- The federal and state governments have a duty to spend the money wisely
Nigeria’s tenacious effort to recover its stolen assets from foreign shores has produced another reward, with the expected repatriation to the coffers of the Federal Government by the Swiss authorities the sum of $320 million stolen by General Sani Abacha and salted away in Switzerland’s secretive banking system.
The amount represents only a fraction of looted funds from Nigeria still nestling in the vaults of Swiss banks. Recovery has involved protracted, technical negotiations on many platforms. Given Nigeria’s lack of transparency and accountability in the handling of public funds, the Swiss authorities, worried that the fund might be looted anew, made recovery difficult and contingent on certain conditions.
One of the conditions is that the released funds be expended on projects designed to support poor and vulnerable Nigerians – those whose life chances have been blighted by the relentless pillaging of national assets by the very people charged with deploying them to the benefit of the public.
In a different setting, that condition might be deemed gratuitous, if not downright patronising. But given the Nigerian experience, it is understandable, even if not entirely unexceptionable. President Muhammadu Buhari’s recent announcement that the funds would be spent towards the specified ends is reassuring.
But the Federal Government must know that how it proceeds in this matter will be closely monitored not only by Nigerians, but even more closely by Switzerland where much of Nigeria’s stolen wealth remains domiciled, and by the Global Forum on Asset Recovery which brokered the $320 million transfer deal.
Many organisations, interest groups and facilities will be competing for a share of the money. The worst response would be for the governments of the federation which collectively own the funds to follow the usual scattershot approach to spending: a bit here, another bit there, and yet another bit yonder.
This approach might furnish evidence of intervention, but it is not good enough. What counts most is the impact of the intervention. And that is what all the governments of the federation should keep in mind as they set about putting the money to work.
The first task of course is to identify the vulnerable or disadvantaged communities across the country that stand in the most pressing need of the intervention. The next is to identify the most urgent needs of such communities. Each community is best placed to identify its most pressing needs, and should be entrusted with the task. It would be wrong and unhelpful for bureaucrats sitting in cozy offices in Abuja or in state capitals to second-guess the communities in determining priority needs.
Areas of need worth considering include rural health care, maternal and infant health, nutrition, credit, and water supply in disadvantaged communities, as well as adult and non-education. Expected outcomes should be specified, and progress lack thereof toward attaining them should be followed closely. For better results, constraints must be noted and addressed.
In project implementation, officials should not hesitate to review or abandon preconceived ideas about perceived priority needs into which resources have been poured with no success. One example is school meals. It was thought that poverty was chiefly responsible for poor school enrolment and attendance in many parts of the country, and that provision of meals during the school day would remedy the situation.
In practice, it has been found in some states that pupils flock to the schools just before meal time, only to disperse after eating. Poverty is undoubtedly a national issue, and providing free meals might stem hunger somewhat. But that does not conduce to stronger enrollment and retention.
This kind of mistake must be avoided in allocating recovered assets.
The whole approach must be informed by knowledge of what works or does not work, and why.