Today’s guest post is from Dr. Matthew Ayibakuro,director of research and policy at the Africa Network for Environment & Economic Justice (ANEEJ).
On Tuesday, 11 September 2018, Nigeria’s Foreign Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama in a speech delivered at the opening of the 2nd International Conference on Combatting Illicit Financial Flows organized by the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC), called out Switzerland for being an accessory to the looting of the country by the former Head of State, Sani Abacha.
He further decried the difficulties faced by Nigeria in repatriating the infamous Abacha loot from Swiss authorities, referring to the process as “daylight robbery”. For stakeholders working on issues of asset recovery from Nigeria and in foreign jurisdictions, these comments give room for some concern. The potential impact of statements like this in the short and long-term can impede the progress made by the asset recovery regime in Nigeria over the last couple of decades. There are obvious reasons for this.
Irrespective of the issue in question, no good can come from the manner of the expressions used by the country’s top diplomat. One does not have to be a career diplomat to understand the importance of tactful communication in diplomacy. According to Sir Isaac Newton, diplomacy requires the “ability to assert your ideas and opinions, knowing what to say and how to say it without damaging the relationship by causing offence”.
The way the Minister of Foreign Affairs expressed himself couldn’t be farther from these fundamentals and could easily alienate a country that has been a partner and proved instrumental in achieving the most repatriations of stolen wealth to Nigeria since 1999. The cooperation between both countries was demonstrated with the signing of an MoU and subsequent repatriation of the recent tranche of $322.5 million of Abacha loot within the last nine months. This brings the total amount of Abacha loot returned to Nigeria by or through the Swiss Government to over $1billion. The Swiss Ambassador to Nigeria also recently hosted a Forum in June 2018 for officials of Switzerland, Nigeria and other donor organizations and stakeholders to dialogue on ensuring transparency and accountability in asset recovery and utilization in the country.
For civil society organizations like the Africa Network for Environment and Economic Justice (ANEEJ) that have been involved throughout these processes, the continued cooperation between Nigeria and countries like Switzerland is essential to build on the progress made so far by the country in recovering looted assets to finance development efforts.
Admittedly, there is a point to be made about the role of Switzerland’s financial secrecy regime in encouraging money laundering. This an issue that has been reiterated by most countries and actors globally as the country struggles to introduce reforms. Moreover, the frustrations expressed by the Foreign Minister with regard to the difficulties faced by countries in the global South in the repatriation of looted assets is evident in the huge gap that exists between funds stolen away from such countries and those returned successfully.
A 2014 report by the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative (STAR) found that between 2010 and 2012 for instance, only $147 million was returned to countries in the global south by OECD countries, representing a fraction of the $20-40 billion estimated to be stolen from these countries annually. There are therefore broader issues that need to be addressed to ensure that asset recovery processes, especially between countries in the global north and global south, are made easier and more effective. This has to go beyond political expressions and requires a considered and strategic approach.
Furthermore, the words of the Foreign Ministry echoed the sort of rhetoric used by countries in the Global South in the 1960s and 1970s when there was a push for Import Substitution Industrialization and a New International Economic Order. Whilst these movements ultimately proved unsuccessful for a wide variety of reasons that cannot be covered here, most countries using such rhetoric did so in collaboration with many other countries. They also had experience and confidence in their ability to thrive within such Order. We live in a very different reality today where globalization and neoliberal predominance mean that countries require interdependence and cooperation to thrive.
By all considerations, the rhetoric used here detracts from the tact and diplomacy required to leverage the gains made by the country in the area of asset recovery. Whilst much still needs to be done, this escalating situation is immensely counterintuitive. It has the potential to jeopardize the efforts of dedicated professionals on both sides and those in civil society and the private sector who have worked hard to get us to where we are now.
There are indeed significant indications of the progress made by the country in recent times. For instance, civil society organizations like ANEEJ were included in the processes leading up to the signing of the MoU between Switzerland and Nigeria for the repatriation of the recent tranche of Abacha loot. The MoU which was finally signed during the Global Forum on Asset Recovery (GFAR) in December 2017 in Washington D.C contains a clause clearly recognizing the role of civil society in monitoring the use of recovered assets. On the strength of this, civil society in the country is now actively engaging government and other stakeholders to ensure transparency and accountability in the use of the returned funds.
Hence, rather than engaging in confrontation and mixed messaging, the long-term interests of the country right now will be best served by leveraging these gains through a focus on strengthening the internal regime for asset recovery. The passing of the Proceeds of Crime Bill is particularly essential in this regard to establish the requisite institutional framework and introduce vital reforms. Furthermore, more action is needed to plug all loopholes to prevent the looting of the nation’s resources in the first place, as a permanent panacea. There is also a need to demonstrate transparent and accountable utilization of recovered assets to allay concerns about re-looting of such assets and the impact of this on recovery efforts.
This will eliminate the need to call out external actors in the long run. And if a point must be made, our diplomats and officials must keep to the rudimentary principle of “making a point without making an enemy”. Successful diplomacy for asset recovery demands it.