Now that we have new free money
On Wednesday, the United Nations General Assembly will hold a high-level debate to mark the 15th anniversary of its adoption of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC).
It was on the morning of 15 September 2002 that Nigerian leader Olusegun Obasanjo bellied up to the microphone at that year’s General Assembly debate and called for an international treaty to fight corruption.
“Efforts to establish a convention against corruption need to be expedited so that we can have global action against corruption,” he said.
The UN adopted UNCAC the following year. On the home front, President Obasanjo worked to establish the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in 2004.
But despite this week’s commemoration, perhaps no further proof is required to demonstrate the ironies on the anti-corruption front than Nigeria where, right after Obasanjo set up the EFCC, it soon became common knowledge he saw combating corruption as an opportunity to wreak havoc on his political enemies.
The fallout of that perfidy is largely what Nigeria is suffering today: the same suffering he is denouncing in the country’s current leader, but with no apologies to the people.
Nigerians are a forgetful people, but in 2006—remember?—Obasanjo set up an anti-corruption Joint Task Force which included the ICPC, the Code of Conduct Bureau, the Department of State Services, the police and the EFCC. Reporting, that panel indicted 15 state governors, affirming they had breached the code of conduct, and recommended their prosecution.
Among them were one Mr. Goodluck Jonathan, who was specifically found guilty of several counts of false declaration of assets.
Heck No!, responded “anti-corruption” champion Obasanjo in effect, as he single-handedly nominated Jonathan for Vice-President in the 2007 election. In that era, such passage was the equivalent of an appointment, and a few years later, Jonathan became President.
That was after Obasanjo had failed to manipulate the nation to grant him a third term as president, and it is also common knowledge that he tried to use public funds to buy it.
A key aspect of Nigeria’s corruption story is asset-recovery, which most governments have mistaken for Sani Abacha asset recovery.
This is a sensitive subject. Obasanjo was motivated largely by his relationship with Abacha, who had thrown him into jail. Other powerful Nigerians such as Ibrahim Babangida, Abdulsalami Abubakar, and current President, Muhammadu Buhari publicly swore that Abacha had not looted.
By accepting returned Abacha funds, however, Buhari implicitly confirms that his friend was a kleptocrat.
Which leaves two questions. The first is whether Buhari will now account for the returned loot since 1999, as demanded by the courts. I continue to point out that he cannot claim to be doing the right thing by protecting the looters, which is what his disobedience of the courts represents.
The other is whether he can spend the $322.5m now received from Switzerland transparently.
Owing to international concern that the funds will vanish once in the hands of Nigerian government officials, the Swiss imposed conditions, using grandiose terms such as “the framework of a project supported and overseen by the World Bank,” and strengthening “social security for the poorest” Nigerians.
“The agreement also regulates the disbursement of restituted funds in tranches and sets out concrete measures to be taken in the event of misuse or corruption,” it noted in a statement loaded with embarrassment and irony. It added: “The restitution of these funds makes a concrete contribution to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and can set a good example internationally for future restitution cases.”
This is because the entire world observed how Nigeria failed to make appreciable implementation of the MDGs despite the availability of funds, and fears for the SDGs.
Appearing to concede the point, President Buhari said last week his government would indeed spend the money on the Conditional Cash Transfer programme. In a speech read in Abuja by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo at the 8th Commonwealth Conference of Anti-Corruption Agencies in Africa, the Nigeria leader noted that it was indeed one of the conditions given for the repatriation by Switzerland.
He however restated an argument Nigeria has already lost but which is expected to feature in this week’s debate: that such recovered assets be returned to the country of origin without any preconditions, citing Article 51 of UNCAC.
In what appeared to be a pledge of good behaviour, Buhari said states should agree to apply the highest standards possible of transparency, including in the management and disposal of recovered and repatriated assets.
But that is the absurdity. In effect, his argument is that states should agree that stolen funds—having been recovered and returned to them—should not be re-looted (and nobody should ask!)
Only in Nigeria.
But think about it: If you count the $322.5m that Switzerland has just returned, Nigeria has now received from that country alone over $1.4bn ($700m confirmed by Swiss Ambassador Hans-Rudolf Hodel in Abuja in December 2012; and $380m in March 2014).
But remember also that, among others, in March 2007, Finance Minister Nenadi Usman explained that the $2.5 billion recovered was given to five ministries to implement 50 projects.
There is no sign of any of these funds, and “action” Buhari lacks the courage to publish any government records.
Given how impotent Nigeria has become at the UN, I do not know if she will speak on Wednesday. There is ample room to brag about how the government is fighting corruption with poise and prose, but that corruption is fighting back with AK-47s.
The truth is that the current Nigerian government is its own worst enemy. As much as it might protest, its poor international image is the result of its hypocrisies. It is instructive that the Swiss trust Buhari no more than they trusted Jonathan.
Speaking of Jonathan, let us recall that in June 2014, Liechtenstein repatriated $227m in recovered Abacha funds. Minister of Finance Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, confronting popular cynicism, explained that Mr. Jonathan would set-up an inter-ministerial committee “to ensure the proper utilisation of the funds.”
I wrote in this column on July 6: “I predict that three years from now…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.”
Anyone who knows the location of that “proper utilisation” is encouraged to speak up now, including in this column.
Back to the present, Nigeria has agreed to spend the latest $322.5m in the Conditional Grants Scheme (CGS).
Apparently, this soothes the heart of the international community. But it knows little of Nigeria’s ethical swamps and valleys. Remember, the CGS is the same swamp into which at least $1bn in MDGs funds has been thrown annually for 12 years.
My point is that there is no external way forward for Nigeria until the National Assembly agrees to transform the anti-corruption cat into a lion by agreeing to fund the agencies as a first-line charge in the budget, thereby freeing it from the propaganda and games of the executive branch (and the legislative).
But who will bell the—excuse me—cat?
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