The Real McCoy of Asset Recovery, By Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku

#TrackNigeria -Just about six months ago, we wrote an article on certain aspects on one of Nigeria’s biggest heists, the Abacha loot.  We titled it The other Abacha Loot(s),  Our position in that article was that beyond the klieg light and the frenzy ascribable to the return of the last batch of the Abacha loot from Switzerland, there were still a lot more of that heist spread out all over the Americas and the Scandinavia like margarine on hot bread. We got our idea from a deal that the Goodluck Jonathan administration struck with the Abacha patrimony. Simply put, the terms of reference of that deal suggested that even though Nigeria recognized that the famous Abacha loot dot the crannies of Europe and the Americas, a return of this last batch – the $322.5million – and with the cooperation of the Abachas – Nigeria would have to kiss the rest of those billions of dollars goodbye.

On our part, we found this idea preposterous. However, just to ascertain the veracity of that unsigned document, we sought the input of the international lawyers who brokered this obnoxious deal. None of them responded to our email requests for info, especially Nicola Boulton & partners who with Messrs Monfrini facilitated the payment of USD28million from the Abacha loot to a certain Christian Luscher of CMS Von Erlach Ponchet Ltd for ‘professional fees’. Therefore, that article, The other Abacha Loots, was a call to action on the Nigerian government, to repudiate that agreement and go full swing to launch a massive hunt for all the Abacha and other monies – the Dieziani, Ibori, IBB et all that were stolen and stashed in safe havens.

We had our doubts that the Nigerian government would be taking a listen to this, especially from the body language of our esteemed presido. He was Abacha’s hand at the Petroleum Trust Fund, PTF, a body that allegedly paid Abacha an unknown percentage from accruals from our oil exports. On many occasions as well, he had denied that there was any Abacha loot. But surprise, surprise, it looked as if while our government was playing the ostrich with a matter as serious as Nigerian monies hidden in Scandinavian and American banks, the international community seemed to be taking a listen. The idea – to continue to dig and recover those monies seemed to have gained some international grip of some sort. The other day, Nigerians read in the news that there was newly discovered Abacha loot, and it was worth £211m (nearly N86billion).

Prior to this new discovery, there were all kinds of shenanigans ascribable to the recovery and return of the one billion dollars of the Abacha monies that Switzerland returned to Nigeria in 2018. The Obasanjo government was alleged to have re-looted the first tranche apparently because during its utilization, the government did not consult key stakeholders to ‘monitor’ the process. Therefore, when signing an MoU with the Nigerian government in Washington DC in December 2017, the Swiss took great care to ensure that the World Bank and Civil Society groups were factored in. They wanted Nigeria to utilize (not distribute – both words are not synonyms) the returned monies for the benefit of all Nigerians, and not for the ‘poorest of the poor’ as was peddled by interested parties.  

But of course, the utilization or ‘distribution’ of the returned $322.5million threw up a lot of issues: why were the Swiss and World Bank dictating to Nigeria how to spend it? Why not tie the ‘distribution’ to an already existing government programme like the Social Investment Programme, SIP, and all other contraptions like the  Conditional Cash Transfer, run by a National Cash Transfer Office, NCTO. All these at the end of the day, the money seemingly ended up being re-looted. As we speak, there is no hard evidence for public scrutiny and debate how the monies were ‘distributed’, apart from some of it allegedly being used for vote buying and the matter compounded by the contradictory statements coming from Aisha Buhari, first lady of Nigeria, and Maryam Uwais, Coordinator of the Social Investment Programme, SIP.

Therefore, the history of the re-looting of the Abacha loot is about to repeat itself with the newly discovered Abacha money.  One, so many interest groups are poised, ready to begin to adumbrate on the ‘distribution’ of the loot to the ‘poorest of the poor’. But most of all, there is going to be an intense power play between the players on the demand and supply sides, and arrangements to indirectly benefit from the new loot will feature prominently.   

We will dwell on one of the arguments canvassed by both the demand and supply side of the development spectrum that drove the ‘distribution’ of N5, 000 to the ‘poorest of the poor’.  The ‘distribution’ of the Abacha loot being was tied to the Conditional cash transfer, and the argument was that to the ‘poorest of the poor’, five thousand naira made a lot of difference especially in the light of market forces.  That is not true and we will tell you why.  When compared to purchasing power of other currencies like the Ghanaian, Libyan and British currencies, that money is an insult even to the poorest of the poor. This is because our people (before we get to the poorest of the poor) live in a country where they meet their power needs from South Africa, fix their own roads, construct their own boreholes for water, and daily cannot eat a balanced meal. If these factors were not contributing to a diminishing of the average life span of our people, then five thousand would a bit of a palliative. But now, since the arrangement was for a one-off distribution of N5, 000 from the Abacha loot to the poorest of the poor in Nigeria, the plan was bound to go the way it has gone – what with the allegation from Aisha Buhari that so many Nigerians were excluded from the ‘distribution’.

The intentions from the demand and supply sides – with the ‘distribution’ of the loot – may be noble and altruistic. Yet, because the road to hell is often paved with good intentions, Nigeria must devise other ways to account for returned monies in a manner seen and perceived as transparent and just. On our part at CERSI, we do not have the answers but we urge stakeholders to continue in the search for pragmatic solutions. Even though we will want the monies invested in legacy projects, we recognize the demographic and sustainability arguments against such a suggestion. We recommend however, the framework of mutual learning, constructive dialogue, the application of expertise and effective communication, as suggested in Peter Lang’s Emerging Trends in Asset Recovery, and for which we are developing a blueprint.  

Etemiku is deputy executive director, Civil Empowerment & Rule of Law Support Initiative Abuja

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