By Eric Elezuo
While every succeeding Nigerian administration has preached against corruption and looting of the treasury, none has as a matter fact lived up to expectation, though arguably. This is even more obvious since the advent of the Fourth Republic in 1999. The civilian administrations, where adequate accountability was required, has without a doubt betrayed the confidence.
As the administrations from Chief Olusegun Obasanjo to the Muhammadu Buhari in the present dispensation, corruption and looting of the commonwealth has not ceased, but what is more worrisome is the effrontery to reloot the recovered loots, especially that from the late head of State, General Sani Abacha, who ruled from 1993 to 1998 when he died in office. Abacha’s sudden death in office did not allow him to cover up his stealing tracks, more so, as he was in the process of translating to a civilian president.
Consequently, administrations that came after had remained in the forefront of recovering the stolen funds stashed away in various foreign accounts including Switzerland, Liechtenstein, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.
As at February 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nigeria was said to have recovered an estimated total of $4.6 billion in the following categories according to Transparency International on its verified Twitter handle.
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo recovered $2 billion from the looted fund as follows; $1.2 billion in 2002; $149 million from Jersey Island, UK in 2003; $500 million in 2004 from Switzerland and another $458 recovered in 2005 from Switzerland, while former Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, recovered $750 million just as former President Goodluck Jonathan succeeded in recovering $277 million among others.
In the same vein, President Muhammadu Buhari, who was part Abacha’s administration when the funds were looted, serving then as the Chairman of Petroleum Trust Fund has so far recovered $630 million as follows $322 million from Switzerland in 2017 and $308 million from Jersey Island, United Kingdom in February 2020. Records also have it the Abacha family voluntarily returned $1bn, rounding up a grand total of the so far recovered loot to $4, 607, 000, 000.
It was only late former President, Umar Yar’adua, who ruled between 2007 and 2010, that did not succeed in recovering anything from the Abacha loot.
However, more recoveries were made afterwards. For instance, in May 2020, at the peak of the Coronavirus scourge, another $311m was released to Nigeria. It was like a grace from the grave.
But there are concerns that the funds have not been injected into the economy, making not a few Nigerians to believe that they may have been ‘re-looted’ and squandered by the government of the day.
it would be recalled that an agreement was signed by the federal government, the government of Jersey and the United States when a certain $308m was to be repatriated.
The Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami, who signed the agreement behalf of Nigeria, projected that three major projects across Nigeria would gulped the funds. The projects include the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway (Western Region), Abuja-Kano Road (Northern Region), and Second Niger Bridge (Eastern Region).
The administration of Buhari has accused the governments before it of mismanaging the recovered funds during their regimes, saying that it has no records of the exact amount of public funds stolen by Abacha, and no records of the spending loot recovered between 1999 and 2015. This was in response to the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) enquiries to the offices of the Ministers of Justice and Finance, regarding the recovered looted funds.
“We have searched our records and the information on the exact amount of public funds stolen by Abacha and how recovered loot was spent from 1999–2015 is not held by the Ministry,” Malami said.
SERAP had expressed: “concerns that substantial part of the estimated $5 billion returned Abacha loot since 1999 may have been diverted, re-stolen or mismanaged, and in any case remain unaccounted for.”
While attempting to exonerate the Buhari administration and indict the previous administrations of Obasanjo, Yar’dua and Jonathan, Malami added: “However, a total of $322 million was recovered from Switzerland in January 2018 and the funds were used for Social Investment Project. Also, $308 million was recovered from the Island of Jersey in collaboration with the USA. While awaiting the transfer of the money to Nigeria, it has been designated for the following projects: Lagos—Ibadan Expressway; Abuja—Kano Expressway, and Second Niger Bridge.”
But according to SERAP’s Deputy Director, Kolawole Oluwadare said: “The failure to provide information on the exact amount stolen by Abacha and on spending of recovered loot for the period between 1999 and 2015 implicitly amounts to a refusal by the government. The government also failed to provide sufficient details on the spending and planned spending of the $630 million it said it recovered since 2018.”
SERAP also quoted a panel as saying that the Abubakar administration “recovered some $635 million, £75 million, DM 30 million and N9 billion as well as several vehicles and properties in Abuja, Lagos and Kano together with 40% interests in West African Refinery in Sierra Leone. Other assets were recovered from the Abacha family and associates.
“Furthermore, former President Olusegun Obasanjo administration also reportedly recovered over $2 billion of Abacha loot. Mr Obasanjo would seem to confirm this fact when he stated in the second volume of his book titled My Watch that: ‘by the time I left office in May 2007, over $2 billion and £100 million had been recovered from the Abacha family abroad, and N10 billion in cash and properties locally.
“Similarly, former President Goodluck Jonathan administration reportedly recovered $226.3 million and €7.5 Million from Liechtenstein. Some £22.5 million was also recovered from the Island of Jersey while $322 million and £5.5 million from the Abacha loot were reportedly returned to the government.
“The government of President Muhammadu Buhari has also recovered several millions of dollars of Abacha loot since assuming office in May 2015, including $321 million from Switzerland, and $300 million from the US and Jersey.”
While the whole world, especially Nigerian citizens continue to wonder what has become of the recovered loots, the Buhari government announced that the sum of $311 million repatriated to Nigeria following the tripartite agreement with the United States and the Bailiwick of Jersey earlier in 2020, has been handed over to the Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority for investment in road projects.
One of the government’s unsubstantiated claims however, is that the recovered Abacha loot was distributed to Nigerians through the cash transfer programme.
