Details have emerged about the high level coalition behind the doomed conspiracy to emasculate the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). Last week, the Umar Musa Yar'adua government announced that the EFCC’s prosecutorial powers had been taken away. But within 24 hours, the government reversed itself, retreating from what was a carefully planned maneuver to gut the EFCC and undermine its ability to prosecute a cast of former governors, legislators and officials of the Obasanjo government under investigation for corruption.
Former Governor James Ibori of Delta State, the central player in the plot, funded the assault against the EFCC. Ibori is reportedly miffed by what he believes was the EFCC’s role in getting the London Metropolitan Police to freeze his $35 million assets worldwide.
According to security sources who spoke to our reporters, Ibori budgeted N500 million for the project. In addition, he made available a jet from the fleet of Wings Aviation Limited to fly the facilitators of the plot between Lagos and Abuja on an “as-needed-basis.” Ibori owns Wings Aviation.
The leg work for the latest move against the EFCC was chiefly handled Mr. Nduka Obaigbena, the publisher of Thisday newspaper. Our sources disclosed that Obaigbena has become a member of the close-knit informal kitchen cabinet that has Umar Yar’Adua’s ear since he came to power May 29, 2007 after an election adjudged not credible by local and international observers.
This was not the first time Mr. Obaigbena has been paid to embark on such a covert dirty job. After the April general elections, the controversial publisher was given N3.2 billion by the PDP to use his "extensive influence in the media" to change public perception of the elections. He went ahead exactly to do that using his newspaper, Thisday. Today, he is not only a beneficiary of the reward at the Federal level, his reporters are spread in many states of the federation nominated by Nduka Obaigbena as Special Advisers, Commissioners and Spokespersons to (s)elected officials.
The plot against EFCC went full blast as soon as James Ibori was notified by his lawyers in London that the Metropolitan Police in London had successfully obtained a "forfeiture order" against his assets worldwide. Ibori, who had for two years fought off the Metropolitan Police in their effort to freeze his assets, was said to have become delirious about the order. He could not fathom why suddenly they succeeded, or the likely course of the case against him which comes up for hearing in October.
In predictable fashion, Ibori reached out to the Nigerian media to suppress the story of his recent judicial defeat. His strategy proved belated and ineffectual as Saharareporters had already broken the news. Thisday newspaper also reported the story after speaking with him in a short interview where he tried to downplay the gravity of the order. He described the Southwark Crown Court order as an interim order that will soon expire in two months. Even so, a source close to Ibori said his mood was gloomy. He hatched a plan to demobilize the EFCC.
Armed with a plan, Ibori reached out to several former governors under EFCC investigation or prosecution and received their enthusiastic endorsement. He then called in Obaigbena and gave him the multi-million contract to effectuate the plan.
Ibori’s plot was the latest in a string of efforts to incapacitate the EFCC. Current Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Michael Aondoakar, who held brief for former Vice President Atiku Abubakar and several state governors battling corruption charges, had never been a fan of the commission which he considered too powerful.
In meetings with James Ibori who nominated him for his current job, Aondoakar had agreed that his first priority in office would be to cut down the EFCC. As a first step, Mr. Aodoankar had reached out to the Nigerian Bar Association leadership to make it a constitutional issue. He collaborated with the NBA leadership led by Olisa Agbakoba to draft a letter to Yar'Adua asking that the Attorney General and Minister of Justice be allowed to take control of the ICPC, EFCC and the CCB. While the other two anti-graft agencies were included, the real target was the EFCC.
Obaigbena was a “natural” choice to anchor the onslaught. His closeness to Yar’Adua—described by one source as Shehu Shagari-like in his inability to have a mind of his own—impressed Ibori and the other conspirators. Besides, Obaigbena has nursed his own grudges against the EFCC, blaming the agency for his business troubles in South Africa. South Africa’s anti-corruption unit—the Scorpion—had sought EFCC's help in tracking down Mr. Nduka Obiagbena. They accused Obaigbena of scamming South Africa’s pension fund out of hundreds of thousands of Rands in pension contributions for Thisday’s South African workers which he failed to pay. He was said to owe banks and 15 individual investors' lots of money before his Thisday operations folded up in South Africa in 2004, a year after it started operations. He is still being sought by the South African authorities.
As the coup against the EFCC was being perfected, Nuhu Ribadu was said to be in Yola, capital of his home state of Adamawa state, unaware of the thickening plot. His absence from Abuja was a plus for the plotters, as they were able to claim that he was planning to resign and had started moving his things out of Abuja.
Ribadu reportedly returned to Abuja to behold a bedlam. His staff members and EFFC supporters had inundated the commission with calls from around the globe. The damage had already been done as Yar'adua's Special Adviser on Communications, Mr. Segun Adeniyi, had already made the announcement to the effect that the EFCC had ceded its prosecutorial powers to the Attorney General and Minister of Justice.
It seemed that current and past governors, including Ibori and Bukola Saraki of Kwara, had won the battle against EFCC. They were among those who lobbied Yar’Adua to remove Nuhu Ribadu. By last weekend the former governors were celebrating this feat!
In the wake of Adeniyi’s announcement, a triumphant Ibori released a statement through Nduka Obiagbena's newspaper to the effect that the case against him in London faces imminent collapse, since the Attorney General and Minister of Justice would not be a willing participant in further prosecuting him. It was a bizarre story since it exposed Ibori speaking confidently on behalf of the office of the chief law officer of Nigeria. A source told Saharareporters that the Attorney General's next move was to revoke the mutual assistance agreement with the Metropolitan Police with regard to the Ibori case. This strategy was considered an excellent way of forcing the British court to revoke the order freezing Ibori’s assets.
Once Obaigbena had pulled off his coup by getting Adeniyi to announce that the commission could no longer prosecute, he moved to mount pressure on Ribadu to hand in his letter of resignation as EFCC chairman. Tuesday morning, shortly after Ribadu arrived in his office, Obaigbena reportedly sent him emissaries to ask for his resignation. The emissaries, according to our sources, lied to Ribadu that Obaigbena had tried to save his agency’s power to prosecute, but that the president was set against it. A suspicious Ribadu reportedly called security contacts within the State House who assured him that Adeniyi’s announcement was a coup that would not succeed. The Chief of Staff, State House counsel and the Secretary to the Government had met with Yar’Adua that morning to convey the serious damage the decision on the EFCC would create for his government. They advised that he review the decision.
Their appeal worked. Yar’Adua asked the group to call as an enlarged meeting that would include Huhu Ribadu, the Attorney General, Chief of Staff to the President, Secretary to the Government, Chief Counsel and Wale Babalakin, honorary legal advisor. In clear and unambiguous terms, the Attorney General was told to inform the press about the change in the government’s position. His statement restoring the EFCC’s power to prosecute was widely reported in the local press.
Irate at the collapse of his plot, Ibori embarked on a media war against Nuhu Ribadu. In a statement, he accused Ribadu of targeting him. His next strategy, according to our sources, is to use his wealth to mobilize a section of Niger Delta militants who are expected to issue a statement demanding that the EFCC not arrest Ibori or face the wrath of the militants. As for Obaigbena, he is said to have assured Ibori that he would keep up the pressure on Yar’Adua to buy the idea of making the EFCC a toothless bulldog or get Nuhu Ribadu back to the roadblock where he assured Ibori that the EFCC chairman belongs.