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The Presidency has come under fire following its controversial decision to withdraw corruption suit against Mohammed Abacha for inexplicable reasons. Coming against the backdrop of perceived shielding of Petroleum Minister, Diezani Alison-Madueke from probe over alleged corrupt enrichment, is President Goodluck Jonathan’s unimpressive anti-corruption score-card
By Olisemeka Obeche
Not a few Nigerians were alarmed by the news of government’s sudden withdrawal of the nine-count criminal charges against Mohammed Abacha, son of the late military junta, General Sani Abacha, who was being prosecuted for possessing property worth N446.3 billion believed to belong to the cache of multi-billion dollar ill-gotten wealth acquired during his father’s tumultuous five-year reign (1993 to 1998).
Also generating ripples was the failure of the Presidency to provide sufficient explanation for quashing the corruption case against the Abachas whose questionable stupendous wealth trapped in various banks overseas had been making news headlines over the last decade. It will be recalled that government’s counsel, Mr. Daniel Enwelum had, while praying for the court to withdraw the charges on behalf of his client (the Federal Government), argued that the application became necessary in view of emerging facts and circumstances of the case.
That the Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF),Mohammed Adoke, ordered the withdrawal of the suit on behalf of the Federal Government and this has been interpreted in many quarters as a dangerous precedent and setback to the government’s anti-corruption crusade. Chinedu Akpa, a lawyer and former Lagos governorship aspirant criticized government’s action. “It has sent a wrong signal to the world about the lack of political will to fight corruption to a standstill by Nigeria as well as a clear message that corruption charges can be quashed through executive fiat,” he said.
Executive Director, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), Auwal Rafsanjani agrees. “This action has brought to Nigeria further opprobrium and other negative consequences that the country is not genuinely committed to fighting corruption. Incidences of corruption are the forerunner of insecurity, poverty, unemployment and infrastructural decay which the country is currently facing,” he said.
The West African Civil Society Forum – Nigeria (WACSOF), also views the development as a further confirmation of Jonathan’s administration’s systematic institutionalization of graft in the country. This is because the action is coming on the heels of President Jonathan’s declaration during his recent media chat that ‘there is difference between stealing and corruption’.
The National Coordinator of WASCOF Sola Folayan, sees the dropping of the charges against Mohammed Abacha for corrupt enrichment and money laundering as a way the administration is perpetuating immorality, impunity and lack of transparency in the system. “It puts a huge question mark on the sincerity of the Jonathan administration to fight corruption,” Folayan said.
The global anti-corruption agency, Transparency International (TI) also condemned the Federal Government’s decision. It said the government’s action sends a wrong message that those who steal public funds can be allowed to go unpunished if they are powerful. The agency therefore called for the reinstatement of the charges. “Allowing the theft of public funds to go unpunished sends the wrong message that those with powerful connections can act with impunity. The case should have been fully prosecuted and the government has not given adequate reasons for dropping the charges,” TI said in a statement signed by Chantal Uwimana, its Regional Director for sub-Saharan Africa. TI declared that corruption is widespread in Nigeria. “Despite claims by the government to make tackling corruption a priority, too few people have been held to account for a series of high profile scandals. At the same time, about half of Nigerians live in poverty,” TI stated.
But reacting to the criticisms of government’s action, Adoke, the AGF faulted critics. According to him, the criticisms were done without having the facts of the case. “Our attention has been drawn to the recent statement by Transparency International (TI) criticizing the very robust efforts of the Jonathan administration towards the recovery of stolen assets from the Abacha family and its associates. In the statement, TI accused the government of encouraging impunity by allowing the Abacha family to be set free because “allowing the theft of public funds to go unpunished sends the wrong message that those with powerful connections can act with impunity.” It also added that “the case should have been fully prosecuted, and the government has not given adequate reasons for dropping the charges.” We wish to state that the statement is not only an unfortunate rush to judgment without the benefit of facts, but also that nothing could be further from the truth.”
Adoke explained that the Federal Government is currently pursuing recovery proceedings against the Abacha family and its associates in Liechtenstein, Luxemburg, and the United Kingdom. “The Federal Government of Nigeria has also made a request for Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters to the United States of America in respect of the stolen assets within that jurisdiction,” he said.
