By Kemi Yesufu
SHE is one Nigeria’s most accomplished women; a woman of many parts, who started out as young spy at the Special Branch of the Nigeria Police, which later became National Security Organisation (NSO) and then led the highly effective Special Fraud Unit of the police. She is also a lawyer. But majority know Mrs. Farida Waziri as the Iron Lady of the much feared Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). As chairperson of the anti-graft agency, Waziri had to ride through many storms to make a mark. In this interview with KEMI YESUFU at her law firm, Brookfield Chambers, in Maitama area of Abuja, she speaks albeit with much humour on her life, growing up, her much talked about excellent dress sense. She also talked about her time at the EFCC.
How has life been since you left office as the Chairman of the EFCC? What have you been up to?
If you understand that in life, no condition is permanent, if you have a job to do, you will do it to the best of your ability, at the end of the day whether it is voluntarily or otherwise, some day you would have to leave office. I voluntarily retired from the Nigerian Police Force, so I have always known what it is to be outside office. When I left the police, I had time for my children and grandchildren. After the EFCC, I returned here to the Brooksfield Chambers. I have junior lawyers who work with me on cases. I am also busy with the Women Youth and Crime Organisation which is for advocating to young people to keep away from trouble and not to allow themselves to be used for crime and violence. So my hands are full really.
Going back to the very beginning when you were asked to head the EFCC, how did you receive news of the offer and was it easy getting support from the people around you to take this tough job?
It wasn’t easy. But it is well known that I love challenges. I wasn’t in the country when my CV was submitted to Late President Umaru Yar’Adua. I was in Turkey with my husband who served as the Nigerian ambassador to Turkey. I was told by the Attorney General that the President looked through 11 CVs submitted for the job of Board members of the EFCC and he picked mine, that he would like to see me. The President sent for me and my husband one night and we met with him for an hour. I guess he just wanted to assess me. He asked me about my career and I spoke to him on this. My conversation with him was so inspiring and I was humbled by the interaction with the President. At some point, I got carried away while telling him about my career in the police, and my husband was using his foot signaling me to stop. We were in a small room, so I looked at President Yar’Adua who always looked serious, he looked at you like he was seeing your heart and he seemed to be enjoying my story, so I continued. We met for a second time and by the third meeting, he told me he wanted to send my name to the Senate as the nominee for the office of the chairman of EFCC. He asked me if I would be willing to serve the country in that capacity and I told him, yes. The next day, he sent for me and asked if I realised what job I had agreed to take up entails. And I told him I fully understood what it entails because I worked at the Police Special Fraud Unit, when 419 was the in thing in this country. I headed all the units in Alagbon. I got the first conviction in the case of advanced fee fraud in the history of this country. I went on to get 11 convictions within two years then. I was being threatened with acid, explosives were thrown at my house and my daughter was attacked. I had ample experience working in that kind of difficult terrain. When I finished talking to him about my preparedness, he then advised me that the media could get tough with me. He said people will say all kinds of things, but I should please remain focused and always work within the rule of law. All through the time I worked at the EFCC, his words kept ringing in my ears! I believe I did a good job, I say this because in Nigeria, if you don’t blow your trumpet, nobody will blow it for you (laughs)…
How do you mean when you say you did a good job? What would you identify as the high points of your tenure at the anti-graft agency?
