President Muhammadu Buhari has pledged to crack down on corruption and to repatriate what he called a “mind boggling” amount pillaged during the previous administration of Goodluck Jonathan. At the weekend, Mr Buhari’s government released a statement detailing stolen funds amounting to roughly $10bn that it said had been identified in the year since it took office in May 2015.
However, of that amount, only $600m has actually been returned to Nigeria. The bulk of the funds are those “under interim forfeiture”, not yet available to the government because they have merely been seized pending legal proceedings, according to lawyers. A further $330m are “funds awaiting return from foreign jurisdictions”, including the UK, the US and Switzerland.
“The government has frozen the assets, but they relate to alleged cases of corruption that have not been proven,” said Oluseun Onigbinde, co-founder of BudgIT, an organisation that monitors government finances. “We can’t start calling that ‘recovered’ money.”
Presidential spokesman Femi Adesina said he could not elaborate on the released numbers. “As the president said in his recent address, the figures will be updated continuously,” he said.
During a visit to London on Monday, Mr Jonathan, the former president, defended his anti-corruption record, saying his administration “took several steps to curtail this scourge”. In an interview with Bloomberg Television, he denied accusations by Mr Buhari’s administration that his government had left state coffers empty after failing to build up an adequate “rainy day fund” when oil prices were high. “There’s no way he would have inherited an empty treasury,” he said. “It’s not possible.”
In a speech in which he alluded only obliquely to allegations of corruption against his own government, Mr Jonathan conceded he had failed to tackle graft in Nigeria’s notoriously leaky oil industry, which provides 95 per cent of the country’s foreign revenue and is a huge source of patronage and theft. “The ambition was to sanitise the corruption in the petroleum industry by completely deregulating the sector,” he said. “However, our efforts were thwarted and frustrated by an unhealthy political resistance.”
When the former president was questioned after the speech about missing billions, nervous aides quickly ushered him into a side room away from reporters.
Mr Buhari, who succeeded Mr Jonathan last year after an unprecedented democratic handover, has admitted that the fight to recover missing funds has been “tedious and time consuming”. The $600m so far recovered will not go far in plugging the budget deficit, estimated at $11bn for this year.
Bismarck Rewane, chief executive of Financial Derivatives, a Lagos-based consultancy, said the amount of funds found so far had been disappointing: “It is important for symbolic purposes and it sends a signal, but in terms of its magnitude, it is minuscule,” he said.
Other campaigners have complained that the names of people who returned funds voluntarily have not been published in spite of promises by Mr Buhari last month to do so.
“If a plea bargain is taken by the government on behalf of the people, the government owes Nigerians details,” including the names of those involved, said Kayode Ogundamisi, an anti-corruption campaigner. “Until people start going to jail, it will seem attractive for corrupt people to steal a lot and return a fraction for a plea bargain”, he said.
Dozens of former officials from the highest ranks of government and the military have been hauled in for questioning by the authorities, although only one high profile trial — of the former national security adviser — has begun.