In a new move, the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd) last Monday installed a committee to sell off all assets recovered by the federal government.
The idea would be straightforward, but there are screaming problems. First, the committee starts at a whopping meat market of 22 persons.
Second, it comprises a multiplicity of government bodies, which is always a bad sign. And then, for purposes of political correctness, they corralled an alphabet soup of bodies they could find in the streets: civil society, youth, and the media. Someone even included “Any other Nigerian with exceptional expertise that could add value to the committee as deems (sic) fit by the AGF.”
Third, the committee was initiated by the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami. But it is headed by the Solicitor-General of the Federation and Permanent Secretary of that Ministry, Mr. Dayo Apata.
Structurally, this means Malami, who is also a member, will report to his Permanent Secretary. And all of this is despite various ethical allegations against the AGF the government has ignored.
Fourth: according to the AGF, the committee arises from an October 2018 directive of the President following the recommendations of the Presidential Audit Committee on Recovery and Management of Stolen Assets, which led to a set of AGF Regulations in 2019.
Given that background, what period does the mission of the committee cover: from the 2018 presidential directive or the 2019 Ministerial Regulations? Does its responsibility span the lifetime of the Buhari government?
Fifth: does the six-month lifespan of the committee end on May 8, 2021, or is it open-ended like the Justice Salami panel investigating former EFCC chairman Ibrahim Magu?
Sixth, why does the brief of the committee specify “generating revenue” for the government if it is merely to sell recovered assets? Is there a suggestion that one could be accomplished but not the other, as in situations where assets may be cheaply disposed of or are stealthily returned to the original owners?
Seventh, in the opacity of the exercise, the government perpetuates the very corruption it claims to be fighting. The exclusion of the public means that only members of the government and the committee—AND those from whom the assets were recovered—know the assets involved in the secret disposal exercise and can benefit from it.
Eighth (and perhaps the most important), is the government’s inclusion of the Minister of Finance, Zainab Ahmed. This would have to be explained to the public slowly and clearly.
Here is why: 18 months ago, in April 2019, Buhari directed her ministry to dispose of “all unclaimed looted assets” recovered by his government since he assumed office, a pile he described in May 2016 at his first anniversary as being “significant.”
“The Ministry of Finance, working with all the relevant authorities, has been authorised to take action to liquidate all recovered, unencumbered assets within six months,” the Minister of Budget and National Planning, Udo Udoma, confirmed to federal legislators.
Let us recall that this had been brewing throughout Buhari’s tenure. At an anti-corruption conference in London in May 2016, the Nigeria ruler personally promised that in two weeks he would avail Nigerians of a “comprehensive report” of all recovered stolen public funds.
That promised date tallied with his first anniversary, and Nigerians waited in front of their television screens for Buhari to deliver.
The records show that on that day, he fled from his promise, and called in someone else. “Full details of the status and categories of the assets will now be published by the Ministry of Information and updated periodically,” he said.
If ever there had been an anti-corruption idea in the government, that was the day it died. That ministry, naturally, could never produce a report its principal was afraid to, and you cannot update what is inexistent. Even when two courts ordered the government to publish a full record of loot recovery, Buhari would not comply. The image of his as a damaged government which protects the corrupt was complete.
But that was the environment in April 2019 when he ordered Minister Ahmed to undertake the selloff in six months. Think about that: one person’s power to sell thousands of assets, in trillions of Naira, in six months.
We must imagine that she did, but Nigerians were told neither the inventory nor the terms, the losers and the winners, the owners or the buyers. When and how did she sell them, and to whom?
That entire thing became even more curious this July when EFCC chairman Ibrahim Magu was taken before a presidential investigation looking into allegations which included the sale of seized assets to cronies, associates, and friends: allegations made by AGF Malami.
Part of Magu’s written defence was that with the approval of the presidency, his agency had distributed an array of assets to many, including the presidency itself. It is of tremendous interest that the case against Magu has now stalled in the “court” of Aso Rock, as have similar corruption cases since 2015.
And now, with no report issued of her 2019 bazaar, Minister Ahmed joins a new one this month which seems set to market mostly the things she allegedly sold last year. And again, the Aso Rock market will operate in the dark.
Let us remember that in 2016, the Ministry of Information put cash and assets recovered since Buhari took office at $9.1 billion, but refused to name anyone involved.
For the new disposal exercise to be considered something of a success, complete transparency is required, in line with the terms of the Open Government Partnership that Nigeria became a member of in 2016.
The government must find the courage to publish a dedicated website which not only outlines all the procedures, but the location of each asset and the identity of the original owner; an order prohibiting such owners, their relatives and friends from buying back their assets. It must also list every sale, as well as the price and date, and the purchaser.
Unless it does these things, the Buhari government would consolidate its image as the world’s most corrupt of the corrupt. It would be validating the conclusions of such observers as the New York Times’ Adam Nossiter that in Nigeria, “Graft Is the System.”
That article, written one year before Buhari assumed office, described acts of bribery the reporter witnessed at police and army checkpoints.
“This is not a flaw in the system,” he concluded. “It is the system…[And] much in government spending, at all levels, remains hidden from the citizens.”
That mess is what the current government feasted on to obtain power in 2015, but it has sadly only consolidated it, as is being demonstrated now by its witch-hunt of young Nigerians who participated recently in the #EndSARS protest.
But there is a small window for the government to pull back from this systemic rot it champions: it can set up that dedicated website today.
Unless, of course, it is using the Malami secret committee to distribute the assets among its people and protect them.