Yahaya Bello’s advance fee payment, by Rotimi Fasan

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There is a shorthand expression to name or describe a fraudulent deal in Nigeria and it’s simply to call it 419. This refers to a section of the Nigerian Criminal Code that deals with a specimen of financial crime that became prominent from the 1990s. Typically perpetrated via electronic means, it was initially directed at foreigners (mugu in local parlance) who get duped out of their money through dubious business deals from which they were promised huge returns upon making some advance payment that is meant to facilitate the deal.

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It is like scamming a scammer but over time and as Nigeria transited to electronic means of financial transaction, such criminal deals were directed inwards to Nigerians. Soon, 419 became a catch-all expression for fraud or any kind of fraudulent deals, real or suspected, and the victim need not have been promised any return.

Yet in the unfolding saga between the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, and a former governor of Kogi State, Yahaya Bello, an aspect of the 19-count, N80.2 billion charge against him, namely, the part having to do with the payment of his children’s school fees to the American International School in Abuja, AISA, has the aroma of an advance fee fraud. In this, the former governor is alleged to have paid the school fees of five of his children, between grade two and eight, not only in advance but in excess of nearly $800, 000. Looking at this aspect of the case alone, it seems Yahaya Bello has a case to answer. Which is probably why the EFCC seems so excited to prosecute him with the manner the chair of the Commission reeled out the details of his interaction with Bello prior to the siege outside one of his Abuja homes.

That something looks like a crime does not necessarily make it one, and the fact that the evidence at the disposal of the EFCC against Bello may look overwhelming does not make the case against him a slam dunk. The case still has to be proven at the courts and a crime established. The EFCC, therefore, need not be in a hurry to bungle its own case as it would appear about to do by its going all out to engage in avoidable media exchange with the former governor. Nigerians are often fascinated by the salacious details of corruption and would often clamour for the prosecution of corruption. But that’s as far as it goes.

The moment someone gets caught or is about to get caught in the net, then would their defenders turn out in their hundreds through paid publicists and a motley group of supporters out to campaign for ‘’due process’’ in the prosecution of the accused who may be their favoured politician or public servant. There would not be a scarcity of legal experts too, arguing for why the accused must be accorded their rights before the law even if that, stripped of all pretences, is no more than a blatant argument against prosecution. Also, for the sake of the amount allegedly misappropriated/laundered, etc, the EFCC must be careful to ensure something comes out of this and that its effort does not come out fruitless as were most cases it (mis)handled in the past.

The fact that the Commission has for reasons of procedural error already withdrawn a suit challenging a previous one instituted by Bello against being prosecuted should caution it against any form of hurried trial or quest for prosecution. Previous investigations and/or prosecution of former public officers have been bungled by so-called media trial or imperfectly filed court processes. While the Commission has been high on investigation and prosecution, conviction rate has been notoriously low. Except for relatively minor crimes and criminals, the big criminals who are often former senior public servants or elected office holders have had the cases against them either bungled by incompetent prosecutors or quashed on technical grounds often connected to incompetent prosecution, leading to loss of confidence in the EFCC and its anti-corruption crusades.

All of this underlines the need for the EFCC to approach the Bello case with caution and care while diligently building its case. The man at the centre of the saga had a head start, he was ahead of the EFCC and had anticipated the steps the body is now taking. He preceded them to the courts to obtain, rather dubiously, restraining orders from courts in Kogi State and judges appointed under his watch. It was only by chance that he failed in his bid to have one of his wives appointed to the bench while he was governor. Otherwise, who knows if it’s not before his wife that the EFCC would now be explaining itself? This is Nigeria, a land of the incredible where it is easier for a big man or woman to pass through the tiny eye of legal conundrums than for an abused population to get justice.

Already, Yahaya Bello, through his media surrogates has come out to ‘’clarify’’ what they called misleading information in the claims of the EFCC concerning the fees paid in advance to AISA. Beyond saying that the payment was made in 2021 and it becoming a legal issue in 2022, the substance of the allegation against Bello remains intact. What this reveals is that as far back as 2021 Mr. Bello paid over $845, 000 in advance for his children’s fees. Paying in advance in this case was to achieve two things, it would seem: to take advantage of his position as governor to pay from the state’s coffers and, more importantly, launder $760, 000 and in the process turning his children’s school into a ‘’Swiss’’ bank. Bello’s children’s school fees, which has been paid to graduation in full, is actually just about $85, 000 of the entire $845, 000. We know this because AISA has now paid back into EFCC’s coffers the sum of $760, 000 which is the excess payment on Bello’s children’s school fees.

All of this makes AISA an accomplice that has to be investigated too. Why did it not report this payment to the authorities before now? Relevant agencies have the responsibility to look into the activities of some of these foreign educational institutions that are springing up in different parts of the country for their potential to serve as conduits for money laundering and other forms of economic sabotage. Aside being a means for the devaluation of the naira as their services are denominated in dollars and other foreign currencies, these foreigners-owned or managed schools help to raise Nigerian children on imposed alien cultures right in their own country in addition to other racist practices. Our people suffer under the double yoke of local and foreign taskmasters. This is what this case proves.

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