Tuesday, January 06, 2009

EFCC and Vaswani brothers

The recent sealing of the business premises of controversial businessmen, Vaswani brothers, by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission has again raised a serious question about the anti-graft agency’s strategy in fighting corruption. The EFCC claimed that the business premises of the India-born owners of Stallion Group and The Honda Place were closed down due to their refusal to respond to allegations of fraud levelled against them.

It was alleged that the three brothers forged documents and defrauded another motor company of about N40 billion, but failed to honour the EFCC’s invitation in the course of its investigation. The EFCC claimed that the closures were carried out to prevent any business transaction with the firms until the businessmen honour its invitation. Through a political intervention from the office of the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Mr. Michael Aondoakaa, the sealed offices have been reopened.

In 2003, the Vaswani brothers were deported on allegations of sharp business practices. The brothers were alleged to have evaded tax and import duty payments between 1999 and 2003. They were also accused of diverting funds sourced from the Central Bank of Nigeria, which were meant for fertilizer importation, to the parallel market where they allegedly made huge profits. But the Yar’Adua administration cleared them and revoked the deportation orders in December 2007. It was also a political solution allegedly brokered by some powerful individuals close to the government.

The former EFCC Chairman, Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, had then accused the Vaswani brothers of corrupting the security agencies by compromising them in the course of their duties. Ribadu had said that the deportation of the Vaswanis became necessary since they claimed to be British citizens and were therefore expected to face trial in a British court. “We need to set example with them,” Ribadu stated then, adding that there was no big deal about their deportation because over three hundred Nigerians were being deported per week from all over the world.

But the embattled brothers say they are innocent of all the allegations. They insist that for five years, they co-operated with the EFCC in the investigation of all the allegations levelled against them by their competitors, which led to the rescinding of the deportation orders. The businessmen say they were at the EFCC headquarters on December 24 to defend the allegations against them but were told that the matter was in court and should remain so. The brothers, therefore, believe that government agencies, particularly the EFCC, are being used by their competitors to settle purely business disputes.

The allegations that led to the businessmen’s deportation in 2003 have hardly changed. Though the Vaswani brothers are alleged to have been linked to some scandals, curiously, judicial option in bringing them to justice has not been explored to the fullest. Since the financial scams first broke out, the EFCC had the ample time to conduct its investigations, especially during the period that the brothers were hounded out of the country. What stalled EFCC’s investigations and the possible prosecution of the Vaswani brothers since then? Why did the EFCC seal the business premises of the Vaswani brothers for a business issue that had been decided by the Supreme Court? Is the anti-graft agency being used to settle business scores?

The government should be very firm in its anti-corruption war. The EFCC should not allow itself to be reduced by business competitors to an instrument for persecuting each other. The impression should not be created that the Vaswanis’ fate is tied to wherever the pendulum of power in the country swings. This time, the EFCC should get to the roots of the allegations levelled against the businessmen and allow the rule of law to take its course. If it is not properly handled, the Vaswani case is capable of sending wrong signals that the country’s anti-graft crusade lacks credibility.