OPINION: RESOLVING ISSUES OF STOLEN ASSET RECOVERY

This year when the inaugural global forum for asset recovery will take place in Washington DC, in December the attention of the world will focus on four countries – Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Ukraine and Tunisia. I am not really sure why the focus will be on those other three other countries but I have a pretty faint idea why Nigeria will be a country of interest. First, on the 27th of September 2017, a Klepto Tour took place in the UK.  Organisers boarded a bus and drove around the city of London, stopping at very choice property belonging to Nigerians allegedly bought via suspicious funds. The tour of September 27, 2017 identified three PEPs as owners of property for which ownership would have taken place via the eye of a needle if they were to be bought by either American, British, Canadian or Australian nationals. But since the owners are Nigerian and pay cash, the UK government and other Western governments prefer to look the other way, keep the cash, collect taxes on the property, assume a sanctimonious toga, smirk and get one of theirs to proclaim that Nigeria and Nigerians are fantastically corrupt.

According to Wikipedia, the idea of the Klepto tour was founded by anti-corruption campaigners in London in 2016 initially to focus on property owned by Ukrainian, Russian and Kazakh oligarchs. But that apart, the underlying reason for a Klepto tour goes beyond just hopping on a sight-seeing bus in the city of London to see the nice buildings. As a Klepto bus gets to a property it stops there, highlights ownership of that property, and then focusses on the ‘local economic distortions caused by these capital inflows and the implicit corruption implied by facilitating this money laundering by foreign Kleptocrats. All that this lovely grammar simply suggests is that most of our people use certain illegal methods to line their pockets with public money, and either send the monies to offshore destinations to avoid detection or use the monies to legitimize their stolen wealth in property or use it to finance terror. Most of the time the property is outside Nigeria, and the country where it is domiciled collects a hefty ground rent on those properties. The property domiciled here are mostly estates in big cities like Abuja which an ordinary person cannot afford. The sorry side of this story is that while property owned by Nigerians abroad have a record of ownership and can be taxed, most of those in Nigeria are not in any form of register and therefore government loses billions from unpaid taxes on those property.

Just about a year and some months today, the world woke up to this reality in the form of the Panama Papers Leak. There were over 11.5million leaked documents of individuals operating offshore tax havens, with a list of the names of prominent Nigerians in and out of government. But while politically exposed persons in other climes were being prosecuted and some resigning their public offices because they were fingered as having offshore identities, those fingered in Nigeria seemed to enjoy the sensation of being fingered as owner of an offshore account. But I wondered no more why Nigerians were not fidgeting about being fingered after I heard President Obama say that the only thing wrong with having an offshore account is that it is legal.

But part of why recovery of assets stolen from Nigeria and stashed in offshore accounts remain difficult to repatriate is the question of the tacit unwillingness of the West to repatriate those assets unconditionally. Consider key findings of a Transparency International Report titled Doors Wide Open, corruption and Real Estate in Four Key Markets – the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. The Report said inter alia that in these countries, the following factors represent an ingrained part of the political economy: inadequate coverage of anti-money laundering provisions and as a matter of fact, and the fact that nobody really wants to identify beneficial ownership of property in these countries.  In addition to the above, anyone from either Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Russia, the Ukraine and Tunisia with tons of cash to throw around can easily deal directly with the real estate market in Canada, UK, US and Australia. Even though some financial institutions sometimes conduct due diligence, a suspicious transaction can be conveniently overlooked if it involves nations from the above countries – Nigeria, Tunisia, Ukraine and Sri Lanka.

The report cited above makes certain recommendations. One, it wants all gatekeepers to identify and keep records of the beneficial ownership and legal owners in real estate transactions, the prohibition of certain professionals like accountants and lawyers from real estate transactions and etcetera. These are very sensible recommendations. However, I do not see any foreign financial institution turning away a politically exposed person with billions of dollars simply because the one country doesn’t have the mechanism and institution to prevent these monies from being taken out.

In one of my favourite books, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations – why some are so rich and some so poor (1998), David Landes says that at present, (as at 1998), 22 of the 25 poorest countries of the world are in Africa, with 54% of African living below the poverty line. Landes says that Africa is the only region where poverty is expected to increase into the millennium. But in spite of this all of Donal Trump’s friends are flocking into Africa to become very, very rich. Doesn’t this tell us something of the need for us to put our act very together?

So what Nigeria must do at that meeting in Washington DC in December is to categorically take the same stand which President Buhari took recently when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly about a month ago. According to Mr. President, the only way to strengthen the asset recovery drive, promote accountability, and combat corruption is through the support of those nations which eagerly receive stolen assets and willy-nilly promote money-laundry.  If the UK, Australia Canada, Germany and the United States stop accepting stolen wealth from Nigeria and Africa, one critical area of the fight against corruption in the world would have been addressed.

Written by Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku is ANEEJ Communications manager.

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