Three hundred and eight million United States dollars. That is how much money Nigeria was set to receive last week in another of those Abacha loot repatriations.
It is a lot of money, capable of doing a lot of public good. It never did.
Nearly three decades ago, the then Nigeria leader Sani Abacha callously and shamelessly stole by the billions of dollars. In the past two decades, some other countries, out of pity for Nigeria, have found and returned some of it.
Last week, it was the turn of the Island of Jersey and the US. But if you paid attention, you may have noticed an unprecedented sequence of events.
“The $321m expected to be repatriated is attached to Abacha and it is named Abacha loot,” Attorney-General Abubakar Malami had announced the previous week as the negotiations were being concluded, our benefactors acknowledging the reluctance of Nigeria leader Muhammadu Buhari to pronounce “Abacha loot.”
Abacha was his friend and had also in 1994 appointed Buhari to head the Petroleum Trust Fund, a project that became a testament to maladministration and incompetence.
Although billions in Abacha loot have been returned to Nigeria in the past decade by several foreign governments, Buhari is known to have claimed that Abacha did not steal any money.
But Abacha loot is real, and it is several scandals in one. The most evident, as history has demonstrated, is that the late general was a not simply a thief, but a ruthless one.
The next is that in the past 20 years, some of the funds that were returned to Nigeria could not be accounted for by Nigerian leaders. Others vanished outright.
Another of the scandals is that “anti-corruption fighter” Buhari has for four years ignored the order of Nigerian courts to publish a full record of recovered loot and their expenditure since 1999, including on a dedicated website.
And then last week, he received the latest tranche. $308 million, and yet another of the scandals, as Jersey and the US took the opportunity to reiterate that the money had been laundered on behalf of Abacha by a powerful and well-known Nigerian.
Who? Abubakar Bagudu, the current governor of Kebbi State and a chieftain of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC).
Over Abacha loot investigations, Bagudu had spent a humiliating six months in federal detention in the US awaiting criminal extradition to Jersey for trial. But he was released on bond and repatriated to Nigeria after he returned $163 million to the country.
But back in Nigeria, Bagudu was never prosecuted despite the agreement that had been reached, and all the evidence that Jersey and the US forwarded to Nigeria. Instead, the Nigeria political establishment shamelessly cleared him for high office, and he “won” a seat in Nigeria’s upper legislative chamber. Following that, he is now enjoying the second of two terms of office as state governor.
The answer to the riddle is that in Nigeria, if you have the right political relatives, neither murder nor arson nor looting is a crime even if you are caught in the act!
Yet another scandal in the Abacha loot story involves AGF Malami himself, who “negotiated” the $321m. Throughout his time in office, the office of the AGF has been desecrated by accusations levelled against Malami by Godson Nnaka, a Texas lawyer, for trying to extort his efforts to help Nigeria recover Abacha loot in the US.
Naturally, Malami denied the charges, as did his predecessor, Mohammed Adoke. Laughably, because Buhari’s main tool for combating corruption is protecting the accused, Malami has remained in office, serving as our nation’s international front man.
Attentive Nigerians would however also remember that in July 2017, the same Malami promised that his government would honour those famous court orders to publish a record of recovered loot. It is no surprise they did not.
And yes, the same Malami last week signed the latest agreement on behalf of Nigeria, declaring “a major victory, for Nigeria and other African countries as it recognizes that crime does not pay and that it is important for the international community to seek for ways to support sustainable development through the recovery and repatriation of stolen assets.”
Crime does not pay?
In Nigeria it does, and it explains the insult in last week’s agreement: to Buhari and to Nigeria, as other nations identified a need to dictate to Nigeria to spend the returned loot on three specific projects.
“The tripartite agreement signed this week represents a major watershed in international cooperation in asset recovery and repatriation, and will provide benefit to people throughout Nigeria,” the statement said.
The first part of that statement is true. The second is not, but the self-esteem of our government is so low we will say anything to obtain these funds or obtain a foreign loan.
Added Malami: “These projects currently been (sic) executed under the supervision of the Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority (NSIA) as a public private partnership (PPP) will boost economic growth and help alleviate poverty by connecting people and supply chains from the East to the West and to the northern part of Nigeria, a vast area covering several kilometers with millions of the country’s population set to benefit from the road infrastructures (sic).”
It is ironic that Abacha continues to promise to provide from the dead what he denied in life. This latest tranche may well help complete the three outlined projects, but it will not eliminate the quicksand in which Nigeria sinks. It is not lack of funds, for instance, that prevents Buhari from using the State House Clinic in the presidential villa.
While the new Abacha loot return may help, because so many eyes are supposedly observing it, eyes have never stopped a magician from competing his trick. And while they may help with these three projects, what about the funds already being ploughed into the same projects? And who protects thousands of other projects?
One final Abacha loot scandal: That the US last week separately warned there would be consequences if the $308m repatriation was re-looted, State Department spokesman Morgan Ortagus asserting that the Buhari government would be required to replace the money should it be stolen from the NSIA.
Any self-respecting nation would have considered that to be a considerable insult. But in the Buhari government, they do not read, let alone between the lines.
What is really being said here is that Buhari’s claims to a reputation, known to be empty domestically, has so failed the scrutiny of the international community it is now being freely challenged.
The lesson is that, dead or alive, Abacha may manufacture roads and bridges, but not character.
(This column welcomes rebuttals from interested government officials).
By Sonala Olumhense