Weeks before ordering a siege to the home of a former Director-General of the National Intelligence Agency, Ayodele Oke, an administrative panel set up by President Muhammadu Buhari to resolve national security crisis at the foreign intelligence office urged Ibrahim Magu to hold back on taking such measures.
Members of the panel, which was set up to review or implement parts of the recommendations of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo’s investigative committee, told Mr. Magu that he should defer all summons targeted at Mr. Oke while they work with the embattled former spy chief to sort out a myriad of succession and operational issues racking the NIA in the aftermath of the N13 billion naira Ikoyi cash scandal.
But the acting-chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission proceeded anyway, sanctioning a siege that nearly turned fatal amongst security and law enforcement agencies last week.
Acting on the orders of Mr. Magu, a team of EFCC operatives, cushioned by a police squad, stormed the home of Mr. Oke at the exquisite Abuja neighbourhood of Asokoro to arrest him on Tuesday.
But the mission became an instant spectacle after State Security Service personnel on guard at Mr. Oke’s residence blocked the anti-graft operatives from carrying out any arrest.
The EFCC team also fruitlessly laboured to arrest a former Director-General of the SSS, Ita Ekpeyong, in the same neighbourhood at the same hour, although the EFCC has not stated if the cases are related or not.
Along Maman Nasir Street, where the residences of the former security chiefs are located, palpable fear gripped foreign diplomats who could not access their missions, offices and residences due to the lockdown occasioned by the inter-agency face-off, PREMIUM TIMES learnt.
National security analysts said the confrontation, which has been condemned by the Nigerian Senate as appalling and dangerous, could have been averted had Mr. Magu yielded to the appeal of the administrative panel, even though he had the superior legal standing as the head of a statutory agency.
More importantly, the jarring dispute amongst the agencies marks the latest in a string of bitter inter-agency rivalries which Mr. Buhari has neither acknowledged nor addressed despite frequent manifestations since he assumed office in 2015, analysts say.
Members of the panel, which was inaugurated on November 7, include Babagana Kingibe, Zakari Ibrahim, Niyi Oladeji and Albert Horsfall — all formerly of the NIA.
PREMIUM TIMES has learnt of a series of exchanges between the presidential panel and Mr. Magu’s EFCC in early November, which began after the EFCC wrote to members seeking an audience with Mr. Oke.
In the November 2 letter, Mr. Magu said anti-graft detectives working on probable criminal wrongdoings in the N13 billion cash haul would like to interview Mr. Oke. The EFCC quickly announced the invitation in a statement to the media.
On November 3, the panel responded —under a State House letterhead— to Mr. Magu that granting his request would not be feasible against the backdrop of their unfolding activities.
The members said Mr. Oke was preparing handover notes to the newly-named acting DG of the NIA; while also helping them with their preliminary duties ahead of their inauguration, PREMIUM TIMES learnt from sources familiar with the deliberations.
Two days after their inauguration on November 9, the panel fired another notice to the EFCC, emphasising that the anti-graft office should put off further invitations to Mr. Oke because its ongoing review activities would require that the former NIA chief be on standby to clarify issues as and when necessary.
Similarly, Boss Mustapha, who was named as the new secretary to the government on October 30, picked up the NIA issues as his first official assignment, PREMIUM TIMES learnt. He notified Mr. Oke, who was on suspension, and Arab Yadam, who was acting as NIA DG, of the expiration of their respective appointments.
Also out at the NIA on the same day was Emmanuel Okafor, the agency’s deputy director-general in charge of operations, sources said. Mr. Mustapha also issued directives about a smooth transition of power from Messrs. Oke and Yadam to a newly-named acting DG, Mohammed Dawuda, hitherto the ambassador to Chad.
Meanwhile, and despite being aware of a contrary directive by the presidential panel, Mr. Oke had visited the EFCC on November 7 to assure the agency’s director of operations of his willingness to submit himself for questioning as soon as the panel had concluded its activities and released him, sources said.
Mr. Oke also stayed in touch with the EFCC in Lagos, where the discovered N13 billion case is domiciled, to inform investigators of his provisional constraints with similar assurances of his readiness to cooperate when discharged by the presidential panel.
But Mr. Magu apparently scoffed at those behind-the-scenes discussions to move against the former NIA chief.
The EFCC took a similar approach in the case of Mr. Ekpeyong, going after former secret police chief despite being told not to do so by the agency’s current DG, Lawal Daura, PREMIUM TIMES learnt.
