On Wednesday, President Bola tinubu removed Abulrasheed bawa as the chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
The president, who assumed office on May 29 with the highest corruption perception index of any Nigerian leader, said he suspended Mr bawa to allow a detailed investigation into multiple petitions assailing the anti-graft chief’s conduct in office.
Mr bawa was subsequently held by the State Security Service (SSS), where he lingered under interrogation without access to a legal representative as of this publication.
While Mr tinubu’s supporters have praised his action as indicative of his resolve to promptly address complaints against public servants in his administration — in contrast with Muhammadu Buhari’s manifest laziness in handling similar transgressions — anti-corruption activists are sceptical about the timing and circumstances preceding his wrath towards Mr bawa, who is among the first cadet of the EFCC in 2003 and became the youngest officer to lead the agency following his confirmation to the position by the Nigerian Senate in 2021.
For one, Mr tinubu’s action was seen as action as retaliation because Mr bawa, 42, had launched an investigation into Mr tinubu’s alleged fraud and racketeering while he was in charge of the EFCC’s Lagos zonal office in 2020.
“We all saw that bawa was investigating tinubu just before he became the EFCC chairman and moved to the headquarters in Abuja,” anti-corruption analyst Sola Olubanjo said. “The president being so prompt in removing a man that investigated him strikes me as too convenient.”
Mr tinubu’s action also appeared more aimed at giving a respite to his political allies in Mr bawa’s crosshairs, some of whom initiated the purported petitions used to oust Mr bawa, Mr Olubanjo said.
“We should see this second part for what it is: a clear obstruction of active investigations against Senate President Godswill akpabio and former governors like Bello matawalle and Kayode fayemi,” Mr Olubanjo said. “The president has immunity from criminal prosecution, so he is only helping his allies in the ruling party who don’t have such protections.”
Mr matawalle, who completed his one term as Zamfara governor on May 29, has been publicly furious against Mr bawa for initiating an expansive probe of his administration in one of the nation’s poorest states. Mr matawalle accused Mr bawa of seeking a $2 million bribe to ease the probe, which he purportedly rejected. The anti-graft chief denied the claim, and Mr matawalle fled to Egypt, apparently to evade arrest.
Mr akpabio, who became the Senate President on June 13, was for months hiding from the EFCC under the guise of a protracted illness.
Mr fayemi, until October 2022 the governor of Ekiti, was also being probed for stealing billions from his state. He denied the allegations and stonewalled progress in his case.
Others expected to have a respite from Mr bawa’s ouster include Governor Yahaya Bello, whom anti-graft operatives already traced millions of dollars in Kogi funds into his wife’s foreign bank accounts, as well as those of his associates. Mr Bello denied all allegations and accused Mr bawa of victimising his administration and family in service to his political detractors.
“All these corrupt characters and their ilk will now have a respite under the tinubu government,” Mr Olubanjo said. “It is disturbing and a reversal of any meagre progress the EFCC made under Buhari, who was just as corrupt and indifferent to corrupt aides and associates.”
Mr tinubu has denied favouring his allies with Mr bawa’s removal, which came barely days after the president removed Godwin Emefiele, another perceived adversary, as governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, with his spokesman Dele Alake saying the president wanted to start his administration on a clean slate.
Still, Mr Olubanjo said Mr tinubu, who once forfeited money to American law enforcement for drugs trafficking, should use his presidency to burnish his unsavoury image.
“He should see his presidency as an opportunity to repair his image and leave a legacy of a leader who eschewed personal political and pecuniary considerations to foster a decisive law enforcement system for the Nigerian people,” the analyst said.