Punch Editorial Board
President Muhammadu Buhari’s recent working visits to the United States of America and Britain, rare outings of such nature in recent times, presented a most appropriate platform to re-launch a fresh bid for the recovery of Nigeria’s stolen assets currently holed up in secret accounts abroad. The president addressed the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly last week but, besides that, he shared the stage with many other heads of government with whom issues of mutual benefits were discussed.
With the economy still largely in the doldrums, although gradually inching its way out of recession, Nigeria cannot afford to spare any effort to attract extra funds to beef up her sagging revenue base. The country’s main foreign exchange earner, oil, has been witnessing fluctuating fortunes in the international market in recent years. From an all-time high of $147 per barrel in 2007, the prices of oil dipped below $30 dollars last year, but are now hovering at a little above $50 per barrel.
The situation has been so dire that the government now relies heavily on borrowing to discharge its obligations to Nigerians, even for the payment of salaries of civil servants, with the wage bill put at about N145 billion monthly. Nearly all revenue targets have fallen short of projections and it is becoming increasingly difficult to sufficiently implement the 2017 budget. For instance, reports in July indicated that the Federal Inland Revenue Service failed to meet its revenue target for the first half of the year. Its chairman, Babatunde Fowler, told the Senate Committee on Finance that N1.78 trillion was realised, far short of the projected N2.44 trillion.
It will, therefore, come as a huge relief if the government could persuade countries such as the US, Liechtenstein, Luxemburg, France and some British offshore territories, where some of the stolen assets by the late maximum ruler, Sani Abacha, and other corrupt past leaders were hidden, to part with them. It is believed that Abacha and his family alone stole up to $5 billion from the country, according to a Reuters report quoting Transparency International.
Efforts to retrieve the loot have mostly been met with frustration, yielding only partial success. Switzerland, once the most notorious haven for stolen assets by Third World leaders, has been the most cooperative. Having reviewed its secret banking laws, the country has since returned over $1 billion to Nigeria. But in Liechtenstein, for instance, Nigeria’s bid to retrieve $185 million hidden there by Abacha has proved a tough nut to crack. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former Minister of Finance, once captured the frustrations of trying to get the money by saying, “We have spent nearly 14 years trying to get it back and we are pleading with the Liechtenstein not to aid and abet the continuation of that corruption.”
There are other sums of money out there, like the $480 million the US took control of in August 2014, following a ruling by a District Judge, John Bates, that the Justice Department should hand it over to the US authorities. Others include the $302 million in two bank accounts in a British offshore centre; $144 million in two bank accounts in France and $27 million in the United Kingdom. These are funds that could come in handy for this administration in these difficult economic times.
One of the reasons why it has proved so difficult to reclaim looted funds has been because the custodians of the loot have always believed that they would be misappropriated if handed over. A good example is the case when Okonjo-Iweala disbursed $322 million to the Office of the National Security Adviser without the proper budgetary process. She reportedly claimed to have acted at the instance of the then president, Goodluck Jonathan.
But Buhari, based on his perceived integrity, should be able to convince the international community that any recovered money would be well utilised. This was the basis for his demand for assistance for the recovery of the funds from the world leaders at the UN headquarters last week. There, he assured the world leaders that “state institutions are being strengthened to promote accountability and to combat corruption and asset recovery.” Leveraging the big stage for asset recovery is one of the expected gains from Buhari’s recent trips.
Interestingly, taking the battle for the recovery of Nigeria’s stolen assets by greedy and unconscionable leaders to the global stage is not new to Buhari who `last year co-sponsored a resolution at the UN on the repatriation of illicit financial assets to countries of origin. At the Anti-Corruption Submit that took place in London last year, he also made the point that the massive looting in Nigeria would not have been possible if there were no willing accomplices to help in laundering the money. “When it comes to tackling corruption, the international community has looked the other way,” he rightly noted.
After all the efforts so far made by the government to recover these assets, the question now should not be whether or not the stolen assets would be released, but when they would be returned. It is also important to note that if persuasion has failed to produce the desired result, the option of litigation, as a Lagos lawyer and rights advocate, Femi Falana, has suggested, should not be ruled out.
Source: The Punch Editorial