of embezzling belong to workers and their families. Lawyers are the second set of people. Lawyers are judges, prosecutors, defence counsel, legal draftsmen and they are everywhere. They are the people who defend the crooks. What we need in Nigeria is a law that makes anyone guilty once he is caught. The person now needs to prove that he is innocent. That will help us to deal with endemic corruption.
Don’t you think such a law could be dictatorial and misapplied?
No. One of the allegations against Magu is that he was asked to release seven billion naira to someone after investigation, but he refused. When you have a situation as we have in Nigeria, something drastic is required. There was a time someone was identified in Lagos as an EFCC agent, who allegedly collects bribe on behalf of the agency. It was reported by a national daily but nothing was done. If such a person is caught, what do you do? Are we going to say that we would be waiting for the rule of law before taking drastic action? In the kind of situation that we have found ourselves, we need new laws that would take care of the desperate situation. After lawyers, accountants come next because they know how to cook the books. Accountants and auditors are part of the corruption network. The last group includes religious clerics, who do not speak truth to the rich people who come to them. If these groups I have mentioned genuinely support the fight against corruption, Nigeria would change for the better.
The EFCC is wrongly structured. Its recruitment method is also wrong. The same applies to ICPC. In a paper I delivered during the early years of EFCC, I told them to separate the board from operational people. Ribadu was made the Chairman of the board and I told them it was wrong. I said he should just be the Director-General while someone else is made the head of the board. At the time, 70 percent of the members of staff were from the police and I said it was wrong. I told them that if I had my way, there shouldn’t be a single policeman in the EFCC. I told them that every position should be advertised. Some people out there have knowledge of anti-corruption work having studied related courses. They don’t have to be policemen before working for the EFCC.
Among the accusations against Magu, he was said to have been unable to give a proper account of seized properties. Going forward, how can the Commission have what can be accepted as a transparent way of disposing of seized properties?
They know what to do. In every country, there is a law that states how to handle seized assets. This is not the first time that assets are being seized in Nigeria. What we have today shows that nobody has been questioning the EFCC. The agency was just doing what it liked. Somebody like the AGF is supposed to be supervising their activities.
That is why he was able to write the memo he wrote, claiming that Magu was not doing the right thing. For instance, if we had Office of Public Defender and a petition is written to it, the Public Defender would have been able to question the EFCC all these years. Unfortunately, they make a lot of noise about investigation after which nothing happens. It is saddening that anyone with the ability to correct the system is never appointed the Chairman of EFCC. The same thing applies to Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC.
When you juxtapose the Magu case with others that have been happening in the anti-graft war in the last five years, would you say appreciable gains have been made?
It appears to me that the President wants to leave a legacy as someone, who wants to reduce corruption to the barest minimum in Nigeria. To be able to do that, he needs to be as strong as Obasanjo, but Obasanjo didn’t fight corruption in his second term despite the strong will he had. He could have succeeded if he did. We have a President who does not have the energy that Obasanjo had. Fighting corruption requires intellect for any leader to be able to follow all the issues. Unfortunately, there are a lot of deficiencies in that regard at the moment. Only a few people are trusted to be able to convince the President about many things. If not, there are so many changes that could have taken place, which could have helped to correct all the anomalies going on. Sadly, it seems those around him do not know about happenings.
We all know that the President often says “I am not aware,” when some things go wrong. If we are in that kind of situation, something is wrong. Because of some of these deficiencies I have pointed out, he may not have known some of the things happening in EFCC. It is not encouraging that we have that kind of challenge at that level. We could see that from the appointments being made.
The Federal Character Commission was supposed to have been questioning the appointments. But the reverse is the case. However, we need to congratulate the Socio Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP. The organisation deserves an award for doing a good job in the fight against corruption. The Centre for Social Justice in Abuja is also doing well. They are taking government to court on auditors’ reports. One is hoping that the President can take the bold step and make the structural changes that I have suggested. The bill for disclosure of assets should be passed into law.
The perception in some quarters is that corruption is fighting back…
Corruption can never fight its own back. How is corruption fighting back? The noise about stepping on toes shouldn’t come in here because many ex-Presidents have been sent to jail in Latin American countries. I don’t see the reason we can’t do that in Africa. South Africa set a good example in that area. The African National Congress, ANC, is supreme. It has terminated the tenure of two Presidents without allowing them to conclude their tenure. They went to Mbeki and told him that his time was up. When Zuma was being accused of corruption, the party asked him to step aside. Even if they don’t want to prosecute a former President, all he embezzled can be collected.