By Ibrahim L. Dan-Halilu
The Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC) on Wednesday, July 11 celebrated the first African Anti-Corruption Day in Abuja with a roundtable under the theme “Enhancing Domestic Resources for Sustainable Development Goals By Improved Asset Recovery and Asset Return.”
The day has been designated by the African Union to commemorate the adoption of the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption (AUCPCC) by members states in Moputo, Mozambique on July 11, 2003.
In recognition of the damage that corruption has inflicted on the continent, and to ensure and sustain high level of commitment to fighting corruption, the Assembly of the African Union also declared 2018 as the African Anti-Corruption Year to be observed all over Africa under the theme “Winning the Fight Against Corruption: A Sustainable Path to Africa’s Transformation.”
The United Nations has estimated that about $148 billion is stolen from Africa annually by political leaders, multi-national corporations, the business elite and civil servants as proceeds of corruption and illicit financial flows, which clearly suggests that money kept in foreign banks or liquidated into assets is enough to provide most of the basic infrastructure and services that Africa needs to uplift the livelihood of its people. This underscores the need for urgent collective efforts to recover Africa’s stolen assets.
According to the Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, PACAC, Professor Itse Sagay, SAN, the roundtable was organized to celebrate President Muhammadu Buhari and Nigeria for the major achievements in the anti-corruption war since 2015.
It was also intended to provide a platform for stake holders to do an assessment of how the Buhari Administration has utilized the proceeds of the anti-corruption war towards attainment of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the administration’s performance on asset recovery and blocking the flow of illicit finance.
Most Nigerians believe that the Buhari Administration has made remarkable successes in the anti-corruption war. Under the tutelage of PACAC, the present administration has launched four aggressive policy reforms that have changed the narrative of anti-corruption fight in the country. The reforms adopted preventive approach to fighting corruption instead of the traditional reactive measures of arrest and trial of corruption offenders.
The first of such reform measures is enforcement of the Treasury Single Account (TSA) in 2016 which has blocked many leakages through which public servants and political office holders siphoned public funds. As of April 2018, about N3 trillion has been mopped up and deposited in a dedicated account managed by the Central Bank of Nigeria.
In addition, the administration has enforced strict implementation of the Bank Verification Number (BVN) policy which aims to monitor bank transactions and identify unnumbered or fake accounts used by public officials to deposit corruption proceeds. The policy has exposed many unnumbered accounts being operated by officials of Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) and transferred the money to the mainstream of the economy.
The third measure is the introduction of the Voluntary Asset And Income Declaration Scheme (VAIDS) last year by the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) which is intended to capture the assets and income history of Nigerians living abroad or those living in Nigeria but operating substantial businesses abroad, and are not making tax remittances. This measure has recorded appreciable success.
The Nigerian Government has equally signed the Open Government Partnership (OGP) to promote transparency and accountability by opening its activities to scrutiny by international partners. The measure has built the confidence of these partners and encouraged multi-lateral engagements that support Nigeria’s anti-corruption war.
The four policy reforms have not only changed the way of conducting government business in Nigeria, but made funds available for important development projects. The measures have also raised Nigeria’s ranking on the list of “ease of doing business” countries in Africa, which was not the case few years ago.
Despite the giant strides in fighting corruption, many Nigerians have faulted the strategy adopted by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and other anti-corruption agencies in tackling corruption.
The opposition People’s Democratic Party has accused the Buhari administration of selective prosecution of corruption cases that targets their members. They alleged that the government is witch-hunting its members and intimidating them with arrests and unending investigations aimed at damping their morale so that they could withdraw from contesting any elective office in 2019.
Professor Sagay has disputed this claims, describing the ongoing anti-corruption war as a huge success. According to Sagay, almost on a daily basis Nigerians are reading news of a court order of forfeiture of looted funds, landed properties and other assets stolen by functionaries of the last government. He revealed that billions of dollars have been traced to the functionaries of the last government and their associates all over the world while within Nigeria the value of recovered assets has risen to about N1trillion.
