Last week, Wahab Shittu, a counsel to Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and a Senior lecturer, Faculty of Law, University of Lagos, spoke on Channels Television’s flagship breakfast show, Sunrise Daily.
He spoke about the $20 million money laundering case involving former First Lady, Patience Jonathan. He said the EFCC had not embarked on a witch-hunt of the former first family.
PREMIUM TIMES’ Ben Ezeamalu transcribed the interview.
Tell us about this case because the way it does appear, there were those who were surprised that in a corruption case, you get to court, and you find people pleading guilty. They thought, wait a minute, what actually happened?
Shittu: I think the starting point is to recognise there are procedures in court and we should be guided about making comments in respect of matters that are subjudice. Secondly, and most importantly, is to also state the fact that I’m not here holding brief for EFCC. Because I’m not authorised by EFCC to speak on this matter. But speaking as a lawyer, I listened to the gentleman speak, if he is a lawyer to the former first lady, I think he should be making his advocacy in court since the matter is already pending before a court of competent jurisdiction. Most of what he said there are hearsay, he has no proof that he has the authority of the former first lady. There is also no proof that he was a witness to what transpired at the time the accounts were opened.
So, all what he told the Nigerian public is hearsay, simplicita.
But I think, speaking as an officer in the temple of justice, the former first lady stated that she is a housewife, so it is important for us to have records of the provisions of the law. This is a country that is governed by law. We have the provisions of the EFCC Act, so what the EFCC is doing is acting in line with its mandate. The EFCC is created by statute. If you look at the EFCC Act, particularly Section 17 and 18, EFCC is entitled to proceed and locate the origin of funds. If you look at Section 19 (5) of the EFCC Act, if you are in possession of funds or resources, pecuniary resources, that is disproportionate to your income, you have a duty to explain. So if the first lady is saying the money belongs to her, this is a democracy where rule of law is recognised. She has a duty to come and furnish details and particulars to establish the ownership.
Part of the statements credited is that, she has said ‘yes this money belongs to me,’ but the commissioner never invited her to come forward, speak up, or defend herself for this case.
Shittu: That invitation is still open. It has always been there.
But have they… she said….
Shittu: (Cuts in) No no no no. The Commission…. We must recognise the fact that EFCC under the present leadership of Magu is an institution that places a high premium on respect for the rule of law. I recall I was in a session with the chairman of the EFCC three days ago, and journalists asked him pointedly questions relating to this matter and his response was that he would not make comments, that they are still investigating the matter and the matter is in court. That is to show you a man who has respect for the rule of law. Because he’s conscious of the need to respect the rights of the former first lady.
When the former first lady said the money belongs to me, that’s a categorical assertion. The law expects you to be able to explain your source of income, how you came about the money.
How can they ask her to explain the source of income when they’ve not directly invited her as she says?
Shittu: But she has been invited. And the facts of the case even lends itself to direct invitation. Even if EFCC has not invited her as she is claiming, then she should invite herself. If allegations are being made against me and I’ve not been invited. And those allegations touch on my integrity, I’ll make myself available and explain.
She owned up herself, that this money belongs to me. They didn’t say that ‘well, we have found money that belongs to you, could you come forward and explain,’ so that’s where it appears a little different.
Shittu: No. An application was filed in court. Affidavit was deposed to, not by the first lady, by some other person claiming to represent the interests of the first lady and attributing the ownership of the funds. We are not talking of N5, we are talking of $20 million, $5 million, that’s what we are talking about. Have you looked at the provisions of the Money Laundering Act? Section One, for instance, when you are in possession of funds beyond a certain threshold, it comes within the ambit of money laundering.
You were talking about the Money Laundering Act, could you tell us, if you say one is an accessory to crime, people then ask how come you can go ahead and prosecute the accessory but are they supposed to say, well, this is actually the main crime of which this person is an accessory?
Shittu: The provisions of the law, the Money Laundering Prohibition Act and the EFCC Act, they all recognise principal offenders as well as those who facilitate the commission of crime, either by being accessories or aiding or even assisting in the process. From what EFCC had done through diligent investigation, they recognised the fact that certain accounts were opened.
But if you….you just said principal offenders and those who are aiding and abetting, so can you go for those who are aiding and abetting without getting the principal offender?
Shittu: As far as the records of Skye Bank show, all those who are connected have been arraigned….
As aiding and abetting. What about the principal offender?
Shittu: But those who laundered the funds have been arraigned in court. Those who are alleged to have laundered the funds.
We are talking about the former first lady…
Shittu: (Cuts in) The former first lady… Are you making a case for the invitation of the former first lady?
