By Tonnie Iredia
When I first heard the news of the arrest of Dimeji Bankole, immediate past speaker of the House of Representatives, by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), I had the feeling that it was only for a chat that would last some minutes. My mind went back to 1993 when as Director of Public Affairs at the defunct National Electoral Commission; I was invited for a chat by the State Security Service (SSS) in the heat of the controversial June 12 Presidential election.
I was held for three hours but the chat lasted approximately two minutes. The SSS officials were quite courteous. I was given some newspapers to read while awaiting interrogation. When the designated officer was eventually ready, I was led to meet him but as soon as he saw me, he exclaimed as follows: “Oh, my God, this is Iredia; there is a mix-up here; this is not the man we asked for.” The wanted person was one of the National Commissioners, Professor Felix Ideriah, who was the returning officer for the election. Well, since Iredia was slightly different from Ideriah, I was let off the hook. Such comic things do happen hence my thought that Bankole would not be long with the EFCC.
I also felt that the young former speaker has ample charisma to see him through — cool-headed, tough-speaking and articulate. We admire him for at least three things. First, he reorganised oversight functions in the House and saved billions of naira for the nation; second, he told civil servants point blank that they were corrupt and third, he, unlike most Nigerian politicians promptly accepted defeat during the last elections, and congratulated his victorious opponent. EFCC, I imagined, could not hold such a person for long.
But, as the hours trickled, it became obvious that our cherished Dimeji might spend the night with the anti-graft body. Where would he be kept there, I asked myself -could it be Chairman Farida Waziri’s cozy office? It then occurred to me that Bankole was no longer the speaker and as such could not have gone there on an official courtesy visit.
So, can our cherished Dimeji be put in a cell? I quickly assured myself that even if that were to happen, every cell cannot be the same. Knowing that EFCC officials are widely-travelled, they must have by now introduced to our land, the type of cells in Western Europe that are like our 5-star hotels which for our big shots may be bearable.
But the picture of Dimeji I saw in the press being escorted by EFCC officials on arrest was not that of him in his usual snow- white Kaftan and cap to match which he wore again a few days later when he was charged to court. Does it mean that the anti-graft agency does not allow people in its custody to wear that type of dress? If not, what can one do or not do there? In short, how does a typical EFCC cell look like?
Well, the problem with being in a cell is that even the innocent can find himself there because anyone who is petitioned against; may have to be brought there to prove his innocence. Sometimes, righteousness can be one’s undoing such as where an otherwise honest accounting officer who may have disallowed unwholesome financial deals by his political superior is mischievously implicated and so is put in a cell while awaiting interrogation.
It is thus not enough to be innocent, one has to be lucky too and some people can be. One such person is our Itsekiri sister— a permanent secretary, whose workers were prompted from ‘above’ to compile several allegations and carry placards against her; yet, she did not have to go to a cell. Perhaps, the anti-graft agency has a mechanism after all, for sifting the shaft from the grain. From our investigation, it appears that the commission neither allows itself to be used to settle scores nor does it dissipate its energies on cooked-up allegations by opponents or those seeking to oust someone from office. EFCC does not also appear impressed by the use of the media whether soft sell or even the internet to malign innocent citizens. So, when the anti-graft body picks on someone, it is serious business.
But, why did the commission wait till Bankole left office before pouncing on him? It is not as if the timing really matters; our grouse is that it may encourage impunity in top public offices and at the same time validate the public perception that the commission does not have the nerve to deal with the highly-placed when they are in office. We are no doubt aware that our legislators can intimidate any public body as they did in 2003 when the National Assembly amended the Act setting up the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) because she was investigating charges of corruption against its leadership. The legislature on the occasion did not only amend the law in haste, it did not even have a quorum to so act. It reduced the punishment for some offences relating to corruption, sought to extend the constitutional provision on immunity to itself and most ridiculously called for public hearing after it had concluded action on the subject.
We believe that since legislators are not among the public officers statutorily protected from prosecution, law enforcement agencies should treat them like other citizens in the maintenance of law and order. That in essence, is the kernel of the rule of law. So, are we likely to hear more on the current House of Representatives’ hullabaloo, especially as EFCC has fearless prosecutors like the fiery Festus Keyamo?
Talking about fearlessness, what readily comes to mind here is how Nigerians deride people who have guts. When the indomitable Dino Melaye raised the alarm about the questionable management of the finances of the House of Representatives, some people dismissed him as aggrieved over the sharing of offices in the House. But then many people did not realise that allegations concerning our politicians may be true at the beginning and false at the end or vice-versa as has been shown now in the case of former speaker Patricia Etteh.
At the beginning of the last legislative session, her colleagues removed her from office for some wrong doing which they publicly claimed to have uncovered. At the end of the session, the same legislators told the nation that the former speaker saw and did no evil; meaning that she was a victim of legislative wizardry. Luckily, she was not put in an EFCC cell and so she, unlike many people cannot help to describe how the place looks like.
A relation who visited me while I was working on this article thought it was risky to publicly inquire into how EFCC cell looks like. Haba! What is investigative journalism all about?