Article by Osita Mba
*The objective of this article is not establish that Dr Abati, or indeed any of the illustrious men and women manipulated in the land deals by SaharaReporters, is guilty of any misconduct but rather to illustrate the futility of his apparent attempt to hide his head in the sand. This matter may never reach a court of law but the court of public opinion, where Dr Abati still enjoys an iconic status, is already sitting in judgement, and the earlier he makes his case before that court the better for him.
Going by SaharaReporters’ exposé of 4 January 2009 under the title ‘How Farida Waziri and Top Nigerian Editors Got Abuja Land Allocations’, the simple answer to this question will appear to be: at least a plot of land measuring some 1545.84 sq metres. The report accused the embattled head of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Mrs Farida Waziri, of illegally withdrawing 75 million Naira from the Commission’s accounts under the guise of “information fund” between 23 June 2008 and 22 October 2008 in order to “to fete and 'take care' of journalists in an attempt to shore up her badly battered image.”
According to SaharaReporters, on 24 September 2008 the Ministry of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) allocated plots of lands to Farida Waziri and 23 others including leading Nigerian journalists like the Chairman of the Editorial Board of The Guardian newspapers, Reuben Abati, the Editor-in-Chief of THE NEWS, Bayo Onanuga, the Executive Editor of Newswatch, Bala Dan Abu, the Editor-in-Chief of Insider Weekly magazine Director Osa, and the Publisher of the SOURCE magazine, Comfort Obi. The report is supported by a document that shows the names and allocations of the respective beneficiaries. Upon a close examination of the list, I have also identified the names of the Editor of Leadership newspaper, Ibrahim Sheme and the Editor of the Weekly Trust Garba Deen Muhammad. One can only wonder how many names on the list are proxies of other high-powered journalists!
The simultaneous allocation of all the plots of land raises troubling issues that go beyond the unquestionable constitutional right of every person to acquire and own property. Was the purchase of any of these plots funded in whole or in part by some of the sum of N75 million that Farida Waziri was said to have withdrawn from the EFCC accounts? Did Farida Waziri use her influence over the former FCT Minister (Aliyu Modibo) who authorised the allocations and who according to the SaharaReporters she was investigating at the relevant time, to obtain a reduced price for, or to confer any other corrupt or unfair advantage upon, any of the senior journalists?
In addition to these serious questions of criminal law, there is the equally important ethical issue of whether the land transactions, or any other undisclosed transactions, have infected any of the named journalists with a conflict of interest. In other words, did the land transactions jeopardise the integrity of these senior editorial figures that are required to make editorial decisions (including those affecting the EFCC and the FCT) purely on sound, objective and impartial professional judgement?
Dr Reuben Abati is a national institution and as a result his alleged, and as yet undenied, involvement in the matter has raised the greatest controversy amongst the chattering class. On 10 January, the website Nigeria Village Square published an article by Wale Akin titled ‘A Conspiracy Theory - A Damage Control Exercise?’ Akin complained that “Dr Reuben Abati did not address the issue raised by Sahara Reporters at all but dedicated the entire article to the scam which he titled “The Scam that failed”, a reference to Abati’s account of how scammers tried to use his good name to defraud people. Akin suggested that Abati’s article published on 9 January 2009 “may be a diversionary tactic to douse tension”, and asked: “Is this a damage control exercise or something related to it?”
Incidentally, Abati may well have lent some credibility to this conspiracy theory by his continued failure to grapple with the legal and ethical issues raised by the SaharaReporters story three weeks after its publication.
It is also striking that in the article ‘The Scam that failed’ Abati failed to make the inescapable connection between the activities of the scammers and the work of the agency that is charged with the responsibility for combating the crime – the EFCC. This, in my view, suggests a reluctance to touch Waziri’s EFCC even with a barge pole. After all, in his article “Removing Ribadu” (30 December 2007) Abati noted that “the EFCC under Ribadu , drove financial scammers, the notorious 419 underground”. It is therefore arguable that but for Waziri’s mismanagement of the Commission, the scammer that used Abati’s name in vain may not have done what he or she did. Yet Abati wrote a full-length article on scammers without referring to the EFCC or to Waziri or to the state of the anti-corruption effort generally apart from this nondescript conclusion: “I shall pray for those scammers, And for our leaders that God will touch their hearts so that we can avoid the conditions that have created this army of scammers”.
I consider myself a regular reader of Abati’s column but I could not recall reading anything about Waziri’s EFCC in it. So I decided to search Abati’s articles in the Nigerian Village Square where his articles are very helpfully listed in chronological order. It was this simple activity that informed my choice of title for this article, for on 20 April 2008, Abati had penned a beautiful piece under the title ‘How Much Land Does A Man Need’, after the 1886 short story by Leo Tolstoy under the same title, about a peasant named Pakhom, who forfeited everything, including his own life, in his lust for land.