Even with the massive mismanagement and re-looting of the economy and recovered loots respectively by successive administrations, especially the present government, the Buhari government has insisted that the about to be recovered money stolen by former Delta State governor, James Ibori, will not be returned to its original owners, Delta State, but retained by the Federal Government, a move many Nigerians have cried foul about.
Ibori was convicted by a court in the United Kingdom in 2012 for various offences ranging from gross misconduct, money laundering and other financial crimes. It would be recalled that Nigerian courts have already had exonerated and acquitted him of all crimes before the UK court’s judgment. His conviction, no doubt elicited mixed reactions. He was jailed for 13 years but was released on December 9, 2016, after serving a fraction of the jail term.
Today again, on account of Ibori, another mixed reactions are playing out. This is with regards to the British Government’s resolve to return to Nigeria £4.2million (about N2.2 billion) funds recovered from friends and family members of the former governor.
In a sad twist, the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, who many believed has supervised a lot of controversies in recent times, disclosed that the £4.2million will not be returned to Delta State from where it was stolen, but would be kept by the Federal Government, and be deployed to complete the second Niger Bridge in addition to other projects, he added that the money would also impact significantly on the Lagos-Ibadan and the Abuja-Kano expressway projects.
“In consonance with existing framework engaged in the management of previous recoveries, the Federal Executive Council has directed that the instant repatriated funds should be deployed towards the completion of the Second Niger Bridge, Abuja-Kano expressway and the Lagos-Ibadan expressway under the coordination of the Nigeria Social Investment Authority (NSIA),” Malami said.
Malami and the Federal government’s desire to hold on to the Ibori loot, instead of handing over to the rightful owner, the government of Delta State, may not be unconnected to the fact that the fund is huge. The British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Ms. Catriona Laing, while concluding a Memorandum of Understanding with Malami, had said the money was the first tranche of such a planned refund, noting that the Ibori case is complicated and the United Kingdom authorities were still working on the total and actual amount involved in the case.
Malami’s insistence is hinged on the fact other than projects that federal government had all along provided the required mutual assistance and back up to the British authorities while the prosecution of James Ibori lasted in London.
Critics have however, questioned the rationale behind ploughing the fund into the same projects that previous recovered Abacha loot had been allocated to.
Reacting through the Commissioner for Information, Charles Aniagwu, the Delta State government described the Federal Government’s plan to siphon the recovered fund as the height of wickedness.
“Why should Delta State money be used in building Lagos-Ibadan Expressway or Abuja-Kano rail? Is the Federal Government saying it doesn’t know the origin of the money? The money belongs to Delta State. We would have understood if the Federal Government had said it wants to receive 20 per cent, but to take all the money is wrong,” he said.
Lending credence to the commissioner’s assessment, the Chief Press Secretary to Governor Ifeanyi Okowa, Olise Ifeajika, reminded that Ibori was never a Federal minister, but Delta governor, and consequently, there was no basis to share the money, not to talk of forfeiting it to the federal government in totality. He insisted that the government has “no business handling the money or spending it for any projects whatsoever without consulting the state, because the money is for the state. Even, the project they are talking about is not in Delta.”
Other prominent Nigerians have also lent their voices in condemnation of the Federal Government’s decision to deny Delta State of the recovered looted fund. Among them is the Chairman, Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC), Prof. Itse Sagay, who in recent times, has been having a running battle with Malami, leading to the Justice Minister expressing a desire to disband the committee.
PACAC had accused Malami of interfering in the committee’s works, especially on their report on some corrupt Nigerians.
The committee also incurred Malami’s wrath when it declared public support for the reappointment of Ibrahim Magu, former acting chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) against Malami’s desires.
Malami, in a memo to President Buhari, had accused Magu of a myriad of contraventions, especially “diversion of recovered loot, insubordination and misconduct”, alleging that he was not transparent enough in the management of the recovered assets.
Magu was later probed, found guilty and sacked. With the appointment and confirmation of Abdulrasheed Bawa as replacement, PACAC again suggested that Malami will not allow the new EFCC boss perform his duties as a result of his constant interferences.
Nigerians from all walks of life have said that Malami’s argument that the committee has outlived its usefulness, is just another ploy to have it disbanded, and its duties transferred to his office as was the case of the Special Presidential Investigation Panel for the Recovery of Public Property (SPIP) formerly under the supervision of Okoi Obono-Obla. Buhari disbanded the SPIP in September 2019 and transferred the duties of the panel to Malami.
Sagay, in a Guardian report, supported the Delta State government, saying “The money is Delta State money and must be returned to Delta State. Federal Government cannot appropriate it for any reason whatsoever. Delta State should officially demand it, failing which the court can be activated for a judicial pronouncement in that regard.” In the same vein, the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), a non-governmental advocacy body, said “the funds should be utilized to compensate victims of corruption in Delta State from whom it was stolen…the Federal Government committed to responsible asset return and citizens of Delta are clearly the victims here.”Other citizens, who believe the money should be returned to Delta State are Human rights lawyer, Femi Falana (SAN), Delta State-based lawyer, Chief Albert Akpomudje SAN, Constitutional lawyer and author, Chief Sebastine Hon (SAN), Lagos-based lawyer, Emeka Okpoko (SAN) among a retinue of other voices. The Federal Government might be leveraging on the judgment of Justice Gabriel Kolawole 2016, who had accused the Delta State government of protecting Ibori, thereby ruling that the $15 million, which Ibori allegedly wanted to use in bribing a former Chairman of the EFCC, Nuhu Ribadu, be paid into the Federation Account and not the Delta State coffers.
Tension remains high as to the steps the Federal Government would take considering that the High Commissioner has said that the £4.2 million would be made available to Nigeria “in the next couple of days”.