By DICKSON OMONODE
TIMES are hard now in Nigeria. Harder still for the number one citizen, President Muhammadu Buhari, whose effort to get buffers (from loot recovery) for his cash strapped government continues to hit a brick wall, thanks to his justice minister and chief lawyer making all the wrong decisions ever.
Putting together the crises of economic recession, corruption, intra-party conflicts in the All Progressives Congress (APC), insecurity arising from Boko Haram insurgency, Niger Delta uprising, like any other leader, President Buhari is certainly having sleepless nights at this challenging time of his administration.
Abubakar Malami, Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, has bungled a couple of negotiations and asset recovery moves so far, And critics believe he has more opportunities to fritter as the U.S and U.K uptick their efforts to repatriate stolen funds Nigerian government officials and politicians hide in the Western banking system.
And the effect of all the flip-flops has never been lost on Nigerians. “It has been a very difficult year for Nigeria,” President Buhari agreed recently. And he added that the accountability and transparency of its government have made the effect of the nation’s dwindling fortunes bearable.
So far, according to Information Minister, Lai Mohammed, about N78 billion and $3 million have been recovered so far. ““We have been able to block various accounts in which about $ 9 billion is found but those are not money available to us because we are still in court over them,” he told the News Agency of Nigeria on Friday.
But this pales into insignificance considering what Buhari needs to cover his government’s bread-and butter spending alone. “The government spends N165 billion every month to pay federal civil servants, even what has been so far recovered will not even pay 50 per cent of the salaries in a month,’ Mohammed noted.
The amounts recovered are even more laughable when compared to the lots still hanging out there. In his Washington Post opinion published last year during his American visit, Buhari said $150 billion of Nigeria’s money is stashed around the world in the last 10 years. That’s besides the hundreds of millions of dollars in the world notorious Abacha’s loot.
Perhaps Buhari’s drive for asset recovery could have gone farther than this if Malami has got a better grasp of asset recovery lawyeringand a less dense cloud of controversies around him.
The minister’s awkwardness surfaced when he butted into the Nigeria Communications Commission and MTN Nigeria N3.1 billion fine last year. His one-upmanship in the negotiation messed up the whole process, and Nigeria got $50 million instead. And that might be the end.
Malami’s dalliance with Uboh, an ex con from the U.S, was another misstep that has cost the Buhari government some asset, both money and image. The crook, who the EFCC just prosecuted, eventually bagged a four-year jail term.
But the minister had contracted some asset recovery job to Uboh. And somehow, the so-called investigator claimed he had already tracked down N340 billion for his own 5 percent commission. Only after then, the contract was ruptured.
Malami’s dalliance with George Uboh, an ex con from the U.S, was another misstep that has cost the Buhari government some asset, both money and image. The crook, who the EFCC just prosecuted, eventually bagged a four-year jail term. But the minister had contracted some asset recovery job to Uboh. And somehow, the so-called investigator claimed he had already tracked down N340 billionfor his own 5 percent commission. Only after then, the contract was ruptured.
Currently, the Abacha loot has come into the mix. And the U.K is also willing to assist. Malami himself signed a MoU with the U.K government to reflect the willingness of both countries to continue cooperation and mutual support.
British Minister of State for Immigration, Robert Goodwill, who led the British delegation, agreed with Malami, adding,” Our ability to recover and return stolen assets should send a clear message to all who may seek to habour such assets that there is no safe haven in the U.K.”
His Nigerian counterpart might not be able to boast like thatfor reasons, including incompetence and conflict of interest already threatening the recovery of another N218.3 billion of the Abacha loot in the U.S.
Godson Nnaka, U.S attorney, has claimed the justice minister demanded 70 percent of his professional fee in tracking the loot for over 14 years contract he got from Nigeria in 2004. The attorney has already filed a suit against Nigeria in Maryland because Malami has edged him out.
The AGF has responded, however. “I want to put it on record that Nigeria never authorised him to locate or repatriate Abacha’s loot,” he said. “If he was given such authorisation, Nigerians should ask him why he is asking me to revalidate his letter of authority.”
This sort of argument can only breed more controversy for the minister. Nnaka has said Malami was the Abacha family lawyer back then, and he now working with the family and its associate Atiku Bagudu, now Kebbi’s governor, to make the recovery difficult.
While Malami is trying to shake this allegation off, his ability to help his boss make success of this campaignin good timeis in question. Many Nigerians seem impatient as this dilly-dallying lingers on.
Mr. President, if you want to leave a credible legacy come 2019, in all sincerity, please retool your administration,”Cardinal Anthony Olubunmi Okogie wrote recently in his open letter to Buhari. “Change is desirable. But it must be a change for the better. Let this change be real. Change is not real when old things that we ought to discard refuse to pass away,” he added.
Former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Emir Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, also dug into the president in speech recently. “We are not being sincere when we say we are in a recession because of the fall in oil prices. What happened to other sectors?” he said in a lecture.
“We created the recession we are in now and I hope the President won’t make the mistakes Jonathan made.”