Let me read a quote here which we have. It’s a statement that was put out by her media aide, Yemi Akinbode, who says the former first lady was quoted to have said ‘this is an irony. I was the one who went to court for the repatriation of my confiscated money when I realised the EFCC and her co-travellers were playing politics with this issue after I had come out publicly to say that the said money belongs to me and that I have all evidence to prove the sources of my money. Up till this very moment, EFCC has refused to interrogate or invite me for questioning while the agency has continued to detain Dudafa under heavy armed security guards.’
Shittu: That, clearly, is an assertion. The matter is still being investigated. There are other aspects of the matter under investigation. When investigation is being carried out, you proceed to court on the strength of materials available to you in the interim that you can use to establish the degree of involvement of persons. From what you have seen, those who are arraigned in court were either linked with the companies that opened the accounts and some of them have even pleaded guilty. There were some of them who pleaded not guilty.
Which is strange, because people say to themselves, wait a minute they’ve not seen these before, how people who on a 15 count charge get to court and immediately plead guilty…
Shittu: (Cuts in) When the evidence is overwhelming….
And, don’t forget, the second part of that is that, she then says through her counsel that these chaps, EFCC just brought them to disguise…. In fact, they said pointedly they are working for the EFCC.
Shittu: Those who make these kinds of assertions are perhaps unaware of the integrity of the present leadership of EFCC and by extension the integrity of the present administration. We are all concerned about the scourge of corruption. This country is faced with the issue of recession. This is an era where all hands must be on deck to recover all ill-gotten money in order to bring the economy on track. Without saying the money is ill-gotten at this stage, I want to recognise the fundamental rights of those who are involved. So I will not sit here and make categorical pronouncements. The door is still open for those who have been accused to defend themselves. Once you are accused of being in custody of certain pecuniary resources, you can at least justify how you came about it.
The EFCC had said the first lady wasn’t its target initially, but you did say that some of the principal actors usually use their aides, especially domestic staff, to open accounts. Were there any suspicion that the principal staff in Aso Villa could have used their aides to open accounts when at the same time they said the first lady is not our target?
Shittu: Well, arising from the volume of the money involved, that’s the key thing you must look at first, do you get involved in such transactions without presenting yourself directly or acting through some of your aides? For instance, the clear facts in the public now is that those accounts were opened through the instrumentality of the special adviser on domestic affairs. Now will you say the special adviser on domestic affairs did not have the authority of the former first lady to open those accounts? Now, if he acted without the authority of the former first lady, what steps did the former first lady take before now to change the narrative? We are talking of accounts opened between 2013 and 2014.
One of those being investigated, perhaps the direct target of the EFCC, was the former first lady.
Shittu: Those are insinuations. You are aware that the special adviser to the president on domestic affairs was under investigation. And these revelations came about as a result of those investigations. It was discovered in the course of those investigations that certain accounts were opened. And you now want to find out, you ask certain questions, those companies belong to who? Who are the directors? Are there no documentations in the custody of Skye Bank about those who opened the accounts? If you look at the entire circumstances, it raises a lot of suspicions. And EFCC is concerned with those suspicions. When you are in custody of resources far beyond your limits, that ought to pass through financial institutions, that ought to be subjected to some degree of documentations. And you don’t see those documentations, you don’t see solid explanations, are you saying the EFCC should fold its hands?
Two things: she has said she’s willing to come forward, they have not invited her. She says she’s got full documents to prove that these monies belong to her. And she also said through her counsel that those companies for which those people pleaded guilty, she’s not a director, she’s not a CEO, nothing to those companies.
Shittu: I’m saying as a lawyer, that the invitation is still open to the former first lady. When you freeze an account….
(Cuts in) Mr. Shittu, we know in this country if the EFCC is after certain investigation, you will see most times they would invite you. Most times they will invite you…
Shittu: (Cuts in) Nooo. Technically like I’ve told you.
But isn’t it strange that people who are being investigated, someone is offering that look I’m here, I’ve got details, invite me and I’ll come. What we usually see is people just stay below the radar and not be seen.
Shittu: What I have said and which is the correct position is, if certain allegations concerning you are made, do you just fold your hands? You invite yourself. EFCC offices are open. We have zonal offices everywhere and the headquarters. Today, if the former first lady can go to the EFCC to furnish particulars, details showing how the ownership of the funds involved. A prima facie case is established that those funds are laundered, it is for the former first lady to approach the agency with cogent facts, details of how she came about the money. Having regards to that she is an housewife and as a public servant from Bayelsa State, she can only earn legitimate income through farming.