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.
In the first part of this blog we analyzed how Nigerian asset recovery effort is sabotaged by its own politicians and senior public servants. We explained that despite hard-won progress, the volume of domestically and internationally confiscated assets is much below potential, largely due to political interference and conflict of interests. As the recent Pandora papers leaks yet again confirmed, Nigerian politically exposed persons, senior public officials or military leaders are prominent clients of tax heavens with sources of wealth that they are unable to explain. In this context, asset recovery policies and individual cases are very difficult to move forward without falling prey to the murky Nigerian politics.
As described in the first part of this blog, decision makers or the ‘godfathers’ who manage them, make up the political class dominated by extreme wealth and unclear ownership structures. Logically, pursuing asset recovery and anti-corruption policies in this context is very challenging.
However, these complexities should not derail the hard-won achievements on the asset recovery front. On the contrary, there must be no excuse for not repatriating Nigerian assets frozen abroad back to Nigeria. To counter the detrimental politics around asset recovery in Nigeria, international stakeholders, and especially civil society, must get more strategic and better coordinated in navigating the Nigerian political and historical context vis-a-vis individual asset recovery cases and the asset recovery policy as a whole.
Publicity condition and contestability in the Nigerian asset recovery effort
Civil society organisations and media, in and out of Nigeria, supported by the development partners, must push the publicity condition and contestability within the scope of the asset recovery effort. Nigeria has proven, for example, on the case of the much opposed passage of the Freedom of Information Act (2011) that a well-informed, engaged and reasonably free civil society and public is a pre-condition for reacting to state capture and advocating for policy reforms and action. The factor of contestability means that only when facts and evidence are presented to engaged citizens, who consider pushing for change worth it and safe, the political elites feel pressure to act.
Contesting the Nigerian elite towards improved asset recovery policy aims at enforcing legal and policy frameworks that counter the political interference and conflicts of interest that hamper the asset recovery effort and, more broadly, the anti-corruption fight. While generating facts is an important first step, constructive and strategic advocacy needs to be pursued to mobilise the Nigerian public and international stakeholders in the asset recovery effort.
What does this mean in practice? CSOs are perhaps best placed to clearly articulate the political risks along the asset recovery process. Public awareness about the risks underscores the effort to install robust safeguards in the oversight of international and domestic asset recoveries. There needs to be a division of labor amongst diplomats, law enforcement, development partners, media, civil society and other asset recovery stakeholders to press the Government of Nigeria that every recovered Naira and US$ is transparently spent and reported to the benefit of those who suffer the most from corruption. How to prevent money laundering and losing billions of assets abroad must also be addressed in a more action-oriented manner by civil society and others, as the recovery of already stolen assets is too costly, slow and politically and technically challenging.
Bombastic rhetoric and commitments made by government officials must be fact-checked against action backed by verifiable evidence. Excuses such as technical difficulties in the configuration of the ever-dysfunctional public access to the Nigerian asset recovery database or over 10 years (!) of unsuccessful negotiations of the Proceeds of Crime Act that would reign into the asset recovery management chaos must be countered by unbiased and relentless advocacy for tangible actions along the analysis of the root causes of the problems.
Other governance advocacy fields remind us that there is almost no technical fix to a political problem. Asset recovery in Nigeria confirms this hypothesis. The continued clash of interests demonstrated by the Nigerian unresponsive and detached political elite can be countered only by an aggressive pressure from at least some of the other stakeholders involved. Whereby capacity building provided by development partners to the Nigerian law enforcement and, to some extent, the CSOs and other measures targeting the technical aspects of the asset recovery process are certainly important, they are not enough.
How to use asset recovery as a powerful anti-corruption deterrent
In Nigeria and many similar contexts, CSOs are perhaps the only stakeholders able to openly communicate the political risks and costs associated with individual asset recovery cases and the management of asset recovery. The argument must be made that implicitly or explicitly ignoring the broader governance context in the short term may jeopardize the accountability of returned assets and the credibility of the demands for future returns.
Development partners, like-minded diplomatic missions and other international stakeholders must provide the necessary political, technical and, in some cases, financial support to enable domestic and international CSOs to openly contest the root causes of the structural problems in the Nigerian asset recovery effort. A variety of tools such as public outreach, informal information sharing, technical cooperation, sanctions – or the threat of them – etc., must be coordinated amongst the like-minded stakeholders towards a clearly defined policy objective.
Nigeria has proven that asset recovery success is an important signal that fighting corruption is possible, despite endemic political adversity. Politically informed strategy is needed by CSOs and others to help to challenge factors that undermine future asset repatriations and the potential of asset recovery to become a powerful anti-corruption deterrent. Some recent asset recoveries within Nigeria and from abroad seem to confirm that politically informed, CSO-supported advocacy can be successful in terms of recovered assets and their subsequent management. A more systematic application of ‘thinking politically’ in the asset recovery effort may break the political resistance, lead to greater volume of recovered assets and, above all, serve as a more powerful deterrent against corruption.