Following criticisms of highhandedness and rights violations by its officials in its operations, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), on Oct. 31, 2023, reviewed its guidelines for arrest and bail of suspects.
In a statement signed by its Head of Media and Publicity, Dele Oyewale, the anti-graft commission said the review was to conform with the rule of law and international best practices.
There are many reasons why stakeholders received this with cautious optimism. There has been widespread condemnation of the commission’s officials who carry out rapid surprise attacks or what they call sting operations in homes and hotels.
Recently EFCC officials raided some off-campus hostels of the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), where 67 people were arrested on suspicion of fraud-related offences.
It was also reported that the raid took place at about 1:00 am.
Confirming the incident, the commission said its operatives from its Ibadan Zonal Command acted on intelligence that the suspects were involved in internet crime.
Nevertheless, the explanation failed to assuage the fury incessant and sometimes illegal raids by the commission have generated among the general public.
There are also instances where the commission has been accused of defying court orders and unlawfully detaining suspects, engaging in media trials of suspects, and glamorising arrests and prosecution.
Dayo Arije, an anti-corruption campaigner, said the immediate-past chairman of the commission, Abdulrasheed Bawa, was perhaps the most notorious for flouting court orders, prompting him to be committed to prison twice.
“Remember when Justice R.O. Ayoola of the Kogi State High Court ordered Bawa’s arrest and remanded him in Kuje prison for the next 14 days until he purged himself of the contempt in February?”, he asked rhetorically.
That was the second time a court ordered Bawa to be detained.
On Nov. 8, 2022, Justice Chizoba Oji, the presiding judge of a Federal Capital Territory (FCT) high court, ordered the remand of Bawa over the same contempt of court.
“Ironically, the same man was given a taste of his poison by the same commission until he was released on Oct. 25, following calls by spirited Nigerians for his release or prosecution,” Arije said.
A look at the new operational guidelines shows that they focus on the rights of suspects, especially where arrest, detention and bail issues are concerned.
Under the reviewed procedure, operatives of the EFCC are no longer allowed to demand professional certificates of sureties as a bail condition.
Also, the demand for travel documents of suspects is now to be exercised with discretion, depending on the nature of the case, personality, and country of residence of the suspect.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the review is the issue of bail conditions.
The commission said bail conditions served on suspects “must be reasonable and practicable to be fulfilled by suspects and their sureties”.
It also warned that the detention of suspects without a Remand Warrant for an unreasonable length of time beyond the constitutionally allowed period must stop.
Legal experts agree that reviewing the EFCC’s bail practice was long overdue because bail is an indispensable attribute of Nigeria’s accusatorial criminal justice system.
There are three categories of bail in all criminal trials: Bail granted upon arrest, also known as administrative bail; bail granted upon arraignment, also known as court bail; and bail pending an appeal.
In all three cases, experts say, what should be paramount in considering whether bail ought to be granted is securing the presence of an accused in court to face trial.
Oyetunji Teslim, a Kaduna-based legal practitioner, said in a country where undue reliance is placed on confessional statements, the temptation to use the prospect of bail as a dangling carrot for eliciting incriminating statements against the accused is profound.
“Upon arrest, a suspect ought to be immediately informed of his constitutional right to silence and bail. This is rarely the case.
“The tactic of government agents with prosecutorial powers, especially the police and the EFCC, has always been to extract as much incriminating evidence as possible from the suspect immediately after arrest.
“Perhaps, the method was passed on to the EFCC by the police,” he said.
He further said the 1999 Constitution provides that any person arrested must be taken to court within 24 hours and where there is no court within a radius of 40km, then the person should be arraigned within 48 hours.
He said if the person is not taken to court within the constitutionally stipulated time, then he or she should be released on police or administrative bail.
“What this means is that a suspect’s statement must be taken within 24 hours of their arrest if they choose to offer one.
“The practice of keeping a suspect in custody for days before obtaining their statement is characterised as systematic torture is often done to elicit a confessional statement,” he said.
Experts say a combination of suspects’ rights violations, pre-emptive glamorisation of cases and media trials, unlawful detention and unreasonable bail conditions has in the past cost the commission many high-profile cases.
They therefore commend the new EFCC Chairman, Ola Olukoyede, for taking the bull by the horns as regards operational procedure, saying a careful implementation will boost public confidence in the anti-corruption agency.
Kayode Adebiyi writes from News Agency of Nigeria