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Reprieve for Corrupt Ex-Governors?

by Tell Magazine, Nigeria

With indications that many former governors in the last political dispensation may find a place in the new federal cabinet, President Yar'Adua may have soft-pedalled on the expected prosecution of many of them who have been found to be corrupt.

Only a few weeks ago, they were very powerful, rich and influential in Nigeria. As governors of their respective states, they not only wielded enormous political power, they also controlled the resources of their states. What is more, some of them contributed in no small way to the emergence of Umaru Yar’Adua as president. However, just a couple of weeks out of power, many of the former states helmsmen have fallen from grace to grass and are now fugitives from the law. Last week, the process that may eventually lead to their prosecution commenced in Abuja with their invitation by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC. The magazine learnt from a reliable source last week that many of the governors have received invitations to come and answer queries about their financial stewardship while in office. For years, the former governors could not be brought to questioning because of the immunity they enjoyed. Now, with their immunity removed, there is no longer any reason why they cannot face the law. In fact, Jolly Nyame, erstwhile governor of Taraba State, is said to have appeared before operatives of the commission at its office in Abuja last Tuesday. The operatives are believed to have questioned Nyame over allegations of corruption, including inflation of contracts and embezzlement. Specifically, the former governor was drilled over his purchase of three aircraft in the name of the state government for commercial flights. It has been alleged that not only was the cost of the aircraft inflated, only two were ever delivered. Furthermore, the whereabouts of the two aircraft delivered are not known.

Also, former governors Joshua Dariye and Ahmad Sani of Plateau and Zamfara states were also expected to have appeared before EFCC investigators last Wednesday. It was expected that even if Dariye did not show up, his lawyers would represent him. But it seems that the likes of Nyame, Sani and Dariye even deserve commendation for the courage they have shown in staying put at home. Other former governors like Chimaroke Nnamani and Boni Haruna, governors of Enugu and Adamawa states, have not been so courageous. They fled the country before the May 29 expiration of their tenure. There had been speculations that many of the governors whom Nuhu Ribadu, the EFCC chairman, had accused of being corrupt, would flee the country before May 29 to escape prosecution.

At least, a few of them have proved the speculations justified. In the case of Nnamani, he has surreptitiously applied for a post-graduate programme at the Harvard University in the United States, even as he contested and won a seat at the Senate. But the former governor was apparently selling a dummy as he never planned to go to the upper legislative chamber. In his application letter to the university, Nnamani had indicated that though he had won an election to the Senate, he had no intention to take up his seat. He has every reason to be apprehensive: the EFCC had been after him and many of his aides, including Sam Ejiofor, former commissioner for local government and chieftaincy affairs and now deputy governor of Enugu State, and Peter Umeh, for alleged corruption. Ejiofor, Umeh and Victor Udeh, a lawyer, are currently facing a 29-count charge before a Lagos high court. Nnamani is accused of stealing more than N20 billion state funds. The former governor was originally believed to have fled to Spain, but he was reported to have moved to Morocco.

If Nnamani was sly and devious about his flight, Haruna’s was even more ridiculous. The former Adamawa State governor, who barely survived an impeachment move in the twilight of his administration and had been investigated by the EFCC on corruption charges, is said to have fled through the Seme border to neighbouring Benin Republic. His whereabouts is not now known. However, indications from the EFCC, the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, ICPC, as well as the new government indicate that the runaway governor need not have fled the country as there are currently no plans to prosecute former state chief executives. Competent sources within the relevant agencies and the Presidency told the magazine last week that for practical and political reasons, it may have been decided that it would be impolitic and unwise to go after the governors for now.

On the part of the ICPC, the commission was quoted in a national newspaper last week as saying that the agency does not have the funds to prosecute the governors. According to the report, Mike Sowe, the commission’s spokesman, had said in a telephone interview that the agency had compiled the names of former governors found to have a case to answer and forwarded them to the chief justice of Nigeria, CJN, who is expected to appoint independent counsel to handle the cases. Sowe was quoted as explaining further that the CJN's office had not been provided with the funds to pay the independent counsel. This is no news as Mustapha Akanbi, retired judge of the court of appeal and former chairman of ICPC, had said before that he had, as far back as 2004, presented case files of about 25 governors before the CJN but that there was no money to appoint independent prosecutors to prosecute the cases. About a month ago, the magazine learnt that the ICPC asked the CJN to return the files to the commission which planned to employ the services of the independent prosecutors. In fact, it was gathered that a portion of the commission’s office complex in the Central Business District, Abuja, had been earmarked to accommodate the independent counsel. But with the recent reported declaration by the commission that there is no money to commence the process, the matter may be put on hold for now.

