“My Faith In Nigeria Is Seriously Shaken” – Obono-Obla

Okoi Ofem Obono-Obla was recently removed from office as Chairman of the Special Presidential Panel on the Recovery of Public Property in circumstances that still appear fuzzy and stacked against him. After several attempts, Iwara U. Iwara, publisher and editor of www.calitown.com, tracked down Obla and had a short no-holds barred interview with him. Excerpts:

Obono-Obla

You were recently removed as Chairman of the Special Presidential Panel on the Recovery of Public Property and the Panel dissolved by President Buhari on the 3rd of September, 2019. In your estimation, why do you think you were removed and your Panel taken down?

Let me clearly state that because of the nature of my assignment and the fact that I was uncompromising, and secondly because I was bent on executing the anti-corruption agenda of President Muhammadu Buhari, some people in his government became unhappy and moved against me, in collusion with some very highly placed and corrupt people. I am talking about dishonest Nigerians who were so rattled because we had with our work ventured into areas that no anti-corruption agency has ever ventured into. Accordingly, in doing this work, I am aware that I stepped on very powerful toes that decided to move against me. I remember that on June 18th, 2018, when I went to see the President, I told him about the challenges I was experiencing on the job and he simply looked at me and told me, “Obla, go and do your work” and I seriously went back to work.

Well, can you subtly point us to this (perceived) powerful toes?

Let me point you to just a few instances.  We investigated the Petroleum Equalization Fund, PEF, and the 7bn dollars bailout fund that the Obasanjo administration granted commercial banks in the country. You remember that in 2006, when Charles Soludo was governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, a bailout fund of 7bn dollars was given out to commercial banks for recapitalization. This was not money dashed to the banks, the banks were loaned these funds and they were supposed to return this money to the Federal Government, but as I speak, going into 2020, this particular money has not been returned. In the course of our investigations into why this money was not returned, I wrote to the Central Bank about this money and in their reply, the CBN said the Board of CBN met sometime in 2006 and wrote off the money. It was absurd to hear this and we went into asking in our investigations, how come money belonging to you and I, the ordinary Nigerians, was taken and handed over to a few well-placed persons, who traded with the money, through their privately owned commercial banks and then got their cronies to sit in whatever board and wrote off this bailout. Isn’t this amazing?

I was also leading an investigation into the oil block that was sold to Mobil Nigeria and Mobil paid only 650m dollars instead of 2.5 billion dollars. In this particular transaction, the eminent human rights activist, Femi Falana, wrote a petition against it and we began asking questions.

 I cannot forget too that I also investigated a man who was twice a senate president in this country as well as a military governor. He had extensive and expensive property outside Nigeria, offshore, in places like the Virgin Islands etc. Working with the National Intelligence Agency, NIA, we dug in deep and truly confirmed in the course of our collaborative investigations that he indeed had property worth millions of pounds, not naira or dollars, outside Nigeria. How did he acquire this property? I was also collaborating with the National Crime Authority of the United Kingdom, to investigate Nigerian public officials, past and present, who owned property in the UK. You remember that the UK passed a legislation, the Unexplained Wealth Regulation Act of 2018, where she simply said through the law that if you have property in the UK valued above 50,000 pounds, you had to explain to UK authorities, how you got the money. We exploited legislations like this in our anti-corruption fight and came up with an amazing list of more than 20 eminent Nigerians who had choice property in the UK and other places. We were also investigating 1,500 Nigerians who have property in Dubai and these people are all public officials who did not sincerely come by the money used in purchasing property abroad. What of the multi-national oil firms in this country owing the FG colossal sums of unremitted cash?

No other anti-corruption agency in this country had gone this far and this simply meant that I was stepping on formidable toes, people who have over the  years arrogated to themselves a compulsive right to Nigeria’s wealth, at the expense of all of us. You will agree with me that no other anti-corruption agency in this country had sincerely gone to the extent we went.

But you were also accused of financial recklessness?

