Preface: In February 2016, nine months after Major General Muhammadu Buhari assumed rulership of Nigeria, Justice Mohammed Idris of the Federal High Court made perhaps the most significant order on a government since the return of civil rule in 1999: account for all loot recovered, and publish the information on a dedicated website.
The judge ruled that all governments during the period had “breached the fundamental principles of transparency and accountability” and ordered that Buhari and his successor governments “account fully for all recovered loot.”
The court described the failure or refusal of the government to disclose the detailed information and to publish such information widely as a breach of the fundamental principles of transparency and accountability and violates the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act.
Predictably, the Buhari government, despite shouting from the rooftops daily about how much it was “combating corruption,” and serving the rule of law, disobeyed the order.
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In July 2017, another court ordered the Buhari government to publish a list of the high-ranking public officials from whom it had recovered public funds since it assumed office, and how much it had recovered from them.
Justice Hadiza Rabiu Shagari was ruling in a Freedom of Information suit brought by the by Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP). The court stated that the Buhari government owed the legal debt to “tell Nigerians the names of all suspected looters of the public treasury past and present.”
The following day, Abubakar Malami, the Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation, announced that the government would carry out the order.
I declared my doubt. Subsequently, Mr. Malami, in response to another Freedom of Information request by SERAP, confessed. He said his government had “no records of the exact amount of public funds stolen by a former military head of state, Sani Abacha, and no records of the spending of about $5 billion recovered loot for the period between 1999 and 2015.”
By that statement, Malami confirmed that until Buhari assumed office, about $5 billion had been recovered. Think about that for a moment: $5bn.
Buhari commenced his seventh year in office yesterday, but we now know that his government has been the beneficiary of at least another $700 million in the past four years. That figure was disclosed mid-month by Malami himself.
That figure would include the $308 million repatriated in January 2020 by the US and the Island of Jersey.
It would also be recalled that in the terms of that repatriation, the Buhari government committed to spending the money specifically on three pieces of infrastructure: the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, the Abuja-Kano Road, and the Second Niger Bridge.
Last week, the old question, first asked in President Olusegun Obasanjo’s second term, returned, as it became clear that we are now confronting the repatriation—and possible re-looting—of at least $6bn: “What have you done with the recovered funds?”
The Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar III, challenged the government, as did SERAP, which urged Buhari to “urgently direct Mrs Zainab Ahmed, Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning to disclose spending details of the $700 million…including the list and location of projects completed with the money, as well as details of the contractors that executed the projects.”
But it is in the House of Representatives, where an Ad hoc Committee on the Probe of Recovered Looted Funds and Assets of Government (2002-2020) is doing some authoritative public digging.
Among the ear-popping revelations so far:
Minister of Finance, Zainab Ahmed admitted to the federal government’s manipulation of recovered loot and borrowing from it without legislative authorization.
The Accountant-General of the Federation (OAGF) was unable to explain “discrepancies and other infractions” in the remittances of recovered funds supposedly made by his office to the Central Bank, including one of about €5 million.
The OAGF approved the disbursement of funds from the recovery accounts without the authority of the National Assembly.
Discrepancies in the records of recovered assets presented by various government agencies, for instance, differences cited by committee member Adejoro Adeogun in the number of vessel the EFCC handed over to Malami’s office, “[but] the navy gives a different number and you have a different number — the same items, different inventories, different figures”.
The NNPC stashed $60 billion of public funds in the US, the Prosecutor of the Special Presidential Panel on Asset Recovery (SPPAR), Tosin Ojaomo, alleging that his panel’s efforts to recover the funds were frustrated by Malami, who confiscated the this and many other case files.
Ojaomo, who submitted over 20 documents in support of his claims, alleged the discovery of an expensive hotel in Enugu State belonging to an official of the Petroleum Equalization Fund (PEF) as well as N2.2 billion in his personal bank accounts.
Ojaomo also testified that in one instance, the Auditor-General of the Federation (AuGF) withdrew N10 billion in two tranches from the coffers of the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS), a case also allegedly frustrated by AGF Malami’s sitting on the files.
The CBN illegally paid N2 billion to Malami from recovered loot, the panel citing a CBN a letter for the release following Malami’s request, as well as another in which the AGF requested payment of approved solicitors’ fees.
And if you really wanted some sense of the chaos and calumny in the Buhari government, the market to go is the Ad hoc committee. Take the case of ex-Delta State governor, ex-convict James Ibori for instance.
This week, the federal government announced the receipt from the UK of £4.2 million loot recovered from he and his associates.
Malami celebrated it as “a demonstration of the recognition of [sic] reputation Nigeria earns through records of management of recovered stolen Nigerian stolen in the execution of public oriented projects.”
The AGF said the money would [again!] be used to fund the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, the Abuja-Kano Road, and the Second Niger Bridge.
But at the House hearing on Tuesday, OAGF Ahmed Idris announced that the money had been paid to the Delta State government. “Any recovery that is arising from any state, goes to that state,” he explained.
That was not just news, it was a shock. Only two months ago, Malami had announced on television that the money was federal property as the law that had been breached by Ibori was a federal law and the repatriation a national transaction.
“All the processes associated with the recovery were consummated by the federal government and the federal government is, indeed, the victim of crime and not sub-national,” he said.
What had changed in two months?
Apparently, not much: within hours, the Delta State government announced that it had not been paid the money.
The following day, OAGF was back at the microphone, “explaining” that contrary to his statement 48 hours earlier, “the issue of the £4.2m Ibori loot has not been properly resolved.”
This confirms that Buhari, Malami and Ahmed have been as manipulative of accounts they did not disclose, as they have of their secretive selling of recovered physical assets.
Final question then: will the House complete this assignment? Or will it sell out?
- This column welcomes rebuttals from interested government officials.
[First published, May 30, 2021]