IDEAS: Prof. Bolaji Owasanoye, Chair ICPC. Episode 56 (20/12/19)

IDEAS Radio 20 December 2019

Prof. Bolaji Owasanoye, Chairman ICPC 

Aghogho Oboh: Alright, welcome welcome back, it’s nine minutes past four in the city of Lagos.  I didn’t even understand what the traffic is like out there on the Mainland or the Island, but I know that it is  a great Friday to be out there.  I’m Aghogho Oboh, and this is the Public Square together with Rotimi Sankore and the rest of the usual crew.  But we have a big gathering today, we have … Before I get into them that we have here, I’ll just run through our Twitter handles, as it’s very important that you connect with us, on @PublicSquareNG, @NigeriaInfoFM, @ideasradiong, as well as @naijama – same personality, 

Ayo Obe: Naija Ma!

AgO: @AghoghoOboh as well as @RotimiSankore: those are the different handles.  On WhatsApp it’s 08095975805.  

And you know Public Square begins with the IDEAS segment with Ayo Obe, and I’ll let Ayo do the honours for us today, in introducing today’s Special Guest on IDEAS.

AO: Well, thank you Aghogho.  Welcome to everybody and particularly welcome listeners, but especially welcome to our special guest, Professor Bolaji Owasanoye who is the Executive Chairman of the … he’s the Chairman I should say, of the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission, and we’re very happy to have you on the programme.

Bolaji Owasanoye: Thank you for inviting me.

AO: I know that you’re coming, you’re coming a bit on a red-eye basis, but I know that we wouldn’t … we might not have got you otherwise.  And you know, this programme is about Integrity, Democracy Ethics and Accountability, so it does seem to us that the role of the ICPC is particularly important in seeing how those values can be enhanced, supported or upheld, and I wonder if you can just give us a brief encapsulation of what the ICPC is, because so many of us mix it up with the EFCC?

BO: Thank you very much Ayo for inviting me, and thank you to the other people on the programme.  ICPC was established in the year 2000, the very first anti-corruption agency to be precise.  And its mandate is threefold.  It’s Enforcement, which means it can to enforce anti-corruption laws, especially its own statute.  Secondly is to take preventive measures: we have the power to for example, look at  public institutions and in fact non-public institutions interestingly, to look at their systems and processes, and to see if they are corruption-prone, and to give directives about things that need to change in order to make sure that the anticipated corruption does not happen.  And then the third of course, is to facilitate citizen buy-in by public education, public enlightenment and campaigns.  So basically, in terms of fighting corruption the statute, the enabling act of the ICPC, covers the three key areas of sanctions, systems and society basically.

AO: And when it comes to the issue of prosecutions, how … do you have investigative capacity?

BO: Oh yeah, there is.  Inadequate though, I must tell you, given the level of  challenges that we have to deal with.  The law, requires that we have for example, offices in the 36 states of the Federation, we only have in sixteen at the moment.  The entire staff strength is less than a thousand, in fact we’re less than 800.  And of course, everybody expects you to respond with the same zeal and alacrity to their requests, both from a systemic point of view if you’re looking at what government is doing, because government itself also says: Look, can you look at these areas, can you participate in this?  And then there are individuals who have issues … things that they want to report.  So you can, your guess is as good as mine in such a situation it is not possible to be able to respond as well and as robustly as people expect, given the  shortage, gross and acute shortage, of human manpower and of course funding.  So what we’ve tried to do is to focus for example on the things that will have macro  impact on the people, at least, under my watch, I’ve looked at the big ticket issues like … 

AO: Like what?

BO:  … like a single action can have a positive multiplier effect on the system.  So, for example, we’ve looked at the systems and process of selected MDAs …

AO: Ministries, Departments and Agencies.

BO:  Ministries, Departments and Agencies, to look at their personnel and capital budget, to look at how they spend and to establish a pattern of default that government can take corrective actions on in order improve not just the revenue, to improve the use, value for money component of governance and all that.  The second big ticket issue is looking at what I call the Ethics, you talked about the Ethics, compliance of MDAs as well.  You can tell that an MDA is going to be … is going to default or, is going to feature prominently in the corruption matrix based on what it does, and certain things that you find.  So it’s the first time that the Commission is doing that.  When we resumed, I looked at: Ok, this, the  propensity.  If that establishes a pattern, you can nip it in the bud, tell those who are supposed to take measures … to take those measures very quickly.  The third example I can give of course, is what everybody is talking about at the moment, our focus on Constituency projects whereby we try to look at things that add value to the lives of the citizens.  And along that, alongside that is also our collaboration with the Social Investment Programme, the School feeding, Conditional Cash Transfer, and all those things that affect the lives of people.  So if we’re able to impact those sectors, you have quick multiplier effect, as opposed to doing the single petition that you write me.  Of course, you deserve attention and you deserve justice, but the relief is to you alone, as opposed to the relief being …

