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Some recovered looted assets are wasting away – Buhari’s aide

Some recovered looted assets are wasting away – Buhari’s aide

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The Special Assistant to the President on Justice Sector Reform, Juliet Ibekaku-Nwagwu, explains to ADELANI ADEPEGBA why the Federal Government cannot give accurate value of assets recovered so far from suspected looters

What has your office been up to since it was established?

I sit here as the Special Assistant to the President on Justice Sector Reform, which is what I was appointed to do and to work together with the Attorney-General (of the Federation) in delivering our reform priorities, particularly around new laws in anti-corruption and in assets recovery issues and matters related to the improvement of the economy as well. Midway into my stay here, we started the open government partnership and I was asked to coordinate it. Since January 2017, I have been coordinating the open government initiative. We are still working on establishing a full-fledged secretariat.

What are the achievements of the Presidential Assets Recovery Committee so far?

Assets recovery has been going on in this country for quite some time. Even when we had the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency Act under (the late military dictator, Gen. Sani) Abacha, anyone linked to any drug-related case would have his or her assets confiscated. The action was established under the international law when we had the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime and Nigeria is one of the countries since the early 90s that had the NDLEA and we implemented the international framework on illicit drugs and trafficking, and from them on, Nigeria has implemented assets recovery related to crime. The essence of assets recovery is when you can identify that a property or fund is related to a criminal offence.

How are recovered assets being managed?

As we move on, we realised that the laws did not provide adequate provisions for what to do when you have an asset that you alleged is linked to crime and you freeze it. You can only freeze an account; you can’t freeze a property. What happens following the time the court says ‘we give you an order to hold this property pending where there is a final order’? That is what the government has been looking at. All the properties that remained under interim order, such as the vehicles that we see parked in different parts of Abuja — what do we do to make sure those assets do not waste away before the court gives the final order?

When this government came in, the idea was to look at what had happened in the past in assets recovery, how to improve in recovery of assets and how to make it a source of revenue for Nigeria. In the United States, recovery of assets linked to crime has become a huge source of revenue. So, what the President did was to set up a Presidential Assets Recovery Committee, which is headed by the Vice-President, Yemi Osinbajo; the AGF is a member.

In addition to that, the President also asked for an audit of all accounts that were used by different agencies in recovery of assets and asked the finance minister to consolidate the accounts into one central account at the Central Bank of Nigeria. The idea is to ensure that at one look, you can determine what is being recovered by the agencies. Today, the ICPC, EFCC, NDLEA and the police can recover assets linked to crime. Over and beyond the ad hoc measures, we sent the Proceeds of Crime Bill to the National Assembly in 2016. This is with a view to having a central agency in recovery of assets; it would coordinate what other agencies are doing.

Why is government finding it difficult to give an exact account of looted funds? Is it hiding something?

That’s not the case. The challenge is that we have different agencies handling assets recovery. Over time, they have developed different ways of recovering assets, so there is no uniform system. Also, when the court gives an interim order, agencies do not have power to actually move the ‘interim’ into the final forfeiture account at the Central Bank. What it means is that at any point in time, these agencies are running around trying to verify when the court gives an order. Is there money? Are there assets? But because they can’t sell those assets until the final forfeiture, they can only give an estimate. That has made it difficult for many agencies to ascertain the amount that is being recovered and this is what the President has directed. The assets tracing committee should be able to trace how many properties. What is the value? Can the court authorise the sale pending the final forfeiture? If the court says it can’t authorise it, what do we do to make sure the property does not dissipate?

Values of assets can wear out over time; we need to find a way to make sure the values don’t dissipate. This has been the main challenge, not because anybody is hiding the amount recovered, but because keeping tabs on what is under interim order has become a challenge for us and that is why we pushed to have a central management agency so they become responsible from day one. If there is an interim order, take over, manage and determine whether to sell through a court order, and if the court says you can’t sell, manage the property. Some of the hotels that were seized, for example, were locked up. Some of them are wasting away. People strip the assets within those hotels, and so, it only makes sense that we must have a procedure for managing those assets between the time of interim order and final forfeiture.

When will the central management agency be in place?

Not until the Proceeds of Crime Bill is passed into law. I understand the Senate had passed it. The House of Representatives passed their own version just before the recess, so the two houses will need to meet to harmonise their positions. So, hopefully, if we are lucky, it will come out before the end of the 8th Assembly.

