Farida Waziri, EFCC and one year of shadow-boxing

By Levi Obijiofor

THERE'S something consistently inconsistent at the apex of Nigeria's anti-corruption agency - the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). Nine months ago, Farida Waziri, the EFCC's chief commandant installed by President Umaru Yar'Adua to continue the shadow-boxing campaign called the war against corruption, outraged the Nigerian public when she said that allegations of corruption directed at Olusegun Obasanjo and some former state governors could not be supported with evidence because the so-called files did not exist or they had disappeared.

On Monday this week, in celebration of her one year as boss of the EFCC, Mrs Waziri denied her previous statement in an undistinguished manner. Her words: "I have never said to anybody that files are missing or have been stolen. My predecessor began the cases and we have been pursuing them." Mrs Waziri deserves an award for being unswervingly inconsistent. She must be reminded that statements made in public cannot be denied casually -- just like that. Statements released in the public domain are recorded and preserved for public consumption and for future references.

Let us return to October 2008. At a national forum in mid October last year, Mrs Waziri startled her audience when she said specifically that the EFCC had no case against Olusegun Obasanjo and some former state governors because no one had lodged allegations of corruption against the men. It was a statement that many Nigerians found difficult to digest. On account of the shock impact of her statement, Mrs Waziri was challenged on the spot by a member of the audience who asked her pointedly: "How can you talk about fighting corruption when you have consistently ignored the petitions we sent to your commission...?"

If Mrs Waziri has forgotten what she said at that public forum last October, let us revive her memory. Last year she said: "As far as we are concerned, there is no case against Chief Obasanjo. There are some bulky files and when you begin to look at them, you don't see respondents, then you don't have any case." These statements fly in the face of her latest denial. This is an inglorious way to mark Mrs Waziri's first anniversary as boss of the EFCC.

When she talked about the controversial subject of the previously declared missing or non-existing files containing information about some former state governors, Mrs Waziri said: "The cases are on-going even as complicated court procedures have stalled some of them... politicians and some adversarial sources have literally overtaken some media that have been harping on arrest, detention and quiz of some suspects... most of the stories were not from us..."

That was an extraordinarily smart but failed attempt by Mrs Waziri to re-write the epochal statement she made last year. Against the backdrop of those claims, Mrs Waziri's latest turnaround must have left a lot of Nigerians tweaking their ears. By denying her own statement publicly, Mrs Waziri has shredded her credibility. No one would believe her anymore.

There is something predictable about Mrs Waziri - the seasonal nature of her threats to arrest and prosecute corrupt politicians and public officers. When she was first appointed the boss of the EFCC, she threatened to step on everyone's toes -- big or small, corrupt or honest. One year since her inauguration as EFCC boss, she has uttered a similar threat. Apparently, she relishes the opportunity to issue warnings not only on an annual basis but also as a way to remind everyone that she is still in charge of the campaign to smoke out corrupt elements from their comfortable caves.

Mrs Waziri was in Abuja this week barking and threatening to arrest and put on trial those former governors who have been operating like untouchable emperors in the corrupt empire known as Nigeria. But, is Mrs Waziri barking for the sake of howling? Is she shouting to impress her boss? Has she got any bite left in her teeth and any fight left in her finger nails? Perhaps the more compelling question should be: can Mrs Waziri succeed where Nuhu Ribadu failed? Alternatively, can she improve on what Ribadu achieved?

The nation, including international human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch, have been wondering whether Nigeria's much touted public campaign against corruption had stalled since Yar'Adua became president and since Mrs Waziri took over as the general overseer of the EFCC.

Just how serious should the nation take Mrs Waziri and her latest threats to puncture the oxygen bag that sustains the club of corrupt former governors? We have seen this kind of threat before. In a way, Ribadu was guilty of a similar bluff. Months before the general elections in 2007, Ribadu responded to public criticisms of the EFCC when he came out firing on all cylinders. He said the EFCC had been silent for a long while because he was waiting for the state governors to vacate office before the EFCC could apprehend and drag them to court.

In a performance that impressed his admirers at that time, Ribadu said the EFCC had collected a staggering bundle of evidence with which the former governors would be nailed. The only reason the EFCC couldn't arrest the governors immediately, he said, was the constitution which guaranteed the governors immunity from arrest and criminal prosecution while they were in office. It was on this basis that the nation waited for Ribadu and his team of chasers to pounce on the former governors soon after they vacated office in May 2007.

Long after the threat and months after the governors had completed their tenure, nothing happened. The ex-governors moved about as free citizens, daring Ribadu to touch them. Some of them organised special thanksgiving church services to glorify God for their new found wealth and power. It is in Nigeria that politicians and public officers steal from the public treasury and head straight to the church to celebrate their booty.

Ribadu could not follow through on his threat to arrest and prosecute the former governors either because he had no evidence (the so-called "smoking gun" simply did not exist) or he was informed by his former boss to lie low. Whatever may have accounted for Ribadu's failure to accomplish his threats confirmed public cynicism about the high level of shadow-boxing by the EFCC. Just when Nigerians had lost interest, Ribadu moved in apprehended just a handful of the former governors.

One of the ironies of the war against corruption in Nigeria is that the instrument with which the EFCC uses in the anti-corruption crusade is the same device which corrupt officers use to beat the system. When the EFCC drags politicians and public officers to court on charges of corrupt enrichment, the accused persons use legal loopholes to set themselves free. This was the sore point Mrs Waziri alluded to during her press briefing this week - that is, the judicial system has obstructed rather than served her agency well enough. For the EFCC to serve as an effective anti-corruption outfit, it needs extra legal teeth to bark and bite. At the moment, those who created the EFCC have ensured that the anti-corruption watchdog can only bark.

The fight against corruption is a life-threatening job in Nigeria. And Mrs Waziri recognises the dangers involved. Last Monday she said: "I'm prepared for anything... The risk may be high, but I'm ready for anything." Corrupt public officers are as determined to protect their wealth and their luxurious lifestyle as Mrs Waziri may be keen to knock them off their golden stools. No one who has ever tasted stupendous wealth - acquired legally or illegally -- would ever give up such affluence without putting up a dogged fight. That's why the club of corrupt officers in Nigeria operates like a set of crustaceans. Whoever threatens one corrupt officer also threatens the interests of other members.

To her credit, Mrs Waziri has recorded some modest achievements. As she noted this week, the EFCC has recorded more than 65 successful prosecutions since she took office, in addition to recovering more than fifty billion naira. But it may be too early for Mrs Waziri to count her successes. Greater challenges lie ahead. One year may be too short for her to start beating her chest. She should concentrate on the job and avoid the shadow-boxing circus she mounts in Abuja on a seasonal basis.


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