For the first time in almost three years, President Olusegun Obasanjo has spoken emphatically about the outcome of his administration’s efforts at recovering the hundreds of millions of dollars stolen by the late dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha.
President Obasanjo made the disclosure in an interview with TELL, a Lagos-based newsweekly magazine. According to him, the Federal Government struck a deal with Abacha’s survivors by which the government recovered about $1.2 billion while the Abachas were allowed to inherit $100 million and par bonds worth $300 million. The rationale for the quid quo pro is as interesting as it is disturbing. The President said it was “one of the hardest decisions I have had to make in my life”. This was because if the government chose to pursue litigation to its logical end, the case would drag on for several years with no guarantee of recovering the looted funds.
Examples have been cited of Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, the Shah of Iran and Mobutu Sese Seko all of whom amassed huge personal fortunes through the systematic pillaging of state resources. The countries have retrieved little of the ill-gotten wealth. President Obasanjo said in the interview that he didn’t want Nigeria’s case to join the list of fruitless searches for stolen public funds stashed in financial havens abroad. Besides, while the Nigerian government paid over $1 million to maintain its lawyers, the Abacha family spent 12 times that amount for the same purpose. “They were able to pay that because it is not their money. It is your money and my money, it is Nigeria’s money,” the President said. We are indeed disappointed that the efforts at recovering the Abacha loot have ended in an anti-climax. This is notwithstanding the revenue consideration which informed the compromise deal with the family of the deceased kleptocrat.
President Obasanjo’s own admission that the Abacha family could not have legitimately done any work to earn US$100 million is the very reason why the government should have pursued the matter to its logical conclusion. It is strange that a government, which espouses the rule of law, should be impatient with due process. The government may yet receive kudos for what it has managed to retrieve from the Abachas.
But the lasting lesson of justice has been lost. The Abachas were already stigmatised when news filtered out shortly after the General died in shameful circumstances. He not only headed a government that was unrivalled in its brutality in Nigerian history, but also in the mindless pillaging of our commonwealth. But it was all talk and gossip with no hard facts as to how much was stolen, from which account and where such monies were hidden. Thus, when after his inauguration in May 1999 the Obasanjo government began ferreting out the illegal acquisitions by the Abachas, it was a move that was deservedly applauded. It was perceived as a practical demonstration of the new anti-corruption stance.
Subsequently, various government officials sang seemingly discordant tunes on the loot recovery effort. This provoked legitimate concerns about transparency and accountability. Nigerians did not have a full and clear picture of how much was being recovered, from which source and, more importantly, the application of the monies so recovered. At one stage, it was claimed that some of the recovered funds had been paid into the Federation Account and shared by the beneficiaries of the account.
Till date, there is no adequate and satisfactory information as to the fate of the funds recovered from the Abacha estate. A compromise deal with the Abachas is a dangerous precedent. It is a signal to all crooks and potential crooks that they can steal as much as they like and then negotiate with the government which will only be too happy to let them keep a part of their ill-gotten acquisitions. This is not justice.
Stealing is an offence, so is embezzlement. Where those who are prima facie guilty of such criminal transgressions get away with a slap on the wrist, the encouragement for disobedience of the law will be high. By refunding $1.2 billion there is untainted admission of criminal conduct. Abacha himself may be dead and so is personally beyond prosecution. But he had accomplices who have no, and should not be invested with any, immunity from prosecution for their criminal behaviour.
These accomplices are apparently still walking tall, with some even making self-righteous comments on issues of governance. It would seem so cowardly that Abacha has been targeted because he is dead. Yet, this should not be so. After the deal with the Abachas, is the government going to reach further compromises with other crooked Nigerians, bearing in mind that Abacha, even though a standard bearer of public office criminality, was not alone in his perfidy?
The rapacity perpetrated by Abacha and his accomplices was a huge setback on the national coffers. And unless adequately punished, such errant behaviour would pass as de rigeur. It is when justice is meted out manifestly that society grows from strength to strength in that the minimum acceptable rules of behaviour are thereby laid. This has not been the case with the Abachas and their accomplices.
And there is even a worrisome aspect of the constitutionality of the government’s action in its handling of the Abacha thievery. Presumably, the Executive branch believed that it was acting in the national interest by ceding US$100 million or more to the Abachas in order to rake in US$1.2 billion. The proprietary of such a unilateral cession of national resource is doubtful. It is not certain, for instance, how much collaboration there was on this issue between the National Assembly and the Presidency.
It would be double jeopardy if another speculated leg of the compromise were given effect. For several months, it has been hedged that, for co-operating with the government in the loot reparation effort, Mohammed Abacha, eldest son of the late tyrant, might be discharged from standing trial as an accused in the cold-blooded 1996 assassination of Alhaja Kudirat Abiola. Mohammed Abacha has been in and out of hospital in the course of trial. We hope that the Nigerian government will not compound the mistake of its compromise over the looted funds by entering a nolle prosequi.
The classes of offence are not the same. Embezzlement, stealing and other financial offences are not in the same category as murder. The Nigerian psyche has been brutalised enough and the road to recovery lies in doing things right for lasting value rather than a resort to expedient measures for fleeting gain.
Guardian (Nigeria), May 23, 2002