Mr. Magu had written to Mr. Daura, informing the SSS boss that the EFCC was investigating a slew of suspicious transactions by Mr. Ekpeyong during his days at the domestic intelligence office.
But Mr. Daura declined, saying his agency had no records of financial impropriety against Mr. Ekpeyong and, as such, the EFCC’s service would not be necessary.
In the thanks but no thanks letter, which was copied to the president and the National Security Adviser, Mr. Daura did not assure Mr. Magu of SSS’ support in EFFC’s moves to arrest Mr. Ekpeyong, PREMIUM TIMES gathered.
More evidence then emerged on Saturday that the SSS also relied on a presidential proclamation by the former head of state, Abdusalami Abubakar, that no other agency would investigate the SSS accounts or operations.
The edict, titled Instrument No 1 of 1999, shields the SSS from external audit and investigation of its financial dealings, making them subject to only presidential review.
Although the EFCC has not spoken officially on reasons for its insistence on arresting both the ex-heads of the SSS and NIA, it has leaked reports to journalists that it secured a magistrate court order to arrest the officials.
A spokesperson for the EFCC, Wilson Uwujaren, did not respond to requests for comments from PREMIUM TIMES. Calls and text messages to his mobile lines over a two-day period went unacknowledged.
Mr. Oke became a pawn between the presidential panel and the EFCC shortly after Mr. Buhari sacked him as the head of NIA on the recommendations of the three-man panel that probed the aftermath of the cash discovery in April.
The panel, led by Mr. Osinbajo with Attorney-General Abubakar Malami and National Security Adviser Babagana Monguno as members, recommended Mr. Oke’s dismissal for his role in the scandal, according to the State House.
The EFCC had announced that its operative, acting on a tip-off on April 12, found $43,449,947, £27,800 and N23,218,000 hidden inside an apartment at Osborne Towers, Ikoyi.
The currencies were valued at N13 billion based on prevailing exchange rate set by the Central Bank of Nigeria at the time. The EFCC circulated photograph and video footage of the operation, sparking nationwide outrage.
But the anti-graft agency did not immediately disclose the owners of the recovered cash, a development that seemed largely unusual for an agency which had become known in its name and shame tactics under Mr. Magu.
Mr. Buhari immediately expressed his consternation about the discovery and ordered that it be deposited at the CBN.
But Mr. Oke cleared the air two days later, telling PREMIUM TIMES on April 14 that the money belonged to the NIA. But he didn’t disclose what it was meant for.
Mr. Oke was suspended from office on April 19 for his alleged role in the scandal just as Mr. Osinbajo’s panel began sitting.
In May, PREMIUM TIMES published excerpts of letters between Mr. Oke and the Mr. Monguno, which clarified that the National Security Adviser briefed President Buhari about the money and its purpose long before the EFCC’s discovery—contrary to what the president had led Nigerians to believe.
While Mr. Oke has faced a series of disciplinary actions which included being unceremoniously discharged from service shortly before he was due to retire, Mr. Buhari has not explained to Nigerians why he initially feigned ignorance of the covert projects.
National security analysts weigh in
The concerted attempts by the EFCC to arrest Mr. Oke despite revelations that he informed Mr. Buhari about the covert projects, and despite the funds being eventually forfeited to the government have unsettled national security commentators.
Apart from the perilous consequences posed by the inter-agency clashes, analysts wonder why the EFCC has prioritised arresting Mr. Oke even when it hasn’t done anything about the former secretary to the government who was fired allegedly for looting funds meant for the internally displaced persons.
Babachir Lawal was fired on October 30, nearly a year after the Nigerian Senate indicted him of stealing over N200 million in IDP funds using his company’s bank accounts in violation of Nigerian code of conduct law.
Mr. Buhari had initially cleared Mr. Lawal, telling the Senate in a January 17 letter that the dismissed SGF was not given fair hearing.
“The logic that EFCC is operating with doesn’t seem to be clear to anyone outside the agency these days,” said Chris Ngwodo, a security analyst and legal practitioner.
“Even if the EFCC intends to pursue criminal charges against Mr. Oke, the fact that the money he allegedly stole had been recovered from him should render the rest of the matter secondary,” he added.
“What we should focus on is the case of Babachir Lawal, whom we have absolutely no evidence has returned any money from his loot.”
Mr. Ngwodo said Mr. Magu, being a career police officer, had failed to appreciate the complexities of national security duties.
