After many years of legal tussles and protracted negotiations, the Swiss authorities have finally signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Nigerian government to return the country’s US$321 million in their custody. The money is said to be part of the over US$2.2 billion allegedly stolen by the late former head of state, Sani Abacha, when he presided over the nation between 1993 and 1998.
It is clearly an indictment of our system and processes that so much money was stolen and stashed abroad with the apparent complicity of our Central Bank authorities at that time. There are provisions in the CBN statutes to prevent such rapacious looting of the nation’s resources by the head of state, but the sad reality is that the CBN governor of the time may not have had the courage to confront Abacha, as it could have cost him his job, if not his life.
We are, however, encouraged that the loot will be released at this time that the government is committed to the tenets of democracy and public accountability. The many years of court processes, legal twists and laboured negotiations show how difficult it is to secure the repatriation of funds stolen and stashed abroad by political leaders. Africa, with Nigeria accounting for over 70 per cent of the money, is said to have about US$200bn stolen annually and stashed in foreign countries, to the detriment of the people and national development.
All of these considerations have gone into the protocols signed for the release of the Abacha loot. The money to be released should be used for the good of all Nigerians. There is no doubt that the foreign countries in which stolen funds are stashed are often reluctant to release them, even when it is obvious that the monies were stolen.
While we bemoan the many years it has taken for the Swiss authorities and other parties concerned to reach the agreement to return the looted funds to Nigeria, it is noteworthy that Switzerland is one of the few European countries which have demonstrated willingness to cooperate with Nigeria on the tracking and repatriation of looted funds. Much of the country’s other looted funds are still in the vaults of many foreign countries, denying Nigeria the much-needed benefits.
This should serve as a lesson to all Nigerians that we have a duty to prevent a repeat of such mindless looting of our treasury. Such unbridled treasury looting paints a very bad image of the nation and mortgages the wellbeing of our people. That is why the provision that the repatriated funds should be used for the public good should not be lost on any one.
We urge the Federal Government to adhere strictly to the terms of the agreement signed with the Swiss authorities and the World Bank whenever the money is eventually returned. Under no circumstances should the recovered funds be re-looted. The funds should be put to a good use that will be visible to all Nigerians, to send a strong message to our political leaders that any stolen funds stashed abroad will be recovered and put to public use.
It is also necessary to strengthen our public accounting systems and processes to guard against a recurrence. No matter how alert we are, there are no guarantees that such abuses will not happen again. That is why it is necessary for us to build strong institutions and financial systems which can resist unconscionable leaders and stop them from their mindless looting of the national treasury.