Magu’s EFCC and the Freedom of Speech

By Dr. Ugoji Egbujo

Magu started well. Ribadu had so much zeal, the public treated his penchant for flagrant transgression of rights with levity. Magu is a great improvement on Ribadu. Ribadu attended to widespread rot with uncommon but unchecked enthusiasm. And the public responded with uncritical goodwill and doting adoration. That honeymoon era is gone. After Ribadu, the EFCC lapsed into willful docility. Farida’s agency fell into the hands of its enemies. And they smothered it . Corruption then was treated with the sort of sympathy normally reserved for addictions.

Ibrahim Magu
Ibrahim Magu

An acquiescence that recognized helpless inevitability and left hopelessness. An abdication of responsibility that hid itself behind the curtains of self serving realism. Corruption was assumed cultural, and so to fight it boldly, required measurable hypocrisy.

That alone can explain the cavalierism . Because the fight against corruption is not for the saint alone . The return of Lamorde, yielded no attitudinal change amongst the staff. And the EFCC lay prostrate.

Buhari, it was foretold, would transfuse the EFCC with verve and vigour. But the commission would need the restraints to keep it from rights abuses . That is why a free and virile press is Magu’s best friend. The press will push him to fight and keep him from straying .The greatest support the new EFCC chairman has enjoyed has come from the media. His determination and industry have generated new optimism.

Magu has commenced more high profile prosecutions than his predecessors. And initial assessments of prosecutorial prowess and hygiene speak of more meticulous and tidier attention to dockets. No one expects that all the ills that sprouted in the EFCC will be uprooted in a few months. And no one thinks that all the bad eggs would be culled in one year. But everyone expects Magu to understand the benefits of free and bold press for prudential and moral reasons.

Fighting financial crimes in any environment soggy with corruption and bereft of efficient criminal justice processes would necessarily entail excesses. But Magu must know that excesses are only tolerable if they constitute exceptions and if they happen for strong moral reasons. A treasury looter’s criminal resolve may be tested by a little bullishness . But this cyber stalking drama is nonsense. It was needless .

The integrity of a public officer cannot be defended by the silencing of dissenters and hecklers, by muzzling freedom. Open, transparent, rational , engagement with doubts, suspicions and skepticism is the antidote against any perceived character demolition attempt. Integrity doesn’t end with aversion for bribes and dislike for lies. It is damaged when personal egotistical ventures are allowed to consume public resources. Professional integrity is principled consistency with job description and ethical constraints.

For clarity, defamation is a heinous crime. Cyber stalking is offensive. But cyber stalking was criminalized to check intimidation and harassment . It is unthinkable that the law was framed to protect an EFCC chairman from a mere blogger. It couldn’t have been within the contemplation of the law makers that persistent scrutiny of a public official could amount to cyber stalking or cyber bullying.

The head of a major law enforcement agency should know that his public actions set national precedents. If every blogger and every columnist whose words offend a public official runs the risk of being whisked away then the public is enslaved. If this temperament is sustained, the EFCC would become bedraggled with needless libel contests to the detriment of its efficiency.

If Magu has any intentions of sustaining the fight he has started against corruption then he must not only respect press freedom, he must court the press. Magu has invited even more intense scrutiny. But a public officer must not be bothered by how long he is kept on a job but by the quality of his performance. But if any chooses to bother, he should choose to seek public approval which good press fosters. The public is always more loyal than the many whimsical bosses.

Positions of power require temperance and sobriety. If the EFCC has time and agents to locate and arrest an inconsequential blogger then it leaves itself vulnerable to other insinuations. The opposition party thinks that the anti- corruption war serves vendetta more than altruism. Magu must strive to keep his actions free of the sort of pettiness that orchestrated Abubakar Usman’s arrest in the interest of the institutional reputation of the agency. Such frivolity questions EFCC’s appreciation of the enormity before it.

This arrest raised many other fundamental questions about the professional and ethical orientation of the EFCC. Let’s assume the EFCC has subject-matter jurisdiction to investigate cyber stalking. Has the extant case the necessary gravity to merit the attention of an agency set up for serious crimes? Would the EFCC have investigated this case if the victim were a post office clerk?

Assuming the blogger committed the crime of stalking as alleged, why did Magu choose to be a ‘judge’ in his own case? How could he not see that there was sufficient conflict of interest to preclude him from handling the case? Wouldn’t Magu have been in a slightly better moral position if he petitioned the police , a neutral party, to investigate the blogger.

Magu knows that corruption always fights back. And may come for one after he has left office. Ribadu is a witness. When night came, Ribadu sought refuge in the rule of law. He once treated that concept with derision. When evil days come, the press and freedom of speech never desert the afflicted. So, if not for moral reasons , for foresighted reasons of self preservation, the promotion of freedom of speech should be a priority for any EFCC chairman. Every freedom comes at a cost.

The rampancy of defamation and malicious misinformation are not sufficient reasons for even the minutest curtailment of the freedom that safeguards the society. Public officials who understand accountability know that the benefits of freedom of speech outweigh the drawbacks. And would accept public office and all that comes with being answerable to the public.

The EFCC is a pace setting agency. It should remain conscious of that role.

Magu’s EFCC and the Freedom of Speech on Vanguard News.

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