The land-grabbing Pakhom met his demise when he tried to drive a hard bargain against the land-owning but apparently simple-minded Bashkirs, who made him a simple offer: for the sum of one thousand rubles, Pakhom could walk around as large an area as he wanted, starting at daybreak, marking his route with a spade along the way. If he reached his starting point by sunset, the entire area of land his route covered would be his. The greedy Pakhom tried to cover as much land as possible. After toiling all day, he made it back to the starting point to the waiting Bashkirs but, exhausted from the extreme exertions, he dropped dead.
According to Abati, “Tolstoy's allegory is an impressive commentary on the vanity of human strivings, on the emptiness of materialism. In seeking to acquire more and more land, Pakhom ended up losing everything. In Nigeria, so many are losing, may be not their lives, but their names, their integrity, their greed has exposed them to so much public embarrassment, they can no longer stand up with pride in the community. Pakhom lost his original sense of values when he gained access to capital and opportunities, and he became a different man. This is the reality also in our society.”
He ended the article on a philosophical note: “The Pakhom parable is not merely about man's wants being insatiable; it is about the abuse of power, privilege and access, and it raises questions about the role of the individual in society. What is life's purpose? What constitutes real value for the individual in society? What is the true meaning of happiness? Obituaries hardly refer to how much money a man has in the bank, Or how many houses he built. People are more likely to be remembered by their deeds as members of the community, and whichever way a man goes, he is destined for no more than six feet of land or worse, the crematorium. It is a pity that men, knowing this to be true, have refused to learn from the examples around them.”
My search of Abati’s titles in Nigerian Village Square yielded just one title that refers to the current EFCC Chair – ‘Mrs Waziri and mad Nigerian leaders’ published on 11 July 2008. This contrasts very sharply with Abati’s fellow Guardian Columnist, Sonala Olumhense, who seems to churn out hard-hitting pieces about Farida Waziri like confetti, notably ‘Where is the 2008 EFCC Report?’ (28 September 2008), ‘Resign, Farida Waziri, Resign!’ (12 October 2008) and ‘Fire Farida Waziri’ (19 October 2008).
On further inspection it turns out that Abati’s article ‘Mrs Waziri and mad Nigerian leaders’, which questions the sanity of our kleptomaniac rulers, is effectively a eulogy for the embattled EFCC boss. Abati acknowledged that “the fact that we are led by ‘mad men and women’ is not hidden, and it is no fresh news either , nor is Mrs Waziri the first person to call for psychiatric tests as a condition for eligibility for public office”. He noted that the “former President Olusegun Obasanjo had made a similar suggestion in the past , before he assumed office as Nigeria's civilian President in 1999.” Yet Dr Abati chose to append Mrs Waziri’s name in the title of the article in a matter that appears to suggest that she was the originator of the idea.
The eulogy did not stop in the title. The late Oliver de Coque would have been proud of the first two paragraphs of the article. In the words of Dr Abati, “Mrs Farida Waziri, the new boss of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) was absolutely right when she told a visiting delegation of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) led by Olisa Agbakoba, NBA President that here in Nigeria too many persons in public office are mentally ill, and that to sanitise the Nigerian public space, aspiring public office holders should be subjected to psychiatric tests.”According to her" The Guardian reports, "Most of the negative character traits exhibited by public officers in the country, especially massive looting of the treasury, are symptoms of mental illness."
“She even tried to identify these negative traits: the theft of public funds, primitive accumulation, and greed. ‘You know if you are stealing what you need, it is a different thing but if you are grabbing left, right and centre throughout, then your character should be called to question. This, she said, is necessary in order to help many Nigerians who cannot even raise a voice against some of these practices. They cannot feed three square meals while those who occupy public offices through elections, return to their villages, demolish their shanties and replace them with paradise with no regard for their neighbours who cannot feed. This is merciless’. Thank you, Mrs Waziri”, Dr Abati gushed.
Dr Abati went on to tell his readers that Mrs Waziri is eminently qualified to pontificate on the subject, not because of her own murky past that was already public knowledge at the time, but because “although not a psychiatrist, more than 20 years as a career police officer in charge of fraud investigations must have brought Mrs Farida Waziri in direct contact with the madness of the Nigerian elite in power.”
My simple search on Nigeria Village Square did not yield any contribution by Abati to the controversy that has consistently trailed Mrs Waziri since her appointment by President Umaru Yar'Adua on 16 May 2008. Not even the related controversy surrounding the former EFCC Chair, Nuhu Ribadu, was apparently worthy of Dr Abati’s pen. But this has not always been the case because the fight against corruption used to be a top priority in Abati’s column.
For example, in ‘Removing Ribadu’ (30 December 2007), he wrote that, “The EFCC under Ribadu may have had its excesses , but the same EFCC helped to raise the level of international confidence in Nigeria. Its work in the area of financial crimes helped to effectively criminalize the theft of state funds by public officials. It further drove financial scammers, the notorious 419 underground. The Financial Action Task Force which had blacklisted Nigeria as at 1999 found cause to lift its embargo on Nigeria as a destination for investment capital. We also got better ratings on the Transparency International Index. Stolen wealth began to flow back into the Nigerian economy, it accounts largely for the boom in the Nigerian stock market in the past three years.”