AO: But if for example somebody writes to complain about something happening in a Local Government, and you have a series of those things that identify that this particular way that Local Governments behave is a cause for concern or an avenue for corruption, would you not then take it under your … 

BO: We would, we would.  Again, like I said, we would.  Every case is important, ok?  It is just that we are not persuaded that we should take on cases that can be dealt with by other law enforcement agencies, for example the Police.  … A lot of things get sent to us that ought to be sent to the Police.  What we’ve tried to do now is to strengthen the relationship with the Police and other arms of government.  So if you send us a petition for example, on say, your pension has not been paid and it’s because of corruption  Maybe you are right, but you may be wrong.  It may just be administrative lapses.  It may be because of you, something of you that you’ve not given to them   liaison person to try and see through, and   that they deal with the issue and all that.  So that way,  because ICPC was not established to do the kinds of things that the Police and other …

AO: It’s not supposed to replicate.

BO: It’s not supposed to replicate.  It’s supposed to look at the systemic challenges   that oh, we’re getting into trouble with corruption, and you want institutions to focus on the issues that can help to make a change.  That’s why its law is that broad, it gives you  sanctions, prevention and then it gives you society, interface with society.  The Police Act doesn’t have that, so 

AO: Well, the Police Act is still languishing in 1948 …

Rotimi Sankore: Would it be … would it be right to say that of all the duties, what you are focusing on now is the practices, systems and procedures, that’s more to the fore? 

BO: Well, I think that, as they say: Prevention is better than cure.  Two of the threefold mandate focus on prevention.  The first of course, is this systems and all that.  The second of course is the interface with society.  … So when you look at the cost of trying to enforce, and you can … any lawyer will tell you this, you’re not even sure of the outcome  first of all, the case will drag on forever in court.  You spend a lot of money for years, and then you’re not sure of the outcome.  So if you can prevent by looking at the things that predispose to corruption and stopping it, you add a whole range of value to the whole system.  First of all, you save the money that would been otherwise have been lost to corruption.  You ensure the delivery the service that would have otherwise been compromised.  You enhance the quality of governance that the people get.  You improve the perception of the people towards government etc. etc.  So prevention ultimately is better than trying to enforce, you know, allowing the money to go out the window and then you start running after it and you’re not even sure if you’re even going to catch up.

RS: Is there any category of complaints that you would welcome as being appropriate?

BO: I think Ayo just gave a good example.  If somebody … and we get quite a bit of that, which provide learning curves.  You get a petition that tells you that something is going on say, at the Local Government or in a Ministry.  It is … it triggers an inquiry which goes beyond the petitioner and the person.  And that has happened a whole range of times.  So somebody says, you start looking at one thing, then you find something you were not looking for and that something that you find can help to change the way things we’re doing, can even unearth something that was hiding and incubating there before and all that.  So that happens all the time.  Why not?  We will respond to that.  What I’m just trying to say is that many times we get petitions about small small things.  I recognise that the petitioners deserve justice.  Every Nigerian deserves justice.  And they will approach an institution of government that they expect to assist them.  So it behoves us as the people who are on the field to know how best that should be treated and to respond accordingly.  So as a rule, if you do a petition, you get a reply whichever way it goes, that we received it.  You get a reply.  Then when we look at it, is it something that we should take on, is it something that somebody else can deal with?  We get things for example on private contracts for example, a lot.  You know, you buy a piece of land, the land is short of the size that is on the survey.  Why should that come to ICPC?  

AO: Yeah, I understand.

BO: You know?  It should go somewhere else.

AO: Can I ask because we’re particularly conscious that ICPC has ….   Because Tracka had been trying to investigate the Constituency Projects, and we notice that the lawmakers would be quite cavalier in their responses when asked by Tracka.  I mean, those are, I mean, I happen to only see Tracka on Twitter, but those lawmakers who are on Twitter, they can be quite: Oh … so what, so what?  But … then there was the case of ICPC coming in, and suddenly a lawmaker who had been brushing off the observations of Tracka (because Tracka really just made observations rather than making accusations) just saying: Look, this was nominated by you, can you please tell us what you’ve found out.  And they say: “Nothing to do with me guvnor, don’t look at me.”  And then they found so many sewing machines and things like that in the lawmaker’s house.  And … do you find that that kind of exposure, or that kind of suggestion that ICPC might be getting involved, has had an effect in the interests of the prevention side.  Or do they say: Well, what can ICPC do?  We just … we belong to the ruling party, or something like that?

