Posted by By Emma Ujah & Ise-Oluwa Ige on
ABUJA-MINISTER of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has said that over $240 million loot recently released by Switzerland has been spent.
ABUJA-MINISTER of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has said that over $240 million loot recently released by Switzerland has been spent. Speaking with reporters at the just concluded two-day workshop organised by the Budget Monitoring and Price Intelligence Unit (BMPIU) in Abuja, she said the money was spent in the 2004 budget.
However, the Federal Government has dismissed as laughable, claim by the eldest surviving son of the late General Sani Abacha, Mohammed, that he could not be tried by General Abdulsalami Abubakar government or his successor for criminal offences relating to stealing of public funds after he had voluntarily handed over some of the alleged stolen funds to the government.
According to the Attorney-General of the Federation, such claim is preposterous, sheer balderdash and arrant nonsense of the highest order.
Dr. Okonjo-Iweala admitted that the Swiss authorities were surprised when she told them at a meeting before the money was eventually released, that it had been spent. She said she explained to them that there was nothing wrong in the way the Nigerian government handled it since there was a commitment for the release of the money.
She said: "It was put in our regular programme. When the Swiss told us we would get this money in 2004, people were listening. The president said it would be used in specific areas -in health, education, agriculture, in power and roads.
"What we did was to programme this money. As Finance Minister, and this is what I explained to the Swiss authorities, once you tell me that monies are coming, I take you seriously. You don?t wait until all the monies are in your hands before you programme expenditure.
"There are people following me. It is the same way we do with our budget. It is not when all the taxes are collected and I am holding them in my pocket then I assign it and say one per cent is going here.
"That is not how we budget. At the beginning of the year, we project revenue that will come in and then we look at expenditure. The revenues come in as the year goes along. That was the same way we treated this money. It is our money. We were told it was going to come in 2004. So when we did the budgeting along with our regular programmes, we programmed this money into the budget and we told them all along that this is what we were going to do.
"I went to Switzerland and again when they invited me, we went through this. When the money was finally released, there was a bit of surprise on their part and I explained to them. Our projections for revenue (in 2004) included the Abacha fund.
"We took the money into the budget as part of revenue we were going to get, and also programmed expenditure against it. So when we gave it to them (National Assembly), it appeared in the deficit financing column. You know when you are spending a little bit more than you are going to get, perhaps. So, we did that because we are going to spend more than we have in power, education, health. In these programmes, we would use retrieved funds to finance. There is nothing hidden about that.
"I think they forgot about it because they told us that the deficit should be financed from excess crude but that was not what we discussed and the Budget Director-General, Mr Bode Agusto, reminded them again, late last week, exactly what has been done and I know they have recalled and everything is settled.
"So there is no discrepancy except that they forgot the way we were going to use the money. It had already been programmed into the budget. The money has been spent in 2004."
The minister urged civil society organisations to "take back with them an activism, a desire to use democratic rights and powers to push policy makers and the people in the National Assembly to implement the kind of reforms that will be of benefit to this country."
Dr. Okonjo-Iweala admitted that the Federal Government performed less than it planned to do on roads construction and rehabilitation, as well as power supply across the country, in spite the several billions of public funds given to NEPA, since the beginning of the President Obasanjo administration.
"I want to say that last year, we had a very positive year in terms of economic performance, in terms of the indicators we have gotten. And we know that there has been a big gap in terms of some deliverables on the road sector.
"Power at the moment is a huge problem that everybody is talking about. It is going to take sometime to fix it and to get us to where we are going," she said.
Participants at the workshop urged the National Assembly to pass the National Public Procurement Bill in the interest of prudent management of public funds, particularly with regard to the award of contracts.
FG insists on trying Abacha
Dismissing Abacha?s claim, the Attorney-General, represented at the Court of Appeal yesterday by the President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Chief Bayo Ojo (SAN) in the matter, cited section 174 (1) of the 1999 constitution to buttress the position of the Federal Government in the case. The section provides: "The Attorney-General of the Federation shall have powers:
?to institute and undertake criminal proceedings against any person before any court of law in Nigeria, other than a court martial in respect of any offence created by or under any Act of the National Assembly;
?to take over and continue any such criminal proceedings that may have been instituted by any other authourity or person; and
?to discontinue at any stage before judgement is delivered any such criminal proceedings instituted or undertaken by him or any other authority or person."
According to Ojo, "the powers of Attorney-General to institute a suit in court cannot be questioned in any court. No court of law has powers to enquire into this absolute power of the attorney-general. "There is no big deal. It is either he complies with instructions or go to jail. It would be travesty of justice for any court to stop such proceedings," he told the Court of Appeal yesterday.
Mohammed, it would be recalled, had invited an Abuja High Court scheduled to try him over a 123-count charge bordering on looted fund to hold that no civil or criminal proceedings could be commenced against him in respect of any stolen funds he had already forfeited to the state.
Under the Forfeiture of Assets (Certain Persons) Decree No 53 of 1999, Mohammed Abacha?s family had returned USD625, 263,187.19, 75,306,886.93 pounds sterling and N100, 000,000.00 and N250, 000,000.00. He said he was entitled to the provisions of the said decree.
The decree, according to Mohammed, provides that in so far efforts have been made to comply with the forfeiture of such fund or assets, no criminal or civil suit could be commenced against the person complying with the law. Mohammed who said he had forfeited so much to the government had wondered why the Federal Government should disregard the provisions of the Decree 53 of 1999 to file a 123-count charge against him in respect of the same sums of money already forfeited to the government.
His arguments were presented to court yesterday through his counsel, Joseph Daudu (SAN). According to Daudu, Nigerian case law is replete with instances where people who had voluntarily complied with the decree had been exempted from both civil and criminal prosecution.
He cited, for instance, the case of Messrs. Gilbert Chagoury and Mark Rissar whom he said were indemnified after they yielded up possession of important sums of money to the Federal Government. Besides, he argued that the acts of Mohammed?s father, the late Gen. Abacha, in transferring money into foreign accounts for national interest purposes was covered by sovereign immunity and, therefore, not open to successive government?s probe.
He said: "The basis upon which the surrender or return of the amounts and assets specified in the decree was made was that the family of the late General Sani Abacha shall be absolved and be made free from any future or further prosecution regarding any transaction relating any fund.
"That mutual understanding and agreement between the government and the family of the late General Sani Abacha and all who volunteered to surrender assets and returned various sums of monies culminated into Decree 53 of 1999."
Mohammed argued that the contents of the decree were binding on the government of General Abdulsalami Abubakar as well as all governments that succeeded that regime, adding that such matter could not be reopened. He asked the high court to dismiss the charges levelled against him for lack of jurisdiction.
It would be recalled that while the case was pending at the Abuja High Court, Mohammed made an application by way of reference to the Court of Appeal.
Both parties who had earlier submitted written briefs to the Court of Appeal in respect of the matter adopted their written submissions yesterday. The court presided over by Justice Robert Rowland has, however, fixed April 14, this year for judgement in the matter.
Meanwhile, Alhaji Abubakar Atiku Bagudu who was in court with Mohammed to challenge the decision of the Federal Government to try them had withdrawn from the matter. His lawyer, Mr K Olowookere, who communicated the decision of Bagudu to the court did not give any reason for his withdrawal.
The Court of Appeal had since struck out his name from the suit.