Ekpo Nta, Acting Chairman of ICPC, takes an inside and informed view of the anti-corruption war and admonishes the society to change the present attitude that supports corruption
By ANAYOCHUKWU AGBO
After taking over as ICPC chairman and assessing the organisation and state of the anti-corruption war, what were your initial observations?
With the board, what we did was to set up an ad hoc committee to take stock of what we were meeting on ground. We also took a look at the strategic action plan that had been prepared by DFID for the Commission before we came in. That Action Plan was prepared in 2004 and was to last for a five- to six-year period. We came in November 2011. So, we took a look at that and came to a conclusion that for you to have a re-positioned organisation, we needed to re-train every staff, given the background of the vision and mission statement of the organisation and the act that created the Commission. We needed to re-train every staff, starting from the gate to the chairman’s office. We also looked at logistics, welfare of staff and spread of our offices nationwide. We noted the staff dispositions and strength and had to start to work yesterday, so to speak! And that we did.
What was your overview of the corruption infrastructure?
The issue of corruption has to be clearly defined for people to understand what it entails. If you don’t know what you are fighting then you cannot proffer solutions to it. Basically what we have not been looking at in this country was that we were not looking at the sub-culture that supports corruption. We have a sub-culture that supports corruption. And what are the sub-cultures? We have various sub-cultures, starting from family. How would parents give guidance to their children when they are out 18 hours of the day? When you finish at the home level, you are passing the children over to the school. Now, if the school system is not designed to teach good ethics and morals, you also have a problem there. So if the child does not pick anything from home and he is not picking anything from the school; it’s beginning to create double jeopardy.
If you take this up to the tertiary level, you will have noted that the collapse of home training, school training, went up to the university. That was why we started having cultism and all that, from secondary school to the tertiary level, which we never had in our days. It’s a response to what is not there. In our time, you could successfully tell what your classmate was doing if he was in the hostel; now you hardly have boarding facilities working; so everybody is on his own.
This even extends to the workplace. Do I work in this place and retire at the end of 35 years, and I don’t get my pension easily? Or it doesn’t even come at all because some persons are playing with it? And you actually see it happening before you; so others coming behind you begin to plan how to amass wealth to protect their future in terms of pension.
Nigerians want to believe again in their country; they are looking for positive reasons to believe in the government. That appears to be dependent on what integrity organisations like ICPC does with the war against corruption. So specifically, what have you seen in the system after your systems review that needs to be corrected?
I’m happy you raised the issue of systems study and review. That is the key to any revolution anywhere in the world. If you have a good system that is running, it is because somebody has taken time to write it down and how it should run. And the operatives in the system know what to do and when. They also know that they will be reviewed. The few organisations and agencies that we have reviewed successfully have been of immense profit I can assure you, in terms of resources we have saved for this country, and in terms of letting people understand that instead of going right and you go left you will find yourself in trouble.
The one that gladdens my heart most is that of area councils of Abuja. They find it very interesting and all the parties did it amicably. And we all learned from one another. They have seen that such partnership is working out beautifully. It’s one of the things we want to do more often. We are doing another one on integrated personnel payroll system in the federal ministries, departments and agencies. The whole essence being that, yes, you are now doing e-personnel but we want to make sure that it is organised in such a way that government funds should be run effectively the way it should be run.
The systems review you did of the Abuja area councils, what did you find?
In respect of the area councils, it boiled down to what I call joint state and local government account; the relationship and selection of priorities of expenditure that should be done in the money that accrue to the local government. We had commissioned a study before I came in here, in 2010, sponsored by UNDP on budgetary reforms at the local government level. It was meant to sensitise local citizens as to what their rights were in knowing what were provided for them in the budget and how they can access that. That way we will have more allies in people trying to find out what is happening to their resources.
Could you, please, give us a summary of your specific findings on the Abuja land administration case? One finding is the cloning of certificates (of occupancy). Somebody would give a CoF officially from AGIS and if you are careless on that, somebody will go and reproduce the certificate and sell off the piece of land while you are still with your original documents!
You would also find persons drawing new layouts, different from what you have in AGIS or Urban Land Administration office, showing new layouts that even the minister is not aware of. You cannot really hold them responsible, yet people will go and buy the land from them. In the process of development they will be told that this is not a part of an approved layout. But where we had most of the complaints was delay in processing. People complained that there is no time frame from when an application is made and when an allocation is finally given.
The consultants also looked at the discretionary powers of the minister and of the directors in respect of land issues. Generally, it was about the process not being something you can go to the Internet and track step by step. Our people want a situation where when you apply for land you are given a tracking number so that you can follow up on line.
The pension scheme has become a cesspool of corruption, are you not looking into that too?
