Ibrahim Mustafa Magu, the newly appointed Acting Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has been described as a fearless investigator who can stand up to anyone. The trained financial crimes investigator,who also has a background in forensic accounting, speaks here on his appointment, his mission and the challenges the Commission is facing in its prosecution of the war against graft in the nation.
You said at a meeting with journalists that your appointment came to you as a surprise. Why was that?
Yes, you are correct. I still maintain that my appointment as acting Chairman, EFCC came as a surprise to me. Honestly, I was not expecting it. Of course, everyone aspires to greatness in life wherever he or she is. But at the time the appointment came, I was busy on another national assignment as a member of the committee set up by the National Security Adviser to probe arms procurement by the military from 2007 to date. Besides, I was not the most senior or most competent officer in the Commission or even in the Nigerian law enforcement community. To that extent, that Mr. President considered me worthy of this sensitive post is an honour.
How did you receive the news of your appointment?
I never knew what was coming. When I was told that the Secretary to the Government of the Federation wanted to see me, I was a bit disturbed. I didn’t know what to expect, until the news was broken to me. I was speechless for a moment. But on reflection, I feel honoured and privileged to have this opportunity to make a difference in the affairs of our country. I am giving it my best shot to justify the confidence reposed in me by Mr. President and the vast majority of Nigerians.
Was your post-appointment meeting the first time you would be meeting President Muhammadu Buhari?
No, it wasn’t. I first met President Buhari some 40 years ago, when he visited my school as military governor of the then North Eastern State. I think that was in 1976. I was in form one then, in Government Secondary School, Waka, Biu, Borno State.
What about that visit struck you the most?
I was struck by his humility and commitment to the welfare of the people. I saw in him a role model. Share with us experiences that prepared you for your new job. I am sure you are aware that I am one of the pioneer staff members of the EFCC. Over the years, I have worked in different capacities, which, in my opinion, has come in handy. Indeed, I have spent the most productive part of my career with the EFCC. Before the EFCC, I was in the Special Fraud Unit of the Nigeria Police between 1996 and 2002. With all humility, I think my experience prepared me adequately for the challenges of my current office.
Your redeployment under Mrs. Farida Waziri, after the James Ibori case, was described as "hardship posting". Did you think you would ever recover from that?
My attitude to life is that God has a purpose for everything. I have put that experience behind me. What is important to me now is the assignment at hand, which is to help free our country from the vice-grip of corruption.
With things moving rather slowly, if at all, at the ICPC and the Code of Conduct Tribunal, the EFCC appears to be under great pressure. How are you coping?
Any work that does not come with pressure will be boring. Pressure is a part of what fires our adrenalin at the EFCC. I can tell you that we are coping. I am aware thatexpectation is huge. Most Nigerians believe the EFCC is the only agency that can effectively tackle the problem of corruption and other forms of criminality, so all manner of cases are referred to us, including those that other agencies should be handling. This, to me, is a measure of the confidence that the people have in us and we will do all within our power not to disappoint Nigerians. That is not to say that we don’t have constraints, but we are doing our very best within the limits of available resources.I take each day as it comes. I have spelt out my vision to my all EFCC staff and I can tell you that everyone seems to havekeyed into it, thereby making my task simpler.
There appears to be a shortage of manpower and capacity to handle the scale and scope of the cases you have to deal with. What are you doing to bridge the gap?
As you rightly observed, there is no denying the fact that the scale and scope of corruption cases being prosecuted by the EFCC have increased greatly. This, naturally, throws up many challenges for us. The EFCC is a relatively small organisation, given the size of the country. The staff strength of the Commission is under three thousand and we are expected to police a population of more than 170 million! Every day, we are on the road, pursuing an investigation or attending one trial or the other in courts scattered across Nigeria. Because of the volume of cases we have, we have had to rely on external solicitors to handle some of them. As you know, legal services do not come cheap. So we need more lawyers and operatives to effectively deliver our mandate.
Some of the suspects are rich and powerful and able to hire some of the best lawyers to defend themselves. How are you able to get and maintain good lawyers?
It is actually not big names that win cases in court. We do have lawyers who are committed and well motivated. It will interest you to know that it is lawyers from our Legal and Prosecution Department that recorded most of our convictions. A few days ago, a ‘small’ counsel in our Lagos office defeated 32 senior lawyers, including a number of senior advocates, in a case involving one SAN.
You said, during your recent visit to Professor Wole Soyinka, that the amount of money stolen would be enough to fund the 2016 budget. What would you put the figure at?
