22 are ac­cused in cash scam in Nige­ria

Scheme in­volved sub­sti­tut­ing pieces of news­pa­per for bank notes, agency says.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Robyn Dixon robyn.dixon@la­times.com Twit­ter: @robyn­dixon_LAT

JO­HAN­NES­BURG, South Africa — Just days af­ter Nige­ria’s new pres­i­dent took of­fice, the coun­try’s anti-cor­rup­tion agency has ac­cused top of­fi­cials from the cen­tral bank of in­volve­ment in a mul­ti­mil­lion-dollar scam.

Pres­i­dent Muham­madu Buhari has de­clared his de­ter­mi­na­tion to fight cor­rup­tion in a na­tion that has suf­fered poor gov­er­nance and theft of public money for decades.

Six cen­tral bank staff mem­bers and 16 of­fi­cials from Nige­rian com­mer­cial banks will face charges, the Eco­nomic and Fi­nan­cial Crimes Com­mis­sion an­nounced in a state­ment Mon­day.

The racket in­volved sub­sti­tut­ing pieces of cut-up news­pa­per for de­faced or mu­ti­lated bank notes that were be­ing sent to be de­stroyed, the EFCC said. The old notes in­stead were stolen and went back into cir­cu­la­tion, the com­mis­sion said.

The of­fi­cials skimmed about $40 mil­lion in a scam that went on for years, the com­mis­sion charged, adding that the fraud was so sweep­ing that it un­der­mined gov­ern­ment ef­forts to rein in in­fla­tion.

The of­fi­cials were ar­rested last week and are due to ap­pear in court Tues­day.

The EFCC was set up in 2003 by then-Pres­i­dent Oluse­gun Obasanjo to crack down on cor­rup­tion. But 12 years later, crit­ics say lit­tle has been achieved. Wide­spread ex­as­per­a­tion with cor­rup­tion was one fac­tor in Buhari’s victory, both be­cause of his pledge to stem fraud and his rep­u­ta­tion for hon­esty.

The five men and one woman from the cen­tral bank staff were pic­tured on the EFCC web­site hold­ing up signs with their names and al­leged of­fenses: con­spir­acy, abuse of of­fice and theft.

The com­mis­sion said the of­fi­cials al­lowed greed and ma­te­ri­al­ism to cloud their judg­ment when they helped them­selves to huge quan­ti­ties of de­faced naira notes.

News­pa­pers were “neatly cut to naira sizes” and “the de­faced and mu­ti­lated cur­rency” was put back into use, the state­ment said.

“The fraud is partly to blame for the fail­ure of gov­ern­ment mon­e­tary pol­icy over the years as cur­rency mop-up ex­er­cises by the [cen­tral] bank failed to check the inf la­tion­ary pres­sure on the econ­omy,” the state­ment said.

All six of­fi­cials were mem­bers of the group re­spon­si­ble for the de­struc­tion of de­faced and torn bank notes.

The scam was dis­cov­ered by a 35-year-old cen­tral bank of­fi­cial who opened one of the boxes crammed with news­pa­pers, the com­mis­sion said. When she re­ported it to her su­pe­ri­ors, they promised to look into the fraud but did noth­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to the EFCC’s web­site, the com­mis­sion ob­tained con­vic­tions in 126 cases last year, many in­volv­ing mul­ti­ple de­fen­dants. The charges in­cluded fraud, In­ter­net and ad­vance-fee scams, forgery and il­le­gal deal­ing in oil.

But crit­ics ar­gue that the com­mis­sion has been in­ef­fec­tual, pros­e­cut­ing mainly low-rank­ing of­fi­cials. State gov­er­nors and deputy gov­er­nors are im­mune from pros­e­cu­tion while in of­fice.

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