How Sani Abacha can combat COVID-19/ s

The Muhammadu Buhari government is demonstrating an admixture of bravado and nervousness.   I offer three pieces of evidence from last week. 

One: Abubakar Malami, Attorney General and allegedly Minister of Justice, who appeared on Twitter to announce the repatriation of the $311 million to Nigeria in Abacha loot by the US and the Bailiwick of Jersey.

Two: Presidential spokesman Femi Adesina, who appeared on television to explain the rights of a voter in a democracy.

Three: Presidential spokesman Garba Shehu, who penned a belated press statement to declare the Buhari Administration “committed to – and [is] enacting – total and zero tolerance to corruption in politics and public administration.”

Malami and Shehu were exploring how the government will spend the new mountain of repatriated Abacha loot, while Adesina was responding to a Nigerian who expressed the view that Buhari should chat with the media. 

“Some people think because you elected a President or you did not elect him, you must lead your President by the nose,” he sneered.  “It doesn't happen. The fact that you have elected a man does not mean that you begin to order him around. The President will do what is good for the country at any given time.''

It is widely-known that Buhari holds the press in both fear and contempt, an area in which his spokesmen ought to be embarrassed, not complicit.  Most of the time he speaks to the press, it is the international press; at home, he has barely spoken to journalists since he assumed office in 2015. 

But we do remember that when he sought office, he claimed to be a reformed democrat.  Evidently, he is neither one nor the other.  Yes, while he is in power, he can try to pen his own narrative, but it may be helpful to keep in mind that he will not write his history.

The trouble with Malami, who apparently unable to sleep took his joy to Twitter, is that he was again desperately trying to avoid the L-word.

It is to be recalled that late in January when he first announced that the repatriation was to be made, Malami--under pressure by US officials—affirmed: “The $321m expected to be repatriated is attached to Abacha and it is named Abacha loot,” in clear reference to Buhari’s reluctance to pronounce the words in that sequence.

This time, he sought refuge in the phrase, “Abacha assets.”

Abacha assets?  It took me back to that famous press conference by former Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in Switzerland in 2005 when she announced that Nigeria had recovered from the Abachas $458 million, and “about $2 billion total of assets…”

But Malami was simply trying not to have Abacha and loot in the same sentence, a problem the US has ironically been fighting on behalf of Nigeria against its own government, following reports that Buhari intended to pay at least $100m of the repatriation to Kebbi State governor Abubakar Bagudu, a former Abacha henchman.

In the past four months, the US has consistently stated that should Nigeria failed to use the Abacha loot on agreed public projects it would be forced to “replace” it.

On April 30, Reuters reported the affirmation by the US in a letter, as follows: “Should any of the parties — including the United States —conclude that any of the returned funds had been used for an ineligible expenditure, a “claw-back” provision would then obligate [Nigeria] to replace fully any such improperly diverted monies.”

In any other country, that letter that would have embarrassed the government or any of its official.

Not Nigeria, and certainly not Malami, who is no stranger to the precincts of lack of accountability. 

It is to be remembered that in 2016 and 2017, Nigerian courts ordered his government to publish information on recovered loot since 1999, including on a dedicated website, an order the government has ignored until this day.

But in July 2017, Malami promised that his government would indeed honour those famous court orders, telling State House journalists the government agreed with the courts.

Again in October of that year, in a meeting with SERAP in Abuja, Malami repeated the promise, claiming that Buhari had directed all the relevant agencies to compile documents on names of all “looters”, towards enforcing the court orders.   

But it was a ruse, and just weeks ago, as the world awaited the return of the latest Abacha account, the government owned up.  In response to an FOI request, Malami told SERAP the government has “no records of the exact amount of public funds stolen by a former military head of state, Sani Abacha and no records of the spending of about $5 billion recovered loot for the period between 1999 and 2015.”

You can choose the truth, or the lie: neither is inferior to the other.    

Which brings me to Shehu, who had a lot of chest-beating to offer last week. 

“For years many countries deemed successive Nigerian administrations as too corrupt, too venal and too likely to squander and re-steal the stolen monies – so they did not return the funds,” he declared, adding that countries returning Abacha loot have now “found the partnership with the nation of Nigeria they can finally trust.”

According to his narrative, that nation is the “total and zero tolerance to corruption” Buhari administration.

But Shehu failed to attach any evidence in support of that claim.  And because to claim is not to prove, he offered an immediate Nigerian scenario as to exactly what will happen to the new funds. 

Remember that in the February 4 “Repatriation agreement between Jersey, Nigeria and USA,” Malami declared: “…the government of Nigeria has committed that the assets will support and assist in expediting the construction of three major infrastructure projects across Nigeria: the Lagos – Ibadan Expressway, Abuja – Kano Road and the Second Niger Bridge.”

Shehu acknowledged that.  But in the typical Nigerian style in which agreements are modified after midnight and manipulated into meaninglessness by morning, he then declared: “Part of the funds will also be invested in the Mambilla Power Project…”

I have nothing against the Mambilla project, which should have been completed ages ago.  But if it was not part of this agreement, it is an interloper, and its insertion is the first indication the funds will be ruthlessly exploited by those who claim to be angels in power.

That is how we got here in the first place, including through foreign powers who this time prevailed on Buhari to commit to specific projects but who now have already been outflanked. 

My advice to Abacha is that he must stop trying to help Nigerians or Nigerian governments through the back door.  So far gone are we that even during this fire and fury, nobody appears to regret the past so much he is committed to a common future. 

Nigeria is a deeply-troubled nation, and perhaps only fire can save her.

Let us pray.

[This column welcomes rebuttals from interested government officials].