In 2003 and 2007, I covered for THISDAY the general elections in Kano, one of a few states in Nigeria where the wish of the electorate always count because the people are ever ready to defend their votes, even with their lives.
And by gauging public mood, I could predict at every point who would win the governorship election. In 2003, for instance, after witnessing the National Assembly elections where then House of Representatives Speaker, Ghali Umar Na’Abba, was defeated by ANPP’s Mohammed el Yakub (son of former Lagos State Deputy Governor, Senator Kofoworola Akerele Bucknor), I made projection for the governorship race. I called it for Mallam Ibrahim Shekarau, the little-known retired school principal with a rickety Peugeot 504 to his name and about N280,000 in his bank account who was running against then incumbent Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) Governor Rabiu Musa Kwanwanso. My summation was based on the simple fact that with the mood in Kano, Shekarau of the All Nigerian Peoples Party (ANPP) would ride on the back of General Muhammadu Buhari’s cult following in the state to the government house.
When I went back to Kano during the April 2007 elections, I saw that not much had changed and again predicted that Shekarau would emerge the first Governor in the history of the state to secure a second term, also because of his association with Buhari even though their relationship was then a bit strained.
Now as we approach the 2011 General elections, my hunch is that having bagged the gubernatorial ticket of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), the odds favour Mohammed Abacha in what is likely going to be a three-way contest between him and the candidates of PDP and ANPP. My bet is on Mohammed on the strength of the strong support Buhari still commands in the state and the ‘persecution complex’ that Mrs. Maryam Abacha has cleverly weaved around the family to gain local support in Kano.
I have met Mohammed Abacha on a number of occasions and I consider him a likeable person. I also believe that whatever might have been his father’s transgressions as a leader, Mohammed should be judged on his own merit. I, however, feel that for anybody to seek public office, even in Nigeria where almost anybody can aspire to be anything, honour and integrity should still count for something and that is where I have problem with Mohammed’s aspiration.
When early in 2002, President Olusegun Obasanjo confirmed that his government had come to a compromise deal with Abacha's family whereby Nigeria would get about $1.2 billion while the family would retain $100 million in cash and per bonds worth $300 million, there was a public outcry. But in defending his action, Obasanjo cited several examples of countries where stolen wealth have remained abroad notwithstanding years of litigation. From Ferdinand Marcos in Philippines to the late Shah of Iran and Mobutu of Zaire, the funds are still trapped, the President argued. And in one of those rare moments as a commentator on public affairs, I commended the former president in a piece I wrote titled “A dirty but very good deal”.
I was viciously attacked for the position I took on the issue but my argument was that it must have been difficult for a man like Obasanjo, who is ever concerned about his international image, to settle for such crooked deal which I considered to be in our collective interest as a nation. “In a way he sacrificed his prestige to get a good deal for us under a patently dirty bargain akin to pleading with a notorious armed robber to send relief materials to his victims,” I wrote. What many may not have known at the time is that the Abacha loot case is one issue on which I have devoted considerable time as a reporter.
My interest began in February 2000 when I went to London to cover the Ajaokuta debt buy-back scam legal tussle involving Nessim Gaon of NOGA (founding partner in what is now known as Transcorp Hilton), the federal government and the Abacha family represented by Abubakar Atiku Bagudu, one of the prominent custodians of Abacha loot. From then, I have seen the complexity as well as the difficulty in attempts to retrieve stolen public money siphoned in Swiss banks. Bagudu, now a PDP Senator representing Kebbi Central, I must add, was the person who actually helped the General Abdulsalami Abubakar regime to recover about 800 million Dollars following Abacha’s death. But Senator Bagudu knows, as we all know, that there is much more of the loot out there.
Since General Abubakar left, nothing much has been achieved with regards to the money stolen by Abacha while the only people who have been benefitting from efforts to use legal means to recover the loot have been some fat cats in the Nigerian bar with access to the villa and their counterparts in Britain and Switzerland where some of the cases have been fought. I therefore felt back in 2002 that if Obasanjo could recover some of the loot after bargaining with Abacha family, it was in the nation’s interest.
There was, however, a problem about the deal that would surface afterwards: it was conditioned on the release of Mohamed Abacha, then facing trial for his alleged involvement in the murder of Kudirat Abiola. In what was generally considered part of the bargain, the Supreme Court, in a ruling of four to one, would order that Mohammed be discharged and acquitted for the murder charge.
