Recovery of funds embezzled and stashed in foreign banks by late Head of State, General Sani Abacha, continues to be a topic of discussion in the country. The latest being the Executive’ decision to disburse the latest recovery amongst poor Nigerians. KAUTHAR ANUMBA-KHALEEL writes
The exact amount of money looted by the late former Head of State, General Sani Abacha remains unknown as the amount continues to stagger and this may be due the fact that the governments of some countries where the monies are stashed have remained tight-lipped or frustrated efforts of the Nigerian government to recover the loot.
Regardless, Nigeria, under the leadership of former President Olusegun Obasanjo initiated moves to trace and recover the monies which has been reported to be between $2 billion and $5 billion, in collaboration with some international governments.
Ironically, one of the countries that has obliged Nigeria in its quest to recover its stolen funds is Switzerland, a country that is notorious for holding wealth of corrupt individuals globally in strict confidentiality.
So far, Switzerland has reportedly repatriated all the Abacha loot deposited in Swiss banks. It was reported that $700 million was first repatriated to Nigeria, while the last tranche in the sum of $322 was returned in December, 2017.
It will be recalled that the Swiss Ambassador to Nigeria, Eric Mayoraz, a forum on Asset Recovery organised by the Swiss Embassy in Abuja, informed that as at 2012, a total of $722 million of the Abacha family money hidden in Switzerland had been repatriated.
Mayoraz was quoted as saying that an additional $322 million which was frozen by the Swiss Attorney-General, was repatriated in December, 2017.
But while the recovery of this loot are delightful, their utilisation remains a source of concern to both local and foreign observers who worry that it might end up in the pockets of a few.
In the light of this concern, the Swiss and Nigeria Governments, before the repatriation of the $322 million, signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the utilization of the fund, which is the disbursement to poor and vulnerable families under the Social Investment Programme of the Federal government to be monitored by the World Bank.
Each family captured under the programme will be given the sum of N5000 on a monthly basis under the Conditional Cash Trasnfer initiative of the Buhari administration.
It would be recalled that the Executive Arm had announced that it would begin drawing money from the $322m loot repatriated from Switzerland, this month to fund the Social Investment Programme of the government. It indicated that the money will be paid as cash transfer to poor homes, through Conditional Cash Transfers (CCT) to 300,000 households in 19 states which include: Niger, Kogi, Ekiti, Osun, Oyo, Kwara, Cross River, Bauchi, Gombe, Jigawa, Benue, Taraba, Adamawa, Kano, Katsina, Kaduna, Plateau, Nasarawa, Anambra and Borno states which are already on the National Social Register (NSR).
The Special Adviser to the President on Social Investment, Maryam Uwais, at the forum on Asset Recovery in Abuja, revealed that the recovered money will be applied to the SIP.
Manager, Legal, National Social Investment Office, Linda Ekeator, who represented her at the forum, said, “The World Bank funding will commence with the Abacha loot funding in July”.
This disclosure by the Buhari-led Government has been met with intense criticism from cross section of Nigerians for obvious reasons. This just as they also queried the criteria used by the government to determine the intended beneficiaries, and worry that the money will eventually be ‘re-looted’ or have no significant impact on the select families.
Critics have amongst other things, challenged the government’s intention to utilise the money in a manner they argue lacks logic and cannot bring about meaningful development to Nigerians.
Reacting to the announcement, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), said the Executive’s plan to share the recovered loot amongst 300,000 households, is “mis-targeted and will not bring any tangible benefits to the beneficiaries”.
In a statement signed by its Deputy Director, Timothy Adewale, 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.
“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 household 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.
SERAP also noted that the recovered money affords President Buhari the opportunity to leverage on the 2016 judgement to publish the spending of recovered loot since 1999 and details of the projects they were spent on.
“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 publish 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 election if he is to truly demonstrate his oft-repeated commitment to fight grand corruption.
“The authorities can use the loot to fund universal healthcare programme and a tuition assistance programme that would provide post-secondary/university education scholarships to young Nigerians from poor families and who would otherwise lack the resources to carry out their studies.
“In any case, distributing the returned loot to households in 19 states because the remaining 17 state governments have not yet put in place the appropriate platform through which to implement the NAASP is both unfair and discriminatory. The planned distribution is also vulnerable to abuse and corruption by state governors, who may push for the funds to be given to their supporters and thus used for parochial and political purposes. The proper and efficient spending of recovered funds is key for development and can support efforts to combat grand corruption”, SERAP stated.
Similarly, the Advocacy for Integrity and Economic Development (AIED), while faulting the proposed sharing plan, also picked holes in the compilation of the figures given that it was not provided by the National Population Commission (NCP).
AIED suggested that the money should rather be used to provide social amenities in rural areas across the country.
In a statement issued issued by it’s Director, Media and Publicity, Comrade O’Seun John, the organization said, “AIED considers this proposed act as a deceitful venture laced with the bead of corruption and graft enablement by the Federal Government. The conservative naira equivalent of the returned loot stands at a whooping N115,920,000,000. This huge fund can be channelled into providing basic social amenities and development projects that will be of direct benefits to Nigerians in the rural communities and most importantly, long lasting, rather than throwing it on a one-off payment exercise.
“Similarly, the proposed disbursement exercise in practical terms looks more like an avenue to re-loot the repatriated fund using a complex web of syndicated pyramid.
