- Exposing Nigerian Looters’ Assets in The UK
Many countries across the world are safe havens for corrupt Nigerian public officials and white-collar crooks. The United Kingdom, arguably the leading culprit, has taken a bold initiative to redeem itself. When the plan is consummated through a pending legislative mechanism, bank accounts, properties and other assets that fail the legitimacy test will be confiscated and exposed. The drive, which will assist Nigeria in its anti-corruption battle, surely is a game-changer. Nations need to work together on mutual legal assistance and extradition in corruption cases to recover looted funds and bring fugitives to justice.
There’s much reason to cheer the initiative. The Executive Secretary of the Presidential Advisory Committee against Corruption, Bolaji Owasanoye, who hinted of this recently in New York, the United States, said the new offensive will be launched using the UK’s “Unexplained Wealth Order Bill.’’ The Finance Minister, Kemi Adeosun, confirmed the deal that is expected to come into effect in 2018. “There is going to be much better cooperation from the international community. The British government under the beneficiary ownership register, which was signed with David Cameron before he left, is going to give us the list of everyone (Nigerians) that owns property in the United Kingdom.” The loophole in the UK’s law, which prohibits the seizure of questionable properties unless their owners have first been convicted in their countries of origin, will eventually be closed.
Undoubtedly, the move is a logical corollary to the UK’s resolve to push for a global consensus against the corruption epidemic, for which it hosted a summit last December. The UK Labour Party Shadow Secretary for International Development, Diane Abbott, had last year accused the government of not taking real measures “to close Britain’s constellation of tax havens, which constitute the largest financial secrecy network in the world.” All true, of course. It is estimated that about $60 billion illicit money goes out of Africa annually. After the summit, the UK government emphasised that there would be nowhere for looters to hide; and those involved would be pursued and punished. “By sending a clear message to the corrupt, there will be no impunity; we will restrict their ability to operate in our countries,” read the message.
Though we are not deceived by such syrupy diplomatese, the UK government has clearly shown that some Western countries bear the moral burden of Africa’s underdevelopment. Britain as one of the global capitals of ill-gotten wealth, indeed, gives itself out as the place that harbours much of the $150 billion, which President Muhammadu Buhari said was siphoned from Nigeria in the 10 years to 2015. Besides the cash in secret bank accounts, funds have been heavily invested in the UK’s lucrative mortgage sector. A study by an African Union panel headed by Thabo Mbeki in 2014 affirmed that out of $60 billion of illicit capital flight out of the continent annually, $40 billion came from Nigeria. The claim is further strengthened by Global Financial Integrity, a US-based group, finding that $182 billion was stolen from Nigeria between 2000 and 2009. Indeed, corruption stifled the real sector and smaller businesses and blocked foreign investment outside the oil and gas sector.
Nigeria should do more than just wait for the UK to tidy up its environment to our advantage. The Mutual Legal Assistance agreement entered into by the two nations, a protocol it also shares with Switzerland and, recently, the United Arab Emirates, among others, is a veritable weapon that could be used to get our stolen funds returned and rein in the looters. Switzerland has done more than other countries in Europe on funds recovery with the $722 million of Sani Abacha loot it returned in 2005 and a promise to surrender the balance of $321 million. The sanitisation of its legal environment is no less critical.The country’s erstwhile Ambassador to Nigeria, Hans Rudolf Hodel, once said, “…But now, before you deposit money in any Swiss bank, you have to prove that you have earned that money legally.”
If the UK gets it right with the proposal for wealth within the threshold of £100,000 to be justified, it would have been a watershed in using international efforts to tame the urge to siphon public funds from Nigeria to offshore accounts.
An Investment Property Forum research 2016 put the value of the UK’s commercial property whether occupied or held as an investment at £871 billion, while those held as investment rose to £483 billion. However, reports indicate that Nigerians, who may have been rattled by the UK action, are desperate to sell their questionable properties there to escape the eventual scrutiny and justice. The authorities should forestall this.
Apart from the UK, the US, France, Luxembourg, Panama, Liechtenstein and Island of Jersey are the other safe havens for Nigeria’s corrupt public officials. Some $550 million of the Abacha loot reportedly remains in these countries, while the Federal Government has been negotiating its release.
Strategies in the anti-graft war are changing globally. That is what the UK has demonstrated with the proposed law, which shifts the burden of proof on the accused, rather than the old canon of the accused being presumed innocent until proven guilty. Singapore, once a corruption haven, shunned this Western paradigm in its anti-graft prosecutions, and adopted the “prove your wealth” model. This explains why it is now ranked seventh in the 2016 Transparency International Corruption Perception Index, compared to Nigeria’s dismal 136th. Indonesia too is making progress with this system.
But our anti-graft agencies are not exploring existing foreign assistance enough. There are the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act 1977 and the UK Bribery Act 2010 that both prohibit the bribing of international companies and foreign officials and substantially encourage whistle-blowers to expose any fraudulent activity involving offshore companies. Nigeria has to key into this new grid. Ultimately, the anti-corruption battle can only work with a strong political will to fight it, a robust and total anti-graft framework and a society that abhors corruption.