analysisBy Cameron Duodu
The recent freezing of the assets of the former Nigerian dictator, Sani Abacha by the American government indicates that the writing is on the wall for Africa's lootocrats. But will ordinary Nigerians benefit from the returned money?
A most significant news item - significant for developing countries, especially those in corruption-ridden African countries - emerged from Washington, DC, on 5 March 2014.
The news was that the United States had ordered a freeze on $458 million in assets stolen by the former Nigerian dictator, the late General Sani Abacha, and his accomplices. The assets were hidden in European accounts, the American statement said.
GOOD NEWS FOR AFRICANS
This means that the US is no longer interested solely in stolen moneys banked in America itself, but is also tracing funds hidden elsewhere and seizing them.
This is extremely important because European countries are very jealous of their sovereignty, especially in the financial sphere, where they usually pass laws that make it difficult for developing countries to try and get back moneys stolen from them by their corrupt leaders and their associates.
It appears the US is fed up with the corruption that Europe has thus been encouraging with its banking secrecy practices. The US is now prepared to use its clout on behalf of developing countries - which is, very good news indeed for us.
(Of course, it should be pointed out that General Abacha is safely dead - his demise occurred in July 1998 - and so cannot bring pressure upon the US to leave his funds alone. It is if, and when, the US touches the funds of corrupt leaders who are currently in power that we can praise the US as highly as we would like to!)
In its statement on the Abacha funds, the US Justice Department said the corruption proceeds - stashed away in bank accounts in Britain, France and Jersey - were frozen at Washington's request, with the help of local authorities.
As noted earlier, Abacha died in office in 1998, but his surviving relatives still include some of the richest and most influential figures in Nigeria.
PROCEEDS OF CORRUPTION
The "civil forfeiture complaint" unsealed in the US District Court in Washington, DC, made clear that the Justice Department wants to recover, altogether, more than $550 million, in connection with the action.
The acting assistant Attorney-General of the US, Ms Mythili Raman, described the Justice Department's action as "the largest civil forfeiture action to recover the proceeds of foreign official corruption ever brought by the Department."
She added: "General Abacha was one of the most notorious kleptocrats in memory, who embezzled billions from the people of Nigeria while millions lived in poverty."
The assets frozen represent the "proceeds of corruption" during and after the military regime of Abacha, who became president of Nigeria through a military coup on November 17, 1993 and held that office until his death on June 8, 1998."
The complaint states that Abacha, his son Mohammed Sani Abacha, their associate, Abubakar Atiku Bagudu, and others "embezzled, misappropriated and extorted billions from the government of Nigeria and others, then laundered their criminal proceeds through the purchase of bonds backed by the United States, using US financial institutions."
Acting US assistant Attorney-General Mythili Raman, in her comment quoted earlier, said the action sends a "clear message that the United States is determined and equipped to confiscate the ill-gotten riches of corrupt leaders who drain the resources of their countries."
WHO WILL THE RETURN MONEY BENEFIT?
A USgovernment process, known as the "Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative", provides that "where appropriate", stolen proceeds should be returned "to benefit the people harmed by these acts of corruption and abuse of office."
This presumably means that if Nigeria's current government applies for the return of the money, the US would like to keep an eye on whether the money will merely disappear into the pockets of the country's current rulers - as is most likely, if left unchecked - or will actually be used to benefit the people of Nigeria.
Certainly, the US has enough clout to disregard any protestations Nigeria might make if the US insists on knowing exactly how the money would be spent, and even asks to be allowed to audit the spending pattern.
After all, the US must be fully aware that the Federal Government is currently locked in a war of words with the former Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Mr Sanusi, over proceeds from petroleum sales which Sanusi says have not been properly accounted for by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC).
President Goodluck Jonathan sacked Sanusi rather than order an international audit, which would have confirmed or denied Sanusi's claim that the NNPC had not accounted for at least $10 billion worth of petroleum sales. (Sanusi had initially put the figure at $40 billion, but scaled it down later. Nevertheless, even $10 billion is not be sneered at!)
The Sanusi dismissal is not the only blot on the credentials against corruption of Goodluck Jonathan. His Government blithely included the corrupt General Abacha's name on a list of Nigerians the Government honoured to mark the 100th anniversary of the amalgamation of Nigeria's provinces into a single entity.
The funds frozen by the US include approximately $313 million in two bank accounts in the Bailiwick of Jersey and $145 million in two bank accounts in France, the Justice Department specified. Four investment portfolios and three bank accounts in Britain were also frozen, with an estimated value of at least $100 million.
LOOTOCRATS IN GHANA - WATCH OUT!
But the exact amounts in the accounts have not yet been determined, the Justice Department said. The Justice Department revealed that on 25 and 26 February 2014, the authorities in Jersey, France and Britain complied with the US action to freeze the assets. The US complaint also sought to freeze five corporate entities registered in the British Virgin Islands.
According to the complaint, Abacha and others systematically embezzled billions of dollars in public funds from Nigeria's central bank, on the false pretence that the funds were necessary for national security.
They withdrew the funds in cash and then moved the money overseas through US financial institutions. Abacha and his finance minister, Anthony Ani, also allegedly caused the Nigerian government to buy Nigerian government bonds at vastly inflated prices from a company controlled by Abubakar Atiku Bagudu and Mohammed Abacha. That operation created an illegal windfall of more than $282 million for them.
To those in the ruling circles of neighbouring Ghana who are believed to be carrying out Abacha-type raids on the Ghanaian exchequer, the message from the US is unmistakable: "We shall get it back for the people of Ghana!" And when Uncle Sam says it will do it, it will. So goodbye their alleged safe havens, such as Doha. Goodbye Dubai. Goodbye Turkey. And goodbye New Delhi.
Lichtenstein too is now afraid of the long arm of the US - as it should be, if even Switzerland can be brought to heel.
THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR/S AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM