Representative Salam Bamidele is the member of the 9th National Assembly representing Ede North/Ede South/Egbedero/Ejigbo Federal Constituency of Osun State in the House of Representatives. In this interview, Bamidele says there may be more looted funds out there bigger than the ones recovered by the Nigerian authorities.

By Levinus Nwabughiogu

Do you think monies were embezzled and stashed away in some foreign bank accounts during the regime of the late Gen. Sani Abacha as is widely reported?

Most certainly, monies were stolen from the public treasury during the regime of the late Gen. Sani Abacha. If you remember, in that era, there were no stringent measures on money transfers. Most of the protocols in existence today to track money laundering were not there then. There were countries regarded as safe havens for corrupt African leaders most of whom took the money to Swiss banks and to some other banks in the United States and the UK and some parts of the western world.

So, indeed, there was grand corruption under the military but most especially under the late Gen. Sani Abacha with what you have come to see obviously because of the fact that military governments are not known to be accountable to anyone. There was no National Assembly to do oversight. There were no bodies created by law to track public expenditure. So, it was like the Head of State was a law unto himself. So, it is not a myth that we have all those monies. I believe that we may not have really gone halfway in digging some of those monies stashed away in foreign accounts by the late Gen. Sani Abacha and maybe some people who were close to him.

It does appear that the money was quite huge that so many years after the general died, one keeps hearing loot recovery. Can you aggregate it…to the tune of how much was stolen?

I may not be able to say the exact amount because we are talking about billions of dollars in several parts of the world. The reason some of these things come up at intervals is that those countries have to follow their laws, first, to ascertain the sources of the funds and also to be sure, like now that they are bringing all manner of conditions, that the monies they are repatriating are not going to be re-looted.

Again, when you look at the kind of resources that were available to Nigeria at that point in time, you will see that monies were just there and public expenditure pattern was not as much as it is at the moment. And the monies ran into billions of dollars and they were kept in interest yielding accounts and the interests have really become humongous.

I may not be able to put my hands on the exact figure, but, as I said, we may not have gone halfway in digging some of these things. But the question to be asked is whether these things were done to the exclusion of certain elements especially the civilian components of the government of the late Gen. Sani Abacha. He was a military man. He was the Head of State.

So, to what extent were principal players of his government complicit? And you never get to hear about their names. The only person’s name you hear is Gen. Sani Abacha. And one thing I also know about the principle of looting, if I may use the word, is that the main looter has accomplices and those accomplices could not have gone empty-handed. They also carry some bags of their own loot but nobody actually hears about this except that of the main looter.

Is it because he is no more that you get to hear about the looted funds?

Certainly yes, I have said it a number of times. It is actually because he is no more. I am sure there are people alive today who stole probably as much as Sani Abacha. I may not be able to mention names. I don’t have the facts. I am just assuming because of the kind of laxity in government then and the kind of impunity and grand corruption that pervaded the era that makes it plausible that similar or larger cases of fraud may have been perpetrated by some persons but, unfortunately, he is the one who is no more and the Yoruba have a proverb that says when a knife is missing, you will hardly find anyone who would confess that he used the knife to cut yam to eat. So, because he is no more, it is easy to put everything on him, but I am very sure that if you look deeply, you will find some persons alive who were players in that regime and who committed financial crimes of equal or more dimensions.

Aren’t you worried that some countries could also serve as accomplices and accepted such monies?

Well, on the basis of morality, yes, it is wrong especially if those countries knew that those monies were proceeds of corruption, but, as I said, 15, 20 years ago, there were no stringent measures, even internationally, to combat money laundering and most of these countries believed that when funds came into them, they helped their own economies and they had some of the most liberal policies of keeping such monies that made people want to go there.

That’s why when the Panama Papers came out, you could see the uproar. Let me tell you this. Today, there are countries that if you go with 100,000 dollars, they grant you citizenship. Yes, there are many advanced countries which believe that they are doing that to encourage people to come and invest but the question is, what is the source of that money that is coming in? Hardly will you find those countries raising concerns about the source of the money that is being brought in.

So on the basis of morality, we can say what those countries are doing is very wrong, but then countries are not run on the basis of morality. Countries are run by laws especially in those years where there were no stringent measures, not so many protocols like we have now. And it didn’t only happen in the area of money but also in the area of mineral resources, a lot of things happened that bled this country.

In the oil sector, people will just go in and export in what has now come to be known as oil theft and that crude is sold in the international market. You have cases of gold in many African countries that are mined illegally and taken and then they call them dirty gold, but then, they find their way to gold markets across the world; so those are some of the things that come into play. Now, countries are getting more conscious of those facts but even then, there are still a lot of issues that have to do with the movement of money and materials and so on across borders.