First, I would like to talk about operational issues, that is, arrest, investigation and prosecution. Then I also reformed the agency with regard to administrative matters. I remember that when I just resumed, I sent for an officer in-charge of Politically Exposed Persons (PEPs) and it took a long time for him to come and then I realised that the main office is in Wuse 2 and the PEPs (Economic Governance ) unit was in Asokoro. I was surprised by this, you know, an officer bringing case files, exhibits, from Asokoro to Wuse 2. The Legal Department was also in another place. I had to bring them together. I rented another building near us. I also discovered that we didn’t have an interrogation room. We really had a problem with space, officers were clustered in a room, in some cases, three or four of them in one room. And they still brought in suspects to be interrogated in these small spaces. So, I created an interrogation room, complete with audiovisual facilities through which I monitored interrogations as they went on, taking notes. If something wasn’t right with the interrogation, I would speak with the officer. I adopted the Israeli model for the interrogation room. Before I got it built, I went round looking for the model to bring back home. I went to the new Scotland Yard in England. I liked what I saw but we didn’t have enough funding to replicate it here. Then, I also went to see what the Israeli police was doing and I was able to create something like it here. In the long term, I hoped to still recreate the Scotland Yard image which remained in my head. So I located about 5.2 hectares of land along the Umaru Yar’Adua Road, better known as Airport Road in Abuja here. I returned to the President to tell him that we needed to have everyone in one place, we needed to have important investigative tools like a forensic lab, cells and all that. He agreed. I begged him that I only wanted Julius Berger to handle the project. I went through another round of antagonism with some contractors writing against me, alleging that I had connived with Julius Berger. But I wasn’t moved. I knew the dream I had was to put up an edifice that would be a legacy project. These are the things I did before I fully settled down to investigations and prosecutions. You know when you conduct an investigation, you want to create a case file that will withstand scrutiny anywhere in the world. One other important intervention I made was the creation of the Assets Forfeiture Unit. I met a confusing situation. Once I started work as the chairman of the EFCC, people started petitioning me on assets, I would ask for files based on the petitions and I wouldn’t get one. So I created that unit , appointed an officer to be in charge of it and sent him to go round the country to it identify these assets and compile a list, the sales and all that. I realised there had been sales not properly documented. I also realised that Chelsea Hotel Abuja hadn’t been sold and by my investigation, it belonged to the people of Bayelsa. I wrote a memo to the President and he approved the release of the hotel back to Bayelsa and because of the level of suspicion then, I called the media and publicly handed the keys back to the then Governor Timipre Sylva. When I saw the messy state of recovered assets, I had to set up a committee to establish what went wrong and their findings were shocking. From then I made sure I avoided selling any recovered assets so that the records can be straight and easy for scrutiny in the future. I was also able to institute several high profile cases in court and the delays made me to call for special courts to try economic crimes. I am glad I started that campaign in 2008 because those who opposed it and abused me then over it, I have read some of them in recent times advocating for same thing. I remember I made it a strong part of my submission to the pre-inauguration Committee set up by President Buhari when I was invited for submissions on how to sharpen the anti-graft agenda of the current government. I still think we need these special courts or designated judges as President Muhammadu Buhari has shown tremendous willpower to fight corruption, if we have these courts to handle cases of fraud, our country will be better off. With these courts, we will get rid of the monstrosity called corruption that’s making life difficult for everyone. It will save the time of the court, the prosecution and the defence alike, because cases can be heard everyday without any adjournment or even short ones if there will be need for any. It will also make both the designated judges and the lawyers versatile in that particular area of criminal prosecution. I’ve got many more to say on this because it was through the commitment and dedication of some of our fine judges that we were able to get some of the high profile convictions we secured then. Ultimately, this country cant run away from this because if we can have Tribunals to hear and determine election petitions within weeks, then the reality of our situation demands that we have special courts to try corruption cases. There are a number of countries that had already adopted this model, namely; Indonesia, the Philippines, Slovakia, Uganda and many more.
You started out as a spy in the Special Branch of the Police, then National Security Organisation, before returning to the Police, specialising in investigating and prosecuting cases of fraud. Then years after retirement, you served as EFCC chairperson. Why this knack for interest in high risk male dominated sectors? As a little girl, did you have dreams of blazing trail and breaking barriers in specialised fields, hitherto taught to be the exclusive preserve of men?
What happened was that my uncle was a drill instructor at the Police College Kaduna, my husband was a lecturer there too. I actually went to the school to prepare for an interview into another college. But my uncle tricked me into joining the police. When he asked me if I was interested in joining, I told him no. I explained that I wanted to be a lawyer or a doctor. So he asked if I knew my height, the measurement of my chest and all that, I said no….Like I said, I was waiting in Kaduna preparatory for my test into the college, but my uncle convinced me to write the test to join the police, he convinced me that it would be good preparation for the entrance exam into the college I wanted to attend then. After the test, he also convinced me to exploit the free medical test the police was giving those who wanted to join the force, it was from those tricks that I ended up attending the police college. I passed the exam. I took the best notebook from the police college, so I was among the 10 who were selected for the special branch called the private eye. You could say that the private eye was the pioneer to the Department of State Security (DSS). We were taught about espionage, intelligence gathering, sabotage and all that. Then the Cold War was on, so we were thoroughly trained on intelligence gathering. From there we were moved to the NSO at 15 Awolowo Road Ikoyi, where I belonged to the ‘E’ department. At that time, we had a no-love-lost situation with the police because they always felt we spied on them. Then working at NSO, whenever we went out to gather intelligence, we flashed our police ID card and saying we worked at the ‘E’ department and if we were asked what ‘E’ meant we would just say, words like education, emergency or any word that came to mind at that moment and they would believe you. But I had an encounter with some military guys at a party and policemen were there but they didn’t defend me. I felt my cover was blown and I thought the situation had become uncomfortable for me, so I went back to the police.
What kind of person are you at home, you were at different times in your life, an intelligence officer, a crack detective and much later, the feared EFCC chairperson? How did you manage to combine the roles of mother, wife and security chief?