That was metaphorical, just to be able to give the ordinary Nigerian a sense of the magnitude of the pillage of our national treasury by corrupt elements. You should be alarmed at the volume of money originally earmarked for the purchase of arms to fight the insurgency that was diverted for personal use. This is just one instance out of the many cases of looted funds currently being investigated by the EFCC.There should be a national sense of outrage at the level of looting that the nation has witnessed. And the need to say that never again shall we see this scale of theft is more urgent than any figure one might give at the moment.
So why do you think we're not seeing such outrage?
That is a difficult question to answer. But it may have something to do with our values. Corruption has been so celebrated over the years that people now think it is normal to steal from the public till.
Why do you think it was possible to carry out this scale of theft of public funds?
I would say that unlike what we are seeing today, previous administrations had, to a large extent, not shown the desired commitment to fight corruption. Without mincing words, I can say that the anti-graft agencies, in the past, had regrettably been hamstrung and not able to carry out their statutory duties. Another reason is that political office in Nigeria is too attractive. Thus, public office holders are in a rat race of sorts, to steal money. Also, the judiciary, which is usually the last resort, had allegedly been complicit, thereby making public office holders found to have engaged in corruption feel confident to poke the law in the face and go scot-free. But that is gradually changing, especially with the new Administration of Criminal Justice Act.
None of your predecessors has had a second term. Is it a case of corruption fighting back or it is self-inflicted?
With the benefit of hindsight, you can do a context analysis of the manner of exit of my predecessors and draw your conclusions. But make no mistake about it, when you fight corruption, corruption must fight back. Even now, it is already fighting back.
How exactly is it fighting back? Give us some examples.
You are part of the media and I believe you can see the trend already, people trying to impute motives to our enforcement activities, suggesting that we are selective. It is a strategy that had been used in the past, but I believe that Nigerians can see through the plots. We will definitely not be distracted.
Funding has been a major problem for the EFCC. In the last 16 years, what is the average annual difference between appropriation and actual releases to the agency?
Just a correction, the EFCC will be 13 years in April. But I don’t think the funding challenge confronting the Commission is a matter of the difference between appropriation and actual release. Every year, the Commission posts remarkable result in terms of budget performance. But the problem is that what is appropriated on a yearly basis falls short of requirement. And that is not surprising, given that there are competing demands on government resources and no agency can expect to have all its funding needs met.
Do your children think you have signed up for a very dangerous job?
Of course, my children know what I do for a living and they are mature enough to know that every job has its own peculiar risks. But it is my personal decision not to bother them with the risk involved. Even if they happen to know, they can only pray for me.
What do you tell them when they express concern for your safety?
As I said earlier, they don’t usually express any concern about my safety, because they don’t know the depth of danger I am exposed to. God is the only one that can ultimately guarantee the safety of anybody. You see, even if I were a teacher or some other professional, they would only support me with prayers because they love me dearly.
A major problem the courts have complained about is the lack of diligent investigation of cases. What is your strategy for diligent investigation and prosecution?
Frankly, when people talk about the lack of diligent investigation, I sometimes don’t understand what they mean. Putting the evidence together is the job of the investigator and we do that very well in the EFCC. You take your evidence before a court, hoping to prove your case. It is left to the court to convict. You cannot be investigator, prosecutor and judge in a case.
Are you satisfied with the current level of convictions?
What we have achieved so far is commendable, but there is definitely room for improvement.
Some suspects have accused the agency of media trials and sensationalism. Do you think they have a fair point?
No, they don’t! The EFCC doesn’t thrive on sensationalism or media trials. We have structured machinery for information dissemination and where we have a need to inform the public about any case or event,we do so through our Media and Publicity Unit, which is the section that relates with the media. I am aware that they only give out information that is in the public interest. That said, the media has a constitutional duty to inform and educate the people. Where they take interest in our activities because of our strategic position in Nigeria, we cannot complain, because that is their responsibility. Nigerians have the right to know what is going on. When those who have cornered our commonwealth are named and shamed by the media, we don’t expect them to clap for us. There is some deterrent value in that.
Do you worry that such accusation could undermine your cases in court?
Not at all. Cases are not won or lost in court based on media reports. My responsibility as an investigator is to build my case with the relevant evidence that can stand the rigours of a court trial. Every other thing is secondary.
The President recently took two bills to the National Assembly to strengthen the EFCC Act. What chances do you think the bills have of speedy passage?
