The Next Loot Re-Loot: The Lichtenstein $227 Million Goes To The Bandits, By Sonala Olumhense

July 6, 2014

Next Re-Loot: The Lichtenstein $227 Million By Sonala Olumhense

By Sonala Olumhense

On June 25, Nigeria received from Liechtenstein N37 billion ($227 million), another slice of the funds looted by General Sani Abacha.

“General Abacha looted about $3-5 billion from the Nigerian treasury in truckloads of cash in foreign currencies, in traveler’s checks and other means,” confirmed Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in Washington DC in 2007, in between her two stints as Nigeria’s Minister of Finance.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

The $227 million, or Euro 167 million, is in addition to about $2.5 billion that various Nigerian government officials previously declared as having been recovered.  The new question is the same as the old: whatever happened to these funds?

The government’s answer has usually been silence.  In their more magnanimous moments, they have answered that (only) $500 million was recovered…and was “well spent.”

In an effort to head off doubters and nay-sayers, a statement by the office of the Minister of Finance last week stated that President Goodluck Jonathan will constitute an inter-ministerial committee “to ensure the proper utilisation of the (Liechtenstein) funds.”

As one who has kept close watch on how Nigeria manages these repatriated funds, I do not believe a word of this.  I predict that three years from now, all of that money would have disappeared.

I predict that no project worth the name, let alone the money, will be completed, and that nobody will account for their role in the disappearance of the money.

This was always true, but it is perhaps even more so now that the current government has advised government officials that stealing is not corruption.

“The president has also directed that part of the funds be saved in the Future Generations Fund, one of the funds managed by the Nigerian Sovereign Investment Authority (NSIA) to help secure the economic future of both Nigerian youths and unborn Nigerians,” the government said last week, adding that the World Bank will assist in monitoring the utilisation of the $227 million “on specific projects.”

Perhaps Mr. Jonathan means well, but good intentions are the first to disappear by daybreak; and throwing the name of the World Bank around is no different from using the Peoples Democratic Party as a guarantor for a bank loan.

Given the Nigeria story, the money ought to be entrusted to an independent international consultancy for specific projects such as a network of hospitals, or major national road arteries, using open public bidding and supervision.

Outside such an approach, I predict with great confidence the $227 million will disappear into private pockets.  The World Bank’s previous “monitoring” provides no reassurance; it will observe only smoke and mirrors, and then retreat into anonymity.

Let me be clear: This is not about Mr. Jonathan.  It is not about Finance Minister Okonjo-Iweala.  I am not accusing anyone; I am testifying only about what Nigeria’s history has taught me.

This is about accountability, which their government lacks.  There is no platform upon which to persuade anyone that those funds will be spent, not shared.

In previous comments, many of them available online, I have demonstrated that the governments of Nigeria since 1998 have by their own accounts received at least $2.5 billion.

Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala has contested this, saying that only $500 million was repatriated during her time as Minister of Finance in the government of Olusegun Obasanjo.  This controverts a 2005 statement she made in Switzerland during a press conference, saying Nigeria had recovered “about $2 billion total of assets.”

Switzerland alone has repatriated $700 million.  Reporting the Liechtenstein story last week, the Associated Press noted: “Swiss and Nigerian advocacy groups say $250 million of corrupt proceeds already returned by Switzerland cannot be accounted for in a country steeped in corruption.”

Even if everything recovered up until last week was only $500m, what happened to it?

In a widely-circulated statement signed by her spokesman in February 2014, the Minister answered, “The recovered amount was channeled into rural projects and programmes as per the agreement with the Swiss government which repatriated the funds.

“The World Bank had written about this in a 2007/2008 Handbook on stolen Asset Recovery where the case was cited as a best practice example of how to deploy returned proceeds of looted assets.”

Apart from the fact that this particular narrative doesn’t admit that that report suspiciously coincided with the Minister’s return to the Bank, there are two problems.  First, STAR clearly confirms in its report that $700m was recovered from the Swiss, not $500 million.

The report also said:  “In 2001, the Abacha family and associates reached an agreement with the Nigerian government to release $1.3 billion frozen in Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg in exchange for being able to keep $100 million.”

Where are all those funds?

The second problem is that even if we were to allow that only $500m was recovered from Switzerland, the Minister has only explained, “The recovered amount was channelled into rural projects and programmes…”

$500m worth of rural Nigeria “projects and programmes”?  Note: nobody ever identifies where they are located, the beneficiary communities or when the projects completed.

Such questions about the past, as well as other questions about the present, continue to fuel the popular cynicism about her government.  Ignoring that deep credibility vacuum last week, the government said of Liechtenstein, “The return of the funds is the culmination of a robust 16-year effort by the Federal Government of Nigeria to retrieve the funds.”

It was curious to see the efforts admitted to have spanned 16 years suddenly reduced to the intervention only of four officials of the current government.  But in it emerged admission, finally, that government is a continuum.  It did not sound that way last March when some defenders of the Minister demanded she be left alone as she was presumably not in office during the period some of the money was received…if it was received.

Now that we agree that government is a continuum, like life, the current government hopefully understands, finally, that you cannot have credibility without accountability.  A government with nothing to hide should be able to provide simple responses to questions about key expenditures of the recent past.

Where are the projects?  Where is the report?

The Jonathan government explained last week that it dropped the charges against Mohammed Abacha to permit the return of the Liechtenstein money.  It is no surprise that critics described the ruse as “a celebration of corruption.”

Remember that in February, the United States froze about $458m hidden by Sani Abacha in bank accounts in Britain, Jersey and France.  Mohammed is wanted in the US for his alleged part in laundering some of those funds.

One of the questions is: Why did Nigeria let Mohammed go because of the Liechtenstein $227m, knowing it was risking the $458m in the hands of the US because of Mohammed?

The way Nigeria manages the recovered funds is a fascinating insight into the national crisis, as her so-called leaders ignore the obvious: propaganda is no substitute for accountability.

That is why I am convinced that the $227 million from Lichtenstein will be re-looted, and uncaring officials will cite the rural areas for the crime.

If you do not like that story as your future, now is the time to speak up.  They will take the money and use it against you and the rural areas, like Chibok.

[email protected]
Twitter: @SonalaOlumhense