Rubbish. That is balderdash. Financial recklessness where? No penny was given to me. Most of what was achieved by the panel was driven by my passion and enthusiasm for fighting corruption in very high places as well as my loyalty to the principles of Mr. President, who I can unequivocally say is an honest man. Unarguably, he has some big people around him who are bad and these are some of the people peddling the fake financial recklessness information about me. Let me come clear on this one. Our take off grant, for record purposes, was N250 million, which if you must know, was not given to me. This money was domiciled in the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, SGF. I didn’t have access to this money, except for my job-related allowances. Even the monies we recovered, I never saw a penny because all of such monies were paid into the Panel’s recovery account with the CBN. I also never awarded any contract; contract for the vehicles supplied to the Panel was awarded not by me but by the SGF.  Those who therefore have chosen to accuse me of financial recklessness, may be out to satisfy their vain wishes. Where is the evidence that I was involved in financial impropriety? I challenge the ICPC to bring forth the evidence against me. They say I was living above my means; this is laughable. I built my house in my place, Ugep, Yakurr LGA, Cross River State, in 2013. The foundation for my Calabar house was also dug in 2013, the house is still there, uncompleted. While I have a small house in Abuja, long built before this appointment, I still live in a rented apartment in Abuja.

Ok, you didn’t hear about the allegation that I was travelling around in a chartered private plane? Please tell them to bring the receipts for these flights, it will also help us know the airline I was using. I have declared my assets and if you see or know anything different from the assets I have listed, go to the EFCC and make a complaint against me, don’t go to ICPC because the place is politicized.

Why will you say ICPC is politicized?

Because the ICPC Chairman thinks I am his rival. The man made a statement one year before my removal that “Obono-Obla was not listening to the Vice President, Obono-Obla is acting without a mandate”, when he withdrew five investigators from the Panel and I went to Prof Itsay Sagay, to complain. When Prof Sagay confronted him, he made those statements, may be you don’t know that he is a nominee of the VP. The ICPC Chairman made these statements because he thought we were doing better in the Panel than the ICPC that he heads. I remember an instance when the VP called me on the phone and said that, Amaechi, Malami, El-Rufai, Yahaya Bello, Oyegun, came to him, when he was Acting President and told him that the war on corruption was not going well and he in turn asked them, what can be done, and they told him to remove Nta Ekpo (who was then ICPC Chairman) and replace him with me, because like they said, Ekpo and I are from the same South-South region and it won’t raise too much dust if I am replaced with him. The VP then called me and told me that this is what these gentlemen said and they have recommended me to this ICPC position. He went on to say that he agrees with them because I am a good man, who doesn’t take bribes and that this is a last ditch effort by this administration to fight corruption. He went on: “we will appoint another person to the position because if we appoint you and send your nomination to the Senate, the Senate will fight you.” I understood him clearly, but I think the man who eventually got appointed to head ICPC heard this story and began to see me as a rival as our Panel began work. I think too that you do not understand that this same Chairman is colluding with those who unsuccessfully made three attempts to remove me while I headed the Panel. These faceless persons wanted me out not because I stole or was corrupt, they wanted me out because, in their estimation, I didn’t wait for the mandate. The mandate they wanted me to wait for is a sure way of telling me to be selective in the discharge of the Panel’s functions and I must tell you, the war against corruption requires transparency, objectivity, it does not require political witch-hunting or persecution and definitely not their selective approach to work.  And I said on my integrity that I will not lead a Panel that goes after people because they belong to the opposition party. It was clear for even the blind to see that the Panel also went after APC chieftains including Hope Uzodinma, who collected 12.5million dollars to dredge the Calabar Channel and he didn’t do the work.

But Rasheedat Okoduwa, spokesperson of the ICPC still maintains that you are a wanted person.

What am I wanted for? The Panel was disbanded and the President asked ICPC to send a report of my activities within 14 days, till today that report has not been sent. Rather they went and declared me wanted when there was no evidence that I was served with their summons. What did I do that will warrant ICPC to declare me wanted, when I know that people have been investigated in this country and we found billions of dollars in their accounts and the people are still walking in Nigeria free and no one has declared them wanted. But Okoi Obono-Obla was declared wanted, for what? I hear they say I was guilty of insubordination, but insubordination is not a crime, it is an administrative infraction. When you hear things like this, you should know that all of this is politically motivated. I am of course from the minority part of this country and we often do not have powerful people in Abuja to speak for us when we are tossed around at will, this is the unfortunate structure of this country. Indeed, just last week, a 78 year old retired army general told me, ”look Obla, what is happening to you is simply because you are from a minority area” and surely there is no reason to doubt him. If you are in the public service in this country and come from the minority part of the country, you have to be very careful, if you step on any toes in the course of discharging your functions for this country, no one will come to your aid.

