Salute To Prof Bolaji Owasanoye As He Takes A Bow From ICPC

Chairman of the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), Prof. Bolaji Owasanoye, SAN, addressing participants at the Stakeholders' Meeting on Draft Policy on Sexual Harassment held at the Reiz Continental Hotel, Abuja on Monday, 28th February, 2022

By Sola Akinrinade

One day, several months ago, I was on a flight to Abuja with a Senator who said to me, “Prof, you need to warn your Chairman; the way he is going, he is not going to get a second term because we are not going to confirm him.” My response was simple: “He is not looking for a second term; he just wants to do his job to the best of his ability and satisfy God, his country and his conscience.” The “Chairman” in question was Professor Bolaji Olufunmileyi Owasanoye, OFR, SAN, the outgoing Chairman of the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, ICPC. I never discussed the encounter with Professor Owasanoye; not that it would have made any difference to the man’s disposition to the work. The genesis of my vouching for the person and character of Professor Bolaji Owasanoye went back several months earlier.

I was at the gym at the Dover Hotel in Lekki, Lagos, on Tuesday, August 1, 2017, with Sampson Madukiro Iroka, the Head of Administration at the Anti-Corruption Academy of Nigeria (ACAN), the Research and Training arm of the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, ICPC, when the news of the appointment by the Acting President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, SAN, of Professor Owasanoye, as the incoming Chairman of the ICPC, along with the new Members and Secretary to the Commission, filtered through. Prof. Owasanoye was then the Executive Secretary of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, PACAC, chaired by Professor Itsejuwa Sagay, SAN.

During the previous several days, I and a team of about a dozen or so others, had been resident at the Dover Hotel, holding a retreat during which time we developed the curriculum for a new Certificate Course in Corruption Prevention, CCCP, with financial support from the Nigeria Office of the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime, UNODC. The team lead at the UNODC was Mr. Femi Ajayi (now Dr, he was still working on his PhD at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, at the time), a fantastic gentleman who supported our efforts to assemble some of the best talents in the country to conduct the curriculum finalisation and train-the-trainers programme. I was head of the team. The ambience at the hotel was inspiring as it was during the Retreat that the idea for other certificate courses emanated including the Certificate Course in Ethics and Compliance, CCEC, the brainchild of Akeem Lawal, fsi, who later became ICPC’s Director of Operations, and the Certificate Course in Corruption Investigation, CCCI.

Earlier that day, I had a chat with Sampson Iroka about my expected exit from the Academy at the end of September 2018. I had the privilege of being appointed the pioneer Provost of the Anti-Corruption Academy of Nigeria, ACAN, in October 2014, during the tenure of Mr Ekpo Nta as Hon. Chairman of the ICPC, upon the recommendation of Professor Olu Aina, OFR, then a Member of the Board of the Commission. I had by the time of my first appointment as Provost of ACAN, spent seven years outside my University, the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, the first five years as foundation Vice-Chancellor of Osun State University, and another two as Visiting Professor at the National Universities Commission, NUC. When I was first asked at the end of May 2014 to come to the ICPC to birth the Academy, which incidentally had no name and my designation not yet determined, I was reluctant to accept. But a phone call to the VC of the OAU by the Chairman of the ICPC that I was reluctant to accept a national assignment because of my desire to return to the University was all that was needed for the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Bamitale Omole, to let me know that I was not yet welcome in the University! “Gbọ́, Ṣọlá, ICPC ní àwọ́n fẹ́ bẹ̀ẹ́ ní’ṣẹ́, o lóò ṣe; má ṣòpò láti padà wá o, to’rí kò sì’ṣẹ́ fún ẹ ní bí!” The appointment was initially for two years, renewable. By 2016, the appointment was renewed for another two years. During the discussion with Sampson Iroka that day, I expressed my concerns about the need for the Commission to commence the process of onboarding whoever was going to be my successor as head of the Academy. Sampson Iroka simply replied, “If God says you’re going.”

