The Murky Business of Asset Recovery for Hire

Premium Times and Finance Uncovered offered yesterday a glimpse of the lucrative business of asset recovery for hire.  A story posted on the websites of both the Nigerian paper and the London NGO (here and here) reports that the Nigerian government has hired Johnson & Johnson, a small Lagos-based law firm, to recover as much as several hundred of millions of dollars stolen from it through corrupt oil deals.  In return the firm will be paid five percent of whatever is recovered.  Johnson & Johnson, which apparently “won” the contract through an unsolicited proposal, has partnered with an investor who will pick up the firm’s cost to recover the money in return for a 300 percent return on its investment.

The Johnson & Johnson deal is not the first time the Nigerian government has turned to a private firm to recover stolen assets.  To recoup what General Sani Abacha stole while head of state in the nineteen nineties, it hired Geneva lawyer Enrico Monfrini. His take of the recovery was only four percent, not Johnson & Johnson’s five, but he still came out rather well.  For the 3,000 hours per year he told Swiss journalist Sylvain Besson he and his colleagues put in to recover $600 million of Abacha funds, which works out to roughly one lawyer working full-time and one-half time each year, his firm was paid $24 million (4% x $600 million).

Ever since UNCAC put the recovery of stolen assets on the international agenda, private contractors have been lining up to help developing country governments recover assets.  While there have been some successes, they have, as the Abacha case shows, come at a very high price.  Are they worth what the governments are being charged?  Are there better, cheaper alternatives? Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Will Hosting the UNCAC Meeting Prompt the UAE to Comply with the Convention?

The largest, most important anticorruption conference of the year is underway this week in the United Arab Emirates. Formally known as the eighth session of the Conference of States Parties to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, the 186 nations that have ratified UNCAC are convening to examine how they can strengthen the fight against corruption.  They have not said why they chose to meet in the UAE, a collection of seven tiny, wealthy monarchies.  Perhaps it is because the Emirates’ location on the eastern end of the Arabian Peninsula makes it an easy place to reach from anywhere on the globe. Or perhaps it is because of its top-notch conference facilities and first-rate restaurants and hotels.

Or perhaps something more subtle is at work.

It’s no secret that the UAE and the governments of its seven federated emirates, especially Abu Dhabi and Dubai, have repeatedly flouted their UNCAC obligations.  In researching The Despot’s Guide to Wealth Management, author Jason Sharman was told by staff from the World Bank/UNODC Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative, the IMF, and the governments of Switzerland and the United States that “the UAE and particularly Dubai . . . were the leading haven for international corruption funds,” a conclusion Susan Hawley confirmed on this blog, writing that an “increasing numbers of corrupt money trails lead” to the UAE. Mozambique’s Prosecutor General reports that the UAE has stonewalled her request for help in prosecuting the accused in the “hidden debt” scandal, and evidence presented in the recently concluded U.S. trial of one of the accused revealed numerous violations of its anticorruption laws that the UAE has ignored.

Perhaps the other 185 parties to UNCAC hope that holding the meeting in the UAE will persuade its government to finally meet the nation’s obligations as an UNCAC party. Five indicators of whether their stratagem is succeeding: Continue reading

Fighting Police Corruption in Nigeria: An Agenda for Comprehensive Reform

Nigeria has a serious problem with police corruption, at all levels. At the top, senior police officials embezzle staggering sums of public funds. To take just one example, in 2012, the former Inspector General of Police, Sunday Ehindero, faced trial for embezzling 16 million Naira (approximately US$44,422). Meanwhile, at the lower levels, rank-and-file police officers regularly extort money from the public, and crime victims must pay bribes before the police will handle their cases. As a 102-page report by Human Rights Watch documented, police extortion is so institutionalized that Nigerians are more likely to encounter police demanding bribes than enforcing the law. No wonder Nigeria’s police force was ranked as the worst of those included in the 2016 World Internal Security and Police Index, and that Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer survey found that a staggering 69% of Nigerian citizens think that most or all police officers are corrupt.

