By Dayo Benson
Mr Ekpo Nta, is the current Chairman of Independent Corrupt Practices (and Related offences) Commission ICPC. A lawyer by profession, he acted in this capacity from November 29, 2011 to August 2012 before he was confirmed by the Senate and subsequently sworn-in as the substantive Chairman of the Commission with effect from September same year. In this interview, he spoke on the tasks ahead, corruption in the polity, his approach to combat the menace and his overall vision for the Commission.
In the public domain, your name does not ring much bell; Where are you coming from. May we know a little more about you?
Well, I am happy that my name does not ring much bell because when your name rings a bell in this country, you are situated in groups that are very well known; either as a politician or whatever group. So I am coming into this job without strings of any group; I represent no group, I represent no interest apart from the interest of Nigerians.
I deliberately did live a quiet life. If I had wanted my name to be known, I would have been known very well; I execute my functions quietly. I would want to leave it at that and Nigerians will get to know me by the activities of this Commission. Let me be judged by my activities.
The only thing I can say for now is that I worked in various states and federal civil service for 25 years and I retired as a Director of Human Resources for the Niger Delta Development Commission. We transited from OMPADEC which was the Oil Minerals Areas Development Commission in Port-Harcourt. I was one of the pioneer Directors that set up the place and I retired quietly into a model educational facility which I built and sustained for 10 years ( a Nursery /Primary School).
Let’s talk about the Commission proper. As the substantive Chairman, what would you say is the vision that you are bringing into the Commission, considering your background ?
My vision for this Commission is very simple. This Commission was set up to do specific things and I am to situate myself within those specific items and activities. I agree with the ordinary Nigerian that we should carry out the mandate of this Commission because corruption is taking away our Human Rights, it is taking away our children and it is limiting our best potentials as persons or as a nation, it is also bringing opprobrium to the country.
You are beginning to have paradigm shift even from the larger society. If people were to tell you that there will be massive protest against removal of oil subsidy at the levels we saw, and the mobilization that was involved by different groups for different reasons including personal interests, it means that we can also mobilise Nigerians against corruption because this one actually touches their lives.
So for me the major aspect of fighting corruption which is empowered by our Act which we had not paid attention to was in the aspect of public enlightenment. So this exercise we are doing now is one of the new approaches we are going to adopt.
I am looking at the situation where I am going to put Billboards in all the Local Government Areas, telling people what their Local Government Councils have appropriated for what project. So if you begin to go with inferior materials to the site, the young people and the elders in that community will tell you that this is not what we saw up there. So we are putting the power of fighting corruption back to the people who are victims of corruption.
Some other aspects we have always overlooked has to do with education. Have you looked at your children’s environment? Have you gone to their schools? Do they have laboratories? Do they have Libraries? Do they have competent teachers?
From now on, ICPC will be an eye on all these issues to link causative actions with the big talk of the budget. As a matter of fact, we have already commissioned the study of the Nigeria University system; that is where we are starting, a massive review of corruption prone activities in all Nigerian universities.
On that team I have Prof. Okebukola heading it and three other Professors including our own Prof. Olu Aina who is a Board Member of this Commission.
Well said , but what you have explained is pointing to the paradigm shift that you mentioned earlier because I did not hear anything about ICPC going out there to fight corruption itself in the public sector, talking about the arms of government like the Judiciary, Legislature and the Executive. Is the Commission not interested in this area?
Of course we are. You must also know that about 50% of the functions of ICPC is prevention. Why would we want to wait until somebody steals money and then we begin to run after him. I am looking at a situation where he does not have the ability or capacity to steal that money, by doing a constant review of the system; but for those who are stubborn – you will find that in any society – we will still come after them definitely.
Don’t forget that the act of corruption in most cases is done in private and so you need persons to speak up more. When you sensitise the public and they still see these acts of corruption, they will write immediately or call on phone or send an e-mail.
That is why I am very happy with some groups of persons who have set up very interesting web-based applications to help ICPC. I am getting them to bring that website and I have been talking with some people there to link that website to ICPC; so that when we get such reports, we move in.
You also know there is a website, ‘I Paid Bribe Nigeria’; if you Google it, you will find it. If you have a smart phone, you can actually take pictures and record corrupt activities that are going on and download it directly to us. I have had a few of these done by some smart young men, and we have taken action on those issues.
We have a six core mandate: investigation, prosecution, public enlightenment, education and then the prevention aspect of it. If you look at the way it is carved, investigation and prosecution go together, public enlightenment is on its own, education is on its own, and then the other three deal exclusively with prevention modes.
