Rafsanjani: Nigeria Should Establish Trust Fund to Manage Recovered Assets

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On the sidelines of the just concluded 2017 Spring Meetings of the World Bank Group/International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C., Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, executive director of Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), a non-profit organisation based in Abuja, shares his views on critical economic matters in Nigeria, including taxation, women empowerment, and corruption. In this interview with Funke Olaode, he also expatiates on some of the issues that came up at the five-day policy dialogue sessions, which the two international financial bodies held with civil society organisations at the Washington meetings. Excerpts:

How would you describe your experience at the just concluded meetings in Washington? 

The WBG/IMF is a forum where policies and issues which have a direct bearing on the citizens of various countries are being discussed and at the end of the day, suggestions and recommendations are made. Therefore, it is an opportunity for civil society to interact with the global financial institutions and also ensure that policies and programmes are not designed to undermine their countries. For me, as a Nigerian, I have been coming to this meeting for the past 10 years, attending different functions to make the civil society views and perspectives known to the financial institutions and invariably to draw the attention of our government, because sometimes you don’t have access to our government officials and IMF/World Bank is a place where you can rob minds with them and discuss what is to be done. And if they are not implementing things correctly, one can suggest and advise them on issues such as unemployment, poverty reduction, reckless spending, corruption and what is needed to overcome some of these challenges.

 

The issue of women empowerment came up at the meetings. How can this be effectively tackled in the face of the various inhibitive traditional beliefs and practices?

 The topic about women is empowerment and favourable taxation because we have realised that the only way to erase the inequality gap and poverty is to empower women and design programmes and policies that will enable women to access loan facilities. And talking about women empowerment, education is also key, as the general saying goes that if you educate a woman you educate a nation. And whatever tax policy government wants to embark on must be friendly and the tax should be a channel for meaningful development.

 

It is generally agreed that corruption is the bane of development in Africa, particularly, Nigeria. Do you think the question of corruption got sufficient attention during the meetings? 

Yes. In one of the policy forums we discussed extensively the implication of corruption, particularly, linking it up with the on-going situation in Nigeria, where some powerful corrupt individuals have actually created artificial recession and also underdeveloped the country by stealing in a crazy manner. We say, as civil society, we will continue to support any positive intervention of government until we overcome corruption in Nigeria. We have always emphasised that there must be a national strategy/policy that would include every Nigerian both in public and private sectors in the fight against corruption. Otherwise, if you reduce the fight against corruption to individual or institution it will not have positive impact. We are encouraging the Nigerian government to continue its effort in the fight against corruption. As said, corruption undermines development, it plunged Nigeria into recession, violent extremism. Given the importance of Nigeria and its relevance in Africa, we believe once Nigeria is able to get it right many countries will get it right. God has blessed us with both human and natural resources and there is no reason we should continue dwelling in perpetual poverty.  The fight against corruption is important and necessary. Many Nigerians who have shown interest in political power have turned looting into a machinery. In the past if people know you as a treasury looter they wouldn’t want to associate with you, but because of the collapse of integrity  people are now embracing criminals that have looted the country. We want to erase that notion, to turn Nigeria into a nation that promotes honesty, integrity, commitment and patriotism.

The Nigerian government has accused the international community, especially U.S., UK, Switzerland and France of being complicit in the looting of public funds in the country by providing safe havens for the looters. How big a problem do you think this is? And how can the recovered funds be invested to ensure the greatest benefit for the masses? 

We have told the Nigerian government several times that the looted money must not be re-looted when it is recovered. Not only that, we want to see specific projects that have a bearing on the average Nigerian. We have participated in the recovery of Abacha loot during the Obasanjo administration. I must confess that the money is not being accounted for and no specific project can be pointed. That is why we say this time we want to see that if the money is back, there must be an integrity trust fund established to channel these resources in terms of health, education, sanitation and water resources. Also, we want to ensure that in the integrity trust fund, civil society is represented to ensure that there is accountability.

We are worried about the complicity of these developed countries and their private commercial banks in safeguarding the looted money.  What we have started with the Swiss government is to use our colleagues in the non-governmental organisations sector to get the money back. We are also determined to use our colleagues in America, Asia and European countries to ensure that the stolen money is returned. And that is why CISLAC Transparency in Nigeria is running a project which will ensure proper audit of beneficial ownership so that whoever has a company and property in Nigeria or abroad will be listed.  With this move, there won’t be a hidden place for treasury looters to divert public funds.  Apart from working with our CSO colleagues in America and Swiss, CISLAC has been successfully registered in America and has a status of a civil society or NGO in America. It is a national registration but our operation will be based in New York, Washington, D.C. and other cities. We want to see how African democratic institutions can be linked with these countries. We have the legal recognition and we will use the opportunity to push positive agenda for Nigeria and Africa at the level of United Nations and other institutions to strengthen its capacity to ensure that Nigeria is not short-changed.

