By Ikeddy Isiguzo
There is only one thing President Muhammadu Buhari and former President Ibrahim Babangida, Nigeria’s only military president, agree on – General Sani Abacha never stole from Nigeria. It follows that he is not corrupt.
Both men had an acrimonious relationship that festered after Babangida ousted Buhari in an August 1985 coup. Abacha was a central figure in the coups that brought them to power and some insist that Abacha also had a hand in their departure from power.
The assertion they made in Kano 12 years ago, at the 10th year remembrance of the passing of Abacha, could have been the foundational literature for the latest efforts to oil the wheels of Abacha’s sainthood. The media on 9th June, 2008, were awash with bold headlines lauding Abacha. Thisday, a Nigerian newspaper, was one of them. Abacha Never Stole, Say Buhari, Babangida was the headline of its lead story on 9th June, 2008. None of the generals has denied making the claims on behalf of Abacha.
Buhari and Babangida so asserted. They were right. Abacha could have been saving the funds for Nigeria for the rainy day. Abacha loved his country uniquely. He knew that if he did not secure the funds, they would be stolen. He was a wiser man than many are willing to give him credit.
By 2008 when Buhari and Babangida found a common ground on Abacha, $2.75 billion of his loots had been returned to Nigeria. The total came from General Abdulsalami Abubakar’s recovery of $750 million and $2 billion that banks, mostly Swiss, returned to President Olusegun Obasanjo through their government.
It is doubtful if the two Generals would agree on a definition of corruption where it was to be applied to Abacha or anyone for that matter. Their position on Abacha, taken years after the stolen funds had started finding their way back to Nigeria, is turning out to be a prophecy.
Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF), Abubakar Malami, has made a fine point about the difference between a loot and an asset. Happy with his explanation, he christened the billions of Dollars that Abacha stole as loot at a point. He said they became assets of the Federal Government by the legitimacy that the repatriation conferred on them.
Please note that Malami has been practising law for 28 years after his graduation from the Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto, the Nigerian Law School. He also studied at the University of Maiduguri for a Master’s in Public Administration. He has earned his place among sages with the novel explanations of how loots become assets. It is a long time anyone was as seminal in any issue of great national import.
His appointment in 2015 as Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation came with the note that he was Buhari’s youngest Minister at 48. When Abacha died, Malami was 31 years old, and had been in practice for 16 years. The Honourable Minister of Justice was legally minded enough to take a position on Abacha.
Malami said his Abacha antithesis was deliberate, his words carefully picked, all indicators that he was not misquoted. He went the extra kilometre by issuing a statement so that the meaning of loots and assets can be better appreciated. He should be commended for improving the moribund lexicons for more profound discussions on how loots become assets.
We are stranded in this discussions. Are these words involved in any transactions that could be related to corruption?
Has the Honourable Minister of Justice established the transitional (could actually be transactional) meaning of these words solely for discussing General Abacha, a great man, whose concerns for Nigeria have continued 22 years after his death?
Malami went into a drivel on how the latest return of $311.7 million amounted to the international community’s endorsement of Buhari’s non-tolerance for corruption. We are left imagining what the interest of the international community would be in Malami’s ingenious splitting of corruption into two dynamic parts that he named loots and assets. Let us pity the earlier loots that were returned to Nigeria. They lost a chance of becoming assets and a rousing welcome from Malami who would have on the occasion made a sanitising statement about the unflagging abhorrence of corruption under the watch of the administration.
Transparency International, said the following recoveries have been made since Abacha’s death in 1998 and returned under the watch of these Nigerian rulers:
General Abdulsalami Abubakar – $750 million; President Olusegun Obasanjo – $2 billion; President Goodluck Jonathan – $227 million; President Muhammadu Buhari – $681 million; Total: $3, 658 billion. If we were to believe Malami, the international community was unaware that Buhari was not President when the earlier returns were made. Better still, those were loots, not assets.
Malami wants Nigerians to focus on the use of the money rather than any worries about what it is called. He must be a modest man not to dwell on the merits of his own innovation. We should also focus on the industry of an individual who in so short a time frame could save so much in the midst of the turbulence that oil prices witnessed, the billions he committed to stabilising the Naira, and more billions that went into the public works the Petroleum Trust Fund executed.
In his 56 months as Head of State, the $3.658 billion, so far recovered from Abacha translates to monthly savings of $65.32 million in the special accounts. Why would we deny Abacha praises for keeping these assets away from the thieving reach of some of our officials who could have swallowed them? Are the reasons for amassing the money and spiriting it abroad not enough to erect the status of Abacha as a patriotic foresighted leader, shrewd in his management of the nation’s lean resources? Where is the national gratitude?
A law may be necessary to criminalise any suggestions that Abacha was corrupt. The National Assembly is in a law-making mood now. The law can be possible in a matter of hours. Abacha cannot spend less than five years amassing assets that have become his country’s lifeline for 22 years and his countrymen – even women – are busy smearing the name of a great man who is long overdue for a place in a Hall of Fame, specifically built for him.
If Nigerians insist that other similarly noble Nigerians should be admitted into the unique Hall of Fame, a condition, at least one of them, should be that the famed one should have endowed his assets, in perpetuity to Nigeria. The entry point should not be less than $3.658 billion, that is where the great Abacha set the bar for now.
*Isiguzo, veteran journalist, is a Public Affairs analyst.