Questions on Abacha’s Loot

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Did you ever wonder why the recoveries of the so-called Abacha loot no longer excite many Nigerians? Did you ever wonder why Nigerians have lost the enthusiasm about the recovery of the much-talked about Abacha loot? The simple reason for this widespread public apathy is the fact that Nigerians cannot find evidence where these recovered funds were put into in the promotion of the welfare of the citizens. Accountability in the management of recovered funds is no less significant than fighting corruption. Can Nigerians, in all sincerity, fight corruption with lip service or half-hearted commitment? The billions recovered from the Abachas could have brought significant improvements in the social service sector and our decayed public infrastructure.

The recovery of the Abacha loot has dominated the headlines almost always; what is missing in the headlines, however, is how these recovered funds are being used for the welfare of Nigerians.

The former Obasanjo administration had recovered billions of dollars from the Abachas, but until he ended his term in 2007, the recovered funds ended up on newspaper pages.

The Abacha loot recovery process began in 1999 after former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, got into power. In July of that year, Nigeria began civil proceedings in London against Mohammed Abacha, Abubakar Bagudu and companies owned by them, which led to about $420 million in assets being identified and frozen. In May 2002, Obasanjo struck a deal with Abacha’s family so Nigeria could recover about $1.2 billion; while the Abachas would keep $100 million and bonds worth $300 million. Following that deal, in November 2003, the Nigerian government recovered $149 million from the Island of Jersey.

On August 19, 2004, the Swiss Federal Office of Justice transmitted to Nigeria, all the assets in Switzerland owned by the Abacha family, about $500 million and one year later, the then Minister of Finance, Okonjo-Iweala announced in a Switzerland press conference that Nigeria has recovered $500 million from the Abachas, and “about $2 billion total of assets with 40% interests in West African Refinery in Sierra Leone. In 2014 Okonjo-Iweala said, only $500 million was recovered  during the time she first served as Finance Minister, under Obasanjo government and they used the fund for projects.

Under the Goodluck Jonathan era, the recovery efforts continued and over $1 billion was recovered. In June 2014 Liechtenstein returned $227 million to Nigeria; on 7 August, 2014, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) announced the return of $480 million back to Nigeria government. In 2016, Switzerland confirmed they have so far returned $723 million of Abacha loot back to the Nigerian government.

The civil society groups and the media have not shown the enthusiasm to follow up how these recovered funds are being applied to the welfare of Nigerians. It is not enough to be announcing huge recoveries of stolen funds without accountability about the use of such funds.

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These actually raise questions of transparency in the management of recovered funds. Can we fight corruption when Nigerians appear unenthusiastic about the management of recovered funds? Can democracy thrive when the citizens are not keen to hold government accountable about how it manages recovered funds? How effective is the Freedom of Information Act in practice to guarantee Nigerians access to the records of the recovered Abacha loot and how the monies were applied to the welfare of Nigerians?

Unless we are ready to confront these questions honestly, loot recovery efforts will end up creating a cynical and skeptical public attitude towards the country’s anti-corruption crusade. It is impossible to separate the anti-corruption war from accountability in the management of recovered funds. Any attempt to sidestep this issue will kill public enthusiasm about the war against corruption. Lest one is misunderstood, there is no attempt whatsoever to defend corruption by anybody. In fighting corruption, however, we must do so with sincerity to avoid creating a skeptical public attitude towards the anti-corruption crusade.

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