Addis Asset Recovery Expert Meeting: Matters Arising

By Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku

President Muhammadu Buhari’s initial response to the efforts to recover the Abacha loot was a syllabus of errors.

Some errors have rights. Others don’t. Those errors that have rights are capricious and can be remedied. Errors without rights are deliberately made. You’ll be able to make up your mind on whether Mr. President’s error vis-à-vis the Abacha loot has rights or not. But the case against Mr. President’s ‘body language’ about the Abacha loot was that he was known to be a huge fan of late General Abacha, having worked with him closely as chairman of the Petroleum Trust Fund, PTF.

As a matter of fact, what seems to compound the case against Mr. President is the perception that he picks and chooses his corrupt. His traducers say that even though there were glaring cases leveled against several members of his kitchen and parlour cabinets, he has only given them a perfume rather than disinfecting them with the same disinfectant with which he doused members of the opposition. But what is making this allegation a bit fragile is that the onslaught against corruption seems to be working, and we are at least getting to see latrines, septic tanks and huts in villages give up locally stashed loot.

It is impossible to say at this point what the game plan of the previous administration was, concerning the Abacha loot. From what now looks like backdoor diplomacy for political gains, the Jonathan administration entered into a secret pack with the Abacha family, to the effect that if the family accepted to disclose and return monies looted by their patriarch, they would be perpetually immune from further investigation. So many issues immediately jumped out of what pundits have described as an unholy conclave: first, how is anyone sure that what would be revealed as stashed loot will be everything that was stashed? Second, were there structures in place to determine the effective management of the loot to the extent that it wouldn’t be re-looted by the recipient administration? Third, why was the arrangement brokered in the dark, free from the involvement of the legislative, judicial arms of government? Why were stakeholders on the demand side left out of the negotiations?

It is equally difficult too at this point to say that the Buhari administration took its cue concerning the Abacha loot, from its predecessor. As we have pointed out above, whether or not the initial hesitation to fight to get that loot returned is a syllable of error or not is still problematic to ascertain, maybe because of some of those conflicting body language signals from Mr. President highlighted above. But what we are cocksure of straightaway today is that from last year when President made certain commitments to run an open and transparent system of governance, coupled with the whistleblower angle thrown into the hat, monies looted and stored up locally in latrines, in banks and in villages are being recovered and confiscated by government. What other option the federal government can pursue so that it can remedy its initial syllabus of error is to introduce this same measure of energy it has invested in mopping up our stolen public funds in Swiss, American, Panamanian and European Banks.

There are indications that Mr. Buhari might be ready to do the needful. At the just concluded International Expert Meeting on the management and disposal of recovered and returned stolen assets in Addis Ababa, 14-16th February 2017, he sent in his Alpha team. It included Abubakar Malami, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Nigeria, Ibrahim Magu, acting EFCC chairman, Professor Bolaji Owasanoye, executive secretary of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, PACAC, together with key individuals handling anti-corruption issues in Nigeria today. That meeting had in attendance key anti-corruption personalities around the globe. It was convened by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, UNODC, together with the Swiss government. Part of why Nigeria was given credit by the global community is that the Nigerian delegation was the only one which had an anti-corruption organization – ANEEJ – in tow perhaps as part of the suggestions from the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, UNCAC.

The Abacha loot is a lot of money. It dwarfs the monies being dug up from pit latrines, villages and banks. With it, government will not be looking for money to feed school children in all the states of Nigeria for the next 10 years. If we must get those monies back and manage them properly, we must follow some of the recommendations put forward by UNCAC Coalition’s Civil Society Working Group, in a letter to Ali Sulaiman, Commissioner of the Federal Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission, Ambassador Andrea Semadeni, Swiss Government, and to Madam Brigitte Strobel-Shaw, Chief of Conference Support Section of the UNODC. The letter urged governments across the globe to ensure that recovered stolen assets are returned to the country of origin, in line with UNCAC Article 51. The letter also wanted both returning and receiving countries to agree to apply the highest possible standards of transparency at all stages of the recovery and return process and apply the highest possible standards of accountability in the management and disposal of recovered and returned stolen assets.

The CSOs which wrote that letter said that they believed that absence of regular budgeting and accounting processes lacking in transparency and accountability in a country signatory to the UNCAC shouldn’t be a problem. It recommended that there should be a broad spectrum of relevant experts and non-state actors who could come together and rig up options of management of returned stolen assets. We believe that if the Federal Government would apply all of these recommendations that initial syllabus of errors from Mr. President would have remedied itself somewhat.

Etemiku, manager communications, ANEEJ, Abuja