A timely bill on recovered funds
A recent bill seeking to stop the Federal Government from spending funds recovered by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) without appropriation by the National Assembly passed second reading in the House of Representatives. This is a remarkable report from the National Assembly and it should be applauded. We hope it will gain concurrence from the Senate when it arrives there soon.
The bill among others seeks to amend sections of the EFCC Act that allows the Federal Government to appropriate property, funds and proceeds of crimes against known and identified victims of crime. The rationale is that the EFFC Act contravenes the administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015 and the United Nations (UN) declaration on equity, fairness and natural justice. For example, Section 338 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015 allows the Federal Government to appropriate property, funds or proceeds of crime only if the victim of crime is unknown.
Besides, another major discontent about the extant law is acquisition by the Federal Government of the proceeds of the crime, which aggrandises it further even when it takes the lion share in the revenue allocation matrix put at 52.68 per cent.
For this reason, states and local governments are swindled. The depth of injustice is accentuated when it is believed that about 40 per cent of state and local government resources constitute the mass of the looted money being recovered. This practice is argued by the promoters of the bill as being at variance with the elementary principle of justice and in violation of best global practices and the Administration of Criminal Justice Act aforementioned.
It would be recalled that due to widespread apprehension over the status of recovered loots, the House of Representatives had also resolved to set up an ad-hoc committee to investigate the total amount recovered from the Abacha loot from 1998 to date over non-disclosure by the Federal Government of funds that had been released to it in several tranches by Switzerland Government.
Without doubt, the issue of accountability and corruption-free society has remained in the front burner of public discourse. Corruption as a social problem looms so large that a former British Prime Minister, David Cameron, was compelled to qualify the country as “fantastically corrupt.” What proof is needed? Beyond everyday sleaze in governance, between 1998 when the former maximum dictator, General Sani Abacha passed on, foreign governments have continued to repatriate the funds he looted from the country and stowed away in foreign vaults. This is in the region of five billion dollars. While this is the trend, no one has a hang on what the country has recovered from looted funds. The general optics is that the funds are being re-looted in the absence of transparency and accountability by those saddled with the management of the affairs of the country.
Notwithstanding the growing concern that the recovered funds would be re-looted, the Federal Government has reassured that it will be impossible for recovered looted funds to be re-looted, as mechanisms have been put in place to prevent it. One major hedge is that the office of the AGF has initiated a depository account domiciled at the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) for both local and international recoveries, which can only be accessed through appropriation. Also, there is the Post-Global Forum on Asset Recovery (GFAR) principles aimed at providing a framework for civil society engagement with relevant stakeholders and advocate for the improvement of the asset recovery regime in Nigeria. Some civil society organisations, such as Africa Network on Economic and Environmental Justice, have emphasised the need for the establishment of institutions and mechanisms both at the international and national levels to enhance transparency and accountability in the recovery of looted funds.
Today, it is apparent that majority of those indicted for abuse of office are largely state governors and local government chairpersons. For example, some looted assets connected the former Governor of Delta State, James Ibori, put at about €6.8 million, is expected to be recovered by the Federal Government.
It is logical that recovered funds should go to the states from which the resources were looted originally. The fact that this has not been the case impugns the integrity of the state system of the country. Whereas on paper, the country is a federation but in practice, it is a unitary system being bastardised. In his classical notion of federalism, Kenneth Wheare had argued that without fiscal autonomy you do not have a federal system. In the absence of a major constitutional overhaul by means of a national conference and referendum, we will continue to have malfunctions in the governance process of the country. In this regard, this vital tinkering with provisions of the constitutions to autonomise the component units of the Nigerian federation becomes invaluable.
Accountability is central to the running of modern government and this becomes a norm when the rule of law is entrenched and made the basis of government output. Not a few believe that this is not the case in our country; and such belief has come to bear on transactions with Nigerian government by their foreign counterparts. Only recently Nigeria entered into a tripartite agreement with the Island of Jersey and the United States for the return of another $321 million looted by the late General Abacha. The United States had to issue stringent conditionalities for the release of the $321 million compelling the government to clearly state it would apply the funds to the construction of Lagos-Ibadan Expressway in the South-West, Abuja-Kano road in the North and the 2nd Niger Bridge in the eastern part of the country.
Therefore, we believe that the effort of the National Assembly for clear legal provisions in the management of recovered loots will go a long way in ensuring accountability and a sense of equity in the country.