BO:  Definitely if you’ve been following the debate and the response, clearly there’s been a very positive effect and impact.  As I said, the objective is to get things done in a way that impacts as many people as possible.  We’ve heard, for example …  We just did a pilot with the Constituency Project tracking, randomly selected a few projects across the six geopolitical zones so that there’ll be no accusation of leaving out any part, and the findings were quite instructive in terms of patterns and processes, and so we published those findings.  But in the interim, don’t forget, because we have enforcement powers, so when we find something that is wrong, we can also arrest somebody and we can say: Ok, you have to do this in order to make sure.  So what has happened is that in a number of cases, even in a number of places where we are not yet looking, projects are being done and the feedback quite positive.  People are saying look, this project that had been abandoned in my area is being done, the people who walked out are coming back and stuff like that, and we are encouraging citizens to be a part of that process because at the end of the day, the role of citizens is the biggest issue in all of this.  ICPC, even if our staff strength is one million people, we can’t be everywhere at the same time.

AO: Well, this is actually the thing, because I remember that when the … when we returned to  civilian rule in 1999, and you may know that civil society had been working on this access to information legislation, and the President Obasanjo, in his inaugural speech, spoke warmly about fighting corruption, and how he was going to make it  …  to eradicate it.  And so civil society said: Oh, great, we’ve got this legislation … kind of almost oven-ready, here you are.  And the President said no no no no no, you go and present that by …  knowing that as a Private Member’s Bill or … it would  have very little – not the same chances of success – that an executive bill would have.  And then he came up with the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission, and the impression was that the President wanted to have a tool in his hand, even despite the word “independent’ … like “Independent National” and so on, that he wanted to have a tool in his hand that he could direct at whomever he chose, rather than something that was really independent to do what it needed to do in the way that you’ve been describing.

BO: Ok, the truth of the matter is that whichever way it goes and whichever government is in office, they will always get accused of using institutions of government for their own purposes.  But it’s not true, it’s not true.  At least, speaking from where I am.

AO: In the case of ICPC.

BO: Definitely not true.  And you know me, I’ll tell you what is going on.  Now the truth of the matter is the choices that you make about your enforcement measures and all that, nobody cares.  Government in fact sends petitions to us.  And will say: Look, we’ve received … because citizens write to government too, people write to the President, and the President will look at what you’re saying and send it somewhere to … for somebody to action.  So we get petitions that have been directed at Government sent to us if it falls within our mandate to look at, and so we deal with those issues.  Now, there’s nothing like … You know, people, when I was … before I resumed at ICPC, I was at the Presidential Advisory Committee, I had this … 

AO: Advisory Committee on Corruption

BO: Yes, against Corruption.  I had this posed at me many times: Oh, you’re only looking at the opposition parties and all that.  But there’s no truth in that.  Now if you look at the pattern of convictions so far, high profile, they are all of people of the ruling party, not the opposition

AO: But isn’t that people who jumped into the ruling party in order to avoid prosecution?

BO:  Whichever way it goes.  If those who are criticising were correct, then those prosecutions would have not made progress to this point!  So the truth of the matter is that people just like to play the devil’s advocate.  Secondly, if you take over as head of this station, this radio station today, and you need to do some reforms, where are you going to start from?  Are you going to start from forty years ago?  You start from the immediate past.  What are the things that happened just shortly before you assumed office, and then you can work your way back if you wish, or do a cut-off date.  This is the logical way that people do things.  So when I get these comments, and I ask them: So where … you tell me where they should start from?  Where should the work start from?  Ok.  So it makes it look …  and if you begin to take measures, new policies, they say you are targeting your predecessor in office.  This is what happens, whether it’s a private …  even in a church!  If you become the new pastor and you decide to make some changes.  They will say: Oh, Ayo Obe, Pastor Obe is already reversing all of the legacies of blah blah blah blah blah.  So, I think that the most cogent argument that you can present if a Law enforcement agency were to say you’ve done some wrong, is to say: I didn’t do it, this is the evidence that I didn’t do it.  I think it does not go anywhere to say: Oh, it’s because I’m in the other party, it’s because I’m of this persuasion.  That doesn’t hold up in court.

