The long-drawn prosecution of the family of late General Sani Abacha aimed at recovering monies allegedly looted from the nation and stashed abroad when he was Head of State, came to a sudden halt recently when the Federal Government announced it was dropping all corruption charges against the General's eldest son, Mohammed Abacha. The charges relate to the laundering of about N446.3bn allegedly stolen from the government's coffers between 1995 and 1998.
According to the charges, Mohammed Abacha helped his late father to steal between $3 billion and $5 billion, which he lodged in various banks across the world. But the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr Mohammed Adoke, in a sudden twist, asked the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory that had been hearing the case, to drop the charges.
Strong public and international condemnations to the move by a government sworn to the fight against corruption forced Mr Adoke to explain the action. His office released a statement claiming that it was done in the best interest of Nigeria, and not to shield Abacha from prosecution. Adoke insisted that before moving to spring Abacha, the Jonathan administration had 'consulted widely with experts and international development agencies and partners'.
He said that the withdrawal of the criminal proceedings against Abacha would facilitate the recovery of $380 million from Luxembourg and another $550 million from forfeiture proceedings instituted by the US Department of Justice.
The global anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International (TI) condemned it. "Allowing the theft of public funds to go unpunished sends the wrong message that those with powerful connections can act with impunity. The case should have been fully prosecuted, and the government has not given adequate reasons for dropping the charges", it said.
Adoke said that any suggestion that the "Abachas have been allowed to get away with little loss is totally false and at variance with the facts".
The nongovernmental organisation Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has approached a Federal High Court in Lagos to challenge the government's action.
There does appear to be a fundamental issue in the government's disposition towards criminality and corruption as the Abacha case demonstrates. As things are, the government is already grappling with the challenge of establishing credibility for itself in its avowed war on corruption in high places, with a string of cases running without resolution. Its action on the Abacha case reinforces the spreading view that crime against the nation can actually go unpunished if certain politically defined conditions, including the promise of returning the stolen money, or part of it, are met. This hardly fits into the legal principle of punishing crime first before considering restitution of losses to the injured. And this is where the government's case is weak and severely, if not fatally, hurts its image in the anti-corruption campaign.
Adoke argued that the previous administration of Olusegun Obasanjo had initiated a Global Settlement Agreement with the Abachas in the face of difficulties it had in recovering the Abacha loot; he then contended that with the situation in which companies linked with the loot were not willing to forego it but ready to contest the recovery in court, there was no alternative to speedy closure to what the government had done.
But that argument does not square with the public cavorting that Mohammed Abacha is known to be having with the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and talks in that circle of him being a possible gubernatorial flag bearer for the party in 2015.
The administration has once again shot itself in the foot; the condemnations of its action are well deserved.