197 drug convicts let off, indicted officials gloat, and a state report gathers dust.
Six years after a government inquiry into how 197 drug convicts were let off by dubious officials, a new PREMIUM TIMES findings show that not only are the convicts still prowling the nation’s corridors as free men, some of the indicted officials eventually left the agency on meritorious grounds, while at least one managed to earn one of the nation’s highest honours — the OON.
It is a dizzying narrative of impunity and outright abuse of power at the very helms of the nation’s anti-narcotic agency, provoking one of the nation’s senior lawyers, Femi Falana, who is also a famous human rights campaigner to fume and query why, “In spite of the profound findings and far-reaching recommendations contained in the report of the committee, the federal government has ignored them to the detriment of the nation.”
Mr. Falana, in a recent petition to the National Assembly, then called for the report’s urgent implementation.
A review of this six-year process by PREMIUM TIMES traces the rise of what was once thought to be a glorious agency through internal decay and corruption to outright shame-faced burst.
The year 2007 was a watershed of sorts in the trajectory of the nation’s drug war. It all started as a flourishing season for Nigeria’s drug war. Anti-narcotic agents had seized tons of illicit drugs, impounded thousands of foreign currencies and secured several convictions.
On the bureaucratic front, reforms boomed at a spirited pace. Additional directorates of the anti-drug agency were created, and a new command structure launched. For the first time in seven years, Nigeria obtained the elusive US drug certification- all in a short span of years.
Then, some officials of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency made a startling discovery: two kingpins, hunted down and handed jail terms for drug offences, were not serving their terms. Prison records showed neither had been pardoned nor released, and none was listed a fugitive.
In the months that would follow, a chain of investigations triggered by the shocking find unnerved the NDLEA, an agency a little more than a decade old then, dismantling feats it built over the years.
Evidences soon emerged of how staff hobnobbed with barons, tampering with exhibits and recycling drugs in exchange for money, according to a government review of the agency’s activities during the period.
Dozens of leading drug fighters, it turned out, had betrayed the commitment they held, helping themselves with confiscated sums, and falsifying exhibits to aid suspects evade justice.
And where justice ever came from the courts, same officials connived with defence lawyers and prison staff to ensure convicts never served a day.
It became clear the NDLEA, a furtive establishment on the spotlight, was facing a scandal far more dire than it seemed.
All these go back to 2007.
Five years on, neither the agency nor the government, which commissioned the probe that unearthed the breaches, has found use for the investigation.
Officials indicted in the report, a 179-page document released Feb. 2007, have remained in office unpunished; and where some left the agency, they did so after ending a supposedly meritorious career, not on punitive terms.
Critics point to the neglect as a reinforcement of a known public frustration with successive governments’ penchant for copious committees whose findings are hardly publicized or implemented.
“In spite of the profound findings and far-reaching recommendations contained in the report of the committee, the federal government has ignored them to the detriment of the nation,” said Lagos lawyer, Femi Falana in a recent petition to the National Assembly, calling for the report’s implementation.
The case of the missing convicts, well celebrated between 2007 and 2009, spilled through three establishments. But while one took action, others demurred.
Officials had uncovered Ejike Martins and Godwin Obi, convicted by the courts and given jail terms were not serving.
A follow-through investigation ordered by the NDLEA boss, Ahmadu Giade, turned over a more frightening outcome: 197 drug convicts had been let off by dubious officials between 2005 and 2006.
While prison authorities arrested staff involved, the anti-drug agency absolved its members claiming in a reaction following the report’s release in 2009, that the NDLEA’s obligations ended after securing convictions for offenders.
That position was punctured by the government investigating team headed by retired judge, Gilbert Obayan.
The report’s authors, made up of a retired judge, lawyers and former police investigators, alleged connivance between prisons staffers, the anti-drug agency and defence lawyers.
“The committee is of the opinion that no prison official would ordinarily toy with a convict whose prosecutor is keenly interested in the proper custody of the convict,” the committee said.
Members braced that argument with another revelation: all the 197 cases of the illegally freed convicts were handled by the same 11 prosecutors from the agency, and the same set of defence counsels, numbering 14. Prison officials involved in the racket were 10.
Separately, senior NDLEA officials were found to have directed their subordinates to illegally free suspects in a mold similar to the prison scandal, a point investigators cited to further defend their conclusions.
In one case, Abiodun Adesola, a grade level 15 officer then, who headed the agency’s operations and investigations directorate, ordered an Area Commander under his supervision to release a suspect arrested with incriminating evidences, the report said.
The committee recommended Mr. Adesola’s retirement citing a raft of other indiscretions. Mr. Adesola remained with the agency, leaving only after he passed on early 2011.
But of all the breaches linked to prison officials – indifferent prosecution or pending cases requiring compulsory jail terms to allowing meagre penalties or fines, the Obayan-committee said, non happened without the knowledge of Femi Oloruntoba, a skilled officer who served as the agency’s head of prosecution and legal services.
Amongst some of the most lambasted figures by the report, Mr. Oloruntoba it was who ordered the transfer of Mr. Ejike – the freed suspect- from Abuja where he was arrested, to Lagos, when, according to the committee, that was needless.
A level 16 officer at the time, the officer was also named in the disappearance of a suspect’s money in thousands of Euros. The committee recommended his retirement. As of last week, Mr. Oloruntoba remained at his post, a position he has held since 1999.
When it came to diverting suspects’ money or agency’s funds into private pockets, the report says, respected anti-narcotic agents often acted with impunity while colleagues turned a blind eye.
