No platform is more auspicious than the General Assembly of the United Nations to use in drawing some global leaders’ attention to their double standards: their countries continue to welcome treasury looters from the Third World, while also decrying its underdevelopment. President Muhammadu Buhari did just that with his speech at the just-concluded 70th summit of the global body in New York, United States of America.
He said, “In particular, I call upon the global community to urgently redouble efforts towards strengthening the mechanisms for dismantling safe havens for proceeds of corruption and ensuring the return of stolen funds and assets to their countries of origin.”
An estimated $217.7 billion has been illicitly transferred from Nigeria to these “safe havens” between 1970 and 2008, according to the African Union report released early this year, prepared by its special committee headed by former President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa. The report lent credence to an earlier account by the Global Financial Integrity, a United States-based group, which claimed that $129 billion was spirited away between 2000 and 2009, relying on World Bank and International Monetary Fund data.
These reports of how our public treasury has been haemorrhaged by bandits masquerading as public officials come into sharp relief when it is considered that the late military Head of State, Sani Abacha, alone is believed to have stolen between $4 billion and $6 billion between 1993 and 1998. In February 2005, Switzerland returned $500 million of that loot stashed away in Swiss bank accounts to Nigeria.
Almost two decades after his demise, Nigeria has yet to recover all funds traced to him, as the US, for instance, still harbours more than $550 million and £95,910. Abacha was said to have had 10 accounts and six investment portfolios in Britain, France, British Virgin Island, the US and Switzerland. “This is the largest civil forfeiture action to recover the proceeds of foreign official corruption ever brought by the (State) department,” said Mythili Raman, the then Acting Assistant Attorney-General of the US.
On the whole, Switzerland has repatriated $700 million of Abacha’s loot, while other countries are exploiting legal technicalities to continue to keep custody of the money. Switzerland’s Ambassador to Nigeria, Hans-Rudolf Hodel, said in 2013 that his country had, in 15 years, returned $1.7 billion of stolen funds to their countries of origin.
As Abacha embezzled billions, while millions lived in abject poverty, so did Mobutu Sese Seko in Congo Democratic Republic (Zaire), Idi Amin in Uganda and many others. The AU/Mbeki report, apart from Nigeria, also listed Egypt, South Africa and Morocco among the top 10 countries in Africa with the worst cases of officials raiding public treasuries.
However, for us in Nigeria, what is more troubling is the fact that our public space has created more Abachas since 1999. This is evident in the GFI report of illicit outflows and Buhari’s findings in the US in July during a state visit that one minister in the last administration siphoned $6 billion.
Buhari, who claimed that about $150 billion was stolen in the last 10 years, said, “The fraud has been growing for a number of years; a lot of Nigerians cannot comprehend it… We are going very soon to make sure that those who perpetrated this crime against Nigerians will be faced with facts and be taken to our courts.”
While the President charges Western nations to stop their double standards, his administration should do more to block the leakages through which such funds are siphoned out of the country. Without doubt, banks in the country aid this criminality, despite the fact that their operations are trammelled by the Anti-Money Laundering Act.
The law, which came into force in 2003, and amended in 2011, provides that banks should trigger the alarm bell, stating that a “transfer to or from a foreign country of funds or securities of a sum exceeding $10,000 or its equivalent, shall be reported to the Central Bank of Nigeria.” Therefore, the President needs to put some chief executive officers of banks, regulatory agencies, and the anti-graft agencies on the spot, over the unremitting negation of this law.
Freezing those illicit offshore accounts and repatriating the funds home require hard legal and diplomatic efforts. Buhari’s personal integrity, which seems to be the only oasis in our vast political space, for which the West now warms up to Nigeria, will not be enough to crush this monster.
Consequently, Nigeria should take deliberate steps to create the enabling local environment that will compel the Western nations to cooperate with us, by overhauling all our anti-corruption agencies; ensuring that every looter is made to face the law, no matter how highly placed; being serious in the enforcement of our criminal laws; and giving account of how recovered loot in the past was utilised.
With the “Treaty on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters,” which Nigeria has with Britain, the US and others, we need to maximally exploit this diplomatic tool to teach treasury looters that there is no hiding place anymore for them and their ill-gotten wealth.