A Next Edition team comprising Victoria Ibanga, Editor in-Chief; Dominik Umosen, Associate Editor; Yusuf Mohammed, Correspondent; and Asian Nkutt, Marketing Executive recently interviewed Itse Sagay, a Professor and Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee against Corruption (PACAC).
In the interaction, which lasted over an hour and was made available to the ICIR, the fiery lawyer spoke about the insistence of the presidency that no one else but Ibrahim Magu will be EFCC Chairman, the federal government’s war against corruption, and the presence of corrupt people, whom he said were being found out, in anti-corruption agencies.
As the chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee against Corruption (PACAC), would you say the government has made significant progress in the fight against corruption?
I wouldn’t just say significant, but tremendous progress has been made. There is a tendency to focus on the number of convictions. That’s a mistake. There are so many aspects of the fight against corruption. One area in which we have been overwhelmingly successful is that of assets recovery. We have made a lot of assets recovery. I’m sure, as journalists, you will know the assets we are talking about. We were just talking about Diezani a few days ago. From her alone, what has been recovered is almost a billion dollars altogether.
We are talking about a billion dollars, not even naira. $447 million is a lot of money. There is also the money she used in bribing various electoral officials, about $43 million. The list is endless. That’s that.
There are so many others. The anti-corruption agencies and the judiciary have been empowered. Their capacity has been improved. The PACAC has engaged in a lot of capacity building programmes for judges and for the anti-corruption agencies. For example, we engaged judges themselves as the facilitators. Judges who are very experienced in corruption prosecution, and we have been exceptionally upright in terms of integrity and principles. They were the ones we used for the programme. Then when it came to the higher courts, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court, we brought people from all over the world. People from Britain, Canada, Ghana and so on.
That has been done and there are also new ideas. For example, the whistle blower policy was introduced by us and it has been very successful and as you know, there is a Whistle-blower Bill before the National Assembly. There is a Special Crimes Court Bill before the National Assembly. Then we have looked at the whole idea of accumulating a lot of money and assets in a haphazard manner and Nigerians have been asking what happened to the monies that have been recovered so far, which we thought was a reasonable demand. There has been a central assets management and recovery committee headed by the minister of finance. It is actually supervised by the Vice President but the head is the minister of finance.
All these monies are being kept in a particular account. There are two types of recovery, those that are permanent and those that are temporary. The two have to be separated. When it is still temporary, the government cannot touch it because its fate has not yet been decided. It is just that the forfeiture is to protect the prospective defendant from using it. There are so many publications and manuals now assisting the anti-corruption war. We have the corruption prosecution manual, which was designed by the PACAC to help the anti-corruption agencies strengthen their prosecution of the corruption case.
Basically, the most important thing it does is to encourage team work. When a case is being investigated, the investigator usually is a Police-trained person. He may not be a lawyer, so he may not know what to look for which constitutes the ingredients of the crime. We have proposed and they have accepted to attach a lawyer who will be in the prosecution team and will be guiding them on what to look for. And then there is a higher committee that reviews whatever is being done at intervals until there is the satisfaction that we have a strong case. There are so many things we have done. It would be very difficult for me to go into all of them.
There is also a plea bargain manual now, which is very strict on how plea bargaining should be managed. It is not the idea Nigerians have that somebody would steal billions and then return half of it. It is a graded thing. For example, if you plead guilty before the trial starts, you are going to get a softer landing than the one who allows the trial to get to the end of the prosecution case. And what is conceded is reasonably small.
Based on your explanations so far, does that invalidate the claim that the war on corruption is targeted at opponents of this administration?
This is our response. Who are the people who handled money and resources? It is not the present government. Of course, a few who were in PDP did handle and some of them have been taken to court. You have seen the case of Saraki, which backfired because of challenges we had with the judiciary, which is another major problem. But basically, the people who are in opposition now were the ones who handled our economy. We have seen the case of Diezani and some of these military chiefs. Alex Badeh and co who sent poor soldiers to the war fronts without arms and pocketed the money that was voted for the arms. Those are the ones the searchlight has been beamed on. Those who have managed our resources in the last 16 years are the only ones who can be held accountable. The people in power now have not had that opportunity. Of course, it has to be selective because there is nothing to hold members of government on.
There is a feeling that whoever runs from whichever party to the APC automatically becomes a saint and no longer looked at with suspicion by the current dispensation, do you agree to that?
I don’t agree to that. In fact, personally, I am against people jumping ship because it is so obvious they are looking for all sorts of favours. But luckily for us, Mr. Magu does not recognise anyone’s face. If you think you looted the ministry, agency or whatever body you handled and you think that by jumping to the APC, you are free; it is the worst mistake the person would make. There are quite a number of those who crossed over who are being prosecuted right now. I don’t want to mention names not to embarrass them.
But we need to know them so it wouldn’t look like the government is only targeting members of the opposition?
It is a good idea but I don’t want it to come from me. I would have wanted it to come from the EFCC. There are many of them who are even supporting the government strongly now. One thing I want to add, which is not really appreciated, is that fuel subsidy scam has ended. As at the time this government came in, over N380 billion had been stolen over fuel subsidy. That is the end of it. Nobody is trying it anymore when a ship was somewhere in the West Indies and then you say you are supplying petrol to the government. That is no longer happening. It was draining us.
Let’s talk about due process. You were one of the vocal defenders of rule of law and due process in governance. But it seems you have somewhat shifted ground?
Why do you say so?