While annual budgetary allocations for the agency pushed more than N2 billion in 2006, several departments were left without funding for upward of eight months. Habitually, field officers could barely afford torchlights, handcuffs and writing materials.
In one case, monies meant for staff training were diverted into a fixed account with a negotiated interest rate of 2.5 percent against a prevailing rate of 11 percent. The differential, ended in private pockets, the committee said.
It was an uncluttered routine that turned up at every step of the investigations. A sort of win-win, that ensured those involved were never accused of outright theft nor cornering the accruing interest. At the centre of it all, the committee said, was a senior staff named Daniel Ismaila, the director in charge of finance and administration.
“The agency’s financial system defies all accounting standards, as the director of finance, budget and pensions, who until recently was also in charge of administration, operates as a demigod, and has been in that position since 1995, inflicting financial hemorrhage on the agency,” the committee said.
The verdict was amongst the harshest and most direct for any official of the agency from the committee. Beyond starving units of cash, the investigators said Mr. Ismaila led a department that superintended over the duplication of vouchers and manipulation of staff salaries. Many officers could barely say their precise earnings as they varied from month to month.
When a fraud case sprouted against the finance directorate, it was Mr. Ismaila, in his capacity as chairman of the senior officers’ disciplinary committee, who drew the call over his own case. In the end, the recommendations never saw the light of day, the committee said.
When PREMIUM TIMES checked with the agency, Mr. Ismaila was on the same post till date despite an Economic and Financial Crimes Commission investigation that purportedly found him involved in a N10 million fraud.
Mr. Ismaila is a recipient of the Officer of the Order of Nigeria (OON). Just last week, he, on behalf of the agency, received an award of excellence from the Nigerian Union of Journalist, Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria, Lagos chapel; an award the director decorously dedicated to colleagues who had fallen in the line of duty.
While the abuses happened, the agency’s internal audit unit seemed helpless, the committee stated. One of the reason’s the committee noted was, the unit’s head Joseph Adeosun, qualified only as an anti-narcotic officer and a holder of a National Certificate of Education (NCE) in Physical Education; prompting a recommendation he be redeployed to the agency’s training college in Jos, Plateau state.
It is unclear whether Mr. Adeosun was moved. The agency would not comment for this article. Repeated calls to its contact telephone line were not answered.
When the report first surfaced with sweeping indictments, the NDLEA in 2009 disparaged the contents.
A statement by a spokesperson then, said the documentations were biased since the agency had turned down the investigators’ alleged request for foreign trips “to see how those countries run their drug control outfits.”
“The committee lost focus a few weeks after its inauguration, when it became common knowledge that some suspected drug barons and their agents were visiting some members of the committee to influence the direction of their deliberations and the eventual outcome of its sitting,” the statement said.
However the remarks did not address established cases involving external investigators like the EFCC.
Whatever, the numbing details of widespread corruption and violations in the anti-drug office, catalogued in the report, now lies abandoned.
Commissioned Oct. 2006 at the twilight of the Olusegun Obasanjo government, the drug agency reform committee report was submitted February 2007.
Mr. Obasanjo-whose Attorney General Bayo Ojo, ordered the probe- ignored the recommendations and so did his successor, Umaru Yar’adua.
Years into the current administration, the report has yet to receive the attention of Mr. Jonathan.
A spokesperson for the serving Attorney General, Mohammed Adoke, told PREMIUM TIMES on Thursday only Mr. Adoke could comment on government’s stance on the report, and pledged to draw the minister’s attention.
That never came even after a reminder on Friday.
But the government’s impression of the agency seems mirrored by Mr. Adoke’s inauguration of a new board for the agency last Thursday, Sept. 5.
The Justice Minister said the new board aligned with Mr. Jonathan’s commitment to strengthen drug control, a remark that drew a flowery assurance from Mr. Giade, the agency’s chief executive. Mr. Giade said the NDLEA’s ranks amongst Africa’s best.
“As one of the best anti-drug agencies in the continent,” he said, “we are prepared to build on our past records of excellence and even surpass it through the application of modern and best practices.”
But no period has seen the agency’s reputation terribly undermined as the past flaunted as “excellent” by the chairman.
Between 2000 and 2006, several officers were investigated and indicted for misdemeanour and recommended for sack, according to the committee report. If the agency ever acted, the staff were only demoted.
Many of the accused staff had earlier been fired by a onetime head of the agency, Musa Bamaiyi, but were reinstated by his successor, Ogbonnaya Onovo. Mr. Onovo will later become the nation’s Inspector General of police.
The committee said it found the recalled staff to be acting with a sense of retribution since returning.
The current boss of the agency, Mr. Giade, though not explicitly indicted by the report-in fact the former Attorney General, Mr. Bayo, described Mr. Giade as a no-nonsense and courageous official- is credited with being in charge when some of the most serious abuses occurred.
Many of such stated in the report came in 2006; a year after Mr. Giade took over the helms of the agency from Bello Lafiagi. Those indicted, have been retained under Mr. Giade, a former police chief.
Nearly all of those accused in other infractions, were named by the Obayan-committee in the dramatic disappearance of Euros 168, 400 cash confiscated from a suspect, Ikenna Onochie in 2005.
But while Mr. Giade called for investigations after taking office, only Mr. Lafiagi, the former boss and his aide Usman Amali, were charged by the Independent Corrupt Practices and related offences Commission.
Mr. Lafiagi, a former first-rate officer was given a 16 year term in 2010 while his aide got eight. A largely symbolic sentencing, the ruling was reversed in October 2011 by an appeal court in Lagos purportedly for lack of evidence.