Daily Trust: The Abacha loot has been enmeshed in controversy. There have been allegations, even before this government that the funds are always re-looted. The Swiss Government and other foreign governments helping to repatriate these funds were not comfortable thereby attaching conditions to the repatriation. What is the update?
Mrs. Juliet Ibekaku-Nwagwu: We realized that in the past, we had problems accounting for recovered assets and that was because the procedure for the recovery did not take into consideration the need for proper management, and the need to ensure that it is properly appropriated.
But when President Muhammadu Buhari came into office, we recognized this as a major problem and so we set out to address it -both with domestic and international recoveries, because international recoveries is just a segment of what we are talking about.
With international recoveries, the president approved the setting up of Central Asset Recovery Account in the Central Bank of Nigeria because for any country to transfer money to another, there has to be an existing account and we said no to this parent account. That is why we have Treasury Single Account (TSA).
You cannot spend today in government without going through the TSA, coming through the Central Bank. So, we have established a Central Asset Account; every international recovery hits that account. Now, if you look at the budget, it talks about asset recovery as a source of revenue. We realized that money would come in and we want to make sure that it impacts on social development.
DT: Many government agencies, including Police, EFCC, ICPC, are in the business of asset recovery and there are always controversies trailing them. What is your stance on the call for the establishment of a commission that would handle recovered assets?
Ibekaku-Nwagwu: As far back as 2012, I was the head of the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU). I was the acting Director and we had already proposed a Proceed of Crime Bill.
DT: Are you talking on the one at the National Assembly?
Ibekaku-Nwagwu: Yes. The Proceed of Crime Bill set out the procedure for recovery. We agreed that there must be a central agency responsible for recovery. The procedure internationally is that the enforcement agency or the investigation agencies will do their investigation. If in the process they trace any asset, they hand it over to the Asset Recovery Agency to now manage pending when the court issues a final forfeiture order because there is an interim process. Now if you get your interim order, what do you do with that property? It lies fallow. Remember that we have had several cases where properties were vandalized because nobody was managing it and yet we have a provision which says you should have a process to manage and make sure that those assets do not dissipate, which is what led to the Executive Order 6 which is something that some people have not come to realize.
DT: What do you say to reports that the president asked the anti-corruption agencies to furnish him with details of recoveries and there were insinuations of lukewarm attitude on their parts?
Ibekaku-Nwagwu: Well, they followed the directives. They have moved all the money into the central account. There is still an audit process going on to ensure that nobody and no money is left behind. So you cannot be reluctant to obey a directive. You may not be able to do it because you do not know where it is. Let us assume you were appointed into government and your predecessors have not handed over to you, assuming there are challenges in collating all these information, but as at today the position in government is that every money must go into the central account, whether it is interim or final, pending when there is a final order, that is when we talk about what to do with that money as a government.
DT: On the Abacha loot, what has this government been able to recover since its inception?
Ibekaku-Nwagwu: Well as at today, it is the $322m recovered from Switzerland. It is not the last stanch. We are still expecting some other monies, which are in different jurisdictions.
DT: What about another $500m?
Ibekaku-Nwagwu: We are talking about Switzerland related recoveries here. The $322m was actually litigations that came through different countries – Liechtenstein, Luxemburg and eventually there was an agreement that that money should go to Switzerland so that the Swiss court can now determine what should happen. When we came into office and were informed that this money was held up because of certain judicial processes, the Attorney General of the Federation, after getting a mandate from the president, hired lawyers to go and pursue these funds.
Eventually we were able to get the judicial authorization that this money can be moved to Nigeria but there were conditions by which we would move this money to Nigeria.
It took us two years to arrive at a Memorandum of Understanding for the restitution of this money to Nigeria. Out of several conditions given, one is that the World Bank must monitor the use of the fund. The idea is that it must be expended in a manner that the international community will understand that Nigeria is ready to expend such money in a transparent and accountable manner.
Another requirement is that the money would be used for development programme that would impact on the lives of ordinary Nigerians. Development could mean health, education, cash transfer among others.
And when we synergized with the World Bank and the Swiss government, we realized that for us to get that money and start spending it, we must look for an existing project that is already within the national budget; one that is already impacting on the lives of ordinary Nigerians; a project that is acceptable because the World Bank process also requires that their Board would have approved a financing agreement for such project. The only project we found that fitted this purpose was the National Social Investment programme.
As you know, it was something President Buhari was very keen on. The National Social Investment programme looks at the School Feeding programme, the N-Power programme (the Youth Empowerment programme) for the training of young people, the Economic Schemes programme as well as the Cash Transfer programme. The pilot programme was already taking place in the North East, particularly with the IDPs. After deliberations, we chose the targeted cash transfer programme because we wanted to make sure that we narrowed such project down to affect a wide number of people across the country. Now that we have the 36 states embedded, the programme was launched in July.
DT: Do you believe those that have been identified as possible recipients are truly a reflection of the percentage of poor Nigerians?
Ibekaku-Nwagwu: Absolutely. Let me say that the real taste of the pudding would be when the actual transfer starts because the list of the beneficiaries will be published online and you can access and determine those people that will be paid in your community.
DT: Would it be the first cash transfer from this administration?
Ibekaku-Nwagwu: No. Since 2016, we have had this cash transfer process in our budget but we started with the North East before the World Bank signed the financing agreement and agreed to match Nigeria with a counterpart funding. And when this other money came in, Nigeria also reflected in the 2017 budget that the $322m that would be recovered from the Swiss government would be used in supporting the Social Investment Programme.
DT: Don’t you think this administration is simply playing politics by putting money in the hands of poor people few months to the election?
Ibekaku-Nwagwu: This thing has been going on since 2016, though on a limited scale. But now that we have expanded it, we are getting the 36 states and FCT to benefit. It is not about when. This money came in December 2017 when we signed the agreement. It hit the Central Bank recovery account first week of January 2018 and we had to plan. The World Bank and the Nigerian government agreed that you can’t touch that money unless there are electronic payment systems and we are talking of electronic payment system for people who are living in the communities. It takes time to build the platform. That platform will also enable you to see who and who are being paid.
DT: Would it be a kind of job or a form of internship?
Ibekaku-Nwagwu: Let us call it a job because you are earning money. Let us do a throw back here. We had a government before this administration came into office. We had one political party that was in office from 1999 to 2015. Could you imagine if these programmes were implemented from 1999 to 2015? What difference it would have made to Nigerians.
From 1999 to 2015, we didn’t know the whereabouts of the $753m recovered from Abacha loot. We recovered $241m in 2014. Where is it? That money was dissipated. And today we are telling Nigerians we set up the Open Government Partnership (OGP) and one of the commitment areas we made is what we called Transparency in the Management of Recovered Assets.