Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Attorney-General and graft cases

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The Attorney-General and graft cases

A Punch Newspapers Editorial of 18 September, 2007.

The open tussle between the Minister of Justice and an anti-graft agency over the prosecution of some governors is sending signals that all is not well with the crusade against corruption. The Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice Mr. Michael Aondoakaa and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) have clashed over who conducts the trial of the former governor of Abia State, Chief Orji Kalu, who is standing trial over 100 corruption allegations involving billions of state funds.

EFCC had complained about procedural impropriety in the attempt of the AGF’s office to take over the prosecution of Kalu at an Abuja High Court without prior communication of intention. But the AGF has justified the need to intervene directly in the matter on the administration’s respect for the rule of law and the need for government to obey all judicial orders.

The intervention, the AGF said, was necessary to make the EFCC respect an order of a High Court in Umuahia, Abia State, restraining it from arresting and prosecuting Chief Kalu for alleged offences against the state. The AGF’s action followed a protest to the Presidency by Chief Kalu that the EFCC was disobeying a subsisting court order. The second plank is that the 1999 Constitution empowers the AGF to continue or discontinue any case by any agency in the country.

The AGF’s overriding constitutional power to take-over, continue or discontinue any suit is, not in doubt. What is worrisome is that his direct intervention and visibility may politicise the cases against the high-profile suspects and subvert public interest. The nation’s experience of AGF’s direct involvement in graft cases has been very bitter. When the Justice Ministry intervened directly in the N400 million embezzlement case against Dr. Julius Makanjuola and some Defence Ministry officials, the trial was stopped without any explanation a few days to a High Court judgment on the matter. Therefore, does the AGF want to takeover and continue with Kalu’s trial or does he want to stall and bury the case like that of Makanjuola? The AGF should come out clean.

The undue interference from the AGF’s office in corruption-related cases is already casting doubts on this administration’s determination to fight graft. There are indications as well that the anti-graft agencies are not comfortable with Mr. Aondoakaa’s body language. The Chairman, Independent Corrupt Practices and Related Offences Commission (ICPC), Justice Emmanuel Ayoola, who is a retired Supreme Court justice, remarked last week that the public deserves to know why the AGF is interested in taking over Kalu’s corruption case, adding “there is a lot of suspicion so far on his motive.”

Similarly, the Chairman Code of Conduct Tribunal Justice Constance Momoh has expressed doubt over the government’s willingness to continue the prosecution of former Bayelsa State Governor, Chief Diepreye Alamieyeseigha. Justice Momoh was visibly irritated when government prosecutor strangely claimed that Alamieyeseigha was still ill. The judge advised the AGF’s office to withdraw the case if it has “compromised”, instead of stalling trial by asking for questionable adjournments. On its part, the EFCC has expressed regret that its statutory anti-corruption mandate “is being dragged into a murky political terrain.”

By setting personal examples, President Yar’Adua has demonstrated that his administration is sincere in the battle against official corruption. The actions of the AGF should conform with the high standard of personal integrity which the President has brought into office. Mr. Aondoakaa should not be allowed to bog down the anti-graft crusade with legal technicalities. The public interest is not served when the AGF hides under the guise of the rule of law to stall or bury grave corruption charges.

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