Incensed by what he alleged was damning evidence of senior lawyer Ricky Tarfa’s consistent pattern of obstructing justice, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) chairman, Ibrahim Magu, lashed out a few days ago at lawyers and journalists who he said had been compromised by corrupt Nigerians. He spoke in general terms. His views, which were expressed when he received a coalition of civil society groups marching in Abuja last week in support of the anti-graft war, need to be quoted extensively to get the full import of his perspective.
Said he: “One of the big challenges we have in the effective prosecution of the war on corruption is that of very senior lawyers who Nigeria has been very kind to: They who went to good schools here, when Nigeria was good, many of them, on government scholarship; they who Nigeria had given so much opportunity. When we have corruption cases, cases of people who have stolen food from the mouths of our children; when we have cases of people who have stolen money meant to build hospitals and buy drugs; when we have cases of people who have stolen all the money meant to buy guns for our soldiers to fight Boko Haram, when we have all these cases of wicked people who have stolen Nigeria’s money, they run to these same senior lawyers, give them part of the stolen money and mobilise them to fight us, to delay us in court and to deny Nigerians of justice. These are the people who do not want justice for the common man.
“The other day, 34 Senior Advocates of Nigeria fought against only one small EFCC lawyer in court and he defeated all of them! What we are doing today is not by our power, it is the power of the Nigerian people and the power of God behind us! Corrupt people hire journalists to abuse us every day. They say we are not doing the work according to the law. But, that is not true. There is no agency that follows the law more than EFCC. None. Before we arrest you, or seize your property or do anything to you, we check the law, we go to court and get court order. That is why we are winning; that is why we are defeating them every day.”
What other kind of support Mr. Magu and the federal government need is hard to understand. They already have approximately more than 95 percent public support. And whether sponsored or not, the protesters who marched in Abuja last week in support of the EFCC gave a clear indication where their hearts belonged. Indeed, the protesters even presumed to represent nearly all Nigerians. A group of lawyers late last week met minds with the EFCC in Lagos and pledged qualified support. Trolling the social media, there is hardly anyone who does not think those accused of corruption should be denied bail, given summary trial and hung by their toes. The media itself is awash with columnists, academicians and analysts who brook no caveat or restraining voice from anyone about the rule of law or any other measure that slows down the anti-graft war. So, why is Mr. Magu still flustered? Could it be the 130 or so lawyers he said had ganged up to undermine the EFCC? Or could it be something more sinister, something closely related to the judiciary headache President Muhammadu Buhari said he had been having since he began the anti-graft war?
The EFCC boss apparently wants total, unflinching support, the kind that glosses over what some people have described as controversial anti-graft measures, both legal and illegal, in order to bring the corrupt to book. Mr. Magu can’t seem to understand why anyone would give the impression that the anti-graft war is not really a war, a war that strikes at the heart of the nation’s survival, one that calls for very drastic and even unorthodox remedies. Though he boasts of adhering strictly to the rule of law, it is ironical that he deplores both those who get paid to defend the corrupt and those who write to compel the government and the anti-graft bodies to follow due process. He even made sarcastic references, with a touch of innuendo, to how and why the media failed to report the detention of Olajide Omokore, the oil mogul held by the EFCC for some three days or more last week.
Despite his complaints, Mr. Magu can, however, not get the kind of total support he wants. It is part of the criminal justice system that a suspect charged in court must engage the services of a legal counsel. That counsel has to be paid, of course. And if a defendant is unable to afford a counsel, the state often weighs in to bear the burden. The reason, as Mr. Magu must know, is so that through the interplay of prosecution and defence, justice can be served. But sometimes the system fails, the innocent is punished, and the guilty is set free. At other times, the system succeeds in dispensing justice. It is futile to attempt to discourage lawyers from defending suspects charged with crime, without upending the axiom of presumption of innocence. Who can tell whether one day, as former EFCC chairman Nuhu Ribadu discovered, Mr. Magu will not himself many years down the line need the services of a battery of senior lawyers in the face of serious allegations of misconduct slammed against him by a hostile government. If he is worried about corruption in the judiciary or obstruction of justice, as the Ricky Tarfa case appears to indicate, the EFCC, not to talk of many other government agencies, has the resources and powers to expose the crime. The cleansing and reformation required to sanitise governance and ensure that justice is unfettered are desperately needed, and must be a continuing effort.
Yet, the guilt of a suspect is not established by popular opinion. If a lawyer brilliantly defends his client, he may sometimes secure the suspect’s freedom. To counteract the defence lawyer, the EFCC and Mr. Magu should ensure that prosecution is also brilliantly handled. This is a check and balance system that cannot and must not be abridged. And as for the delays he grumbles about, which President Muhammadu Buhari also complained about in his last trip to Britain, it is counterproductive to pressure the courts to sacrifice thoroughness on the altar of pleasing the prosecuting agency or mollifying the angry public seeking retribution against their tormentors. If Mr. Magu can’t understand this, he should wait until, like former National Security Adviser Sambo Dasuki, he falls out with the government.
The EFCC boss also suggested that journalists who opposed the government’s prosecutorial methods were hired by corrupt politicians bent on evading justice. The journalists, said he, constantly assailed the anti-graft agencies uncouthly. This view is sadly misplaced. Mr. Magu has nonetheless brought Mr. Tarfa to trial. If the evidence of jurist bribing the EFCC is mustering holds up, the senior lawyer may end up jeopardising his career and freedom. Mr. Magu should in fact feel free to go ahead to expose the hired journalists he glibly talks about. If they are paid to abuse the EFCC and other anti-graft agencies, surely the agency can find one legal or regulatory corollary to deprive them of their liberty. Rather than make wild, general, intimidatory and unsubstantiated allegations, the EFCC boss should name names and charge the offenders in court. After all, no one, except perhaps the camorra of former Nigerian rulers, is above the law.
Mr. Magu and the Buhari presidency, it must be reiterated, will undermine their own legacies, as Chief Obasanjo has done, if they enthrone a brusque and irregular method of fighting graft, all in the name of fighting corruption. It was embarrassing of President Buhari to declare in Britain his discomfort with the British method of fighting graft, which he described as ‘too thorough, and takes too much time’. But the Nigerian justice system must also be thorough and if necessary take much time. Justice is too sacred and weighty a matter to be subjected, as Mr. Magu appears to be doing, to emotions and scaremongering. Nigerians want justice, but if it should be delivered in the name of Nigerians, it had better be real justice — justice done and seen to be done, with suspects exhausting all avenues of appeal, and defended by the best lawyers they can find money to hire, even if it bankrupts them.