“The composition and compilation of the National Social Register (NSR) intended to be used for the exercise is questionable, as this register was not provided by the NPC but built through inputs from state government officials, most of whom have over time been involved in ghost-worker scheme in the civil and public service”, it stated.
Also, the Senator representing Kaduna Central, Senator Shehu Sani opposed the planned disbursement of the $350m loot, saying the money should be tied to projects that are visible.
Sani who took to his Twitter handle last week, said the proposed sharing is impossible, adding that the money will end up with beneficiaries chosen by political office holders.
”Sharing $350 million recovered loot to 180 million Nigerians is impossible. It will end up with beneficiaries whose names will be given by Governors, Ministers, Lawmakers and the President’s men. Let it be tied to a project Nigerians can see with their ‘Korokoro eyes’,” the lawmaker tweeted.
Others have also chided the government for allowing the swiss government dictate how the money will be used by signing an MoU.
Political Analyst, Jafez Ikenna, who opined that the sharing was not well-thought out, said, “I don’t understand why the federal government will sign an MoU that tells you how to spend your money; the funds we are talking about is Nigeria’s, it is not a loan or grant, so why sign it in the first place.
“In any case, any MoU signed with a foreign government relating to spending Nigeria’s money is not binding on this country because it can’t override our constitution and the laws of the country.
“If you look up Sections 80 and 81 of the constitution, it is clear about how federal revenues is generated, kept, authorised for expenditure and spent. That the federation account and authorisation can only be given by the National Assembly. We are simply talking about following due process. No country should coerce us or tell us how to spend our money”, Ikenna submitted.
In the same vein, the House of Representatives last week, countered the planned disbursement, argued that the money ought to be returned to the Federation Account for onward distribution to the federating units. It also opined that rather than share the money, the executive should channel it towards infrastructural development.
However, the lower chamber did not just stop there as it also resolved to investigate the roles played by previous administrations under former Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo, the late Umar Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan in the recovery of funds looted by late Abacha.
The probe which will also cover the current administration, which concluded the latest negotiation with the Swiss Government to return $322m to Nigeria, will also have these administrations reveal the total funds recovered from the Abacha loot as well as how the money was being utilised over the years.
The resolutions read, “Set up an ad hoc committee to investigate the total Abacha loot recovered from 1998 to date; establish the sources and how the money was utilised; “Establish all agreements signed by the government to determine whether they followed due process”.
This decision follows debate on a motion opposing a Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Swiss Government and the Buhari administration upon which the latter’s decision to share the $322m to 300,000 poor families is hinged on.
Sponsor of the motion, Hon. Karimi Sunday, during his debate, noted that any MoU between Nigeria and another government is not binding unless it is approved by the National Assembly.
Sunday also argued that it was not the responsibility of the Swiss Government to dictate to Nigeria on how to spend her funds. “This money was stolen from Nigeria. It is our money. So, it is the duty of the Nigerian legislature to decide how the money will be spent by appropriation.
“The position taken by the government that the money will be paid directly to the accounts of poor Nigerians, based on the MoU purported to have been signed with the Swiss Government is not acceptable”.
The lawmaker who said the Federal Government’s share could be paid into the Consolidated Revenue Fund where it would be appropriated by the National Assembly on federal projects, further said the executive should forward a supplementary budget to the National Assembly for the government’s share of the $322m to be used for the completion of the Ajaokuta Steel Company.
In his contribution, Hon. Abdulmumin Jibrin noted the need for the House to first determine the exact amount of funds recovered from the Abachas’ since 1998.
Jibrin explained that the knowledge of the total amount recovered and how the funds were spent by successive governments would assist the House in taking a position on the $322m.
The former chairman, committee on Appropriation revealed that “At some point, while I was the Chairman, Committee on Finance, we were told that it was $1bn. $1bn is about N350bn. At another time, the figure was given as $1.5bn. So, we don’t know what the figure is”, Jibrin submitted.
Also, Hon Nicholas Ossai, opined that the Buhari-led government has not been open to Nigerians on the recovery of looted funds. “The EFCC and other agencies also recovered funds, but we don’t know how the money has been spent”.
However, Hon. Kayode Oladele, argued that the government’s decision to distribute the money to the poor was in line with the terms of the negotiations with the Swiss Government.
Oladele, who is the chairman, committee on Financial Crimes, disclosed that he was part of government’s delegation that signed the MoU, and explained that there had been concerns raised over how returned funds were abused in the past.
This is not the first time the House will probe anything to do with the Abacha loot. Recall that it resolved to probe the $16.9 million (representing 5 per cent) professional fees on value of the repatriated loot that would be paid to some Nigerian lawyers, Dipo Okpeseyi and Temitope Adebayo, who were said to have provided legal services that led to the signing of the MoU and the completion of the repatriation process.
Media reports however had it that the process had already been completed by the Swiss lawyer, Mr. Enrico Monfrini, who began the repatriation process back in 1999, as such, there was no reason to engage any other lawyer, a development that led to public outcry and the intervention of the House.
It was also reported that the Attorney General of the federation, Abubakar Malami had engaged the Nigerian lawyers in 2016, after Monfrini reportedly reapplied to complete the process on payment of a fresh service charge of twenty percent ($64.2 million) on the value of the money. The Nigerian government counter-offered but the Swiss lawyer had refused.
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