AO: So do you think that the people who sort of … are always telling themselves that well, there’s no point because this person belongs to the ruling party, there’s no point in my making any petition against them, do you think that they should suck it and see?

BO: No, they should make their petition all the same.  I also respond and say that: supposing you are so influential and powerful now, that the current government will not investigate or prosecute you, what about the next one?  Now, under the law, time does not run out against the state when it comes to prosecutions.  Some of the people who are being convicted ten, twelve, fifteen years after; they’ve been influential in the political circles, you know, but every influence has an expiry date.  So one day the law will catch up with you, that’s why they say the wheel of justice turns very slowly, but it moves.  So if you have a grouse, evidence, whatever, send it.  Never mind whether ICPC, EFCC or police they are going to run with it now, or later.  Sometimes, I may tell myself that: Ok, Ayo Obe is very influential right now.  It’s going to cost me a lot to pursue her.  I’m going to do all the investigation and I’m going to hold …

AO: So if you were doing the investigation, because there was this issue that came up, and somebody, and the discussion was that … well, that somebody went to court to compel an investigation, and the court said: There isn’t enough for me to compel – it was not the ICPC –  in fact it was the EFCC, but would you necessarily have to announce that you were carrying out an investigation into somebody who might be enjoying immunity under the Constitution?

BO: First of all, you would notice that that’s not our style.  

AO: No.

BO: Ok?  We don’t do that, and we are not about to change that habit.  Secondly, it is the prerogative of the court to say one way or the other what you have the right to do or not to do and all that.  I think that there are also institutional practices and cultures about what …  Under our law for example, we’re not obliged to make a public statement about what we are doing until we make an arrest and we have filed.  It’s there, it’s a section in our law, that until you have filed a case in court, in which case it becomes a matter of public interest, at that point.  But when I’m doing an investigation, I don’t grandstand by hitting the media and saying that: Oh, this person is being investigated or that is going to happen.  People, many people didn’t know we were doing any thing with Constituency Projects until we published our report.  Many people did not know we were watching MDAs and their practices until we published our report.  So when we have something to say, because  the public has a right to know, then we will say it.  And the media also needs to help, by understanding that you cannot just talk to the media every second about what you are doing.  It also undermines the integrity of the process and ultimately defeats the o…  because the people you are trying to investigate will then go and prepare for you.  Nobody does that anywhere in the world.

RS: Can you help us summarise what the findings of the Constituency Project Report is?

BO: Ok.  Well basically, we found out that of the releases that were made, because the grouse of the legislature as I understand it, is that they focused on appropriation as against releases, and all that.  And our report clearly distinguished between the amount appropriated and the amount released.  First of all, the value for money component, ok, needs to be reviewed.  So whereas the majority of the projects were actually done, but they were not very well done.  Because we took quantity surveyors along with us.  So if you built a school or built a hospital, and you said it cost N100 million, and a quantity surveyor is saying: What is on the ground, yes, there’s a building there, but it’s N50 million.  So then we question that.  So we need to change the practices that in a way … 

RS: And in that kind of case, what then happens?

BO: Ok, so a lot of things can happen.  We could ask that the quality be improved.  We could ask for the balance, and in some cases we have asked for the balance.  We could then use that report to say: Ok, how did you arrive at these figures?  So that they can reconcile professionally.  The reason we took quantity surveyors along is also in case we need to go to court, the evidence of expert in court will stand the test of scrutiny, not our own evaluation, not our own assessment and all that.  So we brought, and they did it pro bono with us all the projects that we looked at, so that  if we need to take any matter to court.  But what we want is what can deliver value to the people.  So if we came there and we said this was not done, and this happened in hundreds of cases, that we said: This was not done, or not properly done, the people came back.  Once we call …   That’s the difference between Tracka  trying to say it, and we trying to say it: we can arrest you.

AO: Oh yes.  I mean there’s no … I mean for example, Tracka, when Ilevbaoje when he came here, he explained that a legislator said that: I wanted to buy grinding machines at N35,000.  The department or agency which was to execute the empowerment project, wanted to buy the grinding machines at four times the price!  So I wonder do you have links with organisations, with bodies like the Bureau of Price Monitoring.