We also did PenCom, that is the Pension Commission, pension administration under the new contributory scheme. And I can tell you that is an area where people are complaining a lot. We discovered that even under the new contributory pension scheme people were having their money deducted and this money was piling up somewhere because the various ministries were not given the up to date nominal rolls showing the steps which officers were. So they did not have this imputed to calculate the monies to be lodged in their respective retirement savings accounts, RSAs. So the money was just lying there in a suspense account.
When we got involved extensively, in some instances some of the officers were a bit difficult in terms of making returns to Pension Commission, I had to use an enforcement order before they complied. And I can tell you that they did comply substantially now. Up to now we are speaking N503 billion has been released into the retirement savings account of civil servants nationwide on the scheme. And before the end of May, we envisage another N124 billion to have been remitted. These were all stranded before because of the tardiness of a few officers who were not doing the returns of the required documentation.
So we are working very closely with the Pension Commission. I have actually established a pension desk in ICPC to ensure that even any pensioner who is aggrieved anywhere in the country is just one phone call away, or one e-mail from ICPC and we will immediately assist in finding out why your pension fund administrator, PFA, is not doing what it should do. I’ll give you a clear example, you have two officers on the same grade level, and the same deductions are being made. In one account, you find N300,000; and in the other, you find zero amounts! In one example, a lecturer from the University of Calabar wrote to us that he had zero account despite years of deductions! We checked the amount on his behalf, and in less than a month, I got an SMS that his account has been credited with N1.8 million! It made me feel extremely very happy.
When you took over as acting chairman, how many cases did you inherit?
Ongoing cases, we had over 234, which we have forwarded to the current CJN to help us revisit and ginger up the various courts where these cases are laying. These are all at various stages of prosecution; some up to Court of Appeal. In some instances we have to go to Court of Appeal to appeal. There were decisions and ruling that we are not happy about. And one thing you should know is that ICPC is very pain staking when it comes to investigation or going for prosecution.
Specifically, out of these 234 cases that you wrote to the CJN about, have you made progress in any of the cases?
Progress is on going. When we wrote, it was not that the cases were stalled; they were not stalled. It is just that we needed a bit more speed, more delivery as time permits.... The present attorney general and the European Union have decided to look in the area of capacity building for this category of officers. The European Union is working with the United Nations Office for drugs and crime to run capacity training, not only for the anti-corruption managers for the judicial officers too. What the states and federal government can add on this is to improve on the existing infrastructure to give the people working in the judiciary a more conducive working environment.
At times you might go to court and a witness is not there.
Doesn’t that justify the call for special courts to try anti-corruption cases to quicken the process?
As much as I’d like to have special courts, you have to be a bit careful in having special courts for several reasons. You don’t as a routine have an action and reaction mode. You know we have been toying around with mobile courts to try traffic offenders. If you have these special courts it is something that should be tested by way of a pilot run to see how that will improve on our system. If the infrastructure remains the same, would you say that will help the situation? I think that if we address the major impediments that create delays you might have solved more problems than you envisaged.
So what are the challenges you face in the fight against corruption, especially the politically exposed persons?
Well, I’ll say a major challenge in the anti-corruption war is that the citizens’ perception must change. You will find in some instances where it is the ordinary citizens who are protecting persons you want to arrest. “He is our son; why should they start with our son?” This has happened almost too consistently. We must begin to have a shift in that perception that if somebody has taken away your common wealth, he is not holding it trust for you the way he will want you to believe if he is only dropping a pittance when you drop in at his house, or when he puts a few taps outside his house; or when he comes home for Christmas and he gives out a few bags of rice.
Secondly, the perception of the leader must also change too “I am here by the grace of God, how do I serve my people?” They must realise that they are accountable to the people and to God. It’s very difficult to come to that high realisation when you have sycophants who praise and are not telling you the truth.
In terms of collaboration among the anti-corruption agencies, how much of it are you doing now?
We now have a very good relationship. Since we came in November, we have had two major friendly meetings at our own behest. The ICPC, EFCC, Code of Conduct Bureau and the NFIU, we have maintained that relationship, and it is going to get stronger. The pension reform team is a collaborative effort; we have person from ICPC, EFCC, board of CIPB (Customs, Immigration, Prisons Board), and the SSS. And we envisage even more collaborative efforts in future. We are even designing a central database.
We also exchange intelligence during our investigations. You know, the penchant in this country is that somebody will write a petition to ICPC and write the same petition to EFCC, write another one to the Public Complaints Commission, write to the Inspector General of Police, write to civil defence, everywhere! When you start, suddenly you discover you are all in the field! Now we are trying to develop a system where we will look at a case and decide who should actually be looking at this kind of matter? The case is immediately referred to the appropriate agency.