The recent tripartite agreement signed by the Federal Government, the United States of America and the Island of Jersey, that may have paved the way for the repatriation of over $318 million looted stashed away in foreign countries, by former military Head of state, late Gen. Sani Abacha and close associates, is by all standards, a landmark development.The agreement which represents the culmination of over two decades of intense work by law officers in Jersey, the USA and Nigeria, was signed at the U.S. Department of State, Washington DC, last month. An earlier agreement about two years ago between Nigeria and Switzerland, led to the return of about $322 million.
However, some storm clouds are gathering that may rubbish the landmark achievement that the Buhari administration has done in this respect. There are loads of questions begging for answers : Is it true, as the United States Department of Justice(DoJ) has claimed that the Federal Government is planning to give a hefty $100 million from the Abacha loot to the governor of Kebbi State, Atiku Bagudu? Was there a plea bargain between the Federal Government and Bagudu in 2003 that he was entitled to any sum of money for his role in the repatriation? Also, was there another agreement between the government and Bagudu in 2018 that Nigerians and Civil society groups are not aware of? Is it true that Bagudu has gone to Court in the UK, asking that he’s entitled to $100million of the loot as part of the so-called 2003 agreement? The Federal Government has more explaining to do to clear the storm clouds in this matter. Lack of transparency and accountability in the process should not be allowed to obfuscate the most roguish looting of a nation’s resources by a former Head of State, his family members and associates.
The twist in the tail about the Abacha loot is as a result of a recent weltering allegation by US DoJ that the Federal Government has concluded arrangement to hand over the whooping sum to Gov. Bagudu. The US Department also claims that the Federal Government is blocking attempts to recover part of the looted funds allegedly traced to Bagudu. The DoJ’s claims are contained in court papers filed before the District Court for the District of Columbia in Washington. For the records, Bagudu is alleged to be a close ally of the former late Head of State, and was accused of helping the transfer of billions of dollars, according to documents from the US DoJ.
For what is public knowledge, Bagudu reportedly spent some time in Federal detention in Texas, USA while awaiting extradition to the Island of Jersey. He was said to have agreed, according to Bloomberg reports, to return $163 million to the Nigerian government and was subsequently released on bond to Nigeria where he was meant to face trial. That never happened. He had since been a Senator of the Federal Republic. He’s serving his second term as governor of Kebbi state . He’s currently, the Chairman of the ruling All Progressives Congress Governors’ Forum. Quite an amazing career path, isn’t it? Who says our politics is not a fun to follow?
Perhaps the more baffling angle to the Abacha loot is the US insistence that the Nigerian government is hindering it from seizing Bagudu’s alleged loot. According to recent fillings from the District Court of Columbia in Washington, the Nigerian government ought to assist the US make all looters of public fund pay for their crimes. It’s still unconfirmed, if indeed, a 17- year old agreement that entitles Bagudu to any fund from the loot ever happened. But the US says this latest development may hamper future cooperation between her and Nigeria to recover public funds stolen from Nigeria that were moved offshore by the late military head of state. Antigraft watchdog, Transparency International has estimated that Abacha looted as much as $5billion(about N1.8trn) during his five-year regime(1993-1998).
The recovery of Abacha loot could signpost other deals that the Federal Government has signed with other countries. For example, in 2016, Nigeria and UK signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that covered the modalities for the return of stolen assets. Now the UK government is reported to be reneging on the agreement and is said to be in court seeking to stop the US government from repatriating the $318 million. That’s as bad as it can go if this administration fails to show full disclosure on the allegation that part of the money will be given to the Kebbi state governor.
The Attorney General of the federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami(SAN) as well as the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation have denied all the allegations. Malami said Bagudu played no role in the Abacha loot repatriation. He also explained through his Special Adviser (Media), Dr Umar Gwandu, that no form of discussion ever took place with Bagudu over the repatriation, much less of entering into an agreement of whatever sort with him over the fund. Denial is not enough in such an important matter. Nigerians need to know details of what is going on. Civil society groups should be involved in monitoring this developing story.
It must be stated to the credit of the Buhari administration that it has, more than any administration before it, done well in asset recovery. The management of the funds recovered so far is a different matter. But the administration must be extremely careful not to mishandle the Abacha loot or hand over any part therefrom, to anybody. This is a litmus test for the government. The image of the country is at stake. Foreign governments are closely watching how the government handles the US allegation relating to Bagudu. If it is true that the UK government has secured a court order restraining the US government from commencing the $318m, now referred to “Abacha loot 3”, that shows how serious it can get. Recall that in 2016, the Federal Government and the UK government signed a Memorandum of Understanding(MoU) that covered the modalities for the return of stolen assets.
This is seen as a good step towards dismantling safe havens for proceeds of looted funds from Nigeria. The point here is that the UK government may decide not to fulfill its own part of the deal if the Nigerian government does not show utmost transparency and accountability in the management of the Abacha loot. If that happens, one thing is clear : official corruption will fester and the opposition will blame it on Buhari. Therefore, the government should not allow its efforts in the recovery of looted public funds to be misconstrued. The key word here is trust.