Trump warns Buhari against diverting $308m Abacha loot to fight Covid-19

The United States government yesterday issued a stern warning to the Muhammadu Buhari administration against any attempt to divert the $308 million to be repatriated from looted funds by former military dictator, the late General Sani Abacha, to help the fight against the deadly coronavirus, instead of expending the funds on the agreed-upon projects. The US Department of Justice has put the federal government on notice, that it should be prepared to “replace” the funds if it violates the tripartite agreement signed with the US and the Island of Jersey in February.

The United States and the British Dependency Island of Jersey had agreed with Nigeria in February to return $308 million that Abacha, who died in 1998, had stashed in their banks. The Attorney-General General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami (SAN), had said the fresh $308 million forfeited assets would be received this month. Malami had signed a tripartite agreement on behalf of the federal government with the US and the Island of Jersey in February to repatriate the funds. The money is expected to be used on three major projects: Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, the Abuja-Kano Expressway and the Second Niger Bridge. But with the global oil prices crashing and Nigeria hamstring by the coronavirus pandemic and desperate for cash to combat the pandemic, there are fears that the funds will be channeled to fund Covid-19 palliatives.

On April 10, Chuck Grassley a Republican senator from Iowa and chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee wrote to Deborah Connor, head of the US Justice Department’s anti-money laundering unit asking for proof that funds returned to Nigeria would go toward infrastructure projects, as the federal government had committed to. Grassley accused Ibrahim Magu, head of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and Attorney General Abubakar Malami of abusing their positions as attack dogs and an “enforcement arm against anyone voicing opposition to Buhari’s government.”

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The EFCC, in a statement criticized Grassley’s letter saying it “would not be dragged into any controversy over an allegation that has no fact or any iota of proof. The Commission remains focused on its mandate against economic and financial crimes and will not be deterred by spurious allegations from individuals with hidden agenda,” EFCC spokesman Tony Orilade said in the statement.

Grassley had said “it seems odd that the (US) DOJ would help facilitate the payment of $308 million to the Nigerian government without first insisting on proper safeguards to prevent the further misuse of funds. Given all these circumstances, it is critical for Congress to understand what steps the United States government is taking, before it helps transfer hundreds of millions of dollars to Nigeria, to ensure that the money is not fueling more corruption and government abuses.”

In response, the US Justice Department outlined the so-called “clawback” provision explaining that: “Should any of the parties – including the United States -conclude that any of the returned funds had been used for an ineligible expenditure, a “clawback” provision would then obligate the FRN (Federal Republic of Nigeria) to replace fully any such improperly diverted monies,” the letter said.

The DOJ missive did not specify how and to whom, the money would be replaced. The provision is notable as Nigeria continues efforts to repatriate money allegedly stolen during Abacha’s tenure between 1993 and 1998 when he died. The global anti-corruption watchdog, Transparency International, estimated that Abacha stole as much as $5 billion of public money during that time. Abacha was never charged with corruption during his lifetime and died in office.

A spokesman of Malami said the President Muhammadu Buhari administration had a history of “prudent and transparent utilisation of recovered assets,” and that the money would be used as outlined in the agreement. “The federal government does not in any way contemplate of doing otherwise,” Malami’s spokesman, Dr. Umar Gwandu, said.

Also, the Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority (NSIA), Mr. Uche Orji, told ARISE News Channel that “the $308 million that was announced is to be channeled to the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, the Abuja- Kano highway and the Second Niger Bridge. “And there are all sorts of scrutiny and supervision attached to this, given the external funding nature.”

The public shouting match between Washington and Abuja has cast doubt on the extent to which the United States will aid future efforts to repatriate recovered looted funds back to Nigeria.

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