Says 750 cases recorded in 8 months
Speaks on $43m Ikoyi money; Okorocha, Yari, Oyo-Ita investigations, Babachir Lawal; alleged shutting down of state governments
By Chris Onuoha
Mr Kabiru Latona is Assistant Director, Legal Services Department of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC. In this interview, Latona speaks on the list of suspected Nigerian fraudsters compiled by the United States (US) Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), among other issues bordering on economic and financial crimes. Excerpts:
In the past weeks, some senior government officials have come under the spotlight of the anti-graft agency. And there are several high profile cases involving politically exposed persons. The Buhari government says it wants to fight corruption. But it has been heavily criticized especially by opposition elements that the fight is selective. With the recent actions of the anti-graft agency, it does look like there’s a renewed energy in the commission.
The commission has been dedicated in the discharge of its duties whether it is before or now and, under the leadership of the acting Executive Chairman, Mr Ibrahim Magu, we have had a more determined focus and exhibited a high degree of professionalism in our responsibilities.
There are allegations that the commission is selective in its fight. Is the commission worried about the portrayal of some of the cases it chose to prosecute in recent times?
Let’s put the question in proper perspective. Those who are subjects of prosecution, have allegations of crime been made against them? Has evidence been gathered against them and are they being prosecuted before the law courts? The issue of selectivity is immaterial because the word may be capable of several interpretations.
You are a lawyer and you know that in law when you are leading the process to ensure justice, justice must be seen to be done. It is not only about perception but also about the trueness of what you are doing. But perception is also important from the framing of that popular saying in law. Isn’t it?
Essentially, for us, we are color blind. What is essential is that there is a complaint about somebody. The complaint is investigated, and once we gather prima-facie evidence, we proceed to court against that person and we allow the court to prosecute, and the court is the final institution to determine the guilt or otherwise. We have been hearing this claim of selective justice from time immemorial. During the regime of President Olusegun Obasanjo, this issue of selective justice came up. During the time of President Jonathan, yes, there was the same allegation as well. Now, we keep talking about the same claim. Is it that those who are being prosecuted are not the right persons to be prosecuted? I think that should be the issue. Do we have enough evidence to prosecute them or not? The fact that you have ten people in a room and you start with one person does not mean that you will eventually not reach the other nine persons. And we are not unmindful of the fact that these anti-corruption agencies have limited resources in terms of personnel and money available to them. So, they can’t take on everybody at the same time. These things have to be done methodologically. If you recollect, some weeks back, a former governor in one of the northern states who happens to belong to the APC (ruling party at the federal level), his properties and money linked to him have been subject of investigation based on allegations made by the commission through the court. So, what are we talking about on the issue of selective justice? If the issue is about selective justice, the EFCC would not have gone after the former APC governor.
Some people would tell you that there are actually wars against such personalities in APC and that’s why you went after them. But the question is, is it true that the only cases the EFCC goes after are those on which you received petitions from outside or do you originate your own cases?
There are several ways that investigation could be kick-started. It could come in form of criminal complaint or intelligence gathering. For instance, financial intelligence could be generated by the NFIU through FCR to the EFCC or ICPC. Then there may be the need to conduct investigation into a particular account to ascertain whether that account is not being used for crime or money laundering. It is not exactly true that all investigations really come as a result of criminal complaint.
What has become of Ikoyi 43million dollars (estimated 13billion naira) the EFCC busted the other time?
If you understand the workings of EFCC, you would know what the agency does and how they go about it. The EFCC is established by the Act of EFCC 2004. And that Act provides for laws that the commission has to operate. One of those laws is what is called the Advance Free Fraud Act. Using Section 17 of it, otherwise called Non-Conviction Forfeiture, the commission ensured that the money was forfeited to the Federal Government of Nigeria and, in line with the provisions of the EFCC Act, the appropriate officers of the commission have ensured that the money was transmitted to the Federal Government. At that level, the responsibility of EFCC stops. The money was subject to an order of final forfeiture and, as a result of that, the EFCC has concluded what it should do to ensure that the money got to the appropriate quarters.
Is the commission still prosecuting cases around the money? For example, the case of the former National Intelligence Agency head?
There was no time the EFCC instituted a case against the head of any agency. What was carried out at that point in time was investigation. We have not yet initiated a case against the head of any agency.
So the money has not been linked to anybody?
I told you the mechanism we used. Investigation is still going on. The money forfeited is under Non-Conviction Forfeiture; you go after the loot while we are still investigating to determine where the loot came from, because the focus of the EFCC is the proceeds of crime. And that is what pains most of the criminals who engage in those crimes more.