According to him, “government is also working assiduously with the Department of Justice of the United States in respect of the forfeiture proceedings it commenced against the Abacha family and its associates.” He explained that the proceedings will make it possible for the Abacha family and its associates to forfeit over $550 million and £95,910 pounds sterling in 10 accounts and six investment portfolios linked to the Abachas in France, Britain, British Virgin Islands and the United States.
Shielding of Alison-Madueke
Before the Mohammed Abacha suit debacle, the Presidency has been under criticism for its subtle role in the refusal of the Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke to respond to parliamentary inquiry into her alleged corruption dealings.
The House of Representatives Committee on Public Accounts had written the minister demanding clarification on the controversial Challenger 850 aircraft and other jets, including a Global Express XRS, chartered for her use allegedly by the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) which cost tax payers N10 billion over three years. The committee led by Solomon Olamilekan, also requested from the minister additional information on the sources of funding for the aircraft as well as relevant section of the law empowering her to fly in chartered jets.
The Senate Committee on Petroleum (downstream) also reportedly made similar request from the long-serving minister to come forward with proof that she did not corruptly enrich herself with public funds. But instead of appearing before the parliamentary committees to establish her innocence, Mrs. Alison-Madueke had engaged the lawmakers in a dramatic power play and legal manoeuvring. First, the embattled minister advised the lawmakers to seek first and obtain the permission of President Goodluck Jonathan before investigating the N10 billion charter aircraft as it had no power to probe her.
According to her, the lawmakers were only empowered under the constitution to exercise oversight functions over her ministry and agencies under its supervision “with respect to public funds, through their various committees so set up, which oversight is only for the purpose of enabling them to make laws and correct defects in existing laws”. To back her claims, Mrs. Alison-Madueke approached an Abuja High Court to obtain a restraining order, halting the legislative probe of her.
The minister (plaintiff), through her counsel, Mr. Etigwe Uwain, prayed the court to declare that the National Assembly and the House of Representatives, who are the two defendants in the suit, lacked the power to summon her without the consent of President Goodluck Jonathan. A prayer the court granted to her satisfaction.
Justice Ahmed Mohammed of the Federal High Court-Abuja granted the restraining order on the grounds that “the court has inherent power and the duty to intervene to protect its integrity in determining its processes; and the second defendant is bent on interrupting the processes filed in this suit”.
He argued further: “While I agree that the legislature has constitutional powers to exercise, I cannot, however, agree that where any of the powers of the legislature is being challenged in the court of law, the court should turn its back to the plaintiff for the fear of being accused of usurping the legislative power of the National Assembly.”
Missing fund saga
Besides the fledging private jet charter probe, the minister is equally roped in the NNPC’s $20 billion missing funds scandal which culminated in the suspension of the former Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Governor, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi. Sanusi, now the Emir of Kano, had in February berated the Presidency for refusing to take action against Alison-Madueke who spent about N58 billion public funds without budgetary approval while at the same time hounding him for raising alarm over unremitted or misappropriated fund accruing to national accounts.
“The Minister of Petroleum spoke on live television before the National Assembly, admitting that she spent $3.5 billion (N577 billion) of tax payers’ money on kerosene subsidy without budgetary approval, but nothing was done”, Sanusi declared while reacting to his suspension by President Jonathan over alleged breaches of enabling laws, due process and mandate of the central bank.
The former CBN boss had on September 25, 2013, written a memo to President Goodluck Jonathan alleging that the NNPC under the supervision of Mrs. Alison-Madueke was systematically diverting certain percentage of proceeds from crude oil sales and that huge sum totaling $49.8 billion was not remitted to federal coffers over 19 months period. However, the matter took a dramatic twist following an open letter wrote by former President Olusegun Obasanjo to President Jonathan in December, with reference to certain issues raised by Sanusi in his September memo.
Besides accusing Mr. Sanusi of leaking the memo he wrote to Mr. Jonathan to former President, Olusegun Obasanjo, which he denied, the Presidency reportedly prevailed on the embattled CBN governor to tender his resignation. Subsequently, the Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala; Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke and Sanusi, addressed a joint media briefing, explaining that a reconciliation process had established that it was not $49.8 billion that had not been remitted to the Federation Account but $10.8 billion.
