By ABDULRASHEED BAWA
There are so many matters we all agree on in Nigeria. However, there is perhaps none more so than the fact that Nigeria is a country of laws. We also coalesce a hundred per cent around the fact that our bane is the lack of the enforcement of these laws.
However, this realisation has not served to point us in the direction of more rigorous enforcement as the best vehicle, at least for now, to convey us to our El Dorado. Rather, we, again, almost unanimously, hanker after more laws, which we say would be better laws to address the same age-old circumstances and emergent variants of ancient problems.
In our realm of law enforcement, nothing illustrates this, I think, better than the statement I made some months back, that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) would start requesting from bankers evidence of their compliance with the Bank Employees Declaration of Asset Act, 1986.
No sooner had I made this declaration, setting June 1 as the date we would start requesting the bankers’ confirmation of their statuses with respect to the provisions of the Act, than all hell was let loose.
The interventions on that matter made by many otherwise distinguished ‘public affairs analysts’ did nothing to take away from the fact that the mentioned law has been in existence for almost four decades; they did nothing to take anything away from the fact that even way back then, thirty-five years ago, the Nigeria we dreamt of building was one in which the guardians of our private wealth and the public till, those from whom the highest possible level of professional integrity and moral rectitude was expected, did not become vehicles of money laundering themselves.
Furthermore, the avalanche of interventions did not deny the fact that the law has been comatose until now. Rather, many of the individuals and sponsored groups who felt pained enough to weigh in, sought to divert attention and spin a narrative that the EFCC was overreaching its legal mandate, a position that’s essentially a rebuke of the EFCC’s raison d’etre.
The work my colleagues and I have been lucky to be called to do at the EFCC, is essentially to enforce the law, without let or hindrance, and that is what we will continue to do without minding whose ox is gored. However, another plank of our twin mandate, which Nigerians do not hear a lot about or do not seem to appreciate, is that of prevention.
As such, we are charged under the EFCC (Establishment) Act, 2004, to engage appropriate mechanisms to prevent the commission of economic and financial crimes. This includes engaging with different stakeholders, and carrying out enlightenment and sensitisation campaigns, with a view to nipping economic and financial crimes in the bud.
However, I have always maintained that there is no better prevention tool than a vigorous enforcement regime, one that is applied across the board in strict adherence and compliance with extant laws, rules and regulations.
Let us face it, those countries we tend to run to, to borrow the yardsticks for measuring or situating our own collective progress (or lack of it), are not doing anything extraordinary; in very plain terms, they enforce their laws and regulations, no matter who it is that has committed an infraction.
I take it that they have achieved that enforcement nirvana that makes each and every person to accept that the first and indeed the only rule for holding public office is to act for the public good and that when you act contrary to set laws or regulations, you will be held to account.
Let us be clear that while focusing on enforcement, principally from the law enforcement perspective, this is really an issue that cuts across all facets of our lives as Nigerians. Like white elephant projects never designed to work, the regard we have for our laws is that of decorative monuments on our national landscape.
A law or regulation is only as good as its enforcement. A society where enforcement is jaundiced or non-existent is inevitably sucked faster into the black hole of failure.
For a nation whose nationals are almost always on the lookout for targets to blame for everything considered unfortunate (notwithstanding that it may be the proper and justified outcome of a chain of events), the aggregation of society into combative ‘we’ versus ‘them’ columns is very easy.
Thus, the person against whom the law is being legitimately enforced, sees all enforcement activity and even the person enforcing the law as extensions of his/her so-called oppressors.
The tragedy we have confronting us as a nation is that at every turn, we see our very best in every facet of life either lying waste or dormant and, as we are wont to say, we prefer instead to travel all the way to Sokoto (state) in unending quixotic searches for that which is right here with us in our Sokoto (trouser)!
