In this interview with Funke Olaode, Executive Director, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), a not-for-profit organisation based in Abuja, Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, shares his views on the federal government’s effort on looted funds and why the establishment of Integrity Trust Fund is necessary to ensure that the looted fund is not re-looted
You have been an advocate for accountability and good governance. What is your take on the recent happenings in Nigeria in the area of looted funds?
We have been advocating for the Nigerian government and supporting them to ensure that all assets stolen and kept abroad are brought back, but with the condition that these monies and assets are not re-looted. Last December, we had a foreign Asset Recovery Forum, which was organised by both United States and United Kingdom governments, and CISLAC was one of the organisations that were invited to that meeting. In that meeting, we threw our weight behind the Federal Government of Nigeria. The Nigerian government has been working tirelessly to ensure that money brought to the US and other countries illegally are returned to the country. We and others have been supporting government in this regard. However, we want to ensure that we have the right mechanism that would guarantee that the money is not re-looted. In the past, money received could not be accounted for. We are supporting government in this recovery but with the condition that there must be an establishment of integrity trust fund that would manage this money and assets. Internally, a lot of money and assets have been recovered but not many could ascertain where those assets are kept in terms of money and property recovered from looters. We want to ensure that we have an institutional framework that would monitor the assets recovered in Nigeria. Secondly, we want to make it impossible for people to continue to loot in Nigeria and bring it to America or other Europe countries. Nigeria and African countries have been victims of illicit financial flow, so we want to collaborate with local NGOs in America to ensure that the opportunity of siphoning public funds is blocked.
What is your view on the anti-corruption campaign of the President Muhammadu Buhari government?
It is a good campaign by President Buhari, but he needs to step up this anti-corruption crusade before Nigerians lose confidence in it because there seems to be a lot of setbacks in the fight against corruption in the country. In recent times, the Nigerian government had come up with a policy on whistleblowing that will encourage the citizens to expose corruption and even get rewarded. Even though we felt we needed to institutionalise that framework to guarantee the safety and security of whistleblowers. Again, the campaign is lopsided, because nobody from the ruling party was named. I think this can jeopardise the sincerity of the campaign. The fight against corruption must not be selective, sectional or used to protect those who are in the same party. It must cut across everybody.
Recently, the federal government came up with a policy of “Beneficial Ownership” to help in efforts to trace owners of assets? Do you think the policy is serving its purpose?
The issue of beneficial ownership is an important step in the fight against corruption. The Nigerian government needs to ensure that they have beneficial ownership registered to be able to know who gets what in government or private business.
Many of them (public servants) use their offices to get tax waivers and all sort of facilities and others to make them benefit from what they are supposed to play supervisory role on it. Having beneficial ownership registered will enable the general public to know those who are stealing or siphoning public funds to set up companies and get tax waivers and holiday.
One of the core objectives of CISLAC is to engage legislators on capacity building and governance issues. How far have you succeeded in this direction?
There are issues with the National Assembly and their failure to perform oversight functions, for instance, inability to play oversight role in the area of extractive industries. The Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative issued out audit reports, which was dumped at the National Assembly without any legislative action. There are lot of issues of non-remittance of funds into government coffers. As a matter of fact, it was only once since NEITI was established in 2007 that the National Assembly discussed it on the floor of the Senate. We cannot be wasting money doing report and the people that are supposed to take action look the other way. Nigeria is losing a lot from the extractive revenue and taxes. The National assembly and government must do everything possible to support what is going on at NEITI to ensure that corruption in the oil and gas industry is minimised. Again, refusal to implement the public procurement law that was signed in 2007 by the late President Umaru Yar’Adua. Even the present government has not fully implemented and complied with the public procurement law. The law has a council and government has refused to inaugurate the council. The federal government cabinet doesn’t have business with procurement issue if this council had been inaugurated. It is not a welcome development for a nation that wants to move forward.
How many times have you engaged the National Assembly to draw their attention to the issues you have raised?
Since the inception of CISLAC, it has served as a bridge between and the National Assembly and government generally. CISLAC has been supporting the National Assembly with capacity building. We have trained a lot of legislators and their aides at both state and national levels. We have also promoted a lot of legislation that could help promote good governance. For instance, we were the group that championed the passage of public procurement law, passage of the fiscal responsibility law, NEITI law, Freedom of Information Bill, along with other NGOs, Tobacco Bill, National Health Act, and other laws. We have been able to engage government to provide enabling environment for the implementation of these laws. We have intervened on the National policy on Internally Displaced Persons to help government tackle the issue of Boko Haram. I remember during the tenure of former speaker, Hon. Dimeji Bankole, we organised a workshop for National Assembly committees on finance and appropriation. It was from one of our trainings on capacity building that we were able to sensitise the National Assembly that any unspent money at the end of the budgetary year should not be shared but return to the government coffer.
Are you not worried that the 2018 budget was passed in the middle of the year?
It is very worrisome because we have been sensitising the National Assembly on how to select think-tank that would be able to analyse the budge, that have the capacities and experience on budgetary issues. Up till now, they have not put that office in place. This shows lack of seriousness. Some of those who prepare this budget are experienced civil servants who have spent 20, 30 years in the ministry of finance, and as legislators, your number of service is limited. That is why we said, to be able to match the capacity, the National Assembly should create a separate office and appoint experienced hands that would match the budget committee. But some unpatriotic elements within the National Assembly want to continue with the extortion of budget defence. In the past, a lot of people have exposed how some of the committee members were literarily demanding money for their budget to be passed and some of them are still around. Again, the executive ought to have sent the budget much earlier so that National Assembly can thoroughly assess it. The fault is from both the legislature and the executive. The National Assembly should also realise their own role by being passionate on budget review so that they can help reduce waste. So we need a vibrant National Assembly.
The Nigerian government celebrated its exit from economic recession, but the man in the street hardly feels any improvement in his standard of living. Why is the economic improvement not felt by citizens?
So far, the celebration has been at paper level and has not manifest in the lives of Nigerians, as the average Nigerian is still suffering from artificial poverty created by the wicked political elite. Just like the fraudulent rating of Nigeria during the former President Jonathan administration that Nigeria was the biggest economy in Africa, which we knew then was done fraudulently, the same situation is still happening.
Nigerians still face challenges of survival. Prices are still high; parents cannot pay school fees, etc. A lot of things that could have gotten us out of recession are still there. Dollar is till N360 at official rate. If you go to the market, things are not affordable. The Nigerian government has promised to stop paying subsidy on fuel but we have been told by the Minister of Petroleum that over N1 trillion has been spent on subsidy without appropriation. This is a gross violation of budgetary procedure law. The minister needs to explain to Nigerians where they got that money and who authorised the payment. This is not good for a government that is fighting corruption.
(This interview was published on July 22, 2018 by ThisDay)