by Bassey Udo
Nearly a year after taking delivery of another tranche of looted funds recovered from former dictator, Sani Abacha, the Nigerian government has yet to specify how it intends to utilize the money, frustrating monitors seeking to ensure the funds are not stolen the second time.
Part of conditions for releasing the hundreds of millions of dollars stolen money from Swiss bank was that the World Bank monitors how the funds are applied transparently for the benefit of Nigerians. Civil society groups also undertook to monitor the deployment of the money.
The partners insisted the Nigerian government specify people-centred projects it intends to spend the money on.
But more than 10 months after the government named a committee to identify projects, the process has not established a single project, civil society groups and the World Bank confirmed.
Independent monitors say whatever the government has done with regards to the money has gone on with utmost secrecy, with relative cooperation from the World Bank. They said the government has deliberately worked to ensure monitors have no way of knowing how the money is handled.
The World Bank Country Director for Nigeria, Francoise Marie-Nelly, told PREMIUM TIMES in a telephone interview last week that an inter-ministerial committee constituted by the Nigerian government in 2014 to help identify the best projects and programmes to invest the recovered funds was yet to agree on such modalities.
“I can confirm that we have had a dialogue,” Ms. Marie-Nelly said. “I am not in a position to give details. Modalities are in the process of being worked out. But we have not agreed on how the monitoring would be organized. We are yet to determine which of the projects would benefit.”
The committee was set up by President Goodluck Jonathan in June, 2014 after the Government of the principality of Liechtenstein promised to return to Nigeria about $227 million as part of the looted funds recovered from the Abacha family.
The Minister for Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, had said then that the president had directed that part of the funds be saved in the Future Generations Fund under the Sovereign Wealth Fund managed by the Nigerian Sovereign Investment Authority.
However, details of specific projects the funds would be deployed towards have been shrouded in secrecy, as civil society groups in Nigeria and their Swiss counterparts have raised concerns about the commitment of the Nigerian government to ensure the money is judiciously spent.
A report by Swiss media, L’Hebdo, had criticized the agreement for its out-of-court settlement with the Abacha family, which was approved by the Public Prosecutor in Geneva in October 2014, as prelude to the closures of further criminal proceedings against the former Nigerian first family.
The report had pointed out that the agreement neither provided a guarantee that the recovered funds would be utilized to the benefit of the Nigerian people, nor sanctions against the Abacha family.
Amid reports last week that another $380 million (N75.6billion) of the Abacha loots was to be returned to Nigeria, Swiss civil society groups at the weekend restated their disappointment that the handling of the returned funds has so far not been transparent.
The civil society groups, through the Berne Declaration platform, faulted the decision not to have determined how the money would be spent before the repatriation of the funds to Nigeria.
“Only a transparent process, including the involvement of the Nigerian civil society, can ensure that the funds would, indeed, benefit the Nigerian population,” the groups said. “The agreement is a tragic triumph of impunity. Law enforcement authorities have shut down a long-standing process without holding those responsible for the massive looting accountable. This is all the more troubling, because many of the banks involved have not been convicted of money laundering.”
The groups’ Nigerian Ally, Africa Network for Environment and Economic Justice, also expressed worry that all the conditions and agreements between the Swiss and Nigerian governments with the World Bank on the handling of the funds are shrouded in secrecy.
The Executive Director of the Network, David Ugolor, said it was frustrating that more than a decade since the Swiss government began to repatriate recovered Abacha loots to Nigeria, there were no clear guidelines and conditions to guarantee transparency in the transaction.
Mr. Ugolor expressed concern that the open process set in 2005 when the Swiss government opted to return $505million of the stolen monies to Nigeria, which involved all interest groups, including civil society groups, has been jettisoned by government.
Lessons from his group’s involvement in monitoring the repatriation of the $505million under the Public Expenditure Management and Financial Accountability Review, he pointed out, have reinforced fears about the absence of a credible legal framework to deal with issues of stolen assets.
“The present arrangement sends wrong signals and increase the concern of civil society organisations like ours that have fought long and hard to ensure that repatriated funds from the Swiss government to Nigeria did not end up being re-looted,” Mr. Ugolor said.
Criticizing the government’s decision to allow the Abacha family to go free with part of the loot, Mr. Ugolor said apart from being an incentive to others to do the same, this would certainly fuel the culture of impunity in looting public funds.
“ANEEJ calls on the Nigerian Finance Minister and the Presidency to come clean on the particulars of the transaction with the Abachas,” Mr. Ugolor said.
The Federal Government, he said, must ensure that it abides by the provisions of various international statutes that demand the involvement of civil society groups in issues relating to recovery of stolen public asset by politically exposed persons.
On the World Bank’s role in monitoring the utilization of recovered looted assets, the civil society activist said, this should not be used to undermine the legitimate voices of the Nigerians to participate in designing and advocating a framework for the transparent utilization of the funds for the benefit of the people.
“We want a framework to ensure that such repatriated funds are spent on visible projects and programmes that would be appreciated by all Nigerians to serve as a disincentive to looting of public treasury,” Mr. Ugolor said. The World Bank and the Nigerian Government must make public details of the negotiations and how they intend to monitor the use of the funds.”
The Nigeria Programme Coordinator for Natural Resource Governance Institute, Dauda Garuba, who was involved in the initial arrangement in 2005 to monitor the use of the fund, said the civil society groups were uncomfortable that an agreement was yet to be reached on acceptable modalities to manage the funds, even with the involvement of the World Bank.
“I don’t know what is going on between the World Bank and the Federal Ministry of Finance. But, with the progress made since 2005 on the issue we should by now have gone beyond where we are today,” Mr. Dauda said