As a top army officer holding command position, he abused public trust and was caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Realising that he had been boxed into a tight corner, with clear evidence of guilt laid bare before him, the officer sang like a canary as he confessed his thievery of public fund.
Sullen and distraught, he begged authorities, offering to forfeit more than two-thirds of his loot hidden in a secret bank account offshore, those familiar with the matter told PREMIUM TIMES.
He did not want to be prosecuted or publicly humiliated over the matter. His traducers empathised with him, accepted his offer, secretly reprimanded him and allowed him the freedom to enjoy the remainder of his loot in peace.
But that man — Bashir Magashi, a retired army major general — who got away with a slap on the wrist after stealing and shipping abroad not less than $550,000 while in service, has now bounced back, emerging one of the country’s most powerful ministers.
Last Wednesday, President Muhammadu Buhari appointed him to take charge of the nation’s defence ministry, a government department with the third-highest budgetary spending for 2019 –N159.13 billion.
Mr Magashi, 74, was a former military governor of Sokoto State (1990–1992) and was appointed the commander of the strategic Brigade of Guards in September 1993 ahead of Sani Abacha’s coup in November of that year.
The officer soon became a prominent and trusted member of Mr Abacha’s inner caucus. Members of that administration’s kitchen cabinet were from time to time arbitrarily allowed access to the nation’s coffers. At times, they were illegally allocated crude oil which they sold for hefty amounts of money. Mr Magashi benefitted generously from that arrangement.
After Mr Abacha died in 1998, the officer was appointed commandant of the Nigerian Defence Academy, a position he held till 1999 when the new Olusegun Obasanjo administration compulsorily retired all military officers who had served for six or more months in government. Mr Magashi was among those affected by the policy.
Uncovering Mr Magashi’s loot
Shortly after coming to power, the Obasanjo administration rolled out an ambitious anti-corruption programme. Apart from setting up anti-corruption agencies, that government also hired Swiss lawyer, Enrico Monfrini, to help it track and repatriate funds stolen and stashed abroad by Mr Abacha and his collaborators.
PREMIUM TIMES investigation shows that one of the accounts uncovered by Mr Monfrini was a nominee (secret) one held for Mr Magashi at the Jessey, UK, branch of Bank PNP Paribus. The account had $550,000 (about N200million -at N362 to a dollar).
Those familiar with the matter said immediately Mr Obasanjo was briefed by the Swiss lawyer, he directed the then National Security Adviser, Abdullahi Mukhtar, to contact Mr Magashi and other past and serving officials who abused their offices and stashed public funds in foreign banks. They must be compelled to surrender their loots, the then president ordered.
On October 26, 2006, the NSA, via memo NSA/A/225/I/C, updated Mr Obasanjo on the cases of Mr Magashi and four others. “The account (held for Mr Magashi) has a total deposit of $550,000 and it remained intact until it was frozen in 2001,” Mr Mukhtar wrote in his memo.
The then NSA said when confronted, Mr Magashi admitted wrongdoing, saying the money was a proceed of illegal crude oil allocation Mr Abacha made to members of the Provisional Ruling Council (PRC) under his government. The officer was not a registered oil trader at the time. And being a public servant, it was illegal for him to directly engage in private businesses.
President Obasanjo then directed that the entire sum be recovered from the retired general, the then NSA said.
However, “General Magashi pleaded for a concession and Mr President left for him $150,000 from the said sum and to remit $400,000 to FGN which he has complied with as evidenced at Annex A, hereby attached,” Mr Mukhtar said.
Mr Magashi was granted that concession, and no charges were brought against him. It remains unclear why that approach was adopted in handling the matter. Both Messrs Mukhtar and Obasanjo could not be reached to comment for this story. Their known mobile telephone lines were reported switched off for most of Tuesday and Wednesday morning.
The minister declined to comment for this report. He did not respond to multiple calls, text messages, WhatsApp messages and emails requesting his comment.
Is Buhari aware?
It remains unclear Wednesday morning if President Muhammadu Buhari was aware of Mr Magashi’s involvement in the looting of Nigeria during the Abacha regime. Spokesperson Garba Shehu did not answer or return multiple calls from one of our reporters.
But a presidency official, who asked not to be named because he has no permission to grant media interviews, said, “I can tell you that there is no way the president would have ignored that kind of matter to appoint him if he were made aware.”
If true that the president had no knowledge that Mr Magashi once forfeited looted funds, it means the State Security Service, charged with vetting appointees to top government positions, again failed to do its job well.
The SSS had also failed in 2015 to detect that the NYSC certificate presented by former Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun, was fake.
It also means that the Nigerian Senate, which holds confirmation hearings for ministerial nominees, did a shoddy job, failing to detect Mr Magashi’s corrupt past.