President Muhammadu Buhari’s passion for eradicating corruption from the body politic has witnessed a steady stream of recovered assets looted by public officials. Although the public has been at a loss about the benefits of these assets to the economy, Buhari cleared the air by spelling out a new policy to auction the loot. The President’s avowal renews the hope that those who steal public funds will not enjoy their loot.
In a move aimed at the jugular of corruption, the President told a delegation of local emirate officials in his Daura, Katsina State, country home that the government would sell off all unclaimed looted public assets. With public officials denying culpability when anti-graft agencies trace dubious assets to them, the Buhari administration has been left with no choice but to sell the assets and boost public coffers.
To concretise it, a new public agency would be established to manage and sell such assets, the government said. The legal backing is critical so that looters will have no room to reclaim the properties under any guise. However, by failing to put a definite timeline on the sales, there is a lacuna for owners of the seized assets to escape with their loot in the heat of the upcoming elections. We urge the government to quickly legalise the policy and sell off these assets before political jockeying distorts government’s noble intentions.
In the 12 months to May 2016, the government recovered N78.3 billion, $185 million, £3.5 million and €11,250, Lai Mohammed, the Minister of Information and Culture, said. During the same period, 239 non-cash recoveries were made. Interim forfeiture amounted to N126 billion, $9 billion, £2.4 million and €303,399. Anticipated repatriation from overseas totalled $321.3 million, £6.9m and €11,826, the minister added.
Sorely missing from the disclosure is the ownership pattern of the assets. This omission has created the impression that the government has something to hide. The public is demanding full disclosure, in line with Buhari’s election promise to divulge the identity of treasury looters. The public deserves to know the details, as this will strengthen their perspective about those sabotaging development by looting our collective wealth.
Not surprisingly, the anti-graft agencies are using a similar template, though with a slight variation. In 2017, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission recovered N473 billion, $98.2 million, £294.8 million and others, said Ibrahim Magu, its acting chairman. Although some of those suspects are not known, Diezani Alison-Madueke, a former Minister of Petroleum Resources, forfeited N7.6 billion to the government via a court ruling in August 2017. She also forfeited two posh properties in Lagos worth $4.8 million to the government on February 28.
The EFCC has also recovered $43 million and other cash stashed at a property in Ikoyi, Lagos, by the former Director-General of the National Intelligence Agency, Ayo Oke, and the flat itself. Other assets, including 86 posh cars, a quarry and houses were traced to two civil servants. The case is in court awaiting final forfeiture. There are cases of looted assets by government officials, the wife of an ex-president and a former dictator, Sani Abacha.
In all this, the major concern is political expediency. This allows looters to regain their assets when a new government assumes office. This farce haunted the nation in 2013 when the then President Goodluck Jonathan pardoned a former Bayelsa State governor, the late Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, who had been convicted of corruption and had his multi-billion naira assets seized. Jonathan’s rashness beggared belief because Alamieyeseigha was still a wanted man for money laundering in Britain when the ex-president granted him the clemency. In 2015, a Senate committee heard how a former bank chief, who was also convicted of corruption, regained the multi-billion naira assets seized from her.
This rigmarole strikes at the heart of Buhari’s proposal to sell off the looted assets. “…instead of what happened before, this time round, we will sell those stolen properties and the proceeds will be deposited in government treasury. If the money is in the government treasury, I will see who will come back after we left and reclaim them,” he said. This is a weighty statement; for us to tackle Nigeria’s systemic graft, this is needful.
Bringing looters to justice is critical for Nigeria to secure the cooperation of the international community in the fight against corruption. Developed countries can quickly recover loot but are rather slow in repatriating it. However, Nigeria can boost the laborious process and gain the confidence of the United Kingdom, which has just started the implementation of its Unexplained Wealth Orders. It traces assets domiciled in the UK that were acquired in questionable circumstances.
Lodging the proceeds in the public treasury and sharing them among the three tiers of government are open to abuse. For all the financial stimulus and the Paris Club refunds, which the Buhari administration has doled out to state governments, many states still owe salaries. Allegations abound of how governors mismanaged the funds, which were not appropriated. Perhaps, this is why the United States is withholding $500 million out of the funds looted by Abacha. Under the last administration, the World Bank advised Nigeria to devote some repatriated funds to specific projects, but that government still conspired to waste it on frivolities.
Therefore, the proceeds from the sale of seized assets should be targeted at specific projects that will benefit all. First, all recovered assets should be appropriated by the parliament. A caveat however: we stoutly oppose setting up a new agency to sell assets. It is totally unnecessary; existing agencies could do it instead of creating a new cost centre. Proceeds of the asset sales can then be deployed to rebuild tertiary education, state of the art hospitals in each of the six geopolitical zones, reviving the river basin authorities or on expanding the power transmission networks. This measure resonates with the public.