Sanusi later told a Senate committee public hearing that a further review of the missing funds by the CBN experts show that the unremitted fund was $20 billion (N3.3 trillion) and not $10.8 billion, a development that earned him opprobrium from several quarters for dishing out unreliable facts.
While the Presidency had since ordered a forensic audit to establish the true fact on the missing fund with Sanusi tactically ejected from CBN two months to the end of his tenure, critics insist the Petroleum minister and top management of the NNPC are culpable in the missing fund saga and that the forensic audit was a ploy by the government to sweep the matter under carpet.
Mr. Timi Frank, a social critic, opined in a public letter to President Jonathan that by commissioning the forensic audit without suspending or sacking the principal actors in the scandal, especially Mrs. Alison-Madueke, the Presidency was telling the world that it was not interested in establishing the true fact about the missing funds and punishing the culprits.
Suspending or sacking Mrs. Alison-Madueke before the commencement of the forensic investigation, he argued, has “become imperative because Diezani’s case is not different from that of Sanusi that was suspended over allegations of ‘financial recklessness’ nor that of the former Minister of Aviation, Ms. Stella Oduah, who was sacked on allegation of using N255million to purchase two bullet-proof cars. Why should Sanusi and others not be allowed to enjoy the same ‘presidential protection’ apparently being accorded Deizani,” he queried.
Mr Kingsley Oghai, a political analysts also agreed: “There is no doubt in my mind how the missing $20 billion forensic audit would end when President Jonathan himself had cast doubt over it during his last media chat, declaring: ‘If anyone steals $50 billion or $20 billion anywhere, America will know. They will tell you where it is; it is their money. ‘So the forensic audit is a waste of tax payers’ money and subtle attempt to cover the mess up”, he said.
Promise not redeemed
On the day President Goodluck Jonathan was formally sworn in as the 13th President of Nigeria, amongst the numerous promises he made to preserve the sanctity of the constitution and legacies of his principal, the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, was to wage an altruistic anti-corruption war that spares no one.
“Our total commitment to Good Governance, Electoral Reform and the fight against Corruption would be pursued with greater vigour. As I had stated time and again, we must enshrine the best standards in our democratic practice”, Jonathan declared after an oath-taking ritual administered by Justice Katsina Alu, then Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) on May 6, 2010.
Four years on, the Jonathan administration is struggling to deliver on its key promises, ditto the zero corruption campaign. Besides failing to secure convictions from a plethora of high profile corrupt cases it inherited, the government has struggled to bring most of the influential politicians and public officials implicated in media-headlined corruption dealings to book so far.
The government’s poor prosecution and conviction records in its anti-corruption war, critics say, was an imprimatur of Jonathan presidency’s lack of political will to tackle corruption headlong.
Former, National Publicity Secretary of the defunct Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), Rotimi Fashakin described Jonathan’s presidency as the most corrupt, most incompetent and most treacherous regime in the history of Nigeria. Citing the N155 billion Malabu Oil scam as an example, Mr. Fashakin claims that the degree of the corruption going on under Jonathan’s government was unparalleled in Nigeria’s history. “Over $1 billion (involved in the Malabu oil scam)….and it is going to be swept under the carpet….this pales Abacha’s loot into insignificance,” he said.
The government’s poor record in its anti-corruption crusade has equally attracted international condemnation with Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe and former Secretary of State of the United States, Hilary Clinton, making scathing remarks about how graft had impacted Nigeria’s socio-economic and political developments.
“Nigeria has made bad choices, not hard choices. They have squandered their oil wealth, they have allowed corruption to fester and now they are losing control of parts of their territory because they wouldn’t make hard choices,” Mrs. Clinton said in New York.
Mr. Mugabe on the other hand, had during his 90th birthday luncheon remarked that Zimbabweans are now almost behaving like Nigerians who have to be corruptly paid for every service. “Are we now like Nigeria where you have to reach your pocket to get anything done? You see, we used to go to Nigeria and every time we went there we had to carry extra cash in our pockets to corruptly pay for everything,” Mugabe said.