What of your travails in the hands of Nigeria’s Senate?

When Bukola Saraki was Senate President, I was nominated by President Muhammadu Buhari to the Nigeria Communications Commission, NCC, as Commissioner from the South-South of Nigeria. I went for screening in the Senate and acquitted myself well, in fact one of the best during that exercise before the Senate Committee on Communication, headed by Senator Nnaji of Enugu State. I was cleared and my nomination brought before the Senate plenary session on the 17th of November, 2017, scaled through. 48 hours after, Saraki wrote to the President and said that I was not cleared and as a result I lost my nomination. But if you look at the Senate’s Votes and Proceedings material for the 17th of November, 2017, it was reflected that the Senate cleared me and my nomination scaled through. Why did this happen? When the Panel charged Saraki and Ike Ekweremadu, for alleged forgery of Senate rules, the Attorney-General of the Federation was invited to appear before the Senate and explain why their prosecution should go ahead. I was asked to go to the Senate and represent the Attorney-General before the Senate Committee of Human Rights and Judiciary but when I got there, they said I am not the Attorney-General and that in the previous appearance I had sought for adjournment so that Malami, the Attorney-General, will appear. So I left Committee’s room and as I was walking away the press accosted me. I made a statement to the effect that Saraki and Ekweremadu have no immunity from prosecution and that only the President, Vice President, Governors and their deputies, have immunity, Saraki felt offended. He therefore waited for a time to punish me and that time came for him after I was nominated and sent to the Senate for confirmation. What basically played out was that one man, in a bid to protect himself from the law, recruited a willing corps of his friends in the Senate to deny a Nigerian, in that case, Obla, from serving the country on the NCC board, no more, no less.

But they also went after your educational qualification…?

I maintained then and I still maintain today, that it is outside of the Senate’s purview to investigate my educational qualification. If you allege that I forged my certificates, it is the police that will do an investigation to determine if this allegation is true or false and not the Senate. But because somebody from my local government, (Yakurr LGA), who was in the House of Representatives then, went and sold them that dummy, they hung on to it, in their search for anything to discredit me. I will not mention the person’s name but if you do your investigations well, you will see that he went to the senators I was investigating and offered them this fake information to blackmail me. He further told them that I went to the university with my twin sister’s secondary school certificate, which is a lie. My twin sister didn’t go to Mary Knoll College, Ogoja, CRS, which if you must know, is an all-male secondary school. So when the Senate invited me on this issue, I told them, no, you do not have the powers to investigate my educational qualifications. Don’t forget too that the House of Reps was also investigating the legality of our Panel and then after a while they left that and began to say they were investigating me. I told them clearly that what they were trying to do was witch-hunting. If I am accused of forgery, it is a criminal offence, go to the police. On the strength of what was playing out, I went to the Federal High Court, the matter is still pending, but they still went ahead and did what they did, which is illegal. It is this drama that the ICPC is giving credence to and making very funny utterances; a one-sided investigation, according me no fair hearing. I need to state here that I left the University of Jos in 1989, the university screened me and gave me a degree. That university has not withdrawn my certificate.

Did the people you were investigating try to reach you?

You must have heard that we recovered a lot of assets from Ekweremadu and several men and women of means in this country tried to reach me to tune down our investigations. But I was not ready to talk with them and I am not very surprised that they have resorted to blackmail and other tactics to imaginably wish to smear my name and reputation. What is happening now is diversionary, something we are very good at in this country; because I have rebuffed their corrupt advances. I will say no more.

How much did your Panel recover in the course of your work, overtime?