You supported the raid on the homes of some of the judges last year and due process wasn’t followed
Yes, I did. The DSS obtained a warrant to search those premises, so they followed due process. And if anybody says they went in the dead of the night, what happened in America to one of Trump’s campaign team managers? They went to his house early in the morning around 6 O’clock and woke him because they had a warrant. The law does not stipulate time and it is the agency that wants to exercise the warrant that thinks of the best time to do so because if they go at the wrong time, if you tell someone I am coming with a warrant tomorrow morning, you are not going to meet anyone there. If you do it in daytime when the people are not in, there may be disadvantages there because you are required to be present for you to take an inventory and for them to say yes or no when you are entering a room or the other.
Basically, there was nothing wrong. People were so disturbed because they were judges. But I look at it from a different angle. I think more is demanded of judges than ordinary people like you and me because we entrust them with our faiths, so to speak. No anti-corruption war can succeed without judges who are committed to it. So if the judges too are deep in corruption, you just kiss the anti-corruption war good bye. I need to add that majority of our judges are honest. They have integrity but a few who are corrupt, who are in powerful positions, are frustrating the anti-corruption struggle and there is need to get them out of position, to ensure they do not interfere in the process.
Like I said, judges get a lot of respect and honour from society because of their position, so if they degrade themselves to the level of ordinary people, they will be treated like ordinary people. We all go to court, we bow, we say, ‘My Lord’, we pray for a ruling, we use all sort of words which indicate their superiority compared to us. And if you see where he sits, you have to look up. It is all deliberate to give him an image, which everybody will respect as the man whose word is law. Once he says something, that’s the end. You can only appeal. You cannot argue with him. A man with such totalitarian authority, respected by society, placed on a special pedestal, if he brings himself down, it is such a let down to the whole society. In fact, it needs a harsher punishment. The ordinary man steals a goat in the village and they cut off his hand immediately.
Our President was away for over 100 days. He made a promise he would stop public officers from traveling abroad for medical treatment when he assumed office in 2015. How do you react to a situation where he has been out for more than 100 days?
Well, I am not sure he said he would stop public officials from going abroad for treatment. I think he would make it more stringent. That’s the impression I had because there are some cases that you can’t treat here. Now coming to the President, he is also Head of State. He is the symbol of this country. Can we afford for him to die? That is the issue. When you think of the consequence if something happens to him. Look at the case of Yar’Adua and remember the confusion it caused in this country. We can’t afford that. So anything that can be done to restore his health for him to come back and continue his work as the head of this country, we should do it. We should make an exception in his case. There is nothing wrong with that. The country will lose more if anything happens to him. Yes, money is being spent but if anything happens to him, the cost would be more. I think we owe a duty for the sake of our country to give him the best medical treatment the world can afford.
Don’t you think that as a public figure Nigerians should know his health condition?
It is a very debatable issue and for me, I don’t disagree with those who insist but I want you to know the cultural difference between an African country and a European country. In America, of course, in Britain, that’s the first thing they will announce. This man is down with so and so. This is his condition and the hospital he is being treated in and this is the procedure he will go through. But in our own society, we seem to hide this from society. I think with time, we will overcome it. Probably it would have been better if it had been announced but I can understand the background we are coming from that is making them hesitant.
Even with the cat-and-mouse relationship between the legislature and the presidency in some regards, particularly on corruption issues, do you agree there is merit in the allegation we are fighting corruption war using people with dirty hands? There are allegations that the heads of some of these agencies are not clean. Are you aware of these allegations?
Yes, we have received petitions. You know the way Nigerians behave and I don’t blame them. We are basically a think tank making provision for empowering the anti-corruption agencies, but Nigerians want us to be directly involved. People see us like we are a prosecution agency. They send petitions to us, so what we have done is create a section for petitions, decide which agency it should be sent to and monitor it. In the process, we have seen quite a number of petitions against the agencies themselves and we forwarded it to them and said look, what are your response to these things and they responded. But in the process, a few things have come out. Below the head, there are some people in the middle who are involved in acts of corruption. Some of them are being found out and are being sacked but there is no question that within the anti-corruption agencies there are those who are corrupt. Whenever they are discovered, some through whistle blowers, some through their agencies, they are shown the way out.
Can you tell us why the government is insisting on giving the EFCC job to Ibrahim Magu despite the face-off between the Presidency and the Senate?
We may not want to admit it, but integrity is a rare phenomenon in this country.
Are you saying he is the best we have?
He is the best we know. We know that he can’t be bribed. We know no one can approach him. That is why he is so unpopular with the National Assembly. Right now, as I am speaking, he is investigating over 20 of them.
Irrespective of party affiliation?
Yes, irrespective of the political party. I need not mention that. For instance, take a look at former governors, both APC and PDP. They are all being investigated. And there is concrete evidence on the grounds of major misuse of public funds. They are being investigated and nothing will shake him. He has been approached and he has completely defied every attempt to make him succumb to all these blandishment of money and threat and so on. When you are able to identify someone like that, it is a terrible risk to use the argument that there are many Nigerians because you don’t know what the next person would do. He is the best we have at the moment. We are sure that he can’t be bribed, no one can influence him and he has no fear of anybody no matter their position. That is why we are supporting him right from my own low level to the high level of the vice president and the president.
But you are aware it was the DSS, an agency under the Presidency that sent a report to the Senate that stopped Mr. Magu’s confirmation?
I don’t want to comment on that but it is a very sad case. Let me put it like that. Very sad.