Another Look at Waziri’s Assets Forfeiture Bill
Gradually, the newly appointed Executive Chairman of Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC Mrs. Farida Waziri is coming into her stride as the nation’s anti graft czar. After spending the greater part of the last two months taking stock, last week she served notices of the direction in which she plans to steer the fight against corruption and economic crimes by presenting to the national assembly, a draft bill on civil forfeiture. The proposed law is expected to fill a yawning gap in the assets forfeiture regime in Nigeria. The absence of such law, allows those found to have corruptly enriched themselves to enjoy their loot and all the benefits even while under prosecution.
Mrs. Waziri has never hidden her discomfort about the status quo, which is a clear departure from standard law enforcement practice in most advance societies. Though there are assets forfeiture provisions in the EFCC Act 2004, those provisions especially Section 20 only covers forfeiture after conviction. And considering the gestation of most criminal prosecutions in Nigeria, many suspects in corruption cases always manage to hold on to their ill-gotten assets.
Indeed, the absence of a civil forfeiture law in Nigeria makes a mockery of the fight against corruption. Obviously the criminal minded in our midst are not deterred because of the realization that they will not be denied the benefit of their loot, whether they are caught or not. It is only in Nigeria that a suspect who is arraigned for stealing billions of naira will be grinning from ear -to -ear in the dock. The only explanation for this is the awareness that the proceeding is only a process and that, at the end of the day, whether they are convicted or acquitted, they will still return to enjoy their loot. This is the reason why a former number one law enforcement officer docked for stealing N17billion could boast in court after conviction that he would bounce back. It is the same reason why an accused standing trial for corruption and money laundering can win election from prison custody.
Has anyone considered how much the nation lost to corruption in the last decade against what it recovered from the corrupt? Almost every week, the anti graft agencies arraign people in court, charge with stealing billions of naira. About eight former state governors are currently standing trial for corruption and money laundering. Between them, they allegedly stole well over N120billion. How much of such money has been recovered? Some would consider this question as premature since the cases are ongoing. But with the benefit of hindsight, most of them have been under trial for more than one year and not even in one case have the substantive issues been considered. Instead, the accused persons, under the guise of seeking medical attention or seeing family members, have been globetrotting; tendering to their vast business interests and taking their ill gotten assets beyond the reach of EFCC.
Even the cases that were decided in court, what did the country get? How much, for instance, did Dieprieye Alamiyeseigha return to the people of Bayelsa State? He may have lost some assets which he volunteered under a plea bargain arrangement but I am not a fan of such an arrangement because it is tantamount to a thieve given up a fraction of what he has stolen to return home to enjoy what is left.
What of the money that was seized from some of our governors who were arrested on money laundering charges abroad? How much of such funds have the country gotten back? Of course some Nigerians would recall the comments of former Governor of Plateau State, Chief Joshua Dariye to the effect that what the British authorities returned to Nigeria was significantly less that what was seized from him. The imputation then was that the difference could have ended in the pockets of EFCCC operatives but we now know that lawyers who handled the case on behalf on the Commission decided to deduct their legal fees at source and paid the remainder to the Commission.
What about Abacha loot? He allegedly stole over $5billion but only an insignificant fraction of that sum has been recovered till date. One could go on but suffice is to say that the country has not been too successful in recovering proceeds of corruption.
It beats me as to why no one has thought about a civil forfeiture law until now. Could it be that we were all blind to its necessity? May be; otherwise, those who may have thought about it in the past did not feel strongly enough to want address it. Now, it has taken a Waziri to arouse our collective consciousness to the necessity of this important enactment. She must be commended for wanting to strengthen the anti corruption laws. Her gesture clearly sign posts her determination to deepen the fight against corruption and economic crimes by seeking to discourage the corrupt through denying them proceeds of crime which is what the civil forfeiture bill is really about.
I think she deserves the support of all stakeholders in the fight against corruption, most especially ordinary Nigerians who are at the receiving end of the consequence of the blindness looting of the public till by the nation’s leaders.
Let us not be misled into believing that this new move by Waziri is too salutary to be resisted. Of course there will be strong opposition to the proposed law. Like Nuhu Ribadu would always say, ‘when you fight corruption, it fights back’. I would not be surprised if the corrupt unleashes their platoon of lobbyists on the national assembly in the coming weeks to confuse, obfuscate issues and persuade the law makers from considering this bill.
It is not in their interest that the bill becomes law otherwise they will be out of business. But national interest must override the selfish and parochial interest of a few citizens whose actions continue to spread poverty and misery amongst our people. The leadership of the House of Representatives and their counterparts in the Senate must come to the realization that they are once again on trial, and that Nigerians expect them to do what is right by ensuring speedy passage of this bill into law. The civil forfeiture bill must not, like the Freedom of Information bill, become another Abiku in the hallowed chambers of our national parliament. I take comfort in the assurance of Hon. Dave Salako, former Chair of the House Committee on Drugs, Narcotics and Financial Crimes who was reported to have said: “It won’t help us if criminals continue to enjoy ill-gotten wealth”. This understanding must percolate the national assembly.
The passage of the bill would be a major boost for Waziri and her anti corruption revolution, which I understand would be launched very soon. There could be no stronger foundation to anchor the revolution than strengthening the existing legal frame work for its execution.
By Halims Odudu
- Odudu , Public Affairs Analyst, writes from Warri, Delta State