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Published On: Thu, Feb 13th, 2020

On ‘Abacha Loot’: Once Upon a Conference

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THURSDAY Column with Mohammed Adamu

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By Mohammed Adamu

They say that the seemingly unending repatriation of the now infamous ‘Abacha loot’ is gradually becoming suspect. And pro-Abachas now wonder: ‘could Obasanjo, in collaboration with his Western friends, have maliciously and malevolently set this unending recovery up in order to rubbish – in perpetuity- the image of his late traducer, General Sani Abacha? My answer to this lies especially in a revisit to a piece I wrote three years ago (04/20/2017) on the title ‘Grand Corruption’.
‘GRAND CORRUPTION’
I wrote ‘CORRUPTION: IS THY NAME NIGERIA?’ over a year ago (01/12/16), and in it I narrated a privileged experience, as far back as 2001 when I attended Transparency International’s 10th International Anti-Corruption Conference in Prague, Czech Republic. It was an event attended by virtually all the nations of the world, from as mighty as the United States of America to as minuscule as a 200,000-strong nation of Vanuatu. All 52 members of that country’s uni-cameral Parliament were in attendance at the conference; -to learn a thing or two about new ways of fighting corruption even though ‘corruption’ in such tiny archipelagic countries with transparently lean workforce is hardly ever threat enough to excite such kin interest in new fighting tools. Conversely, and painfully so, of the nearly five hundred members of Nigeria’s wastefully bi-cameral legislature, not one legislator was in attendance, even though Nigeria ranked high on the ladder of nations in which corruption has assumed a malignantly nation-threatening proportion.
Many of these lawmakers had in fact applied and received various sums of per diem (estacode) in dollars under the pretense of attending the conference. They did not. Call it ‘stealing from the purse of the ‘avenging angel’ itself. Stealing in the name of attending an anti-corruption conference to fight stealing. This was not ‘corruption’ as we know it in aggressor-mood attacking to take what does not belong to it; nor was this ‘corruption’ in defensive mood, ‘fighting back’. This was a disdainful poke right in the eye of ‘anti-corruption’ by skin-deep ‘corruption’! When a relatively unknown Obie Ezekwesili, then a Special Assistant to Obasanjo on economic matters introduced me to the Justice Minister late Bola Ige as a Special Assistant in the Department for Legislative Liaison and the Cicero asked me rather sarcastically ‘’Where are our members of National Assembly?” I probably should’ve said that they had stolen their way out of participation.
The five-day conference which was attended by many world leaders, specialists and experts cutting across public and private sectors, attracted politicians, lawmakers, judges, captains of industry, clergies, personnel of the armed and paramilitary forces, security agencies, civil servants, representatives of national anti-corruption agencies, Non-Governmental and Civil Society Organizations, the Media and sundry others. They had all gathered in that Eastern European country, to compare notes, share experiences and exchange ideas on how to effectively tackle the menace of corruption at the global, continental, regional and national levels- especially with regard to its ever changing faces and the need, globally and nationally, to constantly review legislation to check its mutating nature. And so, the critical role of parliaments in this regard, could not have been overemphasized.
At the end of those five engaging days the conference had acquitted itself as a practical, action-oriented event with focus on case studies, concrete strategies and impact assessment from the diverse experiences of different nations which not only provided workable ideas and networking opportunities for public and private sector personnel, but also went beyond political statements to take stock of what strategies had worked and what methods were certified ineffective in the various anti-corruption measures used nationally and internationally. There were over a hundred workshop topics up for delivery by experts from diverse fields of experience -offering participants a multi-faceted view of the subject matter and a multiplicity of approaches on how to deal with the menace of corruption and other ethnics-related issues: topics such as ‘Building Ethics in the Civil Service’, ‘creating an Honest Police Force’, ‘Causes, Consequences and Remedies of Judicial Corruption’, ‘Curbing Corruption in the Oil, Gas and Mining Sectors’, ‘Money Laundering and Recovery of Proceeds of Corruption’ and ‘Blowing the Whistle on Corrupt officials’ among many others.
