Newly sworn-in President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Abubakar Mahmoud, has come under severe criticism over a proposal he made that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission should be stripped of prosecutorial powers.
At his inaugural speech delivered in Port Harcourt on Friday, Mr. Mahmoud advocated a reform of the anti-graft agency that would include limiting its mandate to investigation.
“The critical institutions involved must be repositioned, re-equipped and re-tooled to confront the problem of corruption on a consistent and sustainable basis,” Mr. Mahmoud, a senior Advocate of Nigeria, had said.
“As a start, we commend the efforts of the Economic and Financial Crimes Institution for the work it is doing and for its modest achievements.
“However, going forward, the NBA must demand the reform of the institution itself. We need to define its mandate more narrowly and more clearly.
“In my view, its broad objective as an investigative and prosecurial agency should be reviewed.
“I recommend strongly that the EFCC be limited to investigation.”
‘High level of unseriousness’
Abiodun Aremu, Secretary of the Joint Action Front, said Mr. Mahmoud’s proposal shows the “high level of unseriousness in the polity.”
“You cannot run an economy that is anchored on corruption and you want to fight corruption,” said Mr. Aremu, whose group often lead mass actions against oppressive government policies.
“So if the NBA (chairman) insists on creating more diversionary agencies to underscore the context of its corrupt activities, it shows a high level of unseriousness.
“And that’s just the point, because lawyers themselves are the beneficiaries of the diversion in the polity in the name of fighting corruption.”
For Debo Adeniran, the NBA president’s statements were “self-serving.”
“The anti corruption agencies like the EFCC and ICPC are even supposed to have more funds allocated to them to strengthen their prosecutorial powers,” said Mr. Adeniran, Executive Director, Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders.
“The anti corruption agencies should be able to afford good lawyers that would match the ones hired by the criminals to defend them in court.”
According to Ola Oyediran, a public commentator, Mr. Mahmoud’s suggestion is part of the continuous attempts by powerful forces to reduce the EFCC’s powers thereby shielding looters of the country’s treasury.
“Note, ‘most’ Nigerian SANs are helping these looters to get soft landing through taking cases and defending them without applying professionalism, code of ethics and level of conscience,” said Mr. Oyediran, a Canada-based engineer.
“I think EFCC should put this NBA guy in a close watch since he has already made his intention known earlier.
“How could somebody of SAN calibre (think) that yes, EFCC should investigate and hands off high profile frauds, stealing and embezzlement, and other crimes thereby making the case so complicated for the two bodies he is suggesting.”
However, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, a Lagos based human rights lawyer, said the EFCC had failed in its responsibility to engender economic development because it had been taken over by political interests.
“The EFCC Act does not confer the agency with the power of prosecution of offences but rather that of investigation and intelligence gathering,” said Mr. Adegboruwa, who was arrested and charged by the EFCC last May over allegations of illegal property dealing.
“The powers of prosecution belong to the Hon Attorney General of the Federation or of the States, as the case may be, under the constitution.
“These powers are then delegated to the EFCC. This is wrong in law. A man should not be an investigator and a prosecutor at the same time. This leads to great conflict of interest.”
Mr. Adegboruwa said combining investigative and prosecutorial powers, as the EFCC had been doing, had led to a “crisis of bias.”
“Having investigated the facts of the case that led to a criminal charge in court, the EFCC then becomes satiated with tyrannical powers of a persecutor, working by all means to secure nothing but a conviction, by all means possible,” he said.
“Back hand tactics are at times employed to secure such convictions, at times outside the province of law.”
‘Cleverly disguised campaign’
The EFCC, on Saturday, hit back at Mr. Mahmoud’s proposition, expressing “discomfort” over his silence on the reason for his position.
“More importantly, the Commission cannot comprehend how the redefinition of EFCC’s mandate in narrow terms, ultimately whittling it down, fits into the clamour by Nigerians and the vision of the President Muhammadu Buhari administration for a vibrant and courageous anti-corruption agency,” the agency said in a statement by Wilson Uwujaren, Head of Media and Publicity.
“Instead, Mahmoud’s suggestions appears perfectly in sync with a cleverly disguised campaign by powerful forces that are uncomfortable with the reinvigorated anti-graft campaign of the EFCC and are hell-bent on emasculating the agency by stripping it of powers to prosecute with the tame excuse that an agency that investigates cannot also prosecute.
“The question Nigerians must ask the Mahmoud-led NBA is, what is wrong with EFCC prosecution?”
Mr. Mahmoud was elected the 33rd president of the NBA, Nigeria’s umbrella association of professional lawyers on August 1st amidst controversy.
Last week, Joe-Kyari Gadzama, the runner-up in the presidential election filed a suit at the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory seeking an overturn of the result of the election due to “foul play.”
The EFCC questioned Mr. Mahmoud’s interest in seeking to strip the Commission of its prosecutorial power, particularly following his roles in the criminal prosecution of two former state governors.
“It is too much of a strange coincidence that the suggestion to strip the EFCC of its prosecutorial powers is being floated few months after the Commission, in unprecedented fashion arraigned some senior lawyers for corruption,” said the Commission.
“For the avoidance of doubt, the Commission has recorded more convictions in the last one year than all the states and federal ministries of justices combined.
“Against this background, the current campaign appears to be self serving, intended to create a cabal of untouchables who can be investigated but may never be prosecuted.”
Mr. Mahmoud was the Attorney General of the Federation’s counsel in the trial of James Ibori, a former governor of Delta State, at the Federal High Court, Asaba, a case which the EFCC lost in questionable circumstances.
Mr. Ibori was later convicted, largely on the same charges, in a UK court and is currently serving a 13 year jail term.
The new NBA president also served as the EFCC’s counsel in the appeal against the infamous perpetual injunction from arrest and prosecution granted Peter Odili, a former governor of Rivers State.
The appeal is still pending before the Court of Appeal in Port Harcourt, five years after it was filed.
On August 5, the Human and Environmental Development Agenda, a non-governmental organization, petitioned the President of the Court of Appeal asking that the case be listed within “the shortest possible time” in the interest of justice.
“That odious pronouncement drew sharp criticism against the judiciary from within and outside the country,” HEDA stated in the petition signed by its Chairman, Olanrewaju Suraju.
“Expectedly, the Commission expeditiously filed an appeal at the Court of Appeal, Port Harcourt EFCC V. AG RIVERS STATE & ORS, CA/PH/622/2008, with a view to discharging the ominous injunction of the Federal High Court.
“In a development that is smack of internal influence and maneuvering, the Court has refused to list the application five years after.”