“Money recovered from abroad has followed same pattern, Switzerland, $321 million, United States, $$400 million and United Kingdom, $73 million, he told the attentive audience at the roundtable dialogue.
While the opposition is accusing the government of selective prosecution, the concern of many Nigerians is that the anti-corruption war has not recorded any high-profile conviction despite clear evidences against some top functionaries of the previous government.
As if responding to the public outcry, President Muhammadu Buhari two weeks ago signed an Executive Order on preservation of assets linked to corruption, which affects about 155 politically exposed persons and prominent business men, including former governors, ministers, party chieftains, and heads of government agencies.
The Administration also won another pyrrhic victory against corruption about the same time as it signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Swiss Government to return $322.5 million from the late General Sani Abacha loot. The signing of the MOU followed a long and tortuous discussion between the two countries during which the Nigerian Government delegation committed to utilizing the recovered funds towards the United Nation’s SDGs.
The PACAC’s roundtable therefore focused on three key areas that need to be addressed to strengthen the anti-corruption war in Africa.
The first is the existing legal framework for fighting corruption, which the participants were in agreement that it needs to be improved through new legislations and enforcement. Nigeria has already taken the lead on this as PACAC in coordination with the Federal Ministry of Justice had prepared the Proceeds of Crime and Special Crime Courts Bills which are awaiting passage by the National Assembly.
According to the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Economic Crimes and Corruption, Senator Chukwuka Utazi, the first bill has been passed by the Senate but it is awaiting the completion of work by the House of Representatives.
Senator Utazi expressed reservations on the MOUs on mutual assistance that the government signed with some countries, which are not backed by law. He noted that some of the MOUs are not favourable to Nigeria.
The second area of concern to the panelists is the absence of a common African position on asset recovery and asset return which is a necessary tool in mobilizing support and cooperation of developed countries where African stolen assets are deposited. The participants emphasized the need to find a common position that could be articulated, presented and pushed to the global community.
According to Donald Deya, of the Pan-African Lawyers Union, Tanzania, African leaders should leverage the Sustainable Development Goals Number (End Poverty) and the Charter of the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption (AUCPCC) as rallying point to call for international cooperation to end corruption on the continent.
He argued that the SDG Goals could be used to make a case for Africa, noting that the continent needs the stolen assets to provide schools, hospitals, roads, clean water, and empower citizens to wage war against extreme poverty.
He however expressed grave concern over the poor response of some African countries that are yet to ratify the AU Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption. According to him, more than 16 African countries, including Morocco which hosted the last meeting of the AU, have not ratified the Convention.
The third area that occupied people’s attention is the management of recovered assets. Many speakers faulted the strategy adopted by Nigerian government which seems to be lacking in transparency and accountability. Some of the panelists from other countries shared their success stories on assets management.
Botswana, for instance, which started its anti-corruption fight over twenty years ago, has established Office of the National Custodian in 2014 to manage recovered or forfeited assets from corrupt persons. The office streamlines areas or projects to which the recovered assets should be spent, and has supervisory powers over the implementation of such projects.
In 2016, the law establishing the Office of National Custodian was amended to confer more powers to the Office to manage recovered assets. It was renamed the Confiscated Assets Trust Fund.
What can Nigeria and other African countries learn from the Botswana experience? There is a lot to be learnt.
First, is the need for other African countries, including Nigeria, to identify a mantra similar to Botswana’s “Prosperity for All” that will be adopted to mobilize citizens and persuade them to take ownership of the anti-corruption war.
Secondly, other African countries that have not ratified the international, regional, and sub-regional conventions on drugs and financial crimes need to do so, and remain committed to domesticating them through robust legal framework.
