The recent call by the Nigerian Institution of Estate Surveyors and Valuers for the proper management and disposal of assets forfeited to the Federal Government speaks to the primacy and necessity of transparency and multi-stakeholder engagement in the exercise. A similar appeal to seek professional expertise from the built industry in the sale of the assets is spot on and deserves to be diligently adopted by the regime of the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), to lend credence to its self-acclaimed stance on corruption.
Buhari had set up a 22-member inter-ministerial committee in November to dispose of the assets forfeited to the Federal Government and ordered the committee to sell them off in six months. The Nigerian Official Gazette Vol. 106, No 163, titled, ‘Asset Tracing, Recovery and management regulations,’ directed that all non-conviction based seizures should be done by the Office of the Minister of Justice. The president of the NIESV, Emmanuel Wike, had noted rightly that though the sale of the forfeited assets was a step in the right direction, it should be done by professionals to maximise the benefit to Nigeria. It is trite that transparency is a vital leg of the anti-corruption war. Consequently, the sale of forfeited assets shrouded in secrecy does not align with openness and accountability.
While inaugurating the committee headed by the Solicitor-General of the Federation and Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Justice, Dayo Apata, the Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, said the exercise was in line with the government’s Asset Tracing, Recovery and Management Regulations 2019. The regulations “provide legal and administrative frameworks for investigation, tracing, seizure and disposal of stolen or illegally acquired assets and proceeds of crime -and are an interim measure pending the passage of the Proceeds of Crime Bill,” he said. Among the assets are 21 mixed housing units of eight four-bedroom (en-suite) terrace units; two three-bedroom (en-suite) penthouse apartments; six three-bedroom (en-suite) apartments; two three-bedroom (en-suite) maisonette; two two-bedroom (en-suite) apartments and one four-bedroom (en-suite) apartment, all located at Yaba, Lagos. The buildings, worth N3.4 billion, recovered from a former Minister of Petroleum Resources, Diezani Alison-Madueke, were ordered forfeited by the Federal High Court, Lagos Division, in a suit filed by the EFCC.
In carrying out this assignment, there is a need for the committee to be methodical, thorough, open and measured. It should heed the reasoned counsel of the president of NIESV that “to achieve the objective of the exercise (sale of forfeited assets), the right thing must be done. The right channel must be followed. Capable hands must be engaged. (And) utmost professionalism is required.” Sadly, these had not been the case in recent times as forfeited assets were reportedly indiscriminately and arbitrarily sold by the EFCC with the obvious backing of the Federal Government. For instance, in 2019, the Federal Government handed over a building in Abuja seized from a former Chief of Defence Staff, Alex Badeh, to the Voice of Nigeria as its new headquarters. The Federal High Court, Abuja Division, had ordered the forfeiture of assets of the late Air Chief Marshal to the Federal Government through the EFCC. The controversy between the EFCC and the Office of the AGF over who should dispose of forfeited assets degenerated into accusations and counter-accusations, culminating in the recent suspension and investigation of Ibrahim Magu, the EFCC acting chairman, by a probe panel.
It is a fact of political life that countries with high levels of corruption, or which lack effective rule of law or accountability in government, are more susceptible to conflict and social unrest than other developing countries. The persistence of corruption adversely affects the delivery of health, education and other social benefits, and is a contributing factor to the persistence of poverty and other inequalities. If Nigerians are to benefit maximally from the sale of the forfeited assets, which combined with fines and domestic recoveries, is expected to yield the country N32.6 billion in 2021, the process must conform to the extant laws, be transparent and devoid of arbitrariness. Without doubt, if the forfeited assets are not properly valued by competent professionals, the government will inevitably come short of its expected revenue projections to fund the budget with unsavoury consequences on the economy and the people. The government should therefore collaborate with relevant non-governmental organisations and professional bodies and associations to ensure transparency.
The Public Procurement Act emphasises the need for valuation of any public property before the sale of such assets. Section 56 (1) of the Act specifically requires the issuance of a valuation report by an independent evaluator or such professional with appropriate competence.
Condemnation trailed the discovery earlier this year that the AGF unilaterally approved a firm, Omoh-Jay Nigeria Limited, to dispose of crude oil and diesel in four sea vessels, following a final forfeiture order obtained by his office and a presidential directive in October 2018, through an open bid. This is despite the fact that the company was standing trial for allegedly stealing about 12,000 metric tonnes of crude oil loaded in a vessel. His response that Jerome Itepu and his company were still standing trial, and that they had not been convicted by any court of law in the country and could thus not be denied the opportunity to participate in the auction bidding process by law, was no less outrageous. Such arbitrariness should not be condoned in a society committed to global best practices.
For a regime that gleefully waves the badge of anti-corruption as its prized possession, the lack of transparency that has trailed the sale of the forfeited assets is too striking and disturbing to be ignored. At the very best, this sad contradictory reality should be completely avoided. ActionAid International, an NGO, says “corruption impedes economic growth by discouraging foreign and domestic investment, taxing, and dampening entrepreneurship, lowering the quality of public infrastructure, decreasing tax revenues, diverting public talent into rent-seeking, and distorting the composition of public expenditure.”
The low index of citizen participation in public finance remains a challenge. The public should have access to detailed information about how the committee discharges its functions.