The question is, do we need more laws or regulations? I certainly think we need better, more responsive laws as veritable guardrails of our march to nationhood. But, whilst we are hard at work formulating those, the real question begging for answer is, how much of the functionality of available laws have we, as Nigerians, tested to hold both public officers and the public system they run accountable? The simple answer from our experience, when we asked bankers to comply with extant provisions of that very old law, is sadly not very much.
This is why it so gratifying for those of us at the EFCC to note that as a Commission, we have deliberately chosen to show leadership in asking public office holders to account for our commonwealth that they hold in trust.
In this regard, we make bold to say that no agency of government in Nigeria has done more to advance the development of the law in the last 18 years than the EFCC. This is because every day, across the length and breadth of this country, we are using the instrumentality of extant laws to hold public officials accountable.
Apposite examples of the baked-in resistance to law enforcement are replete on the EFCC’s Facebook page. Recently, as part of the strategy to use different media to inform and warn against (and thereby prevent) economic and financial crime, we put up a cartoon depicting an enforcement activity: The artist’s illustration is that of a group of internet fraudsters trying to escape with the EFCC in hot pursuit, discarding in the process their instruments of ‘trade’, including the tell-tale laptop. The reaction of one Ajayi Abiodun Adeyemi was this:
Please EFCC show us top functionaries in government that looted our national treasury…not an unemployed youth who unintentionally engage in internet fraud because he could barely put food on the table.
He goes further to conclude that, the “EFCC is a classified reprobate full of intellectual hypocrites.”
All these for simply doing our job! We can understand the wide-held, but wrong supposition that the Commission seems to place unnecessary premium on the investigation and prosecution of internet fraudsters to the detriment of the big fraud cases. But this is not so.
The message that a number of visitors to our social media pages leave for us to go after those who steal billions of naira with a single stroke of the pen, is well taken and we have been doing so since 2003, with numerous trophies and scars of battle to show for our efforts.
We have, since our inception, been seeking accountability from politicians of all hues and businessmen of all shades; we have gone after bankers and public servants. And across the country, from the High Courts all the way to the Supreme Court, the dockets of courts are filled with EFCC cases.
However, because we see a trend where some big entertainment and social media stars are either into or they glorify internet fraud, the youth section of the society, who are the greatest consumers of entertainment and the predominant users of the Internet, tends to view enforcement activities negatively.
Let me quickly note, however, that they only borrow a leaf from the older economic and financial criminals who have established themselves in critical sectors of our public life and big business.
For those ones, the EFCC is always the agent or lapdog of the other party; the spiked cudgel of the government in power; the anti-progress arrowhead and so forth. Rather than give straightforward answers to the accountability questions we ask them, they and their hirelings automatically respond in any of these variety of ways: ‘It is because I am from X region or hold X religious belief’ or very ridiculously: ‘Why me, why has EFCC not gone after the other (corrupt person)? At a more dangerous level is the insistence by the feisty aso ebi-clad kinsmen of an alleged corrupt former public functionary, that that alleged thief is their own (beloved thief)!
At court appearances, they come with drummers and singing troupes to gyrate round court environments and threaten EFCC operatives and prosecutors. In one instance in 2007, thugs bussed from hundreds of kilometres away actually pulled down the fence of the Federal High Court in Kaduna.
Progress will continue to be a mirage for any nation with such a toxic perception of enforcement activities – be they in respect of social or business relations or arising from citizens’ engagements with corporate national or sub-national entities.
Indeed, there is a lot to expect from all of us and it is our individual failings to follow through on enforcement processes that ultimately feed the wrong mass notion that demanding transparency is a misnomer and that the person demanding it is the person who has committed a crime.
That narrative has to change and it behoves on all of us, in all our small areas of influence, to make change happen by insisting on enforcing all rules, all regulations, all laws.
There is also a special role for the media to call out any individual or agency of government that is not keen on enforcement or that has a warped sense of it.
It is my conviction that when we all join hands together in this way, we would have taken a very significant step towards achieving the Nigeria of our dreams.
Bawa is the Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).