It was quite difficult. It never was easy. At some point while I was at Alagbon I was a nursing mother and at the same time studying for my Master Degree. I was a detective trying to gather intelligence. But if you know what you want, you will have to think of ways to manage your time between work, the children and even your studies. I could recall an incident on how difficult it is to juggle career, academics and family. I was already a Commissioner of Police, flying my flag, when one day, my husband said I should be cooking for him. He said to me that even Queen Elizabeth still cooks for Prince Phillip. So, I said okay, I will do just that and I started with using Saturdays to cook different dishes which I would label and store in the deep freezer. But one day, he told me his tummy was aching and it was caused by overstayed food and that he wanted fresh food. This kind of situation is challenging for working women especially the highly placed ones. I didn’t know what to go about it at that point. But I had a nice cook, who I colluded with and when I get home, I would walk out of my official vehicle with flags flying and all, I would take the soup, which the cook has already picked from the freezer, make a show of cooking a fresh meal to coincide with the time my husband returned home. A number of times, he would walk into the kitchen as I stirred the pot of soup like the whole world depended on it and he would say things like, ‘what’s cooking?’, or ‘this really smells nice’. He would hardly think that it was already prepared and frozen food. (Laughter). So you see how I was able to deal with the trouble he tried to create for me? On the other hand, my family also was a strong support base for me. I always discussed what happened at work with my husband and children. When I went to EFCC, I warned my children that friends could approach them… In fact my husband who also runs a law firm stoutly rejected any case that would put his firm against the EFCC. He never visited me in the office. So my family always supported me. I really benefitted from the support of my family when I was appointed EFCC chairperson. I came in at a very difficult period in the life of the agency. The first chairman had just left and people adduced different reasons for this. It was even more difficult because I had just returned from Turkey where I had been trained to be an ambassador’s wife, how to be prim and proper. Now I was back in Nigeria, with people working so hard to ensure I wasn’t confirmed by the Senate, they wrote all kinds of things, but I scaled through. Then they promised me that I wouldn’t last up to three months. But all through these, I enjoyed the support of my family and I always remembered what President Yar’Adua told me about remaining focused even when the attacks come. He told me as long as I operated under the rule of law, he would protect me. I’m glad he kept to his word.
You are a Tiv woman from Benue state but you married a man from Gombe state. How easy was it convincing your family to accept your choice for a life partner?
It is quite interesting because I used to spend a lot of time with a priest, Brother Valentine. He was the first Catholic priest from Tiv land. He used to be very strict with us, when we walked for him at St. Augustine’s Church Lafia, Nasarawa State. As a young girl I did a lot of work at the church, arranging flowers, sewing mattresses and patching Reverend fathers cassocks. I spent my holidays at the church. So, when my husband came to my father, he advised him to go to see Father Valentine in Nasarawa. His response was surprising, he asked the then Bishop of Kaduna to talk to me. Incidentally, one of the Reverend fathers who was sent to speak to me, Father Donal Murray later became the Bishop of the Markurdi Diocese. They went about the issue jokingly. They asked if I would like to be with a gentleman from where you would see a woman with a baby on her back and firewood on her head, with a gentleman working in her front? They asked me if I would like to be the woman who would hide behind the curtain to look at visitors who come to see my husband as I would not be allowed in the sitting room? They joked about the whole thing really. I was really surprised, I thought they would protest because they wanted me to be a nun. But they made jest about the proposal asking me if it was what I wanted. And it didn’t take much time after this when Father Valentine died, it was as if he had a premonition of his death and allowed me to make this important choice myself. I like inter-tribal marriages. I think they are good especially if you can mange it well. I remember when somethings happen in my husband’s place, I would fake a frown and say, ‘we don’t do this in my place’ and quickly they feel sorry for me and let me off the hook (Laughter). My husband would support me repeating my explanation. Inter-tribal marriages are really interesting especially if you marry into a family that loves and accepts you, like my in-laws did.
You seem to have a good sense of humour, easily describing things jokingly more than you do that seriously…?
Yes, I have a good sense of humour. I took it from my father, he was a very funny man. I like to talk and laugh with the people around me. I don’t like to see people suffer. I don’t like human suffering. Yes, I do like to share jokes and I love to make people laugh. I remember when I used to go to see President Yar’Adua and the men would say, just do two minutes, he is not feeling so great today. But I loved to chat with him, to get him to relax and until he would say, ‘Farida, I told you, I want to go and pray’. (Laughter). But it doesn’t mean that I don’t take tasks seriously. I don’t bite easily. But if you put your hand in my mouth, I will bite and very hard.
Former EFCC Chairman, Madam Waziri.