I have no doubt that the 8th National Assembly, just like the Executive, is interested in giving bite to the corruption war. So we expect them to do what is right.
What gives you that confidence?
I believe that all Nigerians want to see progress in the fight against corruption. To that extent, I am optimistic that our lawmakers will support any initiative that will promote the anti-graft war.
What are your concerns, if any, about the bills?
First, we need to consider what the bills seek to achieve. Essentially, they are to improve Nigeria’s legal framework to combat money laundering and corruption; so, I really think the two bills are important and should be given speedy consideration by our lawmakers.
The agency has been accused of ambushing suspects outside court premises or ignoring court orders granting them bail, in spite of its promise to obey the courts. Why is this so?
I totally disagree with you. When I assumed office, I stated clearly that my activities as the Chairman of this Commission shall be guided by the fear of God, national interest and the Rule of Law. So far, this has not changed. I am not aware of any court order that was not obeyed by the Commission. We operate within the laid down rules and regulations. Those who make these spurious allegations don’t know how the EFCC operates.
On the matter of arresting a suspect outside a court’s premises, is there a law that forbids such if there is a fresh investigation and new facts relating to another matter not yet before the court?
I need to be educated if such exists.
Professor Soyinka said some suspects, including former Petroleum Minister Diezani, are milking public sympathy with their illness. Do you think that's true?
Well, Professor Soyinka is a respected Nigerian whose opinion is valued the world over. If he said so, then you may need to hear directly from him. My work has nothing to do with opinions or to evaluate how someone is feeling. As an investigator, my concern is with the facts that I can see right before me.
You recently zeroed in on former Service Chiefs and ranking military officers in connection with the unaccounted for $2.1billion case. Will these matters come to the regular courts or not?
The investigations are ongoing and until they are concluded, it would be premature to make any definite statement on them. All I can say is that we are determined to do a thorough job and give fair hearing to all concerned. Anyone indicted by the investigation will definitely face the wrath of the law.
Do you still rule out plea-bargaining?
As I keep saying, what matters, first, is for anyone involved in the arms deal scam to return the money that he or she may have collected. That does not preclude such suspect from facing prosecution. This is not an issue for plea-bargaining.
Mr. Femi Falana insists that the arms-gate involves more than $2.1billion, that it is, in fact, about $8billion if you add funds appropriated by the Air Force and other agencies. Do you agree – do you have any leads to suggest that he might be correct?
It is not in my place to validate the comment by Falana. If he says it is $8bn and you doubt his figure, you may as well ask him to justify his claim.
Falana has taken the arms-gate matter to the ICC, as you know. Will the agency be prepared to appear to testify, if required?
At the moment, such a request has not come. I would prefer we wait until we receive such a request, then you can ask me what the Commission will do.
What legacy do you want to leave?
I want to leave the Commission better than I met it. I want to build an institution that will stand the test of time, a world-class law enforcement organisation that will change the narrative about the fight against corruption in Nigeria. This job, for me, is about Nigeria and the desire to leave a better country for the coming generation.
Is Halliburton closed?
So what are you doing about it?
The investigation is ongoing.
What three major challenges have you faced since you assumed office?
I came on board as acting Chairman at a time when the Commission’s rating was not encouraging. So, one of the challenges has been how to redeem the image of the Commission. I also came on board when some staff members of the Commission were seen to have been compromised. So, I am battling to put in place structures that will ultimately enable us to weed out the undisciplined ones in the Commission. More importantly, funding has been one of our headaches. But the current administration has assured us of its total support. So we are optimistic that the future is bright for the EFCC and Nigeria.
Are you getting any help from your predecessors?
What kind of help are you talking about? Obviously, I should think that you are not talking about financial or technical assistance. But I can’t pretend that I wouldn’t welcome good advice from any of them who is willing to offer it, because the ultimate goal is for us to see Nigeria reclaim its lost glory in the comity of nations.
Are they offering you any advice based on their experience?
Whatever advice they may choose to offer is not something I would want to discuss publicly.
What are you doing about the top lawyers you recently accused of frustrating the war against corruption? Will you refer the matter to the NBA?
The National Executive of the NBA visited me recently and I raised the issue with them. They requested that we report such lawyers, including those who have been prosecuted and convicted of other offences by the Commission, to them. We will do that, as the association also has its internal mechanism for dealing with errant members. This is not to say that the Commission will ignore acts of criminality by any professional group. You are aware that we have filed a charge against a senior advocate for obstructing our operatives from doing their work.