Also, sources within the EFCC said last week that although the commission has, in the last two weeks, been tidying up the case files against the governors, it may not be feasible to prosecute them in the immediate future. It was gathered that all the officers and unit heads involved in the investigation of all former state executives were ordered to prepare their case files in readiness for possible prosecution. As at the middle of last week, there was still frenzied activity in preparing these case files. But the EFCC may be hamstrung in prosecuting the governors now. First, the commission, it is said, may prefer a situation where the governors would willingly return the funds they are found to have looted and save the commission the stress of going to court. The reasoning here is that it would serve little or no purpose to go ahead and prosecute the governors at huge costs in terms of time, personnel and other resources when there is no guarantee that the cases would fly when the commission can just as well spend nothing if the former state helmsmen willingly relinquish the monies they stole. To buttress this argument, a source gave the example of the prosecution of Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, former governor of Bayelsa State, which has cost the commission enormous resources with the case dragging on endlessly. He added that the commission would most likely be realistic rather than pander to public sentiments in the matter. Rhetorically, he asked, “How many of the 36 state governors can we realistically prosecute?”

Besides the position of the anti–corruption agencies, from a political point of view, for a number of reasons, it may also be impolitic for the new government of Umaru Yar’Adua, which is still trying to find its feet, to allow the prosecution of the former governors to commence just now. First, the President, it must be remembered, was, until a few weeks ago, one of them. Second, many of Yar’Adua’s former colleagues worked assiduously for his election. In fact, it is being said in some quarters that Yar’Adua may face a moral dilemma in bringing to justice former governors who might have used some of the money they allegedly stole from their states to fund the campaign that saw to his success at the polls. Some of the same governors that supported and funded the President’s campaign are on the EFCC list of corrupt governors.

Beyond these reasons, however, is the compelling consideration of the political and security consequences of moving against the former governors. It is said in some quarters that the new administration may not be disposed to apprehending or prosecuting them as it would unnecessarily heat up the polity, breed political tension and, worst of all, lead to a possible threat to law and order in some states. Some of the former governors remain popular in their states and are even now still powerful political influences, and any move against them may lead to uproar. As a measure of their continued influence, many of them have found themselves on the list of ministerial nominees drawn up by governors who they, to a large extent, installed. Also, many of the governors have acquired so much wealth which they can readily deploy to fight the new government and even destabilise it. That situation the new government would rather avoid.

But all these may not mean that former governors who are found guilty of corruption would eventually escape justice. If it is unrealistic or impolitic to bring them to book immediately, if the new government is to have credibility and if it is to be taken seriously about its commitment to fighting corruption, as Yar’Adua promised in his inaugural speech, then it would have to act some time. The magazine learnt that the new President’s initial attitude about the issue was that any of his former colleagues who soiled his hands while in office is on his own. The President, it was said, had meant to distance himself from the issue, neither intervening on their behalf nor interfering in their prosecution. However, many of the governors and even leaders of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, may have impressed on him that he would have shot himself in the foot had he taken that position. Therefore, for now, the issue might be kept in the cooler.

But those who claim to know Yar’Adua say that he is so intolerant of crooked or corrupt people and that this might soon manifest. The President, it is said, may be concerned that his government’s failure to prosecute known corrupt governors may seriously erode the credibility of the campaign he has promised against corruption. Particularly, the President is said to believe that if the former thieving governors are allowed to get away with their loot, it might send the wrong signals to newly elected officials at different levels of government that they can also loot with impunity and nothing would happen.

Will the President overcome this dilemma? And how soon would that be? The coming weeks will answer these questions. However, one thing that is certain is that whenever the decision is taken to give the law a free rein in the matter, the EFCC and the ICPC will be fully ready with the case files of all the governors deemed to be corrupt. So, it might be too early for the runaway former governors to start to think of coming back home. And perhaps, many of those who have not fled and do not plan to do so may soon have a rethink.

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