Wednesday, 29th March 2023
Breaking News:

$3.6b Abacha loots: Interrogating usage of recovered funds, two decades after

By Armsfree Ajanaku
23 October 2022   |   4:30 am
It will take a long time for Nigerians and the entire comity of nations to come to terms with the condemnable reality of a leader who stole so much from his country that the proceeds

Sani Abacha

It will take a long time for Nigerians and the entire comity of nations to come to terms with the condemnable reality of a leader who stole so much from his country that the proceeds of his crimes are still being recovered close to three decades after.

How was the leader able to breach all the systems and safeguards, which are designed to prevent such grand-scale looting of the public treasury? Who are the insiders and outsiders that collaborated with him to perpetrate such mind-boggling stealing of his country’s resources?

Interestingly, General Sanni Abacha held sway at a time when Nigeria was under severe sanctions by the international community. Many would wonder how his regime was still able to carry on with the stashing of monies from the Nigerian treasury in the international banking system.

In the dark goggled face of General Sanni Abacha therefore, Nigerians and the entire world can recall the dark and despotic days of a ruler who used state power, not only to hound, kill and maim citizens but also to brazenly steal and squander the country’s resources. That is why today, any mention of his name also evokes memories of the mindless plunder of the country’s scarce resources during the time of the military.

Abacha is also a reminder of the contradiction represented by military generals, who supposedly overthrew the politicians in order to put in place corrective regimes. But as history shows, they turned out to be worse, more brutal and shameless in the manner they further destroyed the country and looted its treasures.

As such, a huge quantum of funds, which should have been channelled into providing social services by the state, simply disappeared. The monies were thereafter ferried into banking vaults in countries all over the world. With time, however, especially after the advent of the current democratic dispensation, important actors, especially within civil society and the independent media began making accountability demands. The pressure-induced some form of moral crisis, especially in the Western nations, which had wittingly acted as receivers of stolen monies.

There was no convincing way for the Western countries to be preaching transparency and accountability to countries in the Global South, while at the same time holding on to, and feeding fat on proceeds of crimes like the monies stolen by Abacha and stashed away in Western banking vaults.

More pressure from local and international media forced a number of these countries to make disclosures about hundreds of millions of dollars within their banking system, which had been stashed there by the Nigerian dictator.

Tortuous and legally complex processes towards repatriating the monies back to the country of origin subsequently got underway. Monies started returning in tranches to the government of Nigeria. Data from the World Bank, the Nigerian Government and Transparency International puts the total monies recovered so far at $3.6 billion.

With these repatriated loots further swelling the coffers of the Nigerian government, close observers of Nigerian governance space have been raising questions about how the monies recovered and repatriated have been spent so far.

Although different administrations since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999 have received various tranches of monies from the recovered and repatriated Abacha loots, public consciousness and scrutiny, began to rise during the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan.

Under the former President, the term “re-looting” became a part of the Nigerian lexicon, especially as public perception became rife that the returned Abacha loots were simply re-looted.

This concern as expressed by various civil society organisations led to conditions being written into repatriation agreements signed by Nigeria and the countries from which the funds were being repatriated. One aspect of the agreements reached to prevent the re-looting of repatriated funds was a proviso that civil society organisations would be involved in monitoring and reporting on the use of recovered loot. That way, a number of the countries from which the loot was being returned felt confident that the monies would not vanish into the pockets of government officials. Another innovation, which was agreed was to use recovered loot for specific social programmes, which would directly benefit poor and vulnerable Nigerians who have over the decades borne the brunt of the grand scale corruption, which has characterised governance in Nigeria.

Although some of these pre-conditions before the repatriation of the recovered loot did not always go down well with Nigerian officials, they really did not have a choice. Despite officials fuming and insisting that the recovered loot “is Nigeria’s money and you, therefore, cannot tell us what to do with it,” they fell in line. In the specific instances, where such conditions were put in place before the repatriation of the loot, some measure of sanity and transparency was apparent.

For instance, a civil society organisation, the Africa Network for Environment and Economic Justice (ANEEJ) 2018 coordinated civil society organisations across the country to closely monitor the use of a tranche of the recovered Abacha loot for the purpose of Conditional Cash Transfers to the poorest Nigerians.

The project which targeted the poor across all states in the six geo-political zones involved keeping a close watch on the payment points in various communities, as beneficiaries were drawn from a social register earlier developed. The government agencies responsible for the programme include the National Cash Transfer Office and the respective States’ Cash Transfer Offices.

One of the outcomes of the monitoring was that civic organisations were able to independently watch what the government was doing with the funds, just as it reported extensively to Nigerians on the outcomes. Across the six geo-political zones, ANEEJ and its partners like the Resource Centre for Human Rights & Civic Education (CHRICED), Centre for Social Justice, and Socio-Economic Rights & Development Centre (SERDES) among others, were able to keep a close watch on how the monies were being spent by the government agencies responsible.

With such level of citizen oversight, civic groups were also able to influence the responsible agencies to ensure distributive justice, gender parity and the inclusion of persons with disabilities in such programmes funded with monies from the recovered and repatriated Abacha loot.

It would appear that in cases where the Abacha loots were deployed for programmes, which had strong participation of civil society, the level of abuse, corruption and possible re-looting was drastically reduced. However, in cases where the spending of the monies was done solely by government officials, it appears there is never clear and convincing evidence of how the monies are used and who benefited from such spending.

As several anti-corruption activists have admonished, the imminent return of millions of dollars of recovered Abacha loot from the United Kingdom and the United States calls for utmost vigilance among Nigerians. The point being canvassed is that government officials alone should not be the ones to determine how the funds should be spent; citizens have to be involved in the design and implementation of the programmes the monies will be used for.

As more recovered monies come into the coffers of the government, therefore, one strategy to take away the perception that the returned loot is being re-looted is to ensure robust participation of citizens and citizens groups. Other civic groups have equally canvassed the use of such recovered loots for the execution of legacy projects, which would serve as reminders of the cost of corruption. Such suggestions include hospitals, youth centers, and critical urban and rural infrastructure. To the mind of these active citizens, this will ensure the records are kept of how a leader plundered his country’s resources and why others should not follow suit.

In this article