I cannot hazard a guess because we did a lot of recoveries for a lot of FG agencies and the amounts were huge. At NEXIM bank for instance, we recovered over 35billion dollars and like sums for the Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria. We also recovered several billions of dollars from commercial banks in the country who trickily overcharged government accounts in their banks. These banks were also involved in illegal charges, on accounts owned by ordinary depositors. See, we recovered a lot of money and I did not at any point expect that any of what was recovered will be given to me, it will be out of sorts you know? Those who maintain that I amassed a fortune discharging my functions, should show Nigerians where this fortune is. Based on the provisions of the law establishing this Panel, the Recovery of Public Property Special Provisions Act, says this Panel should report to Mr. President and that the Panel is self-regulatory, which means we all have to sit down as Panel members and draw out a regulatory plan that will be forwarded to Mr. President for his approval; that was explicitly done. Are we also aware that if we failed at our job, my name as Chairman of the Panel will be mostly all over the place and not the names of the other members? I had all this at the back of my mind and worked very hard, painfully, I received no credit for this selfless effort, instead I am being witch hunted by faceless people, using government cover. Because I did not bend to the thieving demands of some people in this country, I am being persecuted in the manner of what the American President, Donald Trump, refers to as “Search and Destroy”. SEARCH for evidence against the subject, in this case, Okoi Obono-Obla, and DESTROY him. In five months, they have been unable to show us the evidence that I committed financial fraud. I challenge ICPC because up till this moment, they have not served me any summons.

It has been widely reported that some members of your Panel wrote a petition against you, let me ask you, why do you think this petition was written?

There was a power tussle; the Secretary of the Panel at take-off, Gbolahan Adeniran, was an aide to the Vice President. He wanted to undermine me as Panel Chairman. We disagreed because he sort of insisted that we should be reporting to the Vice President and I said no. I came clear to him that the law establishing this Panel says we should report to Mr. President and not his Vice. He also wanted to initiate meetings of the Panel without resorting to me first and I said no, this cannot happen because as the Chairman, I am the person to issue such directives to my Secretary and not vice versa. When the Secretary had understanding difficulties, I wrote to the SGF, simply seeking clarifications and guidance on our roles as Chairman and Secretary of the Panel; that was clearly spelt out for us. Again, he insisted that we should exclusively adopt and follow mandates from the VP’s office and I referred him again to the legal instruments behind the creation and operation of the Panel. Somehow, he got an international appointment in the midst of all these and left.

Then, I nominated Obinna Onwaegbu, from Imo State as a replacement for Adeniran. I need to state on record that Onwaegbu benefitted from a letter and appeal I made to the VP, who was then the Acting President, to the effect that because of the scope of our work, a few other persons should join the Panel to ease our workload. The VP on the strength of my request, asked me to recommend a person or two, people I trust, who have integrity and can do the Panel’s job.  I submitted Onwaegbu and Salihu Abubakar’s names. The latter is from Bauchi State. An ill-informed and clearly, other directed Onwaegbu became funny almost immediately. He started manipulations that clearly showed he wanted to take over as Chairman and had willing allies in the VP’s office. They used him in writing fake petitions against me but finally this was an exercise in futility. These people were interested in things, other than the job we were assigned to do and of course we went on a collision course because of my insistence that the right things be done. I am not boasting, but I know I worked diligently, professionally, with integrity and patriotism; I should be highly commended and not persecuted. Those who want to smear my name and demonize me, are doing so because of the clear fact that I am from the minority part of this country where everything is thrown at us by those people who continuously chain down this country.

But you cannot now complain when you have always maintained that you have faith and then, do you still believe in Nigeria?

My faith in Nigeria is seriously shaken, shaken that there is no justice in Nigeria. I have spent a considerable part of my life fighting as an activist for justice in this country and I have always hoped that positive forces will prevail, but right now, what I have recently seen, I will say again, left my faith in this country seriously shaken. See, there is a very clear gang-up by people who want to ensure that my work at the Panel does not show them for who they truly are in this country. Right now, I won’t lie, if I am ever offered any anti-corruption work in Nigeria, I will be very skeptical about taking it, even if there’s protection. I worked and was bent on doing the right thing, in consonance with the real demands of that assignment but there are people in this country who will never let good things happen to this country.

There was flak for you over comments you made after the very untimely removal of the Hon. Justice Walter Onnoghen as Chief Justice of Nigeria. How do you react to this?

I wouldn’t want to go into that. Whoever said I made such comments should bring forth the evidence. The fifth columnists who perpetrate falsehood at will can go ahead and say what they want to say while I will maintain my grounds that I have a right to remain silent. May be if you see Justice Onnoghen, you can ask him questions about his work and experience while you please leave me out.

Thank you so much for your time.

Thank you Iwara!

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