He concluded the piece with the following prediction: “And more importantly, how willing is the Yar'Adua government to sustain the war against corruption? Ribadu's exit surely provides an opportunity to test the strength of the EFCC as an institution and the commitment of the Yar'Adua government to the anti-corruption war. The easiest way to circumvent this charge is to bury the EFCC along with its Chairman and create as they have been proposing, a new anti-corruption body under a new leadership. Even if they do so, both civil society and the international community will remain interested in how the Yar'Adua government deals with the challenge of corruption and therefore subject its every move on this score to close scrutiny.”
It therefore beggars belief that Dr Abati has himself abandoned the close scrutiny he so eloquently predicted in the face of the Yar'Adua government’s abject failure to rise to the challenge of corruption.
It is also instructive that exactly a year before the Ribadu controversy reached a climax following his purported dismissal from the Police, The Guardian had named him the Man of the Year 2007. The article ‘Nuhu Ribadu: The Anti-Corruption Cop They Feared’ (31 December 2007), co-written by Abati and Kingsley Osadalor for that honour, contains the following very useful information:
“It must be understood that the support for Nuhu Ribadu and the EFCC is more with regard to the outcome of their exertion in the anti-corruption crusade. Nigerians dread a relapse into the culture of financial impunity and economic sabotage. The anti-corruption campaign is central to the sustenance of our democracy. Its abandonment or a reduction of the momentum that we have seen can only further empower the criminals in the environment and their collaborators in high and low places. Ribadu's ouster need not bring about this unsavory prospect. We think that the way to go is to revitalize the EFCC as an institution and ensure that Ribadu's successor emulates his courage and determination to prosecute the much necessary war against corruption. The government must lend its support in this respect.”
“It was a most reluctant Ribadu that accepted the study leave that has been imposed on him. But as he takes his exit, he can look back on a period of service as EFCC Chairman and particularly the year 2007, with a feeling of fulfilment and accomplishment. The fraudsters, whom he has put in jail, the corrupt public officials that he has invited for prosecution and who are being prosecuted, may heave a sigh of relief. Some public officials and criminals who had fled abroad to escape the EFCC dragnet are also reportedly on their way back to the country. Government must make it impossible for such crooks and corrupt elements to have the last laugh. The integrity of the Yar'Adua administration rests on what it does with the anti-corruption campaign henceforth.”
Sadly, a year after, the dreaded relapse into the culture of financial impunity and economic sabotage that Abati and Osadolor warned against has come to pass. Corrupt government officials, relieved of "the fear of Ribadu's EFCC” which the writers aptly described “the beginning of wisdom", wantonly mop up all available foreign currencies in the market thereby contributing to the seemingly endless woes of the Naira. Similarly, the government and the EFCC have made it possible for the “crooks and corrupt elements to have the last laugh” as Ribadu continues to fights for his job whilst the former governors that predicted his sack beat their chests with satisfaction. What has Dr Abati got to say about these things? Nothing, as far as I can see.
The objective of this article is not establish that Dr Abati, or indeed any of the illustrious men and women manipulated in the land deals by SaharaReporters, is guilty of any misconduct but rather to illustrate the futility of his apparent attempt to hide his head in the sand. This matter may never reach a court of law but the court of public opinion, where Dr Abati still enjoys an iconic status, is already sitting in judgement, and the earlier he makes his case before that court the better for him. As he noted in his article ‘How Much Land Does A Man Need’ on 20 April 2008, “In Nigeria, so many are losing, may be not their lives, but their names, their integrity, their greed has exposed them to so much public embarrassment, they can no longer stand up with pride in the community.”
In Tolstoy’s ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’, Pakhom was eventually buried in an ordinary grave only six feet long, which answers the question posed in the title of the story. Therefore Dr Abati’s 1545.84 sq metres plot in Katampe would appear to be a luxury by Tolstoy’s standards but an eminent citizen like Dr Abati should be entitled to luxuries should he decide to acquire them. However, silence on this matter, is a luxury he cannot afford.
Nor can Bayo Onanuga, Bala Dan Abu, Director Osa, Comfort Obi, Ibrahim Sheme and Garba Deen Muhammad afford to keep silent about the matter. Nor can the Guardian, THE NEWS, Newswatch, Insider Weekly, SOURCE, Leadership and Weekly Trust for that matter. It is absolutely essential that the integrity of these newspapers and magazines are not undermined by the outside activities or financial interests of any of its journalists, let alone the Chairman of the Editorial Board, the Editor-in-Chief, the Executive Editor, the Editor-in-Chief, the Publisher and the Editors respectively. The reading public must be able to trust the objectivity and impartiality of their output and to be confident that editorial decisions are based purely on sound, objective judgement.