Sonala Olumhense: How the US can help Nigeria

by Sonala Olumhense


If the objective of the US is to help the people of Nigeria, it needs to bear in mind that the challenge of recovering looted funds, indeed of assembling resources for Nigeria’s development, has become inferior to implementing policies that would ensure those resources go into development.

I wish to congratulate the government of the United States, which last week announced the freezing of an additional $458 million in Sani Abacha loot, Nigeria’s assets appropriated during his tenure by the man and his accomplices.

The announcement came one week after President Goodluck Jonathan embarrassingly honoured the late Head of State for “his contributions to the nation.”

The US Justice Department said the money had been stashed away in bank accounts in Britain, France and Jersey.

The announcement also came at a time that some of Abacha’s children, emboldened by the “national honour” conferred on their infamous father by Mr. Jonathan, were finding the courage to insult Nigerians who were disgusted by the award.

Acting US Assistant Attorney General Mythili Raman called Abacha “one of the most notorious kleptocrats in memory, who embezzled billions from the people of Nigeria, while millions lived in poverty,” and the $458m “the largest civil forfeiture action to recover the proceeds of foreign official corruption ever brought by the department.”

That citation reminded Nigerians of what they have known for many years: Abacha, his son; their associate and others “systematically embezzled billions of dollars in public funds.”

Ms. Raman said that the confiscation sent a “clear message” that the United States was “determined and equipped to confiscate the ill-gotten riches of corrupt leaders who drain the resources of their countries.”

That is where the people of Nigeria have several problems.

The first is that, over the years, a certain fiction has grown by which the looting of Nigeria has come to be understood as the looting by Abacha.

There is no longer any doubt that Abacha openly and wildly looted Nigeria blind. Some of the money has been recovered, but some of it appears to be so “safe” that his children have begun to lionize their father. It comes down to Nigeria’s blurred philosophical boundaries where criminals are in power, not prison.

Two, the impression is being given by Nigeria and foreign governments that asset recovery is possible, or perhaps necessary, only when the thief is dead. If this assumption is false, then it is unclear why our major thieves are walking free, and only Abacha repeatedly comes up for dishonorable mention.

Three, there continues to be very little interest, especially within Nigeria, about the whereabouts of the “recovered” funds.  When the question is raised, as I did here three weeks ago, it is either ignored by the authorities, or casually dismissed, as Economy and Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, tried to do. Last week, in response to her feeble response, I opened the lid a little more; predictably, she has retreated into the normal “ignore” mode.

She had “explained” that the recovered Abacha funds, put at about N500m by her, were deployed into “rural projects.”

They probably were, but where are those projects?  Why doesn’t the government, if it is confident about its claims, seek to convince the sceptics and boost its image by publishing a list of the projects on which that $500m was spent?

Four, last week I established that far more than the N500m claimed by the government has been recovered from the Abachas, a position, which is backed up by the US announcement about its action.

The questions, therefore, continue to mount.  Where is the rest of the money? Why doesn’t a government, which claims to possess a Transformation Agenda publish a clear statement and put up a website to enable the world to appreciate transparency in action, including what has been recovered and when; what is being negotiated and where; and how the funds are being transformationally spent?

Five, last week’s announcement by the US reminds us there is still a lot of money out there that Nigeria can still recover. The US has not indicated, for instance, how it intends to treat the $458m; does Nigeria intend to claim it, as it should?

The announcement returns the limelight to the many cases listed by the Stolen Asset Recovery (STAR) initiative to be active.

To be sure, one of them relates to an Abacha. In 2010, the Anti-corruption Forum of the United Kingdom confirmed that Yves Aeschlimann, a Geneva magistrate, convicted the Abacha of corruption and sentenced him to a suspended prison term. He also ordered confiscation of $350m in funds being held in Luxembourg and the Bahamas.

As of October 2013, that case had yet to be concluded. The $350m cannot, therefore, be considered to be part of anything that has been recovered, returned or re-looted, let alone spent on some rural projects in Nigeria.

Beyond Abacha, the STAR narrative also includes at least two wealthy former Heads of State who are alive and in great partying, award-receiving health.

Those records include a convicted but Goodluck Jonathan-pardoned former governor over whom the United States in June 2012 obtained two default judgments for a house in Maryland valued at over $700,000, and another case in Massachusetts for a Fidelity investment account worth nearly $400,000.

On that day, that account and all assets connected with it were forfeited to the United States “after all those parties with potential claims to the funds were notified but did not respond.”

How many cases around the world are like this in which the assets of Nigeria’s impoverished people are being hidden, forfeited or simply thrown away?

It is important to recall how reluctant the Swiss were to repatriate recovered funds to Nigeria because of this, leading to a curious press statement by that country’s Federal Office of Justice in February 2005.

It said: “Both President Olusegun Obasanjo and Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala assured the Swiss authorities in spring 2004 that, once transferred to Nigeria, the Abacha assets would be used for development projects in health and education, as well as for infrastructure (roads, electricity and water supplies) to benefit poor and rural populations. Switzerland and Nigeria agree that there should be complete transparency about the way in which the funds are spent. Both sides are currently holding discussions on the details of monitoring how the assets are used.”

Similarly, let us situate the US announcement in the context of the $1 billion agreement signed between Nigeria and the European Union in November 2009 to combat corruption and promote peace in the Niger Delta.

The European Commission said in a statement the agreement would help Nigeria to tackle challenges in governance, trade and peace between 2009 and 2013.

If the objective of the US is to help the people of Nigeria, it needs to bear in mind that the challenge of recovering looted funds, indeed of assembling resources for Nigeria’s development, has become inferior to implementing policies that would ensure those resources go into development.

The place to begin is to help identify, while they live, those who have looted blind the poor people of Nigeria, and to freeze their assets, and deny them travel visas and opportunities.

To do the right thing after these infernal hoodlums have died or can neither be shamed nor denied is an insult to the concepts of justice and hope.


Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

One comment

  1. How come Sonala Olumhense cannot write about anything at all without lacing it heavily with pessimism and negativity? His particular penchant for picking at the Finance Minister is quite worrisome as it says a lot about his character. Even when Sonala sees good things, he paints them in bad light.

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