Nigerian central bank officials arrested in alleged $40-million scam

In Nigeria, 6 central bank officials and 16 private bank officials have been accused of stealing millions

Just days after Nigeria’s new president took office, the country’s anti-corruption agency has accused top officials from the central bank of involvement in a multimillion-dollar scam.

President Muhammadu Buhari has declared his determination to fight corruption in a nation that has suffered poor governance and theft of public money for decades.

Six central bank staff and 16 officials from Nigerian commercial banks will face charges, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission announced in a statement Monday.

The alleged racket involved substituting pieces of cut-up newspaper for defaced or mutilated bank notes that were being sent to be destroyed, the EFCC said. The old notes instead were stolen and went back into circulation, the commission said.

The officials skimmed about $40 million in a scam that went on for years before it was detected, the commission charged, adding that the alleged fraud was so sweeping it undermined government efforts to rein in inflation.

The officials were arrested last week and are due to appear in court Tuesday.

The EFCC was set up in 2003 by President Olusegun Obasanjo to crack down on corruption. But 12 years later, critics say little has been achieved. Widespread exasperation with corruption was one factor in Buhari’s victory, both because of his pledge to stem fraud and his reputation for honesty.

The five men and one woman from the central bank staff were pictured on the EFCC website holding up signs with their names and alleged offenses: conspiracy, abuse of office and theft.

The commission said the officials allowed greed and materialism to cloud their judgment when they helped themselves to huge quantities of defaced naira notes.

“Instead of carrying out the statutory instruction to destroy the currency, they substituted it with newspapers neatly cut to naira sizes and proceeded to recycle the defaced and mutilated currency,” the statement said.

“The fraud is partly to blame for the failure of government monetary policy over the years as currency mop-up exercises by the [central] bank failed to check the inflationary pressure on the economy,” the statement said.

All six officials were members of the group responsible for the destruction of defaced and torn bank notes.

The alleged scam was discovered by a 35-year-old central bank official who opened one of the boxes crammed with newspapers, the commission said. When she reported it to her superiors, they promised to look into the fraud but did nothing.

According to the EFCC’s website, the commission obtained convictions in 126 cases last year, many involving multiple accused. The charges included fraud, Internet and advance-fee scams, forgery and illegal dealing in oil.

But critics argue that the commission has been ineffectual, prosecuting mainly low-ranking officials. State governors and deputy governors are immune from prosecution while in office.

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