Making Recovered Loots Work for Nigeria

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Late Sani Abacha

The Nigerian government recently reached an agreement with the U.S and Jersey governments for the return of more than $300m in funds connected to a former head of state, General Sani Abacha, who ruled Nigeria between 1993 and 1998. How the monies will be spent to benefit the Nigerian people was a major point of the agreement. Nosa James-Igbinadolor reports

Corruption in Nigeria is massive. PwC Nigeria estimates that “corruption in Nigeria could cost up to 37 per cent of GDP by 2030, if it’s not dealt with immediately. This cost is equated to around $1,000 per person in 2014 and nearly $2,000 per person by 2030”.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) posits that “close to US $400 billion was stolen between 1960 and 1999. Sani Abacha alone is estimated to have stolen the equivalent of 2 – 3 per cent of the country’s GDP for every year that he was President”.

 According to the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, “Nigerians themselves view their country as one of the world’s most corrupt; it perennially ranks in the bottom quartile of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.

“The scale and scope of bribery in Nigeria is massive: in 2016 alone, Nigerian officials collected an estimated 82.3 million bribes totalling $4.6 billion, according to a recent study based on a nationwide survey.”

It was the legal luminary, Chief Afe Babalola, who aptly noted that, “since his death in 1998, the late General Sani Abacha has remained in the news not only for the documented brutality of his regime, but also the seemingly never-ending efforts to repatriate funds alleged to have been stolen during his administration.”

On February 4, 2020, Nigeria reached an agreement with the United States of America and the British crown dependency of Jersey to repatriate more than $300million in funds connected to former Nigerian military ruler General Sani Abacha, who ruled Nigeria between 1993 and 1998. It is estimated that he stole as much as $5billion of public money during that time, doing vast harm to the Nigerian people. He was never charged with corruption during his life, and the nation has been fighting for years to recover the money.

Nigeria has been working with governments around the world in recent years on an asset recovery scheme to help repatriate its stolen funds to boost its finances. The government did not state how much in total it believes Abacha stole. As of 2013, Nigeria had recovered about $1.3billion of Abacha’s money from various European jurisdictions, with more than a third of that from Switzerland. The Swiss government in 2017 said it would return to Nigeria about $321million in assets seized from Abacha’s family via a deal signed with the World Bank.

The United States insisted that the return of the funds will come with certain conditions regarding how they would be utilised. As announced, the funds must be tied to three major projects spread across the country’s recognised regions, namely; Lagos-Ibadan Express Road, Abuja-Kano Road, 2nd Niger Bridge (Eastern Region). According to reports, the agreement of the return of the fund was preceded by negotiations touching on those, who would manage the funds and a monitoring process for the administration of the funds. The agreement between the three entities further included the condition that, the projects on which the funds will be expended will be administered by the Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority and independently audited.

The State Department statement had noted that, “the agreement establishes a framework based on fruitful co-operation, trust and respect so that the forfeited funds can be repatriated to benefit the people of Nigeria, from whom they had been taken. The use of the funds will be subject to monitoring and reporting obligations.”

The United States and Nigeria’s other allies have every reason to be worried with respect to how repatriated funds are utilised.

The repatriation of this set of funds to the Buhari administration in itself countervails Buhari’s publicly pronounced view that General Abacha never stole from the country. In June 2008, Buhari, who had just lost election as presidential candidate of the All Nigerian People’s Party (ANPP) denied that General Sani Abacha under whom he served as chairman of the Petroleum Trust Fund looted the treasury. “Ten years without the late Abacha, the said allegations remain silent because there are no facts. All the allegations levelled against the personality of the late Gen Sani Abacha will remain allegations. It is 10 years now, things should be over by now,” Buhari had said

He had further posited at the time, that rather than maligning Abacha, the late ruler deserved to be praised for initiating developmental ideas that moved the country forward.

A chieftain of the Yoruba socio-cultural group, Afenifere, Chief Ayo Adebanjo, said it was a shame in the first instance that Buhari who once told Nigerians that Abacha did not steal was now discussing with America how to repatriate to the country money looted by the late former head of state.

“Nigeria’s level of corruption has been exposed to the entire world and that is the reason America is giving us conditions. This government could not even explain to Nigerians how the money it claimed to have recovered since 2015 has been spent. There is no transparency in this government.”

Under Buhari, returned Abacha loots have been expended in a manner devoid of accountability and scrupulousness.

Maryam Uwais, the Special Adviser to the President on Social Investments, had last year, said that the federal government had been channelling the recovered Abacha loot and the International Development Association /World Bank credit towards programmes and policies designed to address the plight of poor and vulnerable Nigerians. The Presidential aide said from August 2018 to the October payment cycle, the total amount disbursed from the Abacha loot was $76,538,530 and $27,099,028 from the IDA credit. Uwais, who said the funds, which were specifically being disbursed to beneficiaries of the National Cash Transfer Programme, a component of the National Social Investment Programme, noted that the gesture was positively changing the fortune of many Nigerians.

Former Ekiti state governor, Ayo Fayose had in 2019 accused the Buhari administration of “re-looting” the Abacha funds under the Trader Moni scheme. Fayose had pondered if it was not funny that the same Buhari who insisted that the late Abacha never stole was the one taking pride in his government use of Trader Moni scheme to allegedly re-loot the $322 million recovered from the loot, he (Abacha) stashed in Switzerland. “If not that the ‘Trader Moni’ scheme was to re-loot the recovered Abacha loot, the proper way was for beneficiaries to be captured biometrically and the N10,000 paid into their bank accounts instead of the vice president going to the market to share cash.

“Most importantly, there is nowhere that the vice president will travel to outside Abuja that he won’t spend up to N25 million on his allowances, maintenance of presidential jet and the allowances of his retinue of aides, including security men.

“Therefore, of what economic sense is going to say Kano to share the N10,000 cash to 1,000 people? Isn’t spending N25 million to share N10 million same as being penny wise pound foolish? 

“How will the disbursements be audited since there is no record? Why not just take inventory of the beneficiaries, capture them biometrically and pay the money into their accounts so that no one will be able to collect the money twice and in future, the beneficiaries can be traced?”

Repatriation of stolen monies avails the federal government additional resources for development activities. The challenge is to ensure efficient, accountable and transparent use of such assets, given the continued prevalence of corruption at various levels of government in the country as well as the incapacity and lack of political will by the government to deal with the expansive issues of corruption.

Transparency allows for better utilisation of recovered assets, and better targeting of resources into sectors that have potential to benefit the victims of corruption, who happen to be mostly the poor. Lack of effective follow-up mechanisms would lead to the inappropriate allocation of resources into sectors that have little effect on alleviating poverty such as the current government’s National Social Investment Programmes (NSIP), which has gulped over N500 billion with no touchable outcome in terms of achieving its target of lifting 100 million Nigerians out of poverty. On the contrary, the number of people that live below extreme poverty level in the country has jumped up to 94,470,535 people, making it the World Capital of Poverty.

The insistence by the U.S and Jersey governments on the preciseness and thoroughness of the projects that the most recent batch of repatriated funds would be expended on, no doubt shows a clear disaffection with how looted funds had been utilised in the past. It portrays a determination by both governments to ensure that the benefits of the looted assets get to the Nigerian people. It clearly shows a more empathetic interest in the well-being of Nigerians, that successive governments including the Buhari administration have not shown.

As Afe Babalola noted: “Ours is a country with a history of monumental waste of public resources on projects which have either not seen the light of day or have failed to provide any benefit to the populace. The most monumental of these would be the Ajaokuta Steel Project, which at the last count had gulped $8 billion of public funds.”