Deriv­ing max­i­mum ben­e­fits from re­cov­ered as­sets

The Punch - - EDITORIAL -

PRES­I­DENT Muham­madu Buhari’s pas­sion for erad­i­cat­ing cor­rup­tion from the body politic has wit­nessed a steady stream of re­cov­ered as­sets looted by pub­lic of­fi­cials. Al­though the pub­lic has been at a loss about the ben­e­fits of these as­sets to the econ­omy, Buhari cleared the air by spelling out a new pol­icy to auc­tion the loot. The Pres­i­dent’s avowal re­news the hope that those who steal pub­lic funds will not en­joy their loot.

In a move aimed at the jugu­lar of cor­rup­tion, the Pres­i­dent told a del­e­ga­tion of lo­cal emi­rate of­fi­cials in his Daura, Katsina State, coun­try home that the gov­ern­ment would sell off all un­claimed looted pub­lic as­sets. With pub­lic of­fi­cials deny­ing cul­pa­bil­ity when anti-graft agen­cies trace du­bi­ous as­sets to them, the Buhari ad­min­is­tra­tion has been left with no choice but to sell the as­sets and boost pub­lic cof­fers.

To con­cre­tise it, a new pub­lic agency would be es­tab­lished to man­age and sell such as­sets, the gov­ern­ment said. The le­gal back­ing is crit­i­cal so that loot­ers will have no room to re­claim the prop­er­ties un­der any guise. How­ever, by fail­ing to put a def­i­nite time­line on the sales, there is a la­cuna for own­ers of the seized as­sets to es­cape with their loot in the heat of the up­com­ing elec­tions. We urge the gov­ern­ment to quickly le­galise the pol­icy and sell off these as­sets be­fore po­lit­i­cal jock­ey­ing dis­torts gov­ern­ment’s no­ble in­ten­tions.

In the 12 months to May 2016, the gov­ern­ment re­cov­ered N78.3 bil­lion, $185 mil­lion, £3.5 mil­lion and €11,250, Lai Mo­hammed, the Min­is­ter of In­for­ma­tion and Cul­ture, said. Dur­ing the same pe­riod, 239 non-cash re­cov­er­ies were made. In­terim for­fei­ture amounted to N126 bil­lion, $9 bil­lion, £2.4 mil­lion and €303,399. An­tic­i­pated repa­tri­a­tion from over­seas to­talled $321.3 mil­lion, £6.9m and €11,826, the min­is­ter added.

Sorely miss­ing from the dis­clo­sure is the own­er­ship pat­tern of the as­sets. This omis­sion has cre­ated the im­pres­sion that the gov­ern­ment has some­thing to hide. The pub­lic is de­mand­ing full dis­clo­sure, in line with Buhari’s elec­tion prom­ise to di­vulge the iden­tity of trea­sury loot­ers. The pub­lic de­serves to know the de­tails, as this will strengthen their per­spec­tive about those sab­o­tag­ing devel­op­ment by loot­ing our col­lec­tive wealth.

Not sur­pris­ingly, the anti-graft agen­cies are us­ing a sim­i­lar tem­plate, though with a slight vari­a­tion. In 2017, the Eco­nomic and Fi­nan­cial Crimes Com­mis­sion re­cov­ered N473 bil­lion, $98.2 mil­lion, £294.8 mil­lion and oth­ers, said Ibrahim Magu, its act­ing chair­man. Al­though some of those sus­pects are not known, Diezani Ali­son-madueke, a for­mer Min­is­ter of Petroleum Re­sources, for­feited N7.6 bil­lion to the gov­ern­ment via a court rul­ing in Au­gust 2017. She also for­feited two posh prop­er­ties in La­gos worth $4.8 mil­lion to the gov­ern­ment on Fe­bru­ary 28.

The EFCC has also re­cov­ered $43 mil­lion and other cash stashed at a prop­erty in Ikoyi, La­gos, by the for­mer Di­rec­tor-gen­eral of the Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Agency, Ayo Oke, and the flat it­self. Other as­sets, in­clud­ing 86 posh cars, a quarry and houses were traced to two civil ser­vants. The case is in court await­ing fi­nal for­fei­ture. There are cases of looted as­sets by gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, the wife of an ex-pres­i­dent and a for­mer dic­ta­tor, Sani Abacha.

In all this, the ma­jor con­cern is po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­di­ency. This al­lows loot­ers to re­gain their as­sets when a new gov­ern­ment as­sumes of­fice. This farce haunted the na­tion in 2013 when the then Pres­i­dent Good­luck Jonathan par­doned a for­mer Bayelsa State gover­nor, the late Diepr­eye Alamieye­seigha, who had been con­victed of cor­rup­tion and had his multi-bil­lion naira as­sets seized. Jonathan’s rash­ness beg­gared be­lief be­cause Alamieye­seigha was still a wanted man for money laun­der­ing in Bri­tain when the ex-pres­i­dent granted him the clemency. In 2015, a Se­nate com­mit­tee heard how a for­mer bank chief, who was also con­victed of cor­rup­tion, re­gained the multi-bil­lion naira as­sets seized from her.

This rig­ma­role strikes at the heart of Buhari’s pro­posal to sell off the looted as­sets. “…in­stead of what hap­pened be­fore, this time round, we will sell those stolen prop­er­ties and the pro­ceeds will be de­posited in gov­ern­ment trea­sury. If the money is in the gov­ern­ment trea­sury, I will see who will come back af­ter we left and re­claim them,” he said. This is a weighty state­ment; for us to tackle Nige­ria’s sys­temic graft, this is need­ful.

Bring­ing loot­ers to jus­tice is crit­i­cal for Nige­ria to se­cure the co­op­er­a­tion of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity in the fight against cor­rup­tion. De­vel­oped coun­tries can quickly re­cover loot but are rather slow in repa­tri­at­ing it. How­ever, Nige­ria can boost the la­bo­ri­ous process and gain the con­fi­dence of the United King­dom, which has just started the im­ple­men­ta­tion of its Un­ex­plained Wealth Or­ders. It traces as­sets domi­ciled in the UK that were ac­quired in ques­tion­able cir­cum­stances.

Lodg­ing the pro­ceeds in the pub­lic trea­sury and shar­ing them among the three tiers of gov­ern­ment are open to abuse. For all the fi­nan­cial stim­u­lus and the Paris Club re­funds, which the Buhari ad­min­is­tra­tion has doled out to state gov­ern­ments, many states still owe salaries. Al­le­ga­tions abound of how gov­er­nors mis­man­aged the funds, which were not ap­pro­pri­ated. Per­haps, this is why the United States is with­hold­ing $500 mil­lion out of the funds looted by Abacha. Un­der the last ad­min­is­tra­tion, the World Bank ad­vised Nige­ria to de­vote some repa­tri­ated funds to spe­cific projects, but that gov­ern­ment still con­spired to waste it on fri­vol­i­ties.

There­fore, the pro­ceeds from the sale of seized as­sets should be tar­geted at spe­cific projects that will ben­e­fit all. First, all re­cov­ered as­sets should be ap­pro­pri­ated by the par­lia­ment. A caveat how­ever: we stoutly op­pose set­ting up a new agency to sell as­sets. It is to­tally un­nec­es­sary; ex­ist­ing agen­cies could do it in­stead of cre­at­ing a new cost cen­tre. Pro­ceeds of the as­set sales can then be de­ployed to re­build ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion, state of the art hos­pi­tals in each of the six geopo­lit­i­cal zones, re­viv­ing the river basin au­thor­i­ties or on ex­pand­ing the power trans­mis­sion net­works. This mea­sure res­onates with the pub­lic.

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