A professor of International Law, Akin Oyebode, tells TOBI AWORINDE that President Muhammadu Buhari should use the repatriated $321m Abacha loot on social welfare projects
What is your take on the Federal Government’s plan to disburse the $321m loot of the late military dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha, which was repatriated to Nigeria from Switzerland, to poor households in 19 states?
It’s a turnaround in terms of perception because the President once said Abacha did not loot Nigeria’s wealth but that he put it away for and on behalf of Nigerians. As I said, the wheel has now turned full circle with the repatriation of the Abacha loot especially from Switzerland and efforts to get the repatriation of what was salted away to the United States off the ground. It seems that there is a new perception and attitude to the whole issue of the Abacha loot. I believe President Buhari wants the people to feel the impact of what he is doing. That is why we have not heard stories of re-looting the loot, as it were. So, his approach is quite commendable. It deserves the support and understanding of the preponderant majority of Nigerians.
The idea of redistributing the repatriated loot has prompted opposition from some groups and individuals, which described the move as ill-advised and demanded that the funds be used for tangible capital projects. Do you agree?
I think I buy the position of SERAP. It’s a bit fair-brained to be distributing the Abacha loot as if it were some largesse or manna from heaven. I think the government should invest the funds in more impactful and meaningful projects, instead of merely sharing the loot among Nigerians. I think it is definitely ill-advised. Mega projects that would impact on the vast majority of Nigerians, for me, are to be preferred to this distribution of money which will have neither rhyme nor reason.
With the Federal Government’s plan to involve state governments in the process of distributing the funds, some have said this will only lead to re-looting as the monies could end up in the pockets of the political cronies of governors. What do you think?
I have to recall the sentiments of Juvenal (a Roman poet), who posed the question, ‘who will guard the guards themselves?’ If there is misery and mass poverty across the land, then there would be very many people who will want to run away with whatever they can from the repatriated loot. Things are hard in Nigeria, let’s admit, and that for me is why I prefer social welfare projects or meaningful endeavours towards education, health and job creation, which can, in fact, benefit more people to merely sharing money. This sharing mentality is something we have to do away with.
Is there any international policy that puts guidelines or restrictions on how such repatriated funds should be spent?
Some of these countries have tried to tutor or lecture us on what the repatriated funds should be used for. With due respect, it is an insult for any country to be lecturing us on how to spend the money. It is so patronising and insulting in the extreme for countries that did not bat an eyelid when the money was invested in their economy to now be adopting a holier-than-thou approach in terms of what Nigeria should spend the money on. After all, it is Nigeria’s resources and Nigerians too deserve the right to go to heaven the way they want. Nobody should tell us how to spend our own resources. In fact, it is infra dignitatem. It is an affront to our sovereignty and our sense of wholesomeness as people who are clear about politics in the 21st century.
The Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Mr. Babatune Fashola (SAN), has said about N120bn from the returned loot was disbursed for the rehabilitation of roads. Considering the National Assembly’s decision to cut funding for major road construction in some states, do you think this is a better idea than distributing the cash to poor Nigerians?
Exactly! That was what I said would be preferable to just distributing largesse to the people – projects that will make greater impact on the people in terms of job creation, road construction, health and making life more liveable meaningful and to the preponderant majority of the people. That should be the acid test of all governmental policies. I think I am at one with Fashola in that endeavour to increase the potential of Nigeria to take care of the existential conditions of Nigerian people. That is the way to go.
There is also the argument that the Federal Government plans to distribute the Abacha loot to 300,000 households in 19 states, while neglecting 17 others. What are your thoughts on this?
No state should be prevented or discountenanced in the allocation of the resources of the Abacha loot. We are all Nigerians and the Abacha loot belongs to Nigeria as an entity. There should be some parity and equity in terms of harnessing the loot for the benefit of the majority of Nigerians. Any exclusive approach, rather than inclusive, will create bad blood, and of course, will exact political capital from the Muhammadu Buhari presidency. It will bring bad memories like when Buhari was saying he could only favour those that voted for him. I think he should not do anything that would give the impression that his policies are not inclusive or that they are partisan, the sort of argument we are hearing about the security architecture of Nigeria. That should not be allowed to penetrate into the disbursement of the Abacha money.
The Paris Club loan refund was disbursed but there are still states where workers complain of non-payment of salaries. Do you think the Abacha loot should be channelled to salary payment?
I think that also is myopic because failure to pay workers is definitely counterproductive and dysfunctional. The states themselves must look for ways and means of meeting their financial needs. That is why there is the need for restructuring. States that can’t stand on their two feet should be merged with other states; in other words, to restructure Nigeria either into eight geopolitical zones, as the late Dr. (Alex) Ekwueme suggested, or we continue to follow the six geopolitical zones that even Abacha himself was in favour of. But to continue with these inefficient states that give the impression that we are operating what (the Deputy President of the Senate, Senator Ike) Ekweremadu calls feeding bottle federalism, I think, is laughable. Nigeria must be restructured along lines that would make constituent (federating) units viable entities, instead of unviable ones that would have to go with their begging bowls every month end to Abuja. I think it is symptomatic of dysfunctionality of the Nigerian federation. When Buhari says proponents of restructuring are being parochial, one begins to wonder because he said it is a question of process and that people were being self-serving and opinionated. I am not sure he is carrying a majority of Nigerians along with that approach. I think we have to confront the dysfunctional Nigerian federal set-up head-on so that we do what needs to be done in order to give some feeling into cohabitation, coexistence and viability of the federal set-up.
Buhari recently praised Abacha for infrastructural development and improving the quality of life of Nigerians. What was your reaction?
The President is not an honest broker here. He was in the Petroleum Trust Fund, which was an Abacha effort, and so, maybe he is being haunted by his collaboration with one of the most devastating, inhumane dictatorships that Nigeria ever experienced. How can you defend a situation where you have stadia being named after Abacha in Kano, or Abacha Road in Abuja here, and so on? It shows that we are a people who do not have the correct historical approach to our development. There should be a separation of villains from heroes. There is no way Abacha can be described as a hero. He was a villain, perhaps of the worst kind. So, his (Buhari) relationship, solidarity and collaboration with the Abacha junta is, for me, an albatross around the neck of Buhari, and the earlier he jettisoned his understanding of Abacha, the better for the whole country
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