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Fraud: Top Nigerian politician cleared

01 February 2012, 13:00

Abuja - A judge on Tuesday dismissed fraud charges against a top Nigerian politician and his former deputy who were both accused of diverting more than $244m in bank loans.

The case comes weeks after protests decried government spending.

Justice Suleiman Belgore cleared former House Speaker Dimeji Bankole and his former deputy Usman Nafada at the Federal Capital Territory High Court in Abuja, saying that even though their actions were morally wrong, they were not illegal.

Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission had accused Bankole and Nafada of conspiring to obtain the loans using the government's account, and then using that money to increase lawmakers' allowances and so-called "running costs" by $400,000 a year each, without approval.

Belgore said the unprecedented increment in lawmakers' allowances was "immoral, wrong and condemnable, especially given the abject poverty to which a great majority of Nigerians have been forced to live", but then said Bankole and Nafada had committed no crime.

Instead, he blamed the house clerk responsible for the management of the House of Representatives' account. The clerk had not been charged in this case.

The ruling comes after an overnight hike in the pump price of gasoline in the oil-rich West African country sparked nationwide protests earlier this month. Gas prices more than doubled as an immediate fallout of the government move aimed at cutting costs, in a country where most subsist on less than $2 a day.

President Goodluck Jonathan on January 1 removed a subsidy that had kept gas cheap for more than two decades, saying that the $8bn saved was a short-term "sacrifice" that would enable Nigerians to have a better quality of life in the long-term. Jonathan ultimately compromised by restoring part of the subsidy after protesters questioned how a kleptocratic government could justify asking its citizenry to sacrifice.

Series of scandals

Bankole's tenure had been marred by corruption allegations. Many of the charges he was facing were linked to allegations dating back to 2008.

Prosecutor Festus Keyamo said a charge accusing Bankole and Nafada of inflating the prices of supplies by more than $1.7m was still pending.

Bankole predecessor's tenure was also tarnished by fraud allegations in the lower chamber that has faced a series of scandals since Nigeria became a democracy in 1999.

Patricia Etteh, Nigeria's first woman speaker, was pushed to resign in 2007 after fellow lawmakers accused her of misappropriating funds. A former speaker, Salisu Buhari, was accused of faking academic qualifications from a Canadian university.

Positions in Nigeria's National Assembly are highly lucrative, and even low-ranking members get more than $1m a year in salaries and benefits. The lawmakers added nearly $200m back into their budget after President Goodluck Jonathan slashed the fund that pays their salaries and allowances by more than half in a 2011 budget proposal.

Nigeria, one of the top crude oil suppliers to the US, has a long history of corruption, with one official once estimating that the country had lost more than $380bn to graft since gaining its independence from Britain in 1960.

Nigeria's antigraft body has said it is investigating about 1 500 cases.

- AP

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