Late General Sani Abacha was the first Nigerian soldier to rise to the rank of a General without missing a single rank that took him to the enviable height of the career he chose. But Nigerians rarely talk about that unique achievement and rightly so because Abacha was synonymous with sickening brutality, savagery, humongous thievery and infinite corruption.
He stole with reckless abandonment and his excessive avarice remains unrivalled. By the time the dark-googled General and veteran coup plotter died on June 8, 1998, he had reportedly stolen at least $2.2 billion of our commonwealth. With such enormous amount, Transparency International rated the obdurate czar as the fourth most corrupt leader on a list that has Mohamed Suharto, the man who ruled Indonesia for 31 years between 1967 and 1998, as the biggest thief to have ever ruled a country. According to a preliminary report published by the General Abdusalami Abubakar-led transitional government in November 1998, Abacha’s brazen thievery and corruption stood on a tripod.
He was allegedly aided by the then National Security Adviser, Alhaji Ismaila Gwarzo; his son, Mohammed Abacha; and best friend, Alhaji Mohammed Sada, who were the conduit pipes that he used to loot and transfer money into foreign accounts. “Abacha told Gwarzo to provide fake funding requests, which he (Abacha) approved.
The funds were usually sent in cash or travellers’ cheques by the Central Bank of Nigeria to Gwarzo, who took them to Abacha’s house. Sada then arranged to launder the money to offshore accounts,” a part of the report had stated. It is also on record that the largest forfeiture in the history of the United States of America was the return of $480 million stolen by Abacha.
The United States Department of Justice announced the return of the money in August 2014. Abacha loot is scattered in different countries and it’s not surprising that 20 years after he ate the forbidden fruit, we are still talking about his unprecedented thievery. Some of the countries will never return the loot. Such countries are as guilty if not more so than the predator who took delight in amassing wealth beyond his needs and those of his children.
Except for the clout of former President Olusegun Obasanjo and his insistence that the loot must be returned to Nigeria, the Swiss authorities would have sat on the money. Their insistence that Nigeria should give them the guarantee that the money would be judiciously used before releasing it was the height of insult from a nation that should bury its head in shame for providing a safe haven for a corrupt leader through it nebulous banking system that largely promotes corruption. But in a country where corrupt leaders are never in short supply, there is genuine fear that the repatriated money may be re-looted.
However, holding on to what rightly belongs to us by some countries under the pretext that repatriated money could be stolen again is self-indicting and morally bankrupt. As at December 2012, the Swiss government had repatriated to Nigeria over $700m out of about $1bn stolen by Abacha and kept in Swiss banks. And recently, it had returned about $322m following a Memorandum of Understanding signed between the Nigerian government and Switzerland in December 2017, thereby signalling an end to stolen money kept in secret banks by the late maximum ruler. Now that the money is available, the Buhari-led administration said it would be used to fund its Social Investment Programme, one of the electioneering promises of the government.
Under the arrangement, the poorest and most vulnerable households in the country will be getting a monthly stipend of N5,000. Before the Abacha loot, the government claimed that 300,000 poor households and some Internally Displaced Persons in Borno State had been receiving the stipend meant to keep body and soul together as we say in our local parlance. Since the government made its intention known on how to spend the repatriated money, people have debating the propriety of the plan, which in my view is largely propelled by populism. Questions have also been asked by lawmakers whether money that has not been appropriated can be spent in a democratic setting without the approval of the legislators.
The intention may be genuine and right. But beyond the moral correctness of such action, can the administration honestly justify spending the money without the knowledge and approval of other tiers of government who are partners in the federal system? Immediately the president came on board, I predicted two things: the president would preside over a divided nation and would pay for being too populist during electioneering. The predictions had come to past.
Nigeria has never been divided like this except during the civil war. Nigeria is now a case of ‘we’ versus ‘them.’ Or better still, a divided house peopled by ‘Jonathanians’, a coinage for the supporters of former president Goodluck Jonathan on the one hand and die-hard supporters of President Muhammadu Buhari, often referred to as ‘Buharists’ on the door.
In my column titled: ‘Beggar governors versus populist president,’ I had expressed my misgivings following revelation that the Federal Government expected insolvent states to provide 40 per cent counterpart funding for feeding of schoolchildren, an initiative that the president promised during his campaign. Except for populism, what’s the business of a Federal Government in feeding of schoolchildren when such a matter is the concern of local governments? I have listened to arguments that populism is needed during electioneering because governance is about the people. If this assertion is correct, then Cass Mudde, 51-year-old Dutch political scientist professor, who focuses on political extremism and populism, is right to have described populism as “dishonest.”
On her part, Prof. Nadia Urbinati, a political theorist from Columbia University, warned that “a populist leader who gets into power is ‘forced’ to be in a permanent campaign to convince his people that he is not an establishment -and never will be.” Populism as an ideology posits “the people as a morally good force against the elite who are perceived to be corrupt.
It emphasises the need to engage the population in political decision making. Of course, populism as an ideology can adapt to all situations but the danger in it, political analysts have observed is that populist leader could be tempted to think they are infallible. And with just a little shift, a populist leader can slip into dictatorship. Besides, they are often viewed with suspicion because of the tendency to promise to change too many things that on closer inspection may not be feasible. There is pervasive poverty in the land and the purchasing power of the average person has dwindled. In such situations, intervention is needed to bail the people out of the economic doldrums.
But this will be much appreciated through economic empowerment. Distributing the Abacha loot among the poor is akin to giving them fish. Giving economic empowerment to them is finding wisdom in the Chinese proverb, which emphasises teaching people how to fish rather than giving them fish, a gesture that will make them reliant on the giver at the expense of self-reliance.
The shortcomings of the ideology notwithstanding, populists are quick to find audience since the ideology is about people. But I doubt the popularity of the government’s plan to distribute the Abacha loot among the poor. What is the long term economic benefit of giving the poor N5,000 monthly stipend? What are the parameters to determine the poor? Where can we find the poorest of the poor? Where is the data base that can be relied on? If a particular geo-political zone has the largest concentration of the poor and they benefit more, what will be the feelings of the rest geo-political zones? What is the guarantee that the money will be genuinely distributed instead of finding its way into private pockets? I would have preferred that the money is spent on a viable project that can benefit more people. It is time our politicians realised that populism does not necessarily confer popularity on them.
In other words, a populist leader may not be popular. Now that the government has resolved to share the Abacha loot among the poor, that theory is about to be put to test. But if it’s fraught with fraud, however good intention of the president is, it will not matter. Rather, it will add to the list of the president’s populist agenda that did not sit well with the people.
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