What is the progress report on the Memorandum of Understanding on assets forfeiture signed with the United Arab Emirates?

As a matter of fact, there are a couple of assets that have been identified to be owned by different individuals. When you sign such agreements, it doesn’t automatically translate to returns. There are legal processes that are going on in the UAE at the moment, one of which is to go to court, ascertain that these properties are illegally acquired and get the international cooperation of the UAE. Of course, we can’t move properties; you have to sell them. So, there is ongoing interfacing, mutual cooperation between Nigeria and the government of the UAE and we hope that, very soon, we would be able to close some of the cases. Mind you, it takes time. In Nigeria, where we say cases take long, in some countries, it takes longer, so we are kind of subject to the legal provisions in those countries, but the fact remains that the government has taken steps to assert its interest in those properties; ascertain that these assets were not acquired with genuine resources; that those resources flew from federal purse and, therefore, we want to get these monies back.

How many cases are you pursuing in the UAE?

I cannot say, but I can say they are quite significant. You already know some of those cases, which you have read in the newspapers. Until they are proved illegitimate, we need to be careful, but those ones that are in court include the one relating to the Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, which were identified through investigation. Also, there is the case of former Chief Executive of (the now acquired) Oceanic Bank, Cecilia Ibru — we are also aware that she owned quite a number of properties as did a good number of other Nigerians, which is unfortunate because we would have loved to see these investments in Nigeria for whatever they are worth. We could use them to build investment in this country, and in the worst-case scenario, build estates in Nigeria so Nigerians can at least benefit from those funds.

Are you saying the government would turn a blind eye if looted funds were invested in the country?

We would still have to seek to return and recover. But, at least, it won’t be as difficult as it is because it is costing government money to recover those assets. It doesn’t just happen overnight.

Is it true that President Muhammadu Buhari planned to use part of the looted funds for his re-election, while using the anti-graft agencies to muzzle his political opponents?

Are you suggesting that the President should not recover those assets because of this perception? How will he use the looted funds for his re-election? In this country, it is the Appropriation Act which appropriates what should happen to any money that comes into Nigeria or money generated by revenue agencies; that is very clear. You know that, now, we have the Treasury Single Account and any money that goes into the Federation Account cannot come out without what we call obligated money. The money would have been obligated possibly by a ministry because it has set a budget for what it wants to do and all those monies that are obligated, you cannot take them out without showing to the government or to the ministry or the permanent secretary where the money is going to.

Let me say, every effort has been made by this government to ensure that there is a clear procedure through which government activity can be funded and that you cannot just wake up, take money from the TSA and walk away with it. The Federal Government just passed an executive council memo where it stated that every money spent by government that is above N5m must be published. So, the Accountant-General of the Federation now has an obligation to publish, so what we expect citizens can do within that framework is to begin to identify all those pieces of information and see if any of those funds will go into an election.

A Swiss lawyer, Enrico Monfrin, who handled the recovery of the $321m Abacha loot, said he was paid his fees by the Federal Government but why is the AGF, Abubakar Malami, demanding payment of $17m (about N6bn) to two Nigerian lawyers for a job already completed by Monfrini?

I don’t know about the payment because it doesn’t lie within the purview of the Ministry of Justice to pay lawyers. What the ministry does is to confirm that a particular activity has been finalised, and once it is finalised, the procedure here is that you prepare the documents related to the matter and transfer it to the Ministry of Finance, which will determine what the bill will be because we don’t have the money here.

There were reports that the finance and justice ministries were divided over demand for payment of $17m to the Nigerian lawyers.

I don’t think it’s about opposing or about divergence because when you hire a lawyer, normally, there is a contract and that’s the case in every profession. There is a contract you sign and you give that person the responsibilities. If the person is able to fulfil his obligation, you also have an obligation and that is what we call contractual obligation. If in the process of doing this, which took almost two years, the guys said I have done my work and it is now your turn to do your work, I think it behoves on us as a government to deal with that diligently without talking about opposition. You can negotiate with the contractor, but you cannot deny the lawyer his fees. I think there is an ongoing discussion and negotiation is going on.

But the former lawyer said he had been paid and that there was no need to pay an additional fee?

Who is the former lawyer? I am not aware of a former lawyer who worked on this case until I came to this office. I can talk about what I know from the moment I started working under this government.

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