BO: Oh yes, they are all part of, it’s an inter-agency team actually.  It’s just led by ICPC because it was our initiative.  We are coordinating.  Budget Office is there, Accountant General is there, Bureau of Public Procurement is there…  So, the releases … and then of course people from the Agency.  When we … your Agency becomes a focal point then you have to come and explain.  That’s part of investigation.  They might just have some credible response that they will give you, that will make you look the other way.  But if they don’t have anything.  The first point is: Ok, fine, this project needs to be delivered to the people. Go and do it, we will give you time and we watch.  In some cases companies, some contractors wrote us and said this is why we could not do the work, this is what happened.  We are going back, we’ve finished, and then they will write reports, we go back and check.  So it’s baffling that people are not looking at all of those issues.  They focus on …  the, what we are looking at are corrective measures.  And since people can see, contractors can see, Ministries can see, Project sponsors can see, that we are oversighting the process, we expect an improvement.  Already we can see the signs of those improvements in the number of projects that suddenly are being completed that had been abandoned, and we have those testimonies from various communities, even that we had not visited.  People will say, look, this road was abandoned.  This water project was abandoned, and all that.  So ultimately we are doing a second cycle in the New Year to cover some other parts and all that.

AO: So the role of the legislators in that regard is not necessarily the alpha and omega of it?

BO: Actually, they’ve rightly argued, but the evidence on the ground suggests slightly otherwise, yeah.  They’ve argued that their role is to nominate the project, and they are correct.  Ok.  And it is the duty of the Ministry, or the Department or the Agency to then do the procurement processes and all that.  But we have evidence and proof that in many situations, the sponsor interferes in that process.  So they can nominate contractors, they can bully their way through.  In some situations where you nominate a project for your community, you know where you want it sited, so if that project is approved, we will approach you, where do you want it?  We can’t just put it anywhere, it defeats your intention.  So we must ask you.  So if you then make it a condition for showing us the site that we must use your contractor and then we say: Sorry, the rules don’t allow us to use your contractor,  and then you say: I won’t show you the site, then the project can’t get done.  So they can not argue.  I’m not saying that it’s all of them.  We’ve never said it is all the legislators.  But obviously some of them, if you find one or two, that’s enough for us, we don’t need to find 360 legislators doing the same thing.  

So that interference in the process is part of the issue on the table.  And we’ve said that it undermines the capacity of the implementing agencies doing their job.  The last point I want to make is that some of the agencies don’t have the capacity to implement.  Because if you put too many projects under their watch …

AO: But they are all under the Secretary to Government of the Federation, so many of them?

BO: They are not, they’re not.  That’s another misconception.  They are not actually.  The legislators and the sponsors can put the project anywhere.  This is one of the things we’ve advised against.  Government should indicate those who can do Constituency Projects.  It makes it easy for us to track.  Government has hundreds of agencies, so if you put Constituency Projects anywhere, whether they are fit for those places or not, these are some of the challenges.  So if you go and put a road project  under a Ministry that has nothing to do with Roads, ok, that’s already a problem.  They have … The rules are that you must go through a  procurement process, which means you must advertise, you must review technical and financial bids, you will shortlist.  And then … and the project … and before they get paid, they must sign off.  So if a project does not get done, and the sponsor signs off, you should ask the question: On what basis did you sign off?  So there are many things that we are looking at here, but the more we look at the process we expect that it should improve, and that we will not have to take enforcement measures in the majority of cases.  Just the fact that we are now looking at it will get people back, and it’s the communities and the people that benefit, ultimately.

RS: Please, before we go for the commercial break, which is a few minutes overdue,  do you have a global value for any amount recovered yet by the …

BO: On the Constituency Project?

RS: Yes, by the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission? 

BO: Well, we … I mean for this first phase that we’ve done, we’ve published in our report which was released we’ve finished that cycle over two months.  We released in November, but since then, there have been additions.  So, it’s over N1.7 billion basically, in terms of recoveries and all that.  And if we quantify the projects that have been resuscitated, we haven’t even valued those at all, because we don’t even know where they are all located, we just get a lot of feedback: Oh thanks to ICPC  these people have come back to do this or do that.  we need to go check, to be sure that we’re not also listening to fiction.  We have to be careful.

RS: Thank you so much.

AO: I want to thank you very much Prof. for coming on to the IDEAS programme in the Public Square on Nigeria Info.

BO: Thank you for inviting me.

AO: We’ll have to have you back when you are not quite so jet-lagged.

RS: There’s a lot to talk about.

BO: Well, I’ll see what I can do.

RS: Ok, thank you again so much.

AO: We’ll catch you one weekend again.  Thank you so much.

AgO: Alright, Public Square will be right back, please keep listening.

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