I was particularly interested in topics relevant to our local situation, as Nigeria was –and still is- notoriously shaping up to be both prolific and versatile especially in the areas of ‘money laundering’ and recovery of looted funds abroad -no thanks- to the infamous ‘Abacha loot’. Plus I was curiously interested in ‘Whistle Blowing’ –a universally novel anti-corruption tool kit which up until that Conference in Prague was still relatively alien to Nigeria’s anti-corruption experience. It was quite an auspicious moment particularly for Nigeria and Peru, because both countries were singled out for special mention at Plenary especially for their tenacity in the pursuit of looted funds abroad belonging to their respective countries. And although the Conference admitted the existence of serious man-made bi-lateral and multi-lateral bottlenecks to the recovery of looted funds –offering high-profile strategies for scaling them- Nigeria’s and Peru’s success stories provided an opportunity by the conference to loud the efficacy of the so called ‘Mutual Legal Assistance’ initiative designed to help victim-nations recover looted funds abroad. It is not sufficient that a nation has succeeded in trailing and tracing her looted funds abroad. The real challenge is in the bilateral and or multi-lateral efforts to repatriate such funds through the labyrinth of complex municipal laws of harboring countries. Most of these complex laws victim-countries believe are made to frustrate efforts at discovery, recovery and repatriation. Whereas many such victim-countries rarely have the patience to go through the tedium of these laws, Nigeria’s and Peru’s perseverance in that regard was not only commended but showcased as proof that the ‘Mutual Legal Assistance’ initiative, in the end, does achieve result; if –and only if- victim-nations are patient, painstaking and persevering. Meaning that in the predictably inevitable ‘eye-ball to eye-ball’ scenario between a victim-nation and a loot-harboring-country, the former must not blink.
The whole of Peru for example was battling for years to recover a paltry sum of 22 million dollars. This, in the parlance of boxing categorization, was a measly ‘feather’ or ‘bantam’ weight compared to the several hundreds of millions of dollars of the ‘Abacha loot’ alone that Nigeria had almost forever been the trail of. Yet that 9 million-strong Latin American Republic, Peru was, reportedly in an upbeat mood at the prospect of such ‘huge’ amount about to be recovered and injected into her twin economic mainstays of agriculture and mining. Ironically in today’s Nigeria even a spoilt child of a poorly-ranked corrupt politician in Nigerian could conveniently have paid Peru her looted funds without batting an eyelid. That is a measure of how obscenely corrupt we have become. But we are not only dealing with insane politicians who have stolen billions of dollars, side by side with that sickening reality we also have to cope with the insanity of a multitude of raggedy, bigoted others who are telling us to forgo the loot and to “let bygones be bygones”.
In fact it was at the Prague Conference that I first heard the phrase ‘grand corruption’, symbolizing perhaps a malignant stage of corruption from which it is said that a dangerous alliance can happen between corruptly-wealthy politicians and organized business crime groups with the inevitable result that a nation is perpetually held to ransom -as we see in many parts of Latin America. And it was on this subject of ‘grand corruption’ that another moment for Nigeria came up again at the conference; this time alongside Russia. The two countries were singled out for special mention as destinations where corruption had reached ‘grand’ level and that therefore the threat of the emergence of power groups stronger than government was not only likely, it was imminent.
A report presented at the Conference which was prepared by the UN Global Program Against Corruption, said that in about “a ten year period”, Nigeria and Russia alone, had seen “more than 250 billion dollars looted by corrupt leaders”. This amount which the report said was diverted mostly to banks in Europe and the United States was “the equivalent of the World Bank budget” in that same period. In fact on the same subject and around the same period, ‘The Financial Times of London’, writing under the title ‘Nigeria’s Stolen Money’ (24/07/99), had reported that of the 1 trillion dollars in criminal proceeds laundered through banks worldwide each year, about 100 billion dollars came from corrupt regimes nested, feathered and plumed in Nigeria.
By the way even as Obasanjo was commended for its un-yielding efforts in the recovery of the ‘Abacha loot’, the Conference could not conceal its reservation that repatriating such back to a “systemically corrupt environment” like Nigeria, would be ‘penny-wise’, for the reason that corrupt politicians would still re-loot the loot. Quite an uncanny piece of prophesy you might say, because it did come to pass that the so called ‘recovered’ Abacha loot was allegedly ‘re-looted’ by corrupt politicians in government. Or were we not told that between Jonathan’s discredited anti-corruption Caesar Lamurde, his all-talk-and-no-result Finance Minister, Ngozi and his serpentine -ala-Malibu- AGF Adoke, most of the Abacha loot, like ‘needle in a haystack’, was missing?
And although things have only gotten worse in my country since 16 years ago when I attended that Conference, I am still consoled by the fact that in Prague I was privileged to be part of an important movement namely the brave reaction of right-minded citizens of the world to the pernicious threat that corruption poses to democratic governments around the globe. No feeling could be greater.

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