Do you think the recovery of these funds will help Nigeria strengthen its economy? How best can the money to be deployed?

Monies that come from Abacha loot or any other recovery should be paid into a dedicated account and deployed particularly into the building of specific infrastructures. For example, we can decide to build a six-lane express road from Lagos to Kano and call it ‘Abacha loot highway’ or whatever so that children who come in the next 20 years to 30 years will know that it is money looted by somebody that was brought back. Where this government got it wrong, to my own mind, was to decide to apply those funds to what is called social intervention programmes.

Now, the process of selecting beneficiaries of some of these things is suspect. There is a lot of politics and other considerations in these things. So it gives room for people to believe that the funds are being re-looted one way or the other. But if you tie them to specific infrastructures, you may want to build a world-class paediatric hospital in Kano and it is going to cost 10 billion naira and then you put it there as part of the plaque of the commissioning, ‘Being a project funded with money recovered from this person’. But if you get such monies and then you put them into intangibles so to say, it raises a lot of questions and with the kind of money that we have recovered in the last 15-20years, we should have done a lot in our infrastructures if we had decided that we want to put the money back into specific infrastructural projects. So, I believe strongly that the monies can be better applied in the manner that will make this generation and the generations coming to appreciate the enormity of the damage that was done to the Nigerian economy by those who looted the country and serve as a wake-up call to them to also be on their guard to the kind of person(s) they entrust the nation’s treasury to.

Do you subscribe to this reasoning that some people were hiding under Abacha loot to siphon government funds, reason why it never ends?

I don’t think so because these monies have a timeline in terms of tracking, they can track when those monies got into those accounts when they got into those countries unless those people stole those monies within those years and took them abroad. But then, most of those who took those monies had direct links to the former Head of State. Some are his relatives, his direct family members; some are his associates in the military and in the business community who had direct links to him. And as the Head of State then, he was the only person who could have the kind of access that could take such volume of monies away from an economy.

One other thing that concerns people is how the volume of monies could go out of Nigeria and it didn’t collapse the whole country and that shows the resilience of our economy and of our people.

To some countries that may refuse to return the looted funds, what do you have to say to them?

Well, there is no reason for any country not to return the money as long as we fulfil the conditions. The only thing we can say is that why must anybody give us conditions for returning our money? Once your money was stolen by your leaders and taken to their countries, it is guided by the laws there. I don’t think any country will say “we are not going to return the money” but again we have become like people who must be beggars even to get back those things that are ours because they didn’t come here to take the money. It was our own people who took the money to them.

That is why in most cases you see us going back and forth trying to negotiate terms. They give us conditions and then we say “yes sir” because, in any case, we need back the money. It is so sad, it is so unfortunate, it is so depressing but that is the reality we have found ourselves in. We need to apply diplomacy and other bilateral relationships that we have with those countries to be able to get back the money into our country.

To you, what kind of a leader was Gen. Sani Abacha?

Abacha was the Head of State when I was in my active teenage years. I was a Students Union activist and I didn’t pretend that everyone who came into power through the barrel of the gun is a suspect. Yes, there could be one or two cases outside the shores of Nigeria especially of people who came in because they wanted to clear the rot. But the saddest part of it was that almost every military coup that happened in Nigeria had been founded on deception, trying to deceive the public that you are coming to fight corruption and, if you look at the speech of everyone of them who came into power, they will mention the fight against corruption.

So when Sani Abacha announced the coup that brought in Gen. Buhari on the 31st of December 1983 that terminated the government of Alhaji Shehu Shagari, one didn’t have the opportunity of knowing who he was then because he stepped back in the formation of the government. He wasn’t very prominent like Buhari, Babangida and others. But Gen. Babangida coup was announced by Gen. Dogoyaro, but immediately after that broadcast, Abacha came again to re-affirm that indeed they had toppled Gen. Buhari and that Babangida was the President and then he became the chief of the army staff and that was when he came into prominence. He was not a man who was deep in knowledge. He wasn’t the talking type and people like that are very difficult to know.

He wore a mean look but all those you could still pardon. But the moment he seized the rein of power, again on the grounds of deception that he was going to restore the June 12 presidential election and allow Abiola to rule, that he came to chase away the interim national government and began to dissolve all democratic organs, he began his repressive rule against the media, against the civil society then I knew that Nigeria was in a very deep mess and that was the time I was coming into journalism and that was the time journalism was going through its toughest time in the history of this country and that was what gave birth to what was known as guerilla journalism. So, he was a very brutal man. He was a very repressive man and he was a man who was not open to any form of dissent or criticism and he didn’t pretend about it. He was very brutal even to his colleagues in the military; so that type of a man could do anything and he operated under a spirit of fear. He feared everyone and he suspected everyone beginning from his number two man, Gen. Oladipo Diya.