“How did we get to a stage in this country in which an anti-corruption agency would be victimising national security institutions and dragging them before the media?” Mr. Ngwodo said.
While recognising that no individuals are beyond reproach in a society governed by the rule of law, Mr. Ngwodo urged Mr. Buhari to save Nigeria from chaos by carefully navigating the treacherous waters of national security matters.
“The president should not allow the overbearing and reckless instincts of an appointee inflict a long-term damage on the country’s national security,” he added.
A government unsettled; a president untroubled
Despite frequent clashes between government institutions or senior administration officials since he assumed office two and a half years ago, Mr. Buhari has shown little sign of being troubled, said Mr. Ngwodo.
The rivalries started with the SSS and the president’s aide de camp slugging it out over security measures around the State House. This occurred within Mr. Buhari’s first 30 days in office.
PREMIUM TIMES exclusively reported the confrontation at the time. This newspaper also exclusively uncovered a devastating acrimony between Mr. Monguno and Mr. Daura in 2016, a rivalry that could put the activities of the NSA and the SSS in peril.
Outside the security sector, a supremacy tussle has also persisted between Mr. Magu and Mr. Malami for several months. The AGF accused the EFCC chief of failing to report some special cases to him in contravention of the law. Mr. Magu denied the allegations.
At the Ministry of Health, Usman Yusuf, the suspended executive secretary of the National Health Insurance Scheme engaged the Minister of Health, Isaac Adewole, in a tussle over supremacy.
The rift between the Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun, and the Comptroller-General of Customs, Hameed Ali, has also been well reported in the media.
On two occasions, President Buhari sent requests to the National Assembly for confirmation of Mr. Magu as substantive chairman of EFCC. Each time, the SSS denied security clearance for Mr. Magu, consequently thwarting the president’s efforts.
“All these are clear cases of affront against presidential authority,” Mr. Ngwodo said. “Yet, the president has remained aloof and even his aides suggested at one time that the insubordination proved that the agencies have independence.”
Another national security expert, Daniel Bwala, told PREMIUM TIMES Mr. Magu should have accepted the appeals of the presidential panel and leave Mr. Oke alone in the interim.
“Ordinarily, they should have nothing to do with him pending the conclusion of the implementation of the recommendations,” Mr. Bwala told PREMIUM TIMES by telephone.
“He is needed by the presidential panel and he shouldn’t be touched by the EFCC which is also under the control of the president,” he said.
Mr. Bwala said the EFCC, as a statutory body, is superior to an administrative panel, but said the Constitution placed all the security agencies under the president.
“The argument is a given that the panel cannot override the commission. But in this case, it is not a panel set up by the National Assembly. This panel is set up by the president and its members are carrying out the orders of the president,” Mr. Bwala said.
Mr. Bwala said it would be counter-productive for the president to constitute a panel and then undermine or defeat the purpose of the same panel, urging members to write a formal complaint.
“What the panel members should do is to write to the president that they’re being harassed and not allowed to do their job,” Mr. Bwala said.
The analyst also dismissed insinuations that the panel members were irredeemably biased towards Mr. Oke on the basis of their respective careers at the NIA.
“The president that set up the panel did so with full knowledge of their background,” he said, adding that the president should not be expected to tap people without impeccable intelligence background to probe the activities of the NIA.
Messrs. Ngwodo and Bwala’s submissions mirror the position of a former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bolaji Akinyemi, who warned in April that “putting a foreign intelligence officer on trial in an open court is going to be disastrous to external national security interests,” in reaction to the initial controversies that trailed the recovered funds.
Mr. Oke has been described by the intelligence community as “a diligent professional” whose painstaking conduct was evident in the revelations that he carried both the NSA and the president along with the national security project, which was approved by President Goodluck Jonathan.
Although the Senate has raised a committee to probe the botched arrests of Messrs. Oke and Ekpeyong, some lawmakers are finding it increasingly difficult to keep mum as Mr. Buhari dithers on matters of national security.
“This is the first time we’ll see gross irresponsibility in government whereby there is no arbiter. No one to come in between two agencies that belong to only one person,” said Abiodun Olujimi, a PDP senator from Ekiti State. “The two agencies report to one person —the president— and now we find them fighting on the pages of the newspapers. It’s a shame.”
“We are calling on the president. He has to sit up. He should be up and doing. Call these people to order,” Ms. Olujimi added.