What about if you lose the case and the money is someone’s rightful money?
No. It couldn’t have been because there are mechanisms before final forfeiture.
Mrs Oyo Ita, the Head of Service, what is EFCC investigating?
We don’t discuss the issue of investigations in the papers or on television screen. Investigations are conducted discretely. Newspaper reports are one thing and what the commission is doing is another thing. The point is this: People have accused us in the past of playing to the gallery, going to the media. What we are doing and have been doing is scientific investigation. Whatever we are doing now as regards some aspects of investigations, we prefer not to discuss on television screen.
There are cases involving lot of money being investigated by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in Nigeria. One of the cases is about $11 billion allegedly involving one Mr Obinwanne ‘Invictus’ Okeke. What is going on?
One thing you need to know about all these cases of internet fraud, inclusive of the one you mentioned, is that these things are actually under reported in Nigeria. Within the past one year, the commission has embarked on Operation Cyber Storm. It is just that many people are not aware of how the commission is discharging its services. There’s been a kind of refined internet scam, whereby these boys have the ability to hack into the websites and emails of individuals within Nigeria and outside, take possession of your mails, conduct your financial transactions and cause heavy losses to the individuals. The commission has been quietly working along this axis arresting and prosecuting so many of them. Between January and August 2019, we have recorded over 750 crimes along this line minus the recoveries we have made overseas and in Nigeria that are the objects of these scams.
Against this background, is it safe to make financial transactions on internet in Nigeria?
Well, technology is good, including the internet, but just like every human invention, there is a positive aspect to it, but we equally have individuals who manipulate it for negative tendencies. You can’t rule that out.
Nigeria has gotten a bad name because of these fraudsters, how they surreptitiously interact with people across the world using emotional ways to get money from them. With this image, is NFIU connected to the EFCC or does it operate differently?
The promulgation of the NFIU Act makes it a different body. But that does not mean that the NFIU is not performing its role as a disseminator of financial intelligence to the FCAF including the EFCC.
But some people are of the opinion that there has been a breakdown of that connection with the EFCC, that intelligence sharing has slowed down.
To the best of my knowledge, there is no breakdown. We recently attended a meeting of what is known as the intelligence taskforce comprising of all these bodies. In fact, there is a robust relationship among us. Don’t forget that under relevant laws, the EFCC has the capacity to demand and generate some level of financial intelligence.
What about the case of former SGF Babachir Lawal and some former governors? And secondly, the case of former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, there is this question, why is it now that you are going after the people who are related to him?
Like I said at the beginning, there is no perfect timing for prosecuting criminal cases. Generally, criminal prosecution has no time expiry. If you commit a crime now, except in the case of some criminal offences, it could be after five years before you are prosecuted. Again, there are limited resources, so you strategise on how to go about your prosecution. Several factors come into play, it is not just a question of you pick someone today and you decide to go to court tomorrow. Several factors determine when some cases go to court.
There is a former governor in the South-East who, I understand, is to appear before you again, that is, talking about the alleged case of former Imo State governor, Owelle Rochas Okorocha, and immediate past governor of Zamfara (Abdulaziz Yari). Is that true?
Yes, investigation is going on. I am sure you are aware that the properties (of Okorocha) were subject to forfeiture orders. For that of Zamfara former governor, sometime ago, the ICPC obtained an interim forfeiture order of certain properties and money fixed in an account allegedly belonging to him
Many people have challenged the right of the EFCC to seize the accounts of some of these people. Why do you keep doing that?
You can fight corruption proactively or reactively but the proactive measure is the best way to prevent it from happening. We talk about the NFIU providing financial intelligence to the EFCC and this is what happens in many cases. When inquiries are made and preliminary results point to allegations, rather than allow money from being moved, we quickly move in, freeze the account and obtain an interim order. The court has ruled on it, the competency predicated on existing laws. EFCC is not obtaining forfeiture orders on a non-existence platform, we use existing laws.
On the shutting down of state governments
The commission is not shutting down state governments. What the commission is trying to prevent is abuse of public funds. We are not shutting down because many states, local governments are operating and how many of them have shut down? But when you get financial intelligence that somebody is about to move money because he is elected as a trustee of the people and he wants to move the commonwealth of the people to his personal account, would you allow that? Is that not the reason the commission was set up in the first place, and these things are subject to judicial review? If at the end of the day, the court finds out that there is no provable reason, the order will not be granted.
- Interview first aired on ChannelsTV