World Bank Monitoring of Repatriated Assets Should Be Part of Major Settlements

The issue of repatriating the proceeds of corruption to the countries from which they were stolen has attracted substantial commentary, including in multiple posts on this blog (see here, here, here, here and here). Much of the discussion focuses on whether and how to return funds to countries that still suffer from systemic corruption or outright kleptocracy. In these cases, the risk that the assets, if simply returned, will be stolen again is, in the view of some critics, unacceptably high. In some cases, despite these risks, the government that seized the assets nevertheless repatriates the seized funds directly to the government from which they were originally stolen; the US Department of Justice (DOJ) has done this in several cases, including asset returns to Peru, Italy, and Nicaragua. In other cases, by contrast, the seized funds have been funneled to a local NGO rather than to the government. This was done in the agreement among the United States, Switzerland, and Kazakhstan regarding the transfer of corruption proceeds to Kazakhstan (an agreement which created a new NGO called the BOTA Foundation). This mechanism was also included in the DOJ’s settlement with Equatorial Guinea over the disposition of assets stolen by the President’s son, Teodorin Obiang. Another approach, which we saw in this past February’s trilateral agreement among the United States, Jersey, and Nigeria regarding the return of $308 million in assets stolen by former Nigerian dictator General Sani Abacha (which I discussed at greater length in a previous post), entails the earmarking of the repatriated funds for specific infrastructure projects, coupled with oversight by a yet-to-be-determined independent auditor and yet-to-be-determined independent civil society organizations (CSOs), with both the auditor and the CSOs selected by Nigeria, but subject to a veto by the United States and Jersey.

The inclusion of these various conditions is understandable. Notwithstanding the sovereignty-based objections advanced by the so-called “victim countries”—which often assert that they have an absolute right to the unconditional return of assets stolen from their national treasuries—returning huge sums to corrupt or weak governments without any safeguards would be irresponsible. Nevertheless, there are many pitfalls involved with leaving oversight largely to the victim country government and local CSOs, and the ability of countries like the United States to monitor compliance with the terms of repatriation agreements in foreign countries is limited. The best way to address these concerns is to involve an international institution—such as the World Bank, or possibly one of the regional multilateral development banks—in monitoring the terms of repatriation agreements.

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The Trilateral Nigeria-US-Jersey Agreement to Return Nigerian Dictator Abacha’s Assets: A Preliminary Assessment

This past February, the United States signed a trilateral agreement with Nigeria and the British dependency of Jersey to repatriate to Nigeria $308 million in funds that the late General Sani Abacha had stolen from the Nigerian government during his time as Head of State from 1993-1998. This enormous sum was a mere fraction of the estimated $2-5 billion that Abacha had laundered through the global banking system. Back in 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a civil forfeiture complaint against more than $625 million that could be traced as proceeds from Abacha’s corruption. Shortly afterwards, in 2014, a U.S. federal court entered a forfeiture judgment against over $500 million of these assets, including the $308 million held in Jersey bank accounts. Appeals of the forfeiture judgment in the United States were finally exhausted in 2018, at which point the United States, Jersey, and Nigeria entered into negotiations to repatriate the recovered assets. The February 2020 trilateral agreement represents the culmination of those negotiations.

Back in 2014, when DOJ first froze Abacha’s assets, Raj Banerjee asked on this blog an important question, one that has come up in several other asset recovery cases too: Who will get Abacha’s assets? Would the United States simply give the money back to the Nigerian government? Or would the United States, out of concerns that the repatriated assets would be stolen again, insist on attaching conditions to the returned funds, or even create or empower a non-governmental nonprofit entity to allocate the funds (as the United States has done in some other cases)? Now, six years later, we finally have an answer. Under the terms of the trilateral agreement, the repatriated funds will be used to help finance three infrastructure projects that had already been approved by the Nigerian legislature and President Muhammadu Buhari: the construction of the Second Niger Bridge, the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, and the Abuja-Kano road. These projects aim to better connect people and supply chains in Nigeria’s impoverished Eastern and Northern regions to the developed Western region. Additionally, the agreement declares that the Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority (NSIA) will oversee the funds, that a yet-to-be-determined independent auditor will conduct a financial review, and that a yet-to-be-determined independent civil society organization with expertise in engineering, among other areas, will have a monitoring role.

