Assets and properties owned by Nigerians in foreign lands are increasingly coming under the searchlight of the Federal Government. Recently, it claimed that it had discovered that some Nigerians own landed properties in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and suspected that they might be proceeds of crime. The twin objectives of the increased surveillance are ostensibly to recover and repatriate looted public assets stashed and/or invested abroad and to ensure that Nigerian owners of assets in foreign countries that are not traceable to plundering of the public till pay tax on their wealth.
It will be recalled that the country became a party to the Automatic Exchange of Tax Information (AETI) in January 2018 and has reportedly started to receive data and information from some foreign countries that would enable it to track down tax defaulters. And now that the Special Presidential Investigation Panel for the Recovery of Public Property (SPIP) claims to have discovered about 1,500 properties in Dubai owned by yet to be identified Nigerians, the Federal Government is reportedly seeking the cooperation of the International Police (Interpol) to unravel the owners. However, the efficacy of the proposed implementation strategy for the scrutiny of the assets and their owners without breaching citizens’ rights is doubtful.
The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) guarantees the right to own property. It is the supreme bodies of law and the grundnorm and to that extent, no law, no matter how seemingly expedient/ imperative, can be enacted to override it. And that is why the Federal Government’s plan to criminalise property ownership abroad under whatever guise cannot withstand the scrutiny of the law. It is equally wrong and unfair to smart and hardworking Nigerians for the Federal Government to hold the view that Nigerians who own landed properties in Dubai must be criminals even before their identities are unraveled. It smacks of official laziness on the part of the government to be planning to tell a foreign government to hand over a list of its own citizens who own landed properties in that country. Could that be because owning land in Dubai or anywhere is necessarily a product of crime?
Yes, there could be Nigerian property owners abroad who acquired such properties through ill-gotten wealth, especially by pillaging citizens’ collective patrimony. But it is the duty of government to identify them with incontrovertible pieces of evidence before approaching foreign governments for assistance on the recovery of such assets. A situation where the Federal Government does not even know the landowners let alone having information on the sources of funding the acquisition of the properties by the imaginary criminals is ludicrous. This is typical of the usual case of making official pronouncements before investigating, and that is assuming that such an investigation is even warranted in the first place.
The chairman of SPIP, Mr Okoi Obono-Obla, has reportedly admitted that the acquisition of assets in foreign lands is not limited to public officers only as business and private people too are involved in the practice. The government did not say that the lands were acquired with public funds; it said that it did not even know who the landowners were. On that score alone, the chairman of the SPIP and his team have their job cut out for them because it will be pretty difficult to try to impede the flow of private capital and prevent movement of other assets in any lawful society without sure-fire proofs of malfeasance by their owners. And on the tax issue, the propriety or otherwise of coercing Nigerians to pay tax on properties that are outside Nigeria is debatable and if not carefully handled, it promises to engender a plethora of protracted litigation. After all, the conception of tax is that social amenities would be funded by collective wealth.
Whichever way it is viewed, it amounts to a fallacy to assume that Nigerians who have properties in foreign lands are criminals. Government should pursue the recovery of looted assets domiciled in foreign countries with a strategy that relies on intelligence that is capable of sifting the wheat from the chaff. The categorisation of Nigerians who own assets offshore as criminals infringes on the rights of those concerned and the damage to the image of Nigeria from such labelling is incalculable, as even the few foreign nationals who are not totally swayed by the negative classification will tend to be overcautious while dealing with Nigerian businessmen and women.
To stem the tide of looted resources being taken abroad, existing anti-graft agencies should be strengthened and refocused to pay as much attention, if not more, to preventing corruption in the system as they are currently devoting to the recovery of plundered resources. Prevention is better than cure. And regarding legitimate private resources being moved from Nigeria abroad, potentially productive assets will naturally move to safe havens where good returns are guaranteed. There is nothing anyone can do about that other than ensuring that the condition in the domestic economy is conducive enough to ensure safety of, and good yield on, investments. Honestly, save for dramatic effect, it is unclear what the SPIP intended to achieve by going public on the discovery of 1,500 properties in Dubai allegedly owned by Nigerians when it has yet to zero in on the owners or establish that the assets were acquired with the proceeds of crime.
The propaganda and media trial strategy that some anti-graft agencies in the country are wont to adopt may suit their objectives, but it is certainly not a substitute for painstaking inquiry into crimes and diligent prosecution of corruption cases.