The Federal Government has started tracing looted Nigerian funds to foreign nations with the aim of recovering and repatriating them.
The Federal Government specifically targets the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Switzerland and other European jurisdictions where it believes corrupt officials have been stashing public funds.
This move came on the heels of the declaration by President Muhammadu Buhari on his first day in Aso Villa office that he inherited an almost empty treasury from his predecessor, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, thus vowing that his administration would recover all the looted funds stashed in foreign banks by corrupt Nigerians.
“The next three months may be hard, but billions of dollars can be recovered, and we will do our best,” the President was quoted as saying in a statement signed by his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Mr. Femi Adesina.
Some of the countries where looted funds from Nigeria have been kept in the past include Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States. Others are France, Germany, British Virgin Islands and other tax havens spread across the globe.
Adesina, who confirmed the move in an exclusive interview with Saturday PUNCH on Thursday, said, the search for the looted funds will not be limited to these countries but anywhere in the world where they may be hidden.
He said, “The search will not only cover UK, US, Switzerland, Germany and other known havens for Nigerian looted funds but will cover everywhere under the sun. Anywhere and everywhere that the looted funds are, we have an assurance from the United States of America to assist us to repatriate these funds from anywhere under the sun.”
Saturday PUNCH learnt that the Federal Government’s investigation was meant to identify the individuals who engaged in corrupt practices and ascertain the sums of money involved with a view to repatriating them.
One of our correspondents also learnt that anti-corruption agencies will play a prominent role in the exercise targeted at corrupt government officials in the recent past administration and their private sector collaborators, among others.
To this end, Adeniyi told Saturday PUNCH that the Federal Government is planning to engage the services of foreign private investigators to help trace and find looted funds belonging to the people of Nigeria.
“Everything that needs to be done to get all those funds repatriated will be done, including engaging private investigators,” the Presidential spokesperson added.
Buhari had lamented that officials of the recent past government jettisoned all financial and administrative instructions put in place in parastatals and agencies while embracing impunity, lack of accountability and financial recklessness in the management of national resources.
This, the President decried, had thrown the country into financial crisis.
Saturday PUNCH learnt that foreign search, which is expected to be thorough, will, among others, be directed at foreign banks with the ultimate aim of getting incontrovertible facts and figures that can aid the government in collaboration with the US and other members of the G7 nations to recover stolen funds stashed abroad.
Adesina said the identification of foreign banks being used to stash stolen funds was one of the mandates given to Buhari during a meeting he had with President Barak Obama at the recent G-7 summit in Germany.
He said, “When the President met with the G7, the promise that the American President gave him was that Nigeria should just provide all the facts, the figures, the statistics, including the banks.
“He promised that if Nigeria could make the information available, then the US will help in recovering the stolen funds.”
When asked specifically if the Federal Government had started identifying the banks, the presidential spokesman said, “Yes. In fact, the President said the government will spend the next three months identifying banks, individuals and monies that have been ferried out of this country.
“The assurance the President has given is that within the next three months, we have to concentrate on getting those monies back to the government coffers,” he added.
Buhari had said early in the week that his administration had received firm assurances of cooperation from the US and other countries in his quest to recover and repatriate funds stolen from Nigeria.
Buhari, while granting audience to members of the Northern Traditional Rulers Council led by the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar III, at the Presidential Villa, Abuja, had said that it was now up to Nigeria to provide the international community with the facts and figures needed to drive the recovery effort.
He said he would be busy, in the next three months, getting the facts that would help in recovering the stolen funds.
“In the next three months, our administration will be busy getting those facts and the figures to help us recover our stolen funds in foreign countries,’’ the President had said.
Saturday PUNCH learnt that the Federal Government may also go after property owned by public fund looters in London, Dubai, US, Saudi Arabia and other choice international real estate markets where Nigerians are known to be some of the biggest buyers.
It was also learnt that the Department for International Development, a UK government department responsible for administering overseas aid, had alerted the President on over N1.3tn stolen during the last administration, where it is kept and who the beneficiaries are.
This money, a source close to the DFID said, is a low hanging fruit that the President can pluck during his first six months in the office with the help of the UK, US, and other G7 members without hassle.
“This was one of the agreement reached between President Buhari and the G7 countries when the former attended their meeting in Germany,” the DFID source told Saturday PUNCH.
The US in March 2014 had ordered a freeze on $458m in assets stolen by the late Head of State, Gen. Sani Abacha, and his accomplices. Abacha died in office in 1998.
