Six months ago today, the President, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (retd) ordered a 22-man panel to sell off all assets which had been forfeited to the government.
Inaugurated by Abubakar Malami, the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, the Inter-Ministerial Committee on the Disposal of Federal Government of Nigeria’s Forfeited Assets, then disappeared from the headlines.
But it was being chaired by Dayo Apata, the Solicitor General of the Federation, although Mr. Malami, his boss, was a member. Mr. Apata affirmed the party line, declaring that the committee would be guided by “principles of transparency and accountability.”
Now that the lifespan of the panel has expired, the government must demonstrate that it has at least honoured its pretence.
In a comment on 15 November 2020, I described the large committee as facing “screaming” character problems.
For those who are paying attention, the committee is at the intersection of the presidency’s probe of former EFCC chairman Ibrahim Magu by the Justice Ayo Salami panel, and the character of AGF Malami’s Ministry of Justice.
In July 2020, the presidency said Magu had been suspended “to allow for unhindered inquiry by the Presidential Investigation Panel,” following allegations made by Malami which included the “sale of seized assets to cronies, associates and friends.”
The seven-man Salami panel, which was inaugurated on July 3, was given 45 days to complete its work of reviewing the Magu EFCC from 2015 to May 2020. Given the character of the Buhari administration, it was no surprise that it took twice as much time to complete its work. It is even less of a surprise that that report has taken its place on the long queue of the buried.
Nonetheless, the Presidential Committee on Audit of Recovered Assets would also publicly declare that Magu had failed to declare over 330 assets that included navy ships, real estate, and motor vehicles.
Think about that for a moment. Over 330. And the EFCC was just one of several government agencies that since Buhari’s arrival, had been falling over each other to “recover” illegal assets.
Malami said that members of his inter-ministerial panel were largely drawn from such “relevant agencies.” As far back as November 2017, Buhari had set up a three-person committee to audit all (apparently, cash) recoveries made by government agencies. No report was issued.
Curiously, in his written defence last July, Magu pointed out that his EFCC had distributed some of the assets it recovered to some government agencies. Among them were the presidency itself, which neither denied that charge nor specified what it had collected or what it did with it.
It also became of considerable interest that in presenting its report to Buhari, Justice Salami disclosed that his commission had undertaken a nationwide physical verification of the EFCC-recovered assets, and that they included real estate, automobiles, vessels and other non-cash assets.
Again, I point out that this is in reference only to the EFCC under Magu. In essence, in November 2020, Malami’s Inter-Ministerial Forfeited Assets panel, waving the “transparency and accountability” flag, was potentially looking at selling—or “disposing of”—thousands of pieces of assets worth possibly trillions of naira.
Transparency and accountability. Wink, wink.
Nigerians were not being told what or where these assets were, or how they could participate in the disposal.
They were not being told how the assets were being valued. That is: the committee—not independent specialists—was going to determine the value of each asset or group of assets, and who (friends of Buhari as opposed to friends of Bola Tinubu/members of the First Family as opposed to persons supported by Olusegun Obasanjo, for instance], could bid for choice properties anywhere in the country; or families of members of the federal cabinet, as opposed to those of the APC National Executive Committee or the Nigeria Governors Forum.
That also suggested the nightmare that only those from whom the assets had been seized in the first place (or their mistresses or political patrons or other manipulators) and were positioned to arrange to buy them back, as well as those in the corridors of power or knew those who were, could benefit from what was shaping up as a bazaar.
The point is that a government which advertised itself as being driven by kernels of integrity was going to determine, with no outside voices, what three-star hotel in Bayelsa was worth only N100.00 and what 2018 Mercedes with only 5000 miles on it was worth only N225.00.
Perhaps I misrepresent the committee—and by extension Malami’s Ministry of Justice, and by further extension Buhari’s government— very poorly. I do not apologise: they have never proved to be of character, and I have never in this column given them unmerited character.
But then we arrive at the present: six months after the government said it was going to dispose of all the unlisted properties “transparently.”
Most of the questions are elementary: is the selling over? How did each buyer learn about what was available, when to bid or buy, and where to do so? Who bought what asset, as opposed to who it had been recovered from?
Some of the questions are far more serious: How did the committee ensure that its members did not compromise or serve themselves, or was such a compromise standard operating procedure?
What part did Malami and Finance Minister Zainab Ahmed play? As I pointed out previously, Malami’s integrity has suffered tremendously over various issues. Ms. Ahmed, on the other hand, previously undertook a similar selling-of-recovered-assets in April 2019, when Buhari directed her ministry to dispose of “all unclaimed looted assets” recovered since 2015 within six months.
Ms. Ahmed never disclosed what she sold, when, or to whom. Nobody declared whether she remitted anything to the treasury, let alone how much.
And then, within one year of concluding her own one-woman show, she became a member of Malami’s, without anyone telling Nigerians what the difference was between their assignments, or what the punchline of the joke was.
And both performances are now over without anyone disclosing what has been accomplished or at what point Nigerians should give them a standing ovation.
In my November 2020 article, I urged the government to publish a dedicated website which would specify not only “all the procedures, but the location of each asset and the identity of the original owner [and] 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.”
As usual, the government ignored what I described as a “small window…to pull back from [the] systemic rot it champions.” If Buhari’s committee served the best interest of Nigeria, why does he not let us celebrate his “success”?
Why does a man dive into a river when he cannot swim?