THE recent judgement by a Federal High Court sitting in Abuja, ordering the Federal Government to disclose the details of the $5 billion loot recovered from former military ruler, the late Sani Abacha, has reignited the issues of accountability and transparency in Nigeria’s governance. After recovering billions stolen by the dictator for over two decades, successive governments have neither made full disclosures of the sums retrieved nor accounted for the sums spent. President Bola Tinubu should open the books for public scrutiny and initiate measures to instil transparency system-wide.
Democracy is hollow where there is no accountability. This is the Nigerian experience. For more than 25 years, successive governments and presidents – Olusegun Obasanjo, the late Umaru Yar’Adua, Goodluck Jonathan, and Muhammadu Buhari – all received various cash refunds from the money stolen by Abacha and stashed in various foreign destinations.
None accounted fully for the refunds, or explained how they were spent. Indeed, in an incisive report, The Economist of London said monies looted from Nigeria by its public officers and refunded to its government were often “re-looted.”
This is a travesty. Democracy, asserts liberal democrats, is anchored on representation, participation, free elections, fundamental rights, and the rule of law. Additionally, says the OECD, “openness and transparency are key ingredients to build accountability and trust, which are necessary for the functioning of democracies and market economies.”
A former United States president, Barrack Obama, emphasising the importance of accountability in building an enduring democracy, declared that “information maintained by the government is a national asset” to be made available to its owners–the people–as a matter of duty and right.
But Nigeria’s government operates in secrecy and is never accountable to the people. This plays out in all its activities and is exemplified in its handling of the Abacha loot.
Over the years, reports regularly surface of foreign banks and governments returning part of the stolen funds, but Nigerians are not briefed on how they are spent. The National Assembly that has the constitutional duty to demand and receive full details has consistently been remiss in its responsibility.
This has allowed successive governments to violate the law and act with impunity, first by failing to render detailed account, and second by spending money not appropriated by the parliament. Third, most of the funds belong jointly to the three tiers of government, but the Federal Government has often cornered most of it. This is a gross violation of the constitution. Except on a few occasions, and only at the insistence of foreign governments that returned the monies and made it a condition for future refunds, the government just collects the money and spends without oversight.
When they facilitated the return in 2020 of $311 million, the governments of the United States, United Kingdom and the Bailiwick of Jersey insisted that it be deployed solely to completing the rehabilitation of the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, and the Abuja–Kano Expressway, as well as completion of the Second Niger Bridge construction project.
In response to public pressure, mostly from civil society organisations, the government had variously claimed to have used part of the previous returned loot to fund some road infrastructure projects. It has never provided evidence to back this up.
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The NASS should do its job. Spending money from whatever source, without the approval of the parliament, amounts to gross misconduct. Lawmakers should not leave CSOs like the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project that sued the government and obtained the judgement to do their work for them. Unlike the NASS, SERAP has filed several suits asking the courts to compel accountability from the government.
Tinubu should instil a new culture of transparency in the country’s governance. Significantly, the relevant ministry has failed to provide any documentary evidence on the receipt and deployment of the funds months after SERAP filed Freedom of Information requests for them.
This made the court to order the government to “disclose the exact amount of money stolen by Abacha from Nigeria, and the total amount of Abacha loot recovered, and all agreements signed on same by the governments of former presidents Obasanjo, Yar’Adua, Jonathan and Buhari.”
Although James Omotosho, the judge in the case, gave the government seven days after the judgement to produce the document, the deadline has passed, and the government has not complied. That is reckless; the Tinubu administration is toeing the nefarious path of disobedience to court orders.
In 2020, the US said it had returned about $23 million to Nigeria. Its Ambassador to Nigeria, Mary Leonard, said it had by then handed over $334.7 million. Total recoveries so far from the thieving dictator and his cronies have been put at $5 billion. Exact figures are not known. But reports gathered from Aljazeera, the BBC and data from the government, the World Bank/IMF, Transparency International, and SERAP put the total amount of funds recovered from Abacha in the past 25 years at over $5.12 billion.
This includes the $750 million recovered from his family in 1998, $64 million repatriated from Switzerland in 2020, and another $1.2 billion retrieved in 2002. In 2003, $160 million, and $88 million were recovered from Jersey and Switzerland respectively; and, in 2005, another $461.3 million from Switzerland. Further tranches came from Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and the US.
Democracy thrives on accountability. The government must show that it is responsible; it must obey the court order and avail the public with details of how the country’s funds were allocated and spent, and the remnants.
This opacity sends the wrong signal to the international community and entrenches Nigeria’s ill-repute for corruption.
Tinubu should act today and order the relevant offices and officials to render a full, comprehensive account. The NASS should insist on this.
SERAP deserves praise for its dogged pursuit of accountability; it should not relent. Other CSOs and the mass media should step up the campaign for transparency and the deepening of democracy in Nigeria.
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