He went after Yar’Adua, Obasanjo, all the people that were hitherto regarded as untouchables as it were, who would express an opinion and they will be still be regarded. He never cared about anyone. So it was the darkest period of our history.

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Some people hailed his economic policies, saying that if he hadn’t died at the time he did, Nigeria would have been better because he opened up the Asian belt when the West imposed sanctions.

Well, anybody who thinks like that, I am sorry he is very ignorant of what economics is all about because economics is about the development of the capacity of a people or a country to be self-sustaining. What he did was to deepen what the military began to do by destroying the ability of Nigeria to be a self-sustaining nation. Before the military came in, in Kaduna-Kano alone, we had over 100 textiles factories. We were producing batteries in Aba and Ibadan. We were producing tyres in Nigeria but the moment they came in, they opened the floodgate of Nigeria to importation because that was one of the most patronizing things, granting import licences and giving people access to bring in all manner of things.

So all the local industries died and so he continued that and there was no profound policy of Sani Abacha to revise that. And you cannot have a great country economically without thinking of how much of self-sustenance, how much ability to be self-sustaining did the government at that time create for that country, to feed itself and to clothe itself? As we speak, virtually all those textiles factories are dead. We are the highest importer of fish in Africa.

We are the highest importer of rice in the world. Well, I think there is a reversal in that now and the refineries (that is the saddest part). We were refining at least the local fuels we were consuming. It has become comatose to the extent that, today, Nigeria has become an importer of refined petroleum products. We have the oil here but we cannot use it because it hasn’t been refined and the refineries that were built in the 70s died in the 90s when the military was in government and all the military rulers, with the exception of Murtala and Obasanjo, every other one that came on board came with lack of vision, capacity, greed and avarice and that was exactly what they demonstrated.

What can you say about corruption; how can you situate Nigeria’s future visa vice what we are passing through?

Well, I want to note that the fact that we now have institutions to fight corruption is a very good way to go and kudos to the administration of Obasanjo for establishing the EFCC, ICPC and of late we have the NFIU and a few other institutions because it appears there is greed in the nature of man. But when there are laws and there are enforcement mechanisms to make sure that the laws happen, people will try to cut their greed and will try to live honourably. And the oath of office that you take when you occupy an office is such that should make anyone who is occupying any office very conscious of posterity. Now, we must not again deceive ourselves that we have been able to even do up to 10% of the fight against corruption. The ratings of Transparency International and other organisations have not given us anything to cheer about the fight against corruption.

But the fact that it has become topical, it has also become something that institutions are more focused on is a good development and which we need to build on. The only other thing that we also need to build on, and this is very key to whatever we are doing in this fight against corruption, is to look at the system of government that we operate at the moment.

It has been said and I agree that the 1999 Constitution itself is an enabler of corruption where you have a system that domiciled so much power in the centre, that there is so many powers in the hands of a few; that does not democratize the economic process of a country, you cannot but have this kind of cases in corruption.

So, you have to look at the Constitution of Nigeria, the structure of Nigeria in trying to combat corruption. For example, there are too many federal agencies and, if you look at the law creating them, you will see 1971 and they are doing virtually nothing. We are just duplicating government and making government big and where you have big government, you are going to have big corruption. Meagre government reduces corruption anywhere in the world.

When you have a system that is more driven by the private sector, you have less corruption. When you have a government that is more driven by the government, you have more corruption. That is the truth. Nobody can debate it. When you have a bigger government anywhere, you have more corruption there but when you have a leaner government and more functional government, then, you have less corruption and that is an area we also need to look at as a people.

Loot is nearly 10% of nation’s budget

Meanwhile, analysts said the $3.1billion so far recovered from Abacha is nearly 10 per cent (one-tenth) of the 2020 national budget of about $34billion (N10.59trillion).

One of the analysts, Mr Teslim Shitta-Bey, the Managing Editor of Proshare, said, “The Abacha loot recovered so far is about 9.11% of the $34bn 2020 budget of Nigeria.”

Breaking it further down, Shitta-Bey said the recovered loot is far more than the total vote of $2.37billion earmarked for the housing sector ($1.034bn), power sector ($423.21mn), agricultural sector ($407.85mn), education sector ($277.7mn), solid minerals ($34.2mn), health sector   ($196.42mn) put together.

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