When the news of Professor Owasanoye’s appointment filtered through while we were in the gym that evening, Iroka looked at me and said, “Sir, you know you are not going anywhere yet!” The background to that was the little more than casual association I had had with Professor Owasanoye in the weeks before to which Iroka was privy. As Executive Secretary of PACAC, his brainchild, which was set up at the inception of the Buhari Administration, I had only a few weeks before approached him for two things. First, for PACAC to consider adopting our Academy as an official training partner, and second, for him to serve as a Facilitator for a training the Academy was about to organize for anti-corruption operatives on Non-Conviction Based Assets Recovery, on which I knew that PACAC had developed a manual and he was an expert. He had agreed to the second and reserved his decision on the first request pending his visit to the Academy and his assessment of our facilities and capacity.

However, before the training and visit could hold, he was named the next Chairman of the Commission. I tried to convince myself that the appointment did not change anything, but I knew deep down, that if an offer for extension came from the new leadership, it would be ridiculous for me to say ‘No’ to the same person I had reached out to for support for the Academy and he had agreed in principle, now that he was head of the Commission. Iroka was right. While it took several months for Senate to finally confirm the appointment of the Chairman and his Board, the Secretary to the Commission, Dr (now Professor) Musa Usman Abubakar, who acted as Chairman, had requested that I consider extending my appointment until the new Board could appoint a successor. Dr Abubakar had reached out to his incoming principal, and I also visited him to know his position on the offer from the Secretary. I agreed to stay on for another two years, and, left to Professor Owasanoye, I would still be in that position today. At the end of the two years, I decided to return to the University but extended for another three months at his request. I never regretted for a second accepting to work with Professor Owasanoye. My departure from the Academy and the ICPC had nothing to do with disagreement with the Chairman, it was on a matter of principle of not overstaying in any public office.

I have given this long preamble to this tribute to Professor Bolaji Owasanoye the outgoing ICPC Chairman to put into context my perception of the man and his contributions to the war against corruption and the development of the first purposely-established anti-corruption agency in the country.

With his first moves as Chairman, I was firmly convinced that we had in place a man who was clear-headed and thoroughly prepared for the office. Many public officers assume office without having the most basic understanding of the requirements of the new office or any plan to make a difference. Not so with Bolaji Owasanoye. His transparency was (and is) clear to all. He would not listen to any talk badmouthing the staff or questioning their commitment, ability, and loyalty. He allowed every member of staff to prove their worth or demonstrate that they were not fit for the position they occupied, after which they were moved aside. His concern for building staff capacity was palpable. In the several months he waited for the Senate confirmation, he had conducted an assessment of staff capacity needs through a survey questionnaire administered to every staff member. Thus, rather than lament about their inability, he sought to build their capacity and make them fit for purpose. Appropriate internal and external including overseas training were the order of the day. Internal administration was shaken up to drive away lethargy, and an administrative structure capable of delivering on the mandate of the Commission was promoted. He made effective use of internal capacity to build up others. I remember the first Board and Management Retreat held at the Academy’s premises in Keffi, all the facilitators except one, Dr. Kole Shettima of the MacArthur Foundation, were internal staff members. He invested heavily in technology and acquisition of modern gadgets to facilitate the work of the operatives and created an enabling environment for staff to perform their duties. He believed in and celebrated his staff members. Indeed, the activities marking the 20th Anniversary of the Commission’s establishment were a celebration of the staff members. No more, no less.

As head of the Commission, he led the war against corruption from the front. The processing of petitions and intelligence-led investigations was automated and clear to all. Suddenly, cases which had dragged on for long started having their days in court. The process of plea bargaining when being considered was a transparent one as all those who ought to know were carried along. He would be livid with rage if plea-bargain proposals were presented that undermined justice or were meant to secure an underhanded deal against Government interest. Of course, he was aware that, like in every other system, there were bad eggs, those individuals capable of sabotaging investigation, compromising with suspects, or throwing cases either deliberately or through incompetence. His approach was not to lump everybody together as unfit or corrupt but to identify and deal with each case on its own merit. Discipline was restored as staff disciplinary cases hitherto swept under the carpet were firmly treated and disposed of. The outcome of staff disciplinary process is published for all to see, silencing rumours on decisions firmly and serving as deterrence.