Thirdly, there is the need for committed leadership with political will to enforce the anti-corruption laws and assets recovery. This is an area where the Buhari administration has been rated high because President Buhari has demonstrated an uncommon commitment to the fight which has earned him the African Union Anti-corruption Champion.
One area that Nigeria has not addressed satisfactorily is the management of recovered assets. Though PACAC, in collaboration with the Commonwealth Secretariat, has developed a framework for management of Nigeria’s recovered assets, many critics have faulted the government’s Social Investment Program (SIP), which is the major recipient of the recovered assets.
The SIP is seen by critics as misplacement of priority, and money-sharing exercise that does not empower the beneficiaries with life-transforming skills that will see them graduate from recipients of stipends to entrepreneurs that can fend for themselves and even employ other Nigerians.
But the Special Adviser to the President on Social Investment Program, Mrs. Maryam Uwais, has refuted the claim, describing the critics as ignorant of what the SIP is doing to Nigerians.
According to Mrs. Uwais, the program is more than cash transfer, because that is just one component of the SIP.
Other components, according to her, include graduate N-power program which is designed to help young Nigerians to acquire and develop life-long skills to become solution providers in their communities and players in the domestic and global market. The target of 5,000 young beneficiaries has almost been reached; the home grown school feeding program which is aimed at increasing the school enrolment and completion rate at the primary school level. About 10 million children are being fed in schools across the country, besides creating jobs through recruitment of 80,000 cooks and promoting community value chain.
Another component is the Government Enterprise and Empowerment Program which targets traders, market women, cooperatives, artisans, enterprising clusters or youth, farmers and agricultural workers who are given interest free loan.
“The cash transfer program is more than cash transfer, as it mentors the beneficiaries to become responsible citizens and good managers of resources.
“Besides giving the beneficiaries N5000 monthly stipend, they are also given life skills that will assist them solve their personal problems without compromising their integrity or engaging in criminal activities,” she added.
The Executive Director of CISLAC, Auwal Musa Rafsanjani who represented the civil society on the panel called for the establishment of a dedicated fund to manage recovered asset and publish periodic report on the recovered asset for transparency and accountability. He also emphasized the need to provide clear guidelines for filing of recovered so that civil society organizations wishing to check the books can do so without stress.
Representatives of DFID and UNODC who also served as panelists commended PACAC for its efforts in strengthening the Federal Government’s anti-corruption strategy. They observed that political will is what is required for the anti-corruption war to succeed more than legal framework. They advised civil societies to use their privileged position and legitimacy to demand accountability and transparency from public institutions.
The Buhari Administration’s anti-corruption preventive measures seem to have recorded appreciable success. But one preventive measure that Nigerians want to see applied is the elimination of security votes which majority of the former and current governors as well local government chairmen use to embezzle funds. Nigerians want President Muhammadu Buhari to sign an Executive Order similar to the one he signed recently on preservation of funds linked to corruption.
They believe that such order will sanitize the management of state funds by governors as well as give Nigerians a legal backing to sue any erring governor and stop spending that have not been appropriated by the State Assemblies.
The one-day event attracted over 100 participants from Botwana, Tanzania, Uganda, and Nigeria, including officials of the anti-corruption agencies, legislators, government officials, civil society leaders, journalists, and representatives of development partners.
A major highlight of the event was the launching of MANTRA project which is an acronym for Monitoring of Recovered Assets Through Transparency and Accountability by the Special Adviser to the President on Social Investment Program, Mrs. Maryam Lawal Uwais.
The project is aimed at monitoring the utilization of the recovered assets towards the SDGs. The government has launched an aggressive campaign to explain the rationale for applying the recovered Abacha loot to the Social Investment Program. Tagged “Recovered Asset for Development: Africa Without Poverty,” the campaign seeks to sensitize Nigerians to support the SIP by highlighting the impacts of the program on the common man.
Ibrahim L. Dan-Halilu is a media and communications consultant, and CEO, Frontline Media Consulting. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org