And if you look at the international community, because we relate with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the major focus everywhere in the world is on prevention mode, designed systems to help prevent. There is no country that will survive on only arrest, let people know the infractions before you continue to arrest, else you won’t have enough space in the prisons.
Victimisation and denial of promotions
For the Civil Service – Ministries, Departments and Agencies, I am sure you know we have positioned staff in all these places under units known as Anti-Corruption and Transparency Monitoring Unit (ACTU). They are the eyes of ICPC in those institutions.
But because in the past they were staff of those organisations, they were being victimised and denied promotions or transferred at will. So now, we have decided to use another mode; we send staff from other agencies to your own agency who would work with you for that period and so you don’t have a control over the person’s career.
As undercover or what?
No, openly, you know I am here, so if you are doing anything, you must pass those things through them and they will let us know what is happening. Sometimes you will be surprised that 33% of the information and petitions we receive come from inside sources. Within those organisations, they are people who are still good and will still send those petitions; and that is the average standard everywhere in the world.
Nobody will come and discover what is happening from the outside, but the first tip must always come from inside. That is why we are having this whistle blower policy to protect such people if they come out boldly. But if they don’t , and still send us the information we will act on it. But we have to be careful to distinguish between malicious petitions and genuine ones; because at times we might find out that there was a deal, somebody was cheated and he would now write a petition.
All these you have said, is it part of the new initiative of preventing corruption and going after offenders when there are infractions?
Sure ,it is new because one other thing which I have done that has never really been done here is the non-conviction seizure of assets. I have tested that out and it has worked beautifully. What it simply means is that, if i see you living a lifestyle you cannot explain by way of your income, then under the powers vested in me in ICPC I can seize your property and ask you to explain to me and the Commission how you managed to acquire such property.
And you have one year within which to explain or go to court, to say that, ‘the Chairman of ICPC seized my property wrongly and I inherited it from my father’. We will also investigate, because sometimes some of them will forget that their father was a palm-wine tapper and so could not have left behind a three- storey building in Ikoyi-Lagos or in Maitama; so these are some of the things we are looking at.
This year we are going to experience more seizures definitely. If after 12 months you have not contested it in the courts, then I will go to the court and ask for a final forfeiture order; we are doing all these within the Act.
But before the seizure I hope investigations would have been carried out?
Oh definitely, we would have carried out surveillance and investigated the matter, quietly, covertly and overtly, before coming to such a decision.
Recently we saw Ministries, Departments and Agencies returning unspent money into federation account; even though this started with the regime of former President Olusegun Obasanjo; does ICPC has anything to do with this?
Thank you for raising that question. We did a review of the integrated pay-roll information systems for MDAs for 2011 and we noticed quite a lot of infractions; people paying cleaning services, security services from personnel cost and all that.
We do know that it is a tradition in some organisations not to return money to government. They will find all kinds of reasons to say they were spending it. I have issued circulars and notices to all MDAs and i want to use this forum to advise all Ministers and Permanent Secretaries and heads of parastatals and extra-ministerial departments that all monies that will be left over from personnel cost must be returned to government.
As from this year we will be going to the treasury to see what has been returned and we have also given them templates to fill; we know what their nominal roll is like. This time, there would be no sacred cows, there would be massive prosecution of anybody found to have infringed this particular aspect of the exercise.
I have given myself and the Commission a target of how much must be returned; and i am starting with ICPC. Whatever is left of our personnel cost, am returning ahead of time. If ICPC would return, then no other agency would want to claim that they would not return.
With all these you have said, there is no doubt that you have a clear vision of what you want to do in this Commission, but are you ready to step on toes?
Now when you have cancer and you have to go to hospital, do you expect the Doctor to say, well, it might be very painful if I do this surgery. If I do the surgery and take this off, it will be very painful but you will survive or should I leave it there, manage it as I can in order for you not to feel pain. That is the way we must treat corruption; that is the way we have treated cancer. You are the one who will tell the Doctor ‘even if you don’t have anaesthesia please do the operation.
So in accepting this job, I am fully aware of the consequences; I am aware of the pains that it will cause even to me; because there is no where you will hold somebody down and start cutting him alive that he will not fight back. You have already seen it happen. You saw what happened to Dora Akunyili for trying to clean up the fake drugs regime , but God was with her. You also saw what happened to the other female Minister, (Okonjo- Iweala).
We can’t shy away from things like this. The comedians in Rivers State had some saying that ‘strong disease would need strong medicine’; so it is something we must do for the survival of our own children.