This is a guest blog by Vaclav Prusa, independent researcher and asset recovery expert, and Samuel Asimi, programme officer at the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre. For any inquiries, you may contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
To read CiFAR’s blog series about Nigerian asset recovery, see here.
During his recent visit to the United States for the 76th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), the Nigerian Federal Attorney General and the Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, boasted that Nigeria is the only country that has succeeded in having recovered and repatriated so many stolen assets.
To be fair, Nigeria has had some successes in bringing substantial volumes of assets back home. Moreover, in an accelerating trend in recent years, a much larger share of illegal proceeds has been confiscated within the Nigerian jurisdiction. The recently appointed head of the Nigerian Economic Financial Crime Commission (EFCC), Abdulrasheed Bawa, proudly announced to “(…) have recovered over 6 billion Naira, over $161 million, over £13,000, €1,730, CA$ 200, CFA 373,000, ¥8,430 in just 100 days.”
Nigerian anti-corruption agencies have become more innovative and pragmatic in fighting grand corruption. Instead of pursuing often time-consuming and legally complicated corruption charges, the greater use of non-conviction-based asset forfeiture and plea bargains domestically have helped authorities to go after stolen assets instead of seeking corruption convictions. Importantly, asset recovery has become part of positive messaging that challenges Nigerian public resignation in fighting widespread corruption.
Some progress has also been achieved in the oversight of the utilization of the recovered assets, especially those recovered from abroad. Despite the reluctance of the Nigerian authorities, local civil society organisations are now consulted in most international asset recovery cases, before and after the repatriation. A handful of joint initiatives in recent years show that the Government, civil society organisations, media and development partners can work together in preventing the re-looting of looted assets.
However, the Nigerian successes in domestic and international asset recovery must be framed in the context of the ongoing massive looting of public resources. Hundreds of millions US$ in recovered assets are in the Nigerian fiscal reality a drop in the bucket of the massive looting in the oil sector, defence or any other federal and local public sector. A sizable proportion of the loot disappears abroad as part of the around 15-18billion US$ that are lost illegally every year through illicit financial outflows from the country.
Why is Nigerian asset recovery much below its potential?
In short, Nigerian asset recovery is too slow and much below the potential, given the extent to which Nigerian resources have been looted and how much of illegal proceeds is frozen abroad and awaiting repatriation. Despite the legitimate legal and technical challenges in tracing illegal assets and repatriating them responsibly, it is often overlooked that the hurdles in returning assets to the pervasively corrupt Nigerian jurisdiction are in essence as much political as technical.
The Nigerian political culture of near total impunity of the ‘big men’ assures almost total immunity from serious investigations and convictions on corruption charges. The Minister of Justice’s recent claim of seizing assets of ‘former’ officials ignores the fact that most former politicians and senior officials who have, in some cases, clearly embezzled unimaginable sums of public resources, usually remain prominent shapers of the Nigerian political reality, in part thanks to the looted funds that enable them to have continued political influence.
The Nigerian problem with the ‘preclusion of the benefit to offenders’
Principle 9 of the asset recovery GFAR principles urges the ‘preclusion of the benefit to offenders’, meaning in essence that returned assets must not benefit persons involved in the commission of the offences. Although it is true that Nigerian offenders might not have profited from recent returns directly, repatriated assets help to an extent to ‘launder the image’ of the repackaged corrupt elite class that had looted the proceeds in the first place.
For example, the recently returned ‘James Ibori loot’ of £4.2m from the United Kingdom, has become the source of political fight between the Federal Government of Nigeria and the sub-national Delta state. To the astonishment of many inside and outside Nigeria, James Ibori was welcomed as a hero by the people of Delta state from whom he had allegedly stolen over US$150 million between 1999-2007. The political establishment brands Mr. Ibori as an influential leader of the Delta state whose informal power, and seemingly endless financial resources, reach much beyond the borders of his state. Some CSOs and local government officials argue that the assets have to be returned to the Delta state from where it was looted. However, the fact remains that the ex-governor of the Delta state, James Ibori, remains all powerful ‘godfather’ in the Delta state and nothing moves without his approval.
In another case, the most significant returns of recovered assets to Nigeria include those stolen by one of the biggest kleptocrats of all times – General Sani Abacha. Interestingly, his close associate Mr. Abubakar Atiku Bagudu is suspected to have helped to launder billions of $US into the international financial system. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the repatriation of US$480 million stolen by Sani Abacha with the help of Mr Bagudu. As part of this return, the US, the UK and Nigeria have been engaged in a dispute over investment portfolios worth US$155m traced to Abacha and held in trust for Bagudu and his family.
In 2003, Bagudu was arrested in the U.S. at the request of Jersey, where Bagudu had set up a shell company called Doraville Properties allegedly to launder funds stolen from Nigeria. Despite the considerable evidence from legal authorities in the U.S., Jersey, and Switzerland, Bagudu was never questioned after returning to Nigeria. To the contrary, Abubakar Atiku Bagudu is today a powerful and wealthy governor of Kebbi State, belonging to the ruling All Progressive Party (APP), the same party of the Nigerian President and the Minister of Justice, Mr Malami. Nigeria’s Attorney-General, Abubakar Malami, has been busy denying an alleged deal with Bagudu that would help him to obtain a part of the looted funds upon their repatriation to Nigeria.
In addition to individual cases, the continuous sabotaging of the passage of the Proceeds of Crime Act that would help manage recovered assets, the infighting between the Ministry of Justice and the Nigerian anti-corruption agencies about respective asset recovery mandates or the arbitrary accusations of the mismanagement of recovered assets by the Ministry of Justice undermine the effort of the sections of the international community and domestic civil society that advocate for more assets to be returned. Due to the politics of impunity and using asset recovery as a weapon of choice against the opponents of the day, Nigeria struggles to maintain the higher moral ground when rightfully demanding stolen billions from financial centers around the world.
How Nigerian efforts to recover stolen assets could be improved will be discussed in a follow up blog.