Interestingly, the drama was not limited to the court as there was also politics involved. For instance, a delegation was sent to Aso Rock from Kano to plead with the president. It was led by then Governor Kwakwanso, his Deputy, Dr. Umar Ganduje and former Solid Mineral Minister, Kaloma Ali who had become the representative of the Abacha family. After the delegation had made their representation pleading with Obasanjo to order the release of Mohammed from detention, the president responded: "I want you to know that there was no malice whatsoever, no ill-feeling whatsoever on my part, only a desire to do what was right and what we can stand before God and man to defend.
"If you are talking of reconciliation, as a believer, I know that whatsoever we do, we must remember God. I am here today, we may not be here tomorrow. What matters is what happens to the people we leave behind. I believe very strongly that as I ask God for forgiveness, because I know that I am a sinner, I will readily forgive those who wrong me. I have no ill feeling whatsoever, no malice whatsoever, no bad idea whatsoever, against anybody and certainly not against Abacha family. But we must be guided by fairness and justice. When you introduced Mohammed Abacha as our son, what do you think he is to me? He is my son too."
On the issue of Kudirat Abiola’s murder over which Mohammed was standing trial, Obasanjo explained to his audience the gravity of the situation: “There are two issues. One, the issue of Sergeant Rogers’ allegation against Mohammed; there is also an issue of Sani Abacha family, including all members of the family, with Mohammed Abacha at the center of it all. And that is the stashing away of this country's money. Let me tell you what I have done, in case you don't know. My predecessor, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, and in fairness to him, he recovered $600million and 120 million British pounds.
"When we came in, we looked at things again, and we discovered that there are much more. I asked my Vice President to invite Mrs. Abacha as a wife of former Head of State. I asked him not to take her to the office, but to his home but to let her know that these things she is holding must be dislodged. Then Mrs. Abacha phoned me, for the first time, she said she did not know I could be generous and could treat her that way. She said she had always feared me. But I told her that we hear that they have two billion dollars. We went on and on and we discovered very close to $1.5billion.
"We hired lawyers and took them to five different places, Switzerland, Britain, Luxemburg, Spain and New Jersey (USA) for a long drawn legal battle. We got through their lawyers to say we will settle out of court. So, we have a legal document. So, our lawyers and their lawyers agreed. The document made me to forgo $100 million. I know they don't deserve it with another $400 million in bond on face value. The agreement was signed and sealed, but when it got to the time of exchange, they reneged. If only for the interest of the nation, nobody should perpetrate this kind of blatant corruption.
"Governor, (Kwankwaso) you are making a special request, and I am also making a request, because the money belongs to all of us and should be disgorged, we will not let up until every kobo is recovered. I hold no malice, ill-feeling, only for us to do what you can stand before God and man as just."
With his sermon done, the former president now handed over to Kaloma Ali a document containing the agreement prepared by both the lawyers to the Abacha family and those of the Federal Government, saying "If he (Mohammed) signs he will be released to you and you can take him with you."
But following Mohammed’s release, Mrs. Maryam Abacha decided to call Obasanjo’s bluff. In repudiating the agreement, she claimed that whatever was in the accounts of the Abachas belonged to the family: “Our lawyer came here with this piece of paper. It was not on any official letter head; there was no coat of arms or anything like that yet they want us to surrender money.” Adding that the money in their accounts included that of her late eldest son, Ibrahim, Mrs Abacha said “Mohammed too was doing business so his money is there too. Now, they (federal government) say they want all the money".
Mrs. Abacha vowed back then that they would not release a dime of whatever may be in their family till, money that has been established to belong to the government of Nigeria. And she has remained true to her words. That is where I have problem with the aspiration of Mohammed to be Governor of Kano State or to hold any public office for that matter, until the issue of the money belonging to the people of Nigeria--which is being held illegally by his family--is resolved.
Now, I must make some points clear: I have no problem with whoever argues that Mohammed never stole Nigeria’s money since he was not in a position to do so as he held no public office. That indeed is a fact. But the fact also remains that his father did loot the treasury and unfortunately for the family, he was not as lucky as many other Nigerian public officials who have helped themselves to our common wealth: he was caught!
Mohammed is a young man who should consider his future. He may have so much money with which he now seeks political power, a legitimate aspiration, he should, however, realize that honour and integrity also count for something.
The question he should ask himself is whether he is happy with the public image of his family when he has a golden opportunity to put a closure on the sordid affair. All he has to do is to fulfill his part of the bargain by returning to the public treasury the amount agreed with the federal government.
If he doesn’t do that, he will forever be condemned as not only the son of a thief but also a disreputable young man without honour. The good people of Kano State certainly do not deserve such a governor. I hope they are taking note.
*Adeniyi is currently a Fellow at the Weatherhead Centre for International Affairs, Harvard University.