The stakes are high in the planned distribution of US$322 million in stolen Nigerian public money.
Of the estimated US$20-40 billion stolen annually from developing countries and hidden abroad every year, sometimes a small proportion is successfully confiscated and returned to the country it came from.
In Nigeria, plans are in motion to distribute US$322 million recovered in Switzerland from the late General Sani Abacha, the country’s former military ruler. Abacha is suspected of looting between US$3 and $5 billion in public money.
Where institutions of accountability are not working well, such cases pose a complex problem: how to make sure that the money is not embezzled again, and actually benefits the real victims of corruption – the ordinary people whose state finances were plundered. In 2006, US$723 million illicitly acquired by Abacha’s family was returned to Nigeria from Switzerland. A significant amount of these funds remains unaccounted for.
That past experience led Switzerland to controversially attach conditions to the repatriation of this batch of Abacha loot, including third party oversight – meaning that the World Bank will now monitor the distribution of the funds.
Under the deal, around 300,000 poor families in just over half the 36 states in Nigeria will each receive approximately US$14 per month through the Nigeria National Social Safety Net Program. However, this cash-transfer model has proved controversial, in part because of documented problems with how the safety net programme operates.
According to the African Network for Environment & Economic Justice (ANEEJ), the deal is a “forced choice”; in order for the World Bank to effectively monitor the process, the funds have to be channelled through an existing programme of the Bank of Nigeria, such as the safety net.
At the same time, the deal also explicitly provides for civil society to monitor the use of the returned funds. This is an essential factor for reducing the risk of corruption. The use of electronic transfers will also provide an additional layer of security.
Nonetheless, the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), Transparency International’s chapter in Nigeria, is concerned about a lack of parliamentary and public approval of the distribution scheme.
CISLAC has repeatedly called for a trust fund to be set up to manage the repatriated assets, and other assets seized within Nigeria (repatriated assets from abroad account for only 10 to 15 per cent of all assets seized since 2015).
“We are supporting [the] government in this recovery but with the condition that there must be an establishment of [an] integrity trust fund that would manage this money and assets,” Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, CISLAC’s executive director said in a recent interview. “We want to ensure that we have an institutional framework that would monitor the recovered assets in Nigeria.”
“Currently, Nigeria has no framework for monitoring, managing and utilizing recovered assets and other proceeds of crime,” says Vaclav Prusa, an anti-corruption expert at CISLAC. “This has resulted in a lack of coordination amongst the numerous agencies with the mandate to recover assets. Tied to this lack of coordination is the absence of a central register or database for recovered assets. This has made it impossible to ascertain the amounts of recovered assets and proceeds of crime.”
CISLAC wants to see an institution in Nigeria tasked with the management of all recovered assets, with clear guidelines for use of the money and transparent management of all finances. Crucially, Civil Society Organisations would have a seat on the board of such an institution, so that their role is institutionalised and sustainable. At present, civil society oversight of the Abacha loot distribution is dependent on international development funding. The Nigerian Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI) offers a precedent of such a mixed governmental and non-governmental model.
Efforts to determine the best practice for returning stolen assets are complicated by a lack of empirical evidence to draw from. “Asset recovery has seen limited return compared to the vast amounts stolen, but the stakes are high every time,” said Patricia Moreira, managing director of Transparency International. “A poorly planned solution could not only see recovered assets fail to adequately benefit their rightful owners, it could become a flawed model for future cases.”
In Nigeria, further groundwork is needed in order to establish a framework strong enough to counter other countries’ demands for pre-conditions, and the compromises that go with them.
“Civil society in Nigeria, including our partners at CISLAC, are ready to help the government build a sustainable, long-term solution to the question of stolen asset recovery and distribution,” added Moreira.
Communication Officer, Transparency International (TI)