This Day (Lagos)

Nigeria: Abacha Loot - $1.3bn Was Recovered

Washington DC — Nigeria has recovered a total of $505.5 million from Swiss authorities being money stolen and stashed away by the late military ruler, General Sani Abacha, according to data released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and the World Bank, under a new initiative called the Stolen Asset Recovery (STAR).

While Nigeria was able to readily recover from domestic institutions $800 million of the $3 billion to $5 billion that the late Abacha is estimated to have stolen during his rule, it took five years of legal effort before $505.5 million was released by Swiss authorities for return.

In all, a little over $1.3 billion has been recovered so far from the late head of state.

Also, British authorities in July 2006 returned $1.9 million illicitly acquired by former governor of Bayelsa State, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha.

At a press briefing in Washington DC to launch STAR, former Finance Minister, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, and Danny Leipziger under whose supervision and leadership the report was prepared, noted that the new initiative would help stem the flow of about $40 billion corrupt funds from developing countries annually.

Nigeria, Peru and the Phillipines were used as case studies.

Until now the complex web of international institutions used to launder money has made the recovery of stolen money a difficult and time consuming process.

Okonjo-Iweala stated that the landmark UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) which came into force in December 2005 and is the first legally binding global anti-corruption agreement would provide the legal framework for easier repatriation of stolen assets.

She gave credit to the Swiss authorities whose co-operation, she noted, was instrumental to the success of loot recovery in Nigeria.

The former finance minister also gave credit to two former Heads of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar who initiated investigations into the criminal dealings of Abacha and Olusegun Obasanjo who led vigorous campaigns culminating in the recovery of the stolen assets in 2005 and 2006.

The STAR initiative started by the World Bank, in partnership with UNODC will help developing countries recover assets stolen by corrupt leaders. It is designed to build institutional capacity in developing countries, strengthen the integrity of financial markets, assist in the asset recovery process, and monitor the use of recovered assets.

"This initiative will foster much needed cooperation between developed and developing countries between the public and private sectors to ensure that looted assets are returned to their rightful owners," said Ban Ki-Moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations.

World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick emphasised the need for partnership between developing and developed countries in dealing with these issues, stating that "developing countries need to improve governance and accountability, but developed countries should also stop providing a safe haven for stolen proceeds."

It is estimated that the cross border flow of global proceeds from criminal activities, corruption, and tax evasion is between $1 trillion and $1.6 trillion per year. African states lose about 25 percent of their GDP ($148 billion) to corruption every year, diverting much needed funds from infrastructure development and social spending.

The legal framework underpinning the new initiative is UNCAC. 140 countries had signed the convention with 92 ratifying it as of November 2006. Half G8 countries excluding Canada, Germany, Italy and Japan have ratified UNCAC while 13 of the 54 jurisdictions classified by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as Offshore Financial Centers (OFCs) have also ratified it.

It is estimated that each $100 million recovered could finance immunization in developing countries, $250,000 used for the provision of water and enough of such money could be used to finance the treatment of $600,000 HIV/AIDs patients.

"This initiative is greeted with excitement............it will be seen by developing countries as timely and apt," said Okonjo-Iweala who is a member of the advisory group of the new initiative.

Previous efforts to recover stolen assets were largely on bilateral basis. In some countries, there was no framework for repatriation making it possible to only freeze and not return such funds. The World Bank noted that recovered loots have been judiciously used in Nigeria.

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