Suspicious Sleight of Hand

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Segun James argues the decision of the federal government to share monies recovered from the Swiss government to certain families in 19 states may be a tacit ploy to score a political goal.

There is no doubt that the past few years have been difficult for Nigeria, largely due to the unstable price of oil, the country’s most profitable export.

This has made it more difficult to obtain funding to support economic and social development programmes.

In the middle of this economic quagmire, the federal government announced that USD322 million looted from the Nigerian treasury and lodged in several Swiss banks, which have been recovered will be shared to 300,000 households in the country.

The announcement revealed that each household will get about $14 (approximately #5,000) monthly as part of the government’s move to ensure that the ordinary Nigerian benefits from the recovered fund.

The road to this began when the Federal Government, soon after it received the fund, announced it will commence disbursement of the recovered N322 million dollars Abacha loot through Conditional Cash Transfers (CCT) to 302,000 poor households in 19 states in July.

Mr. Tukur Rumar, of the National Cash Transfer Office (NTCO), said this at a roundtable on assets recovery organised by the Swiss Embassy in Abuja. The event was organised to intimate citizens and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) on the efforts both nations were making on asset recovery after the Post-Global Forum on Assets Recovery (GFAR) held in Washington D.C. in December 2017.

At the forum, Nigeria made commendable commitments on beneficial ownership, tax transparency, asset recovery, transparency management of recovered funds and payments to victims of corruption. The states are: Niger, Kogi, Ekiti, Osun, Oyo, Kwara, Cross River, Bauchi, Gombe, Jigawa, Benue, Taraba, Adamawa, Kano, Katsina, Kaduna, Plateau, Nasarrawa, Anambra and Internally Displaced Camps (IDPs) in Borno.

According to Rumar, the benefiting households will receive N5,000 monthly and are derived from the National Social Register (NSR) that the 19 states are already on.

He said the programme was designed to train beneficiaries on livelihood skills, social skills and other programmes that would change their lives completely.

Surprisingly, Rumar also disclosed that NCTO had been making payments to the 46,000 poor and vulnerable households across the 19 states since Dec. 2016, adding that the number had increased to 290,000. This was a surprise to many people.

Mr. Iorwa Apera, the National Coordinator, National Social Safety Net Coordinating Office (NASSCO), said 503,055 households were already on the NSR register from the 19 states, adding that by July, there would be a social register for all the states of the federation.

He said that of the Abacha loot, about 302,000 poor homes across the 19 states would be mined by the NCTO to begin to receive the Abacha loot. Apera told the participants that the Federal Government would begin with those states, because they had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with NASSCO to put in place certain infrastructure to empower the national register.

“Some of the states delayed, but the other ones were quick enough to set up infrastructure that allowed us to start work there, but all the states are now on board as they have set up their state operating offices and donated office equipment to us. As states come on board, we enroll and so they extend to the beneficiary register, and presently we are generating data in all the states,’’ he said.

Mrs. Linda Ekeator of the office of the Special Adviser to the President on Social Investment said the Abacha loot was invested in the social investment programme, because it was a programme that was already supported by the World Bank. She said that before the money was returned to Nigeria, there was an agreement with the Swiss government that it should be used for alleviating poverty and this was to be done with the supervision of the World Bank.

The Swiss Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. Eric Mayoraz said the USD722 million of the Abacha family money that was hidden in Switzerland was fully repatriated in 2005. He also said that the USD322 million that was repatriated in December 2017, was previously frozen by the Swiss Attorney-General, but was not domiciled in Switzerland, but in other countries, mainly Luxembourg.

Until this recent decision, such moneys were shared among the states of the federation. The monies were supposedly used by state governments for projects that benefited the people entire populace, instead of a few households.

In Bayelsa state, following the recovery of such monies from the former governor of the state, Chief Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, the government of Chief Timipre Sylva used it to build five multistoried building in the Yenagoa Central Business District which it called the Transparency Buildings.

At that time, Sylva insisted that the recovered fund must be used to do something tangible that the people would be able to point to as the benefit from the recovered loot.

But as lofty as the decision of the federal government maybe, the criteria for sharing the money is suspect.

The questions on many lips include how the amount to each family was determined? What will #5,000 monthly do for a household of six? How was the money shared and who are the beneficiaries? What is the ratio of urban and rural dwellers in the sharing formula? How are the rural dwellers paid? Is it through a dedicated bank account and with which bank? Finally, why give the money to households in 19 states in a country with 36 states?

Questions such as these are what prompted the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) to say that the plan by the government of President Muhammadu Buhari to share the $350million (around N115 billion) loot recovered from former military ruler, late Gen. Sani Abacha among estimated 300,000 households is “mis-targeted and would not bring any tangible benefits to the beneficiaries.”

SERAP said, “The authorities have a legal obligation under the UN Convention Against Corruption to which Nigeria is a state party to make sure that the returned Abacha loot is properly and efficiently used, both from the viewpoint of using asset recovery as a tool of ensuring justice to victims of corruption and breaking the cycle of grand corruption. But the plan to share the loot among households is mere tokenism and would neither have significant impact on poverty alleviation nor satisfy the twin objectives of justice and development.”

The government announced last week that starting from July, it would distribute the returned loot by the Swiss authorities to around 300,000 households, with each getting around $14 a month.

SERAP in its statement signed by its deputy director Mr. Timothy Adewale said, “Rather than spending the loot to fund the National Social Safety Net Program (NAASP), President Buhari should, within the framework of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), create a central recovery account/trust funds, with oversight mechanisms to ensure repatriated funds are transparently and accountably spent to invest in tangible projects that would improve access of those living in poverty to essential public services such as water, education and health.

“Distributing N5,000 to households would neither improve the socio-economic conditions of beneficiaries nor achieve the enduring value of a more transparent and robust system to manage recovered loot,” the organization insisted, adding that “the return of the Abacha loot is a chance for President Buhari to commit to the enforcement of the 2016 judgment by Justice Mohammed Idris, which ordered his government to disclose the spending of recovered loot since 1999 by past and present governments till date, as well as details of projects on which the funds were spent; and to vigorously push the National Assembly to pass the Proceeds of Crime Bill. Buhari should make these happen before the next general elections if he is to truly demonstrate his oft-repeated commitment to fight corruption.”

For a country under so many social and economic challenges, with millions living under the poverty line and the ever widening gap between the rich and the poor, the decision by the government to share the money barely seven months to the 2019 general election is suspect; especially when such action is considered as not so urgent.

According Chief Sunday Olomo, “What can N5,000 a month do for any household in the country where the average family, including the husband and wife is six? What can N5,000 buy in Nigeria today? What difference will it make in the life of the beneficiaries?

“There are so many things that the government is not telling us. How many of the supposed beneficiaries do you know? Mark my words, these are political times. We will never know exactly what is happening. It is going to end as the more you look, the less you see.”

Also sharing similar sentiment Mr. Jonathan Ezenwa made it clear that the money will no doubt be diverted to politics by the government and the All Progressives Congress (APC) to prosecute the 2019 election.

According to Ezenwa, the government’s reason and sharing formula are not convincing; saying that this type of situation prompted international watchdog, Transparency International (TI) to say that corruption was actually worse under President Buhari than previous leaders despite his anticorruption stance.

While it might seem reasonable to suggest that a palliative such as this is good idea, but since most Nigerians are rural dwellers and have no access to banking facilities, they will be disenfranchised from enjoying this seeming good gesture by the government.