Professor Owasanoye introduced several initiatives, many of which upon reflection you wonder why nobody had thought of them before. Probably the most-high profile is the Constituency Projects Tracking Initiative (CPTI), later transformed into the Constituency and Executive Projects Tracking Initiative (CEPTI), an initiative that brought him and the Commission into conflict with several powerful interests in the country particularly in the Legislature. The Commission under Owasanoye did not have any problem with the concept of Constituency Projects as instruments of development; the only issue was the need for transparent delivery of the projects, which, of course, was the challenge as many of the constituency projects never took off the ground. The tracking teams composed of diverse interests including the media and civil society along with certain brutally honest staff of the Commission, travelled the country. The fear of the ICPC and its CPTI team was enough for many abandoned projects to resurrect. The introduction of the “My Constituency, My Project” initiative sought to promote community ownership of the constituency and executive projects and demand accountability from our leaders. The initiative did not sit well with many people. This was the background to my encounter with the Senator I had a chat with on the flight to Abuja.

As ICPC Chairman, Professor Owasanoye was concerned with the most critical mandate of the Commission, prevention of corruption and entrenching a system that promotes transparency and integrity and behaviour change nationally but most importantly in the public sector, which is the sustainable way to fight corruption. Thus, there was a rigorous implementation of the Ethics and Compliance Scorecard, the extension of the Anti-Corruption Transparency Units (ACTUs) to several more MDAs, and the annual Diminishing Corruption Conference and Public Service Integrity Awards organised in collaboration with the office of the SGF with the President attending in person. The Diminishing Corruption Conference provided an intellectual base for the war against corruption. The Anti-Corruption Academy of Nigeria had enjoyed great support from his predecessor, Mr. Ekpo Nta; Professor Owasanoye continued along the same lines. Implementing the activities associated with the Academy’s Strategic Plan received support from him including the highly sensitive Nigeria Corruption Index (NCI) initiative, the Anti-Corruption Policy Dialogues and accompanying Policy Briefs that addressed critical policy issues affecting the war against corruption, and of course, the MacArthur Foundation-supported Behaviour Change Initiative. The outreach to MacArthur Foundation which started just before my exit, at his prompting, led to the award of a massive grant for the Academy over three years.

Professor Owasanoye believes the ICPC as the enforcer should be the first to obey the law. Thus, even when public service regulations or circulars were perceived not to be the best, he insisted on full compliance. He insisted on the Academy surrendering its operational surplus revenue to the CRF despite our need for funds. For him, the law must be obeyed until it is abrogated or amended. He ensured the ICPC was enrolled in the IPPIS, with staff grumbling at the new regime of taxation that accompanied it. But he also cared greatly for staff welfare and ensured a new salary regime was approved for staff of the Commission. Fortunately for him, the Chairman of the National Salaries and Wages Commission was his predecessor in office as ICPC Chairman. Professor Owasanoye cared greatly about the public image of the Commission and sought to transform it through transparency and deployment of strategic information management. Today, the ICPC website is ranked number one among public sector agencies websites in the country for transparency and openness and the richness of the information provided on the site. ICPC staff can hold their heads proudly in public as he gave them a Commission to be proud of. Since the beginning of this year, he had engaged in massive capacity building for the next line leaders of the Commission in anticipation of the retirement of at least six Directors in compliance with the new guidelines on a tenure system for Directors in the public service, and preparing them to support the work of the new leadership of the Commission that he knew was coming as he approached the end of his tenure. Many others in his shoes would have been obsessed with extending their term in office.

While we disagreed on a few issues (for instance, he did not support my proposal to grant the Academy autonomy), he never pulled rank on me. Indeed, he gave me every respect against our mutual background as academics. He is a true man of God whose faith values played a critical part in his choices as head of a very sensitive national agency. Of course, he could not have satisfied everybody, and many would be glad to see his back, particularly those whose toes he stepped on and probably crushed, but that does not really matter.

As Professor Bolaji Olufunmileyi Owasanoye, husband of Olufunso, father of Sope, proceeds on his terminal leave on November 4, 2023, I join his numerous discerning well-wishers to celebrate this man of honour, and to wish him even greater success and recognition in the years ahead. I am almost sure that an international appointment is waiting for him.

It is well with you, man of God.

*Professor Sola Akinrinade served as the pioneer Provost of the Anti-Corruption Academy of Nigeria, the Research and Training arm of the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, ICPC, 1 October 2014 to December 31, 2020.

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