The Swiss government agreed in early March to return $321 million to the Nigerian government that was stolen by the late Sanni Abacha during his kleptocratic reign as the country’s president. The agreement provides that the funds will be used for programs to benefit the Nigerian people in “an efficient and accountable way” and, to ensure the funds do indeed go to such programs, the World Bank will monitor their use.
World Bank oversight is one way to ensure returned assets are not again stolen, and in the case of Nigeria — a relatively open society with an elected government, a lively, unconstrained media, and a vibrant civil society – World Bank monitoring, when coupled with these conditions, may be sufficient to guarantee the funds are put to good use. But what about in closed societies? Those without elections, free media, an independent civil society. Countries where the same tight-knit, authoritarian group which stole the assets in the first place remains in power? Is there any way to ensure stolen assets returned to these countries will be used to benefit the nation’s citizens rather than going straight back into the pockets of the thieves?
That was the question explored at a March 10 conference sponsored by the Open Society Foundations, and while speakers suggested a number of mechanisms, principally variations on the Kazakhstan model — distribution through a non-profit foundation independent of government and managed by an international NGO – it was clear that no method is foolproof. Where a government controls all the levers of power and quashes all dissent, there is always the risk that it will frustrate outsiders’ efforts to see returned funds go to citizens. The issue then is how much risk a government holding stolen assets is willing to bear to return them. Clearly there are some countries, North Korea was the example conference attendees cited, where the risk the assets will again be stolen is 100 percent and return thus makes no sense.
But what about those countries where the risk is less? What if there were a 75 percent chance the money would be used well? A 50 percent chance? A 25 percent chance? Where should a government considering the return of stolen assets draw the line? At what point should it decide it best to keep the money?
That was the question was put to those attending the Open Society Foundations conference. Participants were a mix of civil society representatives, many from international human rights groups, a handful of personnel from different governments, and the diaspora of highly corrupt countries. The latter were from countries where, thanks to the work of the Department of Justice’s Kleptocracy Unit, the U.S. government may soon have to decide whether to return stolen assets to their governments and risk they will again be stolen or keep them.
About 60 percent of attendees would repatriate funds if the chance they would go to benefit citizens was 75 percent. Some 40 percent would return them if the chance was 50 percent, and less than 10 percent said the funds should be returned if the chance they would benefit citizens was 25 percent. Interestingly, those who were most reluctant to see the money returned, even where the chances were three in four the money would be used to benefit citizens, were from countries where the U.S. government may soon have to decide whether to keep or return funds. The view from the diaspora was that the harm that would result from the money again being stolen would be so great that it best to avoid any significant risk of misuse.
What about you readers? What do you think? And why?