For eight memorable years, the Nigerian government has talked about battling corruption. Particular attention has been paid to the money stolen by former Head of State Sani Abacha, who died the year before President Olusegun Obasanjo returned to the throne.
Nobody knows how much the General behind the dark glasses actually plundered. I feel that Nigeria ought to know, in one clear statement, all the sums that are involved, particularly how much we have recovered, and how these funds have or are being spent. A war against corruption can be worse than corruption itself unless it is transparent.
For me, the Abacha treasure hunt is troubling. Here is my timeline:
· In December 1999, Swiss authorities said they had frozen $550 million in bank accounts that belonged to Abacha, his family, and his associates including former National Security Adviser Ismaila Gwarzo, Abubakar Atiku Bagudu and other businessmen; the court order covered 120 accounts in a dozen banks.
-- · In January 2000, the Swiss authorities announced they had frozen a total of $645 million linked to Abacha.
< · In April 2000, over $300 million of the stolen funds was reported to have been found in England.
· In May 2000, the International Herald Tribune said over $1 billion had been found in various accounts in Europe in the names of the Abacha family or his associates.
< · In May 2000, Luxembourg confirmed it had found and frozen $630 million in eight bank accounts in MM Warburg & Co., a private bank, in the names of Alhaji Sani Mohammed and Abba Sani Mohammed, Abacha’s sons, pending Nigeria’s official claim.
· In its May 2000 story, the IHT also reported that “part of an additional $654 million” had been found in Switzerland’s famous Credit Suisse.
· In July 2000, Switzerland returned $64 million to Nigeria.
< · In August 2000, Nigeria asked Liechtenstein to help recover 100m British pounds.
· · In April 2001 the Financial Services Authority, Britain's financial watchdog, revealed that 23 London banks had handled $1.3bn belonging to family and friends of General Abacha.
· · Also that month, judicial authorities in Britain reportedly ordered some of the world's largest banks to freeze accounts believed to belong to the former dictator.
· In October 2001, it was reported that the British High Court has given the government the go-ahead to help Nigeria trace more than $1bn allegedly looted by late dictator Sani Abacha; in an editorial, The Guardian newspaper (London) criticized banks in London for their reluctance to help Nigeria.· In May 2002, President Obasanjo struck a deal with Abacha's survivors under which the government was to recover about $1.2 billion while the Abachas kept $100 million and par bonds worth $300 million.
< · In November 2003, Finance Minister Okonjo-Iweala said the Nigerian government had recovered $149 million from the Island of Jersey, an offshore-banking centre in the British-ruled Channel Islands; she said the money was different from the $618 million for which she had just visited Switzerland and was confident that country would return to Nigeria.
< · In September 2004, Okonjo-Iweala said the Swiss authorities had agreed to release $500 million of the Abacha loot.
< · In September 2005, in Switzerland, Okonjo-Iweala said Nigeria had recovered $458 million, with $290 million returned and the remainder set to follow.
< · At that same press conference, Okonjo-Iweala said Nigeria had recovered “about $2 billion total of assets” up to that point (including the $458 million subject of the conference).
< · In July 2006, a judicial officer said in Geneva that Switzerland was returning $66 million to Nigerian authorities.
< · In December 2006, La Declaration de Berne, a Swiss humanitarian body, said there had been irregularities in Nigeria;’s use of these funds, alleging that a total of $700 million had been repatriated to Nigeria by the Swiss, but that about $200 million had been siphoned off.
< · In January 2007, the Nigerian Embassy in Switzerland denied reports that $200 million of the Abacha loot returned by Swiss banks had “dropped on its way to Nigeria.”
< · On16 February 2007, the Finance Minister Nenadi Usman said the FG was investigating how the recovered Abacha loot totaling some N65 billion was being spent.
Before I comment any further, let me background this story, and recall that in November 1998, Mr. Michael Ani, Nigeria’s former Finance Minister, said that in the process trying to handover to General Abdussalam Abubakar, $1.3bn in illegal withdrawals had been discovered. They had been made by Ismaila Gwarzo under the personal authority of Abacha. Mr. Ani stated that some of the money was traced to Beirut, and that $700 million was recovered.
Now, this story is from my own research. It would be interesting for the federal government to publish a single, similar, official account for the records. Mr. Ani’s recovered $700 million is not a part of President Obasanjo’s “efforts,” for instance, but it forms part of the full Abacha story.
What is more important is how much Nigeria lost to looters of the treasury and how much has been recovered. Speaking in London in November 2006, Nuhu Ribadu, the Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, said: “Abacha took over $6 billion from Nigeria.”
He confirmed that $2 billion has been recovered. “The rest is still hanging there outside and we’re trying to get it,” he said.
As many Nigerians know, part of the reluctance of the Swiss authorities to hand over Abacha’s loot to Nigeria was that the money would be squandered. They wanted guarantees as to how the money would be used. The Nigerian government swore the funds would be committed to infrastructure and education. I am one of those who said it was none of their business, similar to my position on the cancellation of Nigeria’s foreign debt. I will return to that on another occasion.
Under Obasanjo, Nigeria has been awash with resources for development, including the Abacha loot. The question is why we are clearly faring badly. The recovered funds, according to the government, were given to five ministries: Power, Works, Health, Education, and Water Resources.
While we cannot wait for the report of Minister Usman’s investigation, it is clearly hard not to laugh. Power? Nigeria’s power situation is worse now than at any other time, but what is really frightening is that it has grown worse and worse throughout Obasanjo’s tenure.
Works? Nigeria has spent close to N900 billion (that is trillion) on roads since 1999, as I explored “Road Closed” in this column on December 4, 2006. We are yet to see the roads. The Lagos-Benin Road, the nation’s most important, has fallen apart again. Last December, as a piece of band-aid was pasted on the wound for Christmas, Cornelius Adebayo, the Minister for Works, said “major reconstruction” would begin right after to ensure “total rehabilitation.”
That was early in December. The work is yet to begin, and N6 billion that was allegedly approved for it last year has disappeared in a bureaucratic muddle. The Minister says the funds are available, while the Chairman of the Federal Road Maintenance Agency says it is trapped in a supplementary budget. It would be recalled that the federal government confessed the road was not provided for in the 2006 budget.
Health? Nigeria’s health services have improved so much that Nigeria’s top citizens are still being flown abroad in executive jets to treat a cold or an ankle sprain.
Education? Our education is such a success story that last week that lectures stopped on university campuses as the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) began a new strike over a 2001 agreement with the government. The Minister of Education took a cushy new job as far away as possible, in Washington DC. Phew!
Water Resources? I have complained endlessly in this column about Nigeria’s failure to make water available nationwide.
Into these graveyards, Nigeria says, is where all of the funds recovered so far from the Abacha estate have been buried. And the same government which has consistently and conveniently refused to distinguish between the recovered sums and the regular budget, thereby making the returned loot impossible to track, says it is “investigating.” Talk about effrontery.