DSS, the citizen & selective harassment/

On the evening of October 10th 2016, a young lady was accosted in the departure hall of one of the nation’s international airports by operatives of the Department of State Security (DSS) on suspicion of ‘round tripping’ of Foreign Exchange.

She was in the airport ahead of her 11pm flight to London for a short two-day personal trip (to utilize her two-year UK Visa due to shortly expire) for which she had secured short term leave from her employers. She was in the airport early to secure her Personal Travel Allowance (PTA) from the Travelex Desk. Travelex had declined the transaction as she intended paying via account transfer. Travelex insisted on cash as it was after 6pm and their account may not be credited prior to her departure.

It was as she was leaving the Travelex office that DSS officials accosted her in the Departure hall demanding her to ‘produce the money’. The DSS operatives insisted they arrested her because “she bought money and did not board”; despite not finding any form of foreign currency on her (her bag contained the princely sum of N6,450.00). They also saw and confirmed her flight ticket for that evening. She was nevertheless detained overnight and as result missed her flight. Though we secured her release the next evening (after almost 24 hours in detention), all her personal effects and travel documents were impounded and detained till March 2017.

A simple enquiry at the Travelex office would have revealed that no transaction took place and that she did not buy any foreign currency at all. The operative later charged with the case (who was actually quite humane), explained that the security implications of the foreign exchange instability had inspired government to mandate the security agencies to continuously monitor and raid the forex market as all efforts to stabilise the naira were unsuccessful. According to him, government was concerned about the source of the market instability and the incessant fall in the value of the naira.

Government obviously believed that those buying PTA/BTA (limited to maximum of $4,000 per individual) were trading with the dollar rather than using it for legitimate purposes. However, whether such suspicious transactions could occur on such scale as to actually affect the value of the naira is debatable. Purchase of PTA/BTA is not a crime under our laws, but the purchased currency can only be applied for the trip for which it was purchased. However, PTA/BTA can be purchased three times a year and therefore can still be utilised within four months of purchase if a frequent flier or if it could not be fully utilised on one trip.

The arbitrary nature of the arrest, the fact that there was absolutely no evidence that any form of offence had been committed (which the Investigating Officer admitted) and the suffering, damages and inconvenience they put a Nigerian citizen through were insufficient to move the ‘oga at the top’ to authorise release of my friend’s documents. Her visa expired and it took the intervention of a senior political figure for her properties to be released last week without apology or explanation of the results of their everlasting ‘investigations’ of over five months.  

Another young man arrested at around the same time for a similar reason was detained until February 2017 without trial or access to his lawyers despite the alleged offence being not only bailable, but insignificant in view of the national dimensions of the forex scams that have now been revealed. I am yet to be educated about any laws empowering DSS to arrest and detain Nigerian citizens or impound their properties without due process in the name of ‘national security’ and in lieu of investigations?

This is why I followed the news reports of the arrest, detention and subsequent release of Mr. Babatunde Gbadamosi for his viral video commenting on the January 26th 2017 LeadersNG investigative report detailing Central Bank of Nigeria’s ‘corrupt’ preferential forex allocations. I was surprised at the arrest as I had read the report much earlier and Mr. Gbadamosi merely read out portions of that report. There was nothing new in the video despite his admittedly politically coloured commentary; which comments are within his constitutional rights of free opinion.

I have waited for the January 26 report to be credibly explained, contradicted or debunked by CBN authorities; but must conclude that the factual basis of that report has left CBN little room to manoeuvre. The release of transaction names, dates and figures confirms the adage that you can generally not argue with data or figures.

Mr. Gbadamosi’s detention was curious as I am unaware of any report of the management of LeadersNG being arrested or summoned to explain their publication. Why go after the commentator, while ignoring the source of the report? Further, looking through the LeadersNG publication, I find it curious that the Department of State Security with their numerous operatives had no knowledge of foreign currency transactions of these nature that were impacting so terribly the Nigerian economy and affecting economic stability; surely matters of ‘national security’?

I cannot but wonder why DSS is busy harassing ordinary Nigerians going about their businesses at the nation’s airports whilst ignoring the Augean mess going on within the hallowed halls of the nation’s financial regulator? Can a federal security agency with the reach and resources of the DSS truly be ignorant of the racketeering that the LeadersNG report exposed or have they conveniently looked the other way to favour an ‘invincible sector’?

The LeadersNG report was not even new. It was preceded by the remarks of the Emir of Kano and former CBN Governor Mohammed Sanusi II reported in the Daily Trust of August 25, 2016 where he said ‘we have created our own billionaires since 2015 from foreign exchange subsidy’. It is possible that this was the report that motivated LeadersNG to investigate the affair further leading to the published report under reference.

Yet the state agency charged with protecting our national security did not react to these reports until a Facebook video went viral? Even more curious is the fact that they considered the video commentary as detrimental to ‘national security’; but the reported facts were not worthy of investigation and none of the several companies and individuals mentioned are reported to have received invitations to explain what they used these allocated forexes for? Truly a case of ignoring leprosy to concentrate on treating ringworm.    

We look forward to seeing the DSS utilising the same zeal and enthusiasm in investigating these transactions and the unmasking the Nigerians behind them; as it exercised in prosecuting the Judicial officers and in raiding our nation’s airports and Bureau De Changes. At least it has been furnished with names, addresses and dates. It should be fairly easy to investigate whether these preferential forex allocations were utilised for the purpose for which they were granted. 

Hopefully, the numerous innocent Nigerians currently illegally detained in the DSS’s gulags will also get reprieve and be allowed to go home to their families as they are clearly not the real criminals here. Our security agencies should perhaps be educated that selective and discriminate investigation and prosecution of offences is also a form of corruption.

Seán Akinrele Esq., is a Solicitor and Barrister of the Nigerian Supreme Court.