 

It has been said that the fight against corruption in Nigeria would remain largely unsuccessful if the country does not build a proper system to prevent graft? What is your view on this?  

That is why we are advocating for more institutions to fight corruption and saying that the established institutions that are saddled with the responsibilities, such as EFCC, ICPC, Code of Conduct Bureau and all other relevant agencies, should be independent and well-funded. They should be given enough power and capacity to carry out their duties, irrespective of political party that is involved, as it is done in developed countries.  Also, the judiciary must be resuscitated and restored so that Nigerians can have confidence in the judicial system. 

Many judges have been found wanting. It is very funny, those who pervert justice seek perpetual injunction for known corrupt official. This is not healthy. It calls for worry and concern. For us in the civil society community, we are worried by that kind of kangaroo judgements that have been delivered by some of these judges. That is why we think the judiciary should be on board with determination to clean itself and create confidence in Nigerians and the international community that it is not harbouring corruption. The same thing with the legislature, we want a situation whereby they will be in the forefront fighting corruption as well as carrying out legislative duties, such as laws that would checkmate abuse and plundering of our resources.

 

Why do you think it has been very difficult to successfully tackle corruption in the country? 

The reason is that in the previous administrations there were a lot of interests that made it difficult for the presidency to go after corrupt officials. For instance, a lot of people who are either appointed or elected are having corruption allegations levelled against them.

 In that kind of situation, it is difficult for government to deal successfully with such people being accused. Now, there is no room for corrupt individuals, as we can attest to the fact that for the first time, the untouchable people are being questioned. We pray and hope that it would be institutionalised and done in a manner that would erase and eliminate corruption in public offices.

 

How would you assess the effect of corruption on Nigeria’s ability to attract foreign investment and aid? 

Definitely, corruption has dealt a big blow to the country’s image and it has its consequences on the economy. For instance, the international community is interested in investment but the mind blowing corruption and looting being reported on the pages of newspapers every day is scary. 

But with the sanitation going on, it has curbed the impunity with which people deep their hands into the treasury and steal money. It has a negative impact. In the past once you carry a Nigerian passport they see you as a suspect. But this is changing gradually in the last one and a half years. But we need to intensify effort to ensure it surpasses this regime so that Nigeria can get back its image among the committee of nations. 

And this, no doubt, will have positive impact on foreign investment. No investor wants to invest in a country where corruption is the order of the day. The Malabu saga is still on-going but with time we will get it right.

 

You just said the country’s image had improved, but not long ago, former British Prime Minister David Cameron said Nigeria was “fantastically corrupt”, and the country ranks 136th on the corruption index. 

Only last week there was a revelation that certain former leaders in Nigeria were involved in high level corruption. So it will be difficult for us to dismiss such allegation by the former British leader. It is something that is happening and the kind of money that is being buried in soak away, wardrobe, underground houses of former office holders is scary. Just recently, about N13 billion was recovered from the house of “Unknown Landlords”. It is difficult to fault such revelation from a foreign leader.

The current administration can only be rated high if the tempo continues. The whistle blowing is good but it is not institutionalised and that is why we are calling on the government to institutionalise it so it can protect the whistle blowers. It will also create proper information that will be disseminated because we don’t want any information that will not lead to anything.

 

What specific role should civil society organisations play in the anticorruption fight? 

The civil society should continue to play its role by continuing to support policy against corruption and educate the public about the negative consequences of corruption in our country. If you look at the teaching hospitals across the country, they are malfunctioning. No doctors, no drugs and infrastructure are dilapidated and likewise the education sector. All the past leaders attended public schools but they have underdeveloped the institution. If you look at our roads, they are like a death trap. 

It is a shame that Nigeria has no national carrier because of looting. We have been playing our role in advocating transparency, accountability and policy that will prevent corruption. We have been supporting anticorruption agencies to carry out their duties without fear or favour. 

 

What is your take on the recent attack on the Abuja office of Amnesty International by some groups protesting against alleged anti-Nigeria bias by AI?

 It is unfortunate that some fake, faceless, hired and rented people masquerading themselves as civil society carried out such shameless protest. 

We are actually at the Amnesty Office demanding for the faces of those who said they should leave Nigeria. Amnesty didn’t say anything contrary to what is enshrined in our constitution, which is to protect against human rights abuse. These rented crowds went to the office to give ultimatum for them to leave Nigeria. This is laughable. 

Therefore, this also contradicts the stand of the military because it has  set up a committee to review the allegation made by the Amnesty International and other civil society organisations in Nigeria about inhuman treatment, torture and other human rights violations in Nigeria. 

What the rioters did was rather unfortunate and security agencies haven’t come out openly to disassociate themselves. This is worrisome.  What is more important is that the president and vice president have talked severally about their readiness to protect the human rights of every Nigerian.