To combat such a deep-rooted and systemic problem, bold and comprehensive reforms are needed. What would an effective reform agenda look like? Here is an outline of the most important reforms that are needed, drawing on international best practices but also tailored to Nigeria’s particular circumstances: Continue reading

New Podcast Episode, Featuring Cristina Bicchieri

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this episode, Nils Köbis interviews University of Pennsylvania Professor Cristina Bicchieri about her interdisciplinary work on corruption and anticorruption, which addresses a range of questions including why corruption can be so “sticky,” the role of social norms in shaping corrupt or non-corrupt behavior, how and why perceptions and attitudes toward corruption may differ between men and women, and what the implications of social norm theory are for effective anticorruption strategy.

You can find this episode, along with links to previous podcast episodes, at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

Leveraging Blockchain to Combat Procurement Corruption

Procurement corruption–including things like bid rigging, shadow vendors, and the steering of public contracts to politically connected firms—is an enormous worldwide problem, costing taxpayers up to $2 trillion annually. New technologies, though certainly no panacea, may offer new techniques for combating this sort of corruption. One such technology is blockchain.

Blockchain, most famous as the foundational technology for cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, is a “distributed ledger technology” (DLT)—a tamper-proof record of activities that are time-stamped and verified by a distributed network of computers. DLT creates a trail of information which allows for the full traceability of every transaction and stores a chronological list of transactions in an encrypted ledger. Transactions are bundled into a secure and identifiable block and then added to a corresponding chain. The blockchain is maintained and verified by the distributed crowd, eliminating the need for hierarchy and any centralized authority or middleman. And while blockchain is best known for its role in making cryptocurrencies feasible, it also has a range of other applications, including anticorruption applications. For example, Tanzania has utilized the technology to weed out “ghost workers” from the public sector, ending the monthly outflow of 430 billion Tanzanian shillings (approximately US$195.4 million) in salaries to fake employees who exist only on paper. Nigeria’s customs service has also used blockchain technology to store information on financial transactions and share these transactions across multiple computer networks.

Blockchain technology could also be used to combat common forms of procurement corruption, particularly those that involve after-the-fact tampering with submitted bids and supporting documentation. Such a system would work as follows: Continue reading

The Case for Engaging Religious Leaders in Anticorruption Efforts

The Kenyan Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) recently launched a somewhat unconventional initiative: an anticorruption Bible study guide. The EACC collaborated with the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya and the Fellowship of Christian Unions to first publish the guide in 2008, but in September it launched the guide’s use in a formal event with the Inter-Religious Sector. Though the EACC has worked with religious leaders from across traditions in the past, this guide is limited to the Christian faith. (Roughly 85% of Kenyans identify as Christian.) Intended for use in small group studies, the guide has 12 lessons divided into three sections: understanding corruption, developing values, and responding to corruption. Each lesson contains an introduction, discussion questions rooted in Scripture, a memory verse, and a final point of reflection. The EACC Twitter account declared that the study guide “is intended to help Kenyans interact with the Bible and discover God’s position on corruption and his direction on living a corruption free life.” And as the guide’s forward explains, “we believe that this fight will benefit from a much greater impetus if we use places of worship as the vanguard platform of advocacy against corruption in Kenya.”

Many in Kenya are not so sure. The decision to invoke God in the fight against corruption was met with skepticism and outright derision on Twitter and local media. (See here, here, and here.) Critics argued that the anticorruption Bible study guide would be ineffective (and therefore was a waste of resources), and also that anticorruption advocacy should be grounded in general morality, not religion. And it is hard to ignore the hypocrisy of religious groups and leaders speaking out against corruption given their imperfect records. (See here, here, and here). Furthermore, the collaboration between a government agency and religious leaders in producing this guide raises concerns both about the separation between church and state and about whether scarce government resources are best spent recruiting religious organizations into the anticorruption fight.

These criticisms are overblown. Working with religious stakeholders—and framing ethical arguments in religious terms—is a powerful and legitimate tool in the anticorruption movement’s arsenal, and activists should not shy away from using it. Religious leaders and organizations make particularly effective partners in anticorruption efforts for several reasons: Continue reading

2018: Five Great Reads on Corruption

 

Twenty eighteen produced many fine analyses of corruption and how to fight it. The five books pictured above, four by journalists and one by a former Nigerian Finance Minister, are among the best.  Combing in-depth reporting with thoughtful analyses, all merit a place on corruption fighters’ book shelf. Continue reading

Guest Post: The Importance of Integrating Anticorruption into Military Capacity-Building Programs