The US Justice Department named two bank accounts in the Bailiwick of Jersey and two other accounts in France as depositories of $313m and $145m Abacha loot respectively. Four other investment portfolios and three bank accounts in Britain were also frozen, with an estimated value of at least $100m.
The US also named nine financial institutions – Citibank, Chase Manhattan Bank and Morgan Guaranty Trust Company, now JPMorgan Chase, and New York-based units of Britain’s Barclays Bank and Germany’s Commerz bank – as places where some of the Abacha loots were laundered.
Similarly, the Crown Prosecution Service in the United Kingdom had estimated former governor of Delta State, James Onanefe Ibori’s loot stolen to be around $250m.
Ibori, who is serving jail term for corruption charges in a UK prison, was said to have bought six property in London, including a six-bedroom house with indoor pool in Hampstead for £2.2m and a flat opposite the nearby Abbey Road recording studios. There was also a property in Dorset, a £3.2m mansion in South Africa and further real estate in Nigeria.
He also owned a fleet of armoured Range Rovers costing £600,000, a £120,000 Bentley, a £300,000 Mercedes Maybach, and a private jet for £12m.
President Buhari said the last administration mismanaged the economy while stating that it was a disgrace that state governments in the country can’t pay salaries; hence, the need to recover looted funds wherever they may be hidden.
Commenting on the development, a former Minister of Finance and elder statesman, Chief Olu Falae, commended the move and described it as laudable and desirable.
Falae expressed the belief that looted funds could be recovered because the whole world is now talking about promotion of transparency in governance.
“If some monies could be recovered from Abacha loot in the recent past, then it will be possible to recover looted funds from others as well,” he said.
The former minister, however, urged the President to follow due process while going after the looted funds.
Falae said, “It is just that we have to follow due process because we cannot force the countries where the looted funds were stashed to return them because they are not subject to our authorities. But if we follow due process, it might be possible for us to recover those monies.
“The monies should not just be recovered; they should be used to develop the country. There should be no exception; anybody who has looted the public fund should be made to return it. Not only monies stashed abroad should be recovered, those stolen and kept in the country should also be recovered. I wish the President good luck in his move to achieve this initiative.”
Also, the Convener of Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders, Mr. Debo Adeniran, asked Buhari to follow the normal channel through mutual legal assistant treaty that Nigeria has with the countries where such monies were stashed, if he really wants the stolen funds repatriated.
He said, “The President may succeed if he invokes the letter of the mutual legal assistant treaty, but I am not sure Nigeria has such with Switzerland although that country has been voluntarily returning Abacha loot to Nigeria.
“There are several other countries that may not be willing to return the volume of the money that was kept in their banks by the looters except there is international status that Nigeria can invoke to compel them to repatriate the fund.
“Nigeria has to go through legal process except it was one of the wish list that Buhari presented to the G7 countries. We have expressed it in some fora that we expected that Buhari would make it the top of his agenda at the G7 summit in Germany that he should get the G7 to cooperate with Nigeria on how not to allow looted funds by Nigeria’s public officials to be kept in their financial institutions.”
Adeniran also asked Buhari to prevail on the governments of the countries where the public funds were being stashed to assist Nigeria to expose those behind the practice.
He said, “Property acquired in those countries must also be investigated and if it is discovered that the property were procured through proceeds of corruption, they should be confiscated on behalf of Nigeria, sell them and repatriate the money to Nigeria.”
The National Publicity Secretary of Afenifere Renewal Group, a pan-Yoruba organisation, Mr. Kunle Famoriyo, expressed his support for Buhari’s move, which he described as a positive one for the country.
However, he blamed the US and other Western countries for doing nothing in the past to stop their banks from receiving stolen funds from corrupt individuals and corporations in Nigeria, while calling for the punishment of those found culpable.
He said, “It is our hope that something positive will come out of it considering that the banks in the US and some other Western countries were part of the laundering. They collected money from corrupt Nigerians and as far as we know, their countries did nothing to make sure the banks do not collect stolen money from Nigeria.
“Those found culpable in looting our public funds should be tried in the law courts. It’s not enough to collect the stolen funds without any sanctions meted out to them to serve as deterrent to others. Punishments meted out to corrupt individuals are also not commensurate with the crime committed, and this should be corrected.”
In addition, Famoriyo advised the Federal Government to restructure the country and enforce true federalism, which he said, would empower the states.
He said, “Development should be from bottom up and the other way around. What we need is true federalism; this unitary system cannot help us because it’s not sustainable. It’s a system that encourages states to be going to the Federal Government every month with cap in hand.”[Punch]