Argument

The Bandits’ Banker

David Cameron is right that Nigeria is “fantastically corrupt.” He just forgot to mention that Britain is making it worse.

<> on June 28, 2012 in London, England.
<> on June 28, 2012 in London, England.

ABUJA, Nigeria – Last week, British Prime Minister David Cameron was caught on video describing Nigeria and Afghanistan as “fantastically corrupt” and “possibly the two most corrupt countries in the world.” Many Nigerians were outraged by his comments, which came on the eve of an anti-corruption summit in Britain to be attended by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. Some demanded an apology from Cameron. But Buhari was phlegmatic. “I am not going to demand any apology from anyone. What I am demanding is the return of assets,” he said, referring obliquely to the tens of billions of dollars in stolen Nigerian money thought to be squirrelled away in London bank accounts. “What will I do with [an] apology? I need something tangible.”

It’s no secret that corruption is a problem in Africa. Some $50 billion in illicit finance flows out of the continent every year, according to the United Nations. In the first 40 years of independence alone, Nigeria’s leaders stole or squandered an estimated $400 billion. But as the barbed comments from Buhari imply, these leaders had accomplices in the West. Britain and other developed countries are not the cause of Africa’s corruption, but they are certainly an impediment to its eradication. Cameron didn’t loot Nigeria’s coffers himself, but his government has provided thieves financial getaway vehicles to ferry stolen riches out of Africa.

Buhari knows better than most how this white-collar mugging goes down. Back when he ruled Nigeria as a military dictator in the 1980s, he went after former ministers and civil servants from the previous administration in a wide-ranging anti-corruption probe. Some of them fled to Britain — in itself an indication of the benevolent treatment they expected to receive there. The response of Buhari’s government was to send agents to kidnap former transport minister Umaru Dikko from his home in London. They got as far as snatching him off the street, drugging him, and stuffing him into a shipping crate. But the plot was foiled at the last minute by British security forces as the agents prepared to load Dikko onto a flight back to Nigeria. The episode resulted in a major diplomatic crisis during which Britain refused multiple extradition requests from Nigeria, leaving the former minister to grow old with his allegedly ill-gotten gains.

It’s understandable, if not excusable, that Nigeria resorted to kidnapping former ministers on European soil. At best, legal avenues for repatriating stolen wealth from abroad are infuriatingly slow. At worst, they are dead ends that come with hefty legal fees. When former military dictator Gen. Sani Abacha died in 1998, his successors tried to recover an estimated $3 billion that he and his associates had hidden abroad. A sizable chunk of the Abacha loot was allegedly stashed in 120 Swiss accounts, as well as other accounts in Britain, Germany, and the United States. Eighteen years and five presidents later, only a fraction of the money has been returned — and even then with conditions set by the Swiss government on how the money can be spent.

This is sadly typical of African efforts to recover stolen wealth. Some have argued that African governments bear some responsibility for not aggressively prosecuting offenders at home. One oft-cited example is the so-called chickengate scandal in Kenya, where British companies paid bribes – codenamed “chicken” — to Kenyan officials to obtain contracts to print election materials. British authorities prosecuted their country’s offenders, but Kenyan authorities did not. What can Western countries do if their African counterparts lack the political will to root out corruption?

This argument obscures the fact that African governments are fighting a battle on two fronts. Even when they successfully prosecute corruption at home, they often have to restart litigation in foreign countries to have any hope of accessing the stolen funds. In other words, they must litigate every crime twice: domestically to secure a conviction, and abroad to recover the money. This all but ensures that the stolen funds won’t be repatriated in full, since foreign lawyers typically collect a percentage of the money they recover. For African governments, illicit financial flows are lose-lose. But for Western firms, they’re win-win: There are profits to be made whether or not the money is eventually recovered and returned.

Of course, the profits are bigger when the money isn’t recovered, meaning that Western governments have a vested interest in preserving illicit financial flows. Leena Koni Hoffmann, an associate fellow at Chatham House’s Africa Program, described these flows as “integral to the economies of” recipient countries. London’s booming housing market, for example, has been artificially inflated by money laundered from abroad, according to Britain’s National Crime Agency. Not surprisingly, Western enforcement of international anti-corruption treaties has been lax. As Cameron admitted at the summit last week, “When it comes to tackling corruption, the international community has looked the other way for far too long.” Of the 41 industrialized countries that are signatories to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Anti-Bribery Convention, only four actively enforce it, according to the Berlin-based anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International. 

Britain has proved especially willing to look the other way when foreign officials arrive with suspiciously large sums of money. Although British banks are supposed to conduct anti-money laundering checks when receiving funds from foreign politicians, a 2011 report from the country’s Financial Services Authority revealed that many had repeatedly failed to do so. For example, former Nigerian Gov. James Ibori managed to deposit more than $2 million over several years at a single British bank branch, largely in over-the-counter cash deposits, before anyone raised an eyebrow. He was eventually convicted of money laundering in a British court in 2012, but the fact that no one caught on sooner speaks to the absurd laxity of the system. Lapses like this “seem to be a daily occurrence, and there currently appears to be no checks against such practices,” Manji Cheto, a risk analyst focusing on the political economy of sub-Saharan Africa at the international advisory firm Teneo, told me.

After last week’s summit, Cameron announced the formation of a Global Forum for Asset Recovery that will convene next year to discuss returning corruptly acquired funds to four countries, including Nigeria. He also announced that he would introduce new regulations that will make it more difficult for foreign shell companies to launder money in Britain by forcing them to declare their holdings in a public register. All this talk of cracking down on illicit finance is commendable, but unless Western governments get serious about enforcing anti-corruption regulations — remember, there are conventions in place that many signatories simply disregard — it won’t lead to anything.

One way to improve enforcement would be to internationalize it, removing the fox-and-henhouse-like incentive structure that prevails when nations are expected to prevent illicit funds from flowing into their own pockets. This could be done either by empowering existing international enforcement bodies, such as the International Court of Justice, to prosecute transnational corruption or by establishing a stand-alone international anti-corruption court. Sadly, I don’t see Western countries leading the charge to do either.

Image credit: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Max Siollun is a Nigerian historian and the author of the books “Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria's Military Coup Culture 1966-1976” and “Soldiers of Fortune: a History of Nigeria (1983-1993).” Follow him on Twitter: @maxsiollun. @maxsiollun

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