Today’s guest post is from Associate Professor Åse Gilje Østensen of the Royal Norwegian Naval Academy, and Sheelagh Brady, Senior Analyst at SAR Consultancy:

In developing countries faced with security challenges—such as armed conflict, insurgencies, or widespread violence—foreign donors often offer capacity-building programs to strengthen local security institutions. However, many of these capacity-building programs do not consider corruption or incorporate anticorruption measures within their design. And when donors do consider corruption in military capacity-building programs, they typically focus narrowly, and short-sightedly, on safeguarding program funding, with little apparent concern beyond that. The view seems to be that one can build military or police capacity first, and then (perhaps) deal with corruption later, or even leave anticorruption efforts entirely to organizations and agencies dedicated to this purpose.

This approach is likely mistaken. As documented in a recent case study from the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, Capacity Building for the Nigerian Navy: Eyes Wide Shut on Corruption?, capacity-building efforts in weak states with pervasive corruption can stimulate corrupt or even criminal activity, which may result in more of the insecurity that these efforts are supposed to reduce. As the U4 report notes, “capacity building can strengthen the abilities of corrupt actors to devise corrupt schemes, as the skills and equipment provided may be used to ‘professionalise’ corrupt practices.” Donors and policymakers therefore need to see corruption as a critical concern at the top level of foreign and security policy across countries, and make anticorruption a key component of the design, implementation, and follow-up of military and police training.

In contrast to more ambitious and comprehensive security sector reform programs, capacity building programs seek to achieve modest improvements in capabilities, usually by providing training, mentoring, and/or equipment. Yet while modesty in terms of goals may be useful, donors may be tempted to think that the limited scope of capacity-building interventions implies limited risk. Yet a host of problems can arise when anticorruption measures are not incorporated into capacity building. Most obviously, when adding particular skill sets or strengthening the operational capacity of corrupt security institutions, security personnel may improve their ability to divert resources from their intended purposes. Worse still, building selected capacity without addressing corruption could mean bolstering the segments of the security apparatus involved in facilitating or carrying out criminal activity. It is hard to know just how big of a problem this is, but there are indications that capacity building very often is provided to corrupt security sectors. For example, several studies have found the Nigerian Navy to be heavily involved in facilitating illegal bunkering, oil theft at sea, and piracy in the Gulf of Guinea (see here, here, here, and here). At the same time, the Navy is a partner to two capacity building programs sponsored by the U.S. military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM): the Africa Maritime Law Enforcement Partnership (AMLEP) and the Africa Partnership Station (APS). Neither of these programs implements measures to prevent corrupt actors in the Navy from using their newfound skills and better technology to fuel insecurity and crime. More generally, according to the Security Assistance Monitor, in 2016 alone the United States provided over $8 billion in arms and training to 50 of the 63 countries that Transparency International (TI) has rated as a having a high or critical risk of corruption in their defense sectors.

How can anticorruption efforts be made part of capacity-building programs? The first step is to recognize that corruption can undermine the results of security assistance programs, and to avoid compartmentalizing “security” and “corruption” as two unrelated issues. After recognizing this fundamental point, one can design and implement sensible anticorruption measures, tailored to the particular circumstances, in particular the informal power distributions and incentive structures that determine who gains from corruption and how. And before implementing capacity building programs in the first place, donors should carefully consider whether those programs will translate into institutional improvements or will instead create “capital” that may be attractive to corrupt actors, subversive forces, or disloyal individuals.

Guest Post: An International Anticorruption Court Is Not a Utopian Dream or a Distraction

Today’s guest post is from Richard Goldstone, a former Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa who also served as the first chief prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and Robert Rotberg, the President Emeritus of the World Peace Foundation and former professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

In a 2018 Daedalus article, Senior United States District Judge Mark L. Wolf explained that “The World Needs an International Anticorruption Court (IACC)” and charted a course for its creation. In a recent post on this blog, Professor Alex Whiting characterized the IACC as a “utopian” dream and possibly “a distraction from more effective responses to the worldwide scourge of grand corruption.” Notably absent from the post is a description of what the other effective responses to combating grand corruption might be.

In contrast to Professor Whiting, we found Judge Wolf’s original proposal for an IACC compelling. Therefore, we joined him in establishing Integrity Initiatives International (III). Continue reading