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Senate, Ministry Panels Can’t Indict SGF, NHIS Boss –Presidency

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Senate, Ministry Panels Can’t Indict SGF, NHIS Boss –Presidency

The Presidency has described the Senate and the Ministry of Health panels that investigated the suspended Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Babachir Lawal, and the Executive Secretary of the National Health Insurance Scheme, Prof. Usman Yusuf, as administrative and therefore, lacking the powers to indict the top government officials.

Special Assistant to the President on Prosecutions, Chief Okoi Obono-Obla, said the Senate lacked the power to investigate Lawal for criminal activities.

In an exclusive interview with Punch during the week, the presidential aide added that a similar committee set up by the Minister of Health, Prof. Isaac Adewole, which discovered that fraud to the tune of N919m allegedly took place under Yusuf as the NHIS boss, also lacked the power to investigate crime .

Obono-Obla, who is also the Chairman, Special Presidential Investigation Panel for the Recovery of Public Property, was addressing questions about President Muhammadu Buhari’s silence on the reports (before him) that are related to corruption against top government officials.

When asked how soon the President would take a decision on the SGF, Obono-Obla said, “It is an administrative process because it was not clear if there was corruption or if there was an infringement on the economic or financial laws in the country.

“The Senate that attempted to investigate it did not have the power (to do so). It cannot investigate crime; the Senate can only carry out its oversight function to expose corruption, inefficiency, maladministration in the process of lawmaking.”

The Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Mounting Humanitarian Crisis in the North-East, headed by Shehu Sani, had accused the suspended SGF of corruption and mismanagement.

The investigative panel had also asked relevant agencies to prosecute Lawal for allegedly awarding contracts worth N500m, through the Presidential Initiative on North-East, a rehabilitation programme under his office, to a company in which he had interests.

And following the Senate committee’s indictment, the President had suspended Lawal and set up a committee to also investigate him, along with the suspended Director-General of the National Intelligence Agency, Ayo Oke.

Oke’s investigation had followed the discovery of large amounts of foreign and local currencies by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission in a residential apartment in Lagos, which NIA laid claim to.

But, according to Obono-Obla, it is only authorities such as the police, the EFCC and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission that have the power to investigate the crime.

He said, “It (Senate) should report to the ICPC; it should report to the EFCC. An administrative panel of enquiry (the Osinbajo-led panel) has submitted its report to the President. After that, a committee would be set up to review and then come out with a White Paper.

“It is not automatic. A White Paper would be the government’s position on the issue. The committee can make 10 recommendations and the White Paper may accept two. So, the President is in that process of coming out with a report.

“So, the President must follow due process before coming to a conclusion. Even if that report comes out, the President does not have powers to investigate the crime. The Nigeria Police Force, EFCC,

ICPC, and so on are the only bodies that have powers to investigate the crime. That matter has to be investigated and if a prima facie case is established, then that person can be taken to court. Nigerians must just be patient.”

The presidential aide, however, said the Presidency was in the process of coming up with a report on the suspended SGF’s matter.

Speaking on the findings of the committee set up by Adewole to investigate the suspended NHIS boss, which was submitted to the President on September 4, Obono-Obla also noted that it could not investigate criminal activities.

He said, “It is an administrative panel. They can investigate inefficiency; they can investigate maladministration, but they cannot investigate crime . There are so many authorities that say so.

“For instance, one of the most celebrated cases was Garba vs. University of Maiduguri. Students went on a rampage and destroyed property in the university. The Vice-Chancellor set up a panel, which made findings to the effect that the students were involved in the destruction of school property.

“They went to court and the argument was that an administrative panel could not investigate crime . If they (students) were accused of arson or destruction of the university’s property, they ought to have been investigated by the appropriate authority and then charged to court.

“So, that panel you are talking about cannot investigate crime. It is an administrative panel and at the end of the day, another panel would be set up to review that report. Then a White Paper that would be issued would be the position of the government on the matter.”

Legal practitioners had, however, knocked Obono-Obla for his comments, expressing disappointment that an aide to a president, who claims to stand for anti-graft campaign, could be finding loopholes that would weaken the war against corruption.

A lawyer and National President, Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, Mr. Malachy Ugwummadu, said, “The general principle of law is that you hand over a subject of an investigation that borders on crime to law enforcement agencies with statutory mandates to prosecute such an allegation.

“But the caveat to that is Section 88 (2b) of the Nigerian Constitution that says: ‘The power conferred on the National Assembly under the provisions of this section are exercisable only for the purpose of enabling each to expose corruption, inefficiency or waste in the execution or administration of law in its legislative competence and in the disbursement or administration of funds appropriated by it.

“What was the SGF accused of? Was it not corruption? By that section, you cannot limit the powers of the National Assembly to what Obono-Obla said. Section 15 (5) says ‘the state shall abolish all forms of corruption and corrupt practices and abuse of power.’

“The position here is that the legislature has the right under the constitution to investigate issues of corruption and mismanagement of public funds in respect of which they make appropriations and the funds that were allegedly diverted by the SGF were appropriated and even if they were not appropriated, they were funds in respect of which the Senate had the constitutional right to investigate

“As for the committee set up by the health minister, it is the same thing (that applies). What he should be saying for a government that has vowed to fight corruption is that when they (panels) finish (investigations), they should submit their findings to the law enforcement agencies and fast-track the process of prosecution.

“So if law enforcement agencies do nothing, every other person should keep quiet. So I disagree with him. The Garba vs. UNIMAID case had nothing to do with misappropriation of public funds. It was an allegation bordering on students’ indiscipline.”

Another legal practitioner, Mr. Liborous Oshoma, said Obono-Obla was “only looking at crime and criminality from the point of the view of someone committing murder.”

He said, “If you mismanaged funds belonging to the government of the federation, is it not a crime? And by virtue of Section 88 and 89 (of the constitution), does the Senate not have the power to investigate offences that border on financial impropriety? When someone that is supposed to be advising the President on legal issues begins to look for loopholes to exonerate misdemeanours and corruption, then we are in trouble.

“As far as public funds are concerned, the Senate has the power to investigate what happened to the funds? Anything that borders on mismanagement of funds is a criminal matter. The Senate can only indict and the EFCC can now prosecute and it is only the court that can send you to jail or not.

“As a minister, the buck stops at your table as long as malfeasance concerning your ministry is concerned. And also, the law permits them (ministries) to have an internal mechanism for regulating themselves.

“If there is an issue that has to do with allegations of corruption, it is in order for the minister to set up a committee and say I want to find out what happened and if the committee’s report says money was stolen, then, a prima facie case has been established by the committee. The matter can then be taken to the police or the EFCC.”

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