There is much to admire about the agreement. Using these assets to fund critical infrastructure projects that Nigeria’s legislative and executive branches had already approved demonstrates a respect for Nigerian sovereignty and democratic institutions, while at the same time directing the money to projects that would tangibly benefit the Nigerian people, particularly in some of the country’s poorest areas—the people who were most victimized by Abacha’s looting of the national treasury. Yet while the governments of the United States, Nigeria, and Jersey all heralded the trilateral agreement has a landmark, some voices, particularly in the United States, have expressed skepticism. Most notably, U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley sent a letter to DOJ questioning whether the returned funds will truly be protected from misuse. Senator Grassley suggested that senior officials in the Buhari Administration, including the Attorney General, could not be trusted to ensure that the Nigerian government would face consequences if it misappropriated the returned funds, and he questioned why DOJ would return the money without “proper safeguards” to prevent misuse a second time. Unsurprisingly, Nigeria took issue with Grassley’s accusations. But his concerns have some merit.

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How to Make the Iraqi Commission of Integrity More Effective in Fighting High-Level Corruption

Last fall, anti-government protests broke out in Iraq. The protests started in Baghdad before spreading to other cities from Najaf to Nassiriya, rocking the country through the beginning of this year. High on the list the protestors’ demands: rooting out pervasive government corruption. The protestors are more than justified in making this demand. Systemic embezzlement, kickbacks, and bribery schemes pollute Iraqi politics and government services, and seemingly little has been done to get the problem under control.

Iraq’s chief anticorruption body is an entity called the Federal Commission of Integrity (CoI), an independent commission originally created in 2004, and recognized under Article 102 of the 2005 Iraqi Constitution as an independent body subject to monitoring by the Iraqi Parliament. CoI is tasked with investigating corruption cases, recovering stolen government assets, proposing anticorruption legislation, and overseeing mandatory financial disclosures for Iraqi government officials. With respect to its investigative functions, CoI has a mixed track record. On the one hand, despite the extraordinarily challenging environment in which it operates, CoI has achieved some successes. For example, last November a CoI investigation led to the arraignment of a Member of Parliament, Ahmed al-Jubouri, on  corruption charges for misappropriating government funds. A month later, in December 2019, a previous CoI investigation into former MP Shadha al-Abousy culminated in her conviction. More generally, official statistics indicate that in 2017, CoI handled 8,537 criminal cases, and of the 1,221 cases completed that year, 753 resulted in convictions—including seven convictions of ministerial-level government officials. The 2018 data reveal 1,218 convictions, including four ministerial-level officials. (Official 2019 statistics are not, to my knowledge, available yet.)

On the other hand, CoI has had difficulty securing the convictions of powerful, influential figures. For example, only days after Ahmed al-Jubouri’s arrest, he was released following the intervention of Iraq’s Parliament Speaker, Mohammed Halbusi. Furthermore, of the high-level convictions CoI has achieved, most have been handed down in absentia, with defendants remaining at large. And CoI has had limited success recovering stolen public funds. Statistics for the first quarter of 2018 reveal that CoI had recovered $131.8 million in stolen funds. In all of 2017, $111.7 million previously lost to corruption made it back into government coffers. That may seem like a lot, but keep in mind that in 2019 alone, CoI estimated that $15.6 billion of Iraqi state funds had been lost to corruption. Since 2003, estimates put total state funds lost to corruption at upwards of $300 billion. So CoI’s recovery efforts have barely made a dent in the amount of money embezzled. Moreover, most of the cases handled by CoI that involved stolen funds have been against relatively low-level government employees.

So, while COI has brought thousands of corruption cases to courts and secured hundreds of low-level convictions, it has been less successful in tackling high-level corruption. But this is no reason to give up on the commission. A few key changes could make CoI a much more effective anticorruption body.

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