While Malami is getting his boss all the knocks over the loot recovery effort, Buhari’s COAS Tukur Buratai is stirring more potential problem in the Niger Delta.
Buratai has assured his Operation Crocodile Smile won’t hurt innocent citizens in that might caught in the crossfire with militants.
But certainly the military campaign is going to do some damage, especially to the peace talk with the militants. Yet Buhari remains divided between watching the vandals destroy the economy or pounding them to subjection.
That also has its own undertones. Many believe the operation is a northern agenda targeted at the south-south.
National Daily’s investigations have found out that many residents of the region have become apprehensive, and no longer comfortable with the Operation Crocodile Smile and its manner of campaigns.
The exercise initiated as a routine road show of force by the Nigerian Army now have a replicate in the Nigerian Navy and the Nigerian Air Force also demonstrating force on the region strategic water ways and air space, an exercise the residents say has all the indicators of deliberate ploy to overrun the oil rich region.
Barr Dudafa Ogie, a Warri based legal practitioner, said the show of force alone is quiet intimidating and may hamper the work of the Edwin Clark Peace Committee.
“Our people live in fear. No upland man is comfortable going to the Islands and those there have refused to come and meet us here; water way socio economic activities is in a standstill due to fear of the military.”
Ijaw communities in Delta State are already counting their losses. In Gbaramatu Kingdom, Warri South-West Local Government Area, hundreds have had to relocate following the invasion of the kingdom by soldiers who terrorize the community with gun shots.
The Ibebenemowei of Gbaramatu Kingdom, Chief Godspower Gbenekama, and chairman of Kokodiagbene community, Mr. Sheriff Mulade, are already lamenting the fears of people in the area.
Chief Gbenekama, who is also the acting spokesperson of Gbaramatu Traditional Council, GTC says “Though the full detachment of military has not actually being deployed to our communities, but pockets of military men have been terrorizing our communities, shooting indiscriminately into the communities from the waterfront.
“It is as though the military personnel want us to react violently, so that the peace of the Ijaw nation can be shattered and lead Nigeria into a civil war; a war that the military brass hope to use to enrich themselves.
“One is surprised at the current government’s intention. If leaders and kings of the Niger Delta have come together to ensure that there is peace and their pleas have been accepted by the agitators and a ceasefire has been accepted by the agitators, what else does the Federal Government want?”
Different Strokes for Different Folks
But for the Olu of Warri, his Itshekiri subjects must cooperate with Buratai’s goons following the resurgence of militancy, kidnappings and other crimes in the area.
Olu Ikenwoli decried the resurgence of criminality that had caused further harm to the environment and the economy of the region.
In his words: “Our people are peace loving people and for many years have lived peacefully with people from other parts of the country but we are not weak.
“Recent developments occasioned by acts of kidnapping, militancy and other violent crimes have dragged us behind and further impoverished our people.
“This region has for decades produced the main stay of this nation’s economy and yet has nothing to show for it; this has been compounded by the activities of some criminal elements in our midst. I want to state here categorically that this kingdom commends steps taken by the military to contain criminality in our land and we will fully support their initiative.
“I want to appeal to the military hierarchy to consider our request of increasing military presence in the region, more Air Force, Navy and Army personnel should be deployed to assist the police to restore sanity in our land.”
However the Chairman of Kokodiagbene community, Mr. Sheriff Mulade, faulted the monarch for supporting the army of occupation as acts of kidnapping are internal security issues that the Nigerian Police is well equipped to handle.
He said “militants have listened to the elders of the region and have delegated an elder statesman to negotiate with the Federal Government on their behalf. So the question is what are Olu’s desires that are materially different from other monarchs in the Niger Delta region?”
On the breach of the ceasefire in the Niger Delta, he further explained that it was a collection of misguided youths that were involved
In his words “In a recent meeting held by the leaders of the coalition of Urhobo Ex- Agitators in Delta state, the president of the association Gen. Abraham Ekokotu has come out to rightly condemned the act of bombing and vandalism of Oil pipeline in Urhobo land in particular and the Niger Delta Region in general.
“The recent explosion of Oil pipeline facilities in Ohwrode Community in Udu LGA of Delta state was declared as a slap on our faces and the coalition of Urhobo Ex- Agitators have warned all Urhobo youths to desist from every act of violence and vandalism of Oil and Gas facilities in Urhobo land that is capable of dragging the image of the Urhobo to the mud.
Mulade concludes that Buratai and his boys should stop carrying outs acts that will jeopardize the hard won fragile peace in the region; especially as the country is in economic recession and Niger Delta oil is a major platform for national economic recovery.
According to Mulade, five individuals said to be militants were killed in a raid carried out by units of the 133 Special Forces Battalion of the Nigerian Army, in Rivers State as a test-run of Operation Crocodile Smile, and the Chief of Army Staff confirmed the killing of suspected militants while addressing his troops in Sapele, Delta State.
So for Elder Timi Ogoriba, an Amnesty Committee member, the federal government can make the peace deal work by withdrawing troops from the region.
Although, Buratai insists that troops remain in the troubled region, arguing that the militants cannot be trusted.