Sani Abacha ruled Nigeria from 1993 to 1998 as the 10th head of state. Olusegun Obasanjo, the 12th president of Nigeria, accused Abacha of looting the Central Bank of Nigeria. In 2002, Abacha’s family was forced to return $1.2 billion. In 2014, the US Department of Justice forfeited and returned $480 million to Nigeria. Switzerland also confiscated $600 million. A total of over $2 billion ‘has been recovered and repatriated back to Nigeria’ from Switzerland, Luxembourg, Jersey, Liechtenstein, Belgium and the UK.
Ferdinand Marcos, the 10th president of the Philippines, remained in office from 1965 to 1986. Marcos was accused of ‘raiding the Philippine treasury’, ‘diverting economic aid to his personal accounts’ and accumulating assets worth $5-$10 billion (while drawing an annual salary of $13,500).
Corazon Aquino, the 11th president of the Philippines, established the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) to ‘recover Marcos’ ill-gotten wealth’. The PCGG has so far recovered $1.8 billion. Viktor Yanukovych, the fourth president of Ukraine, remained in office from 2010 to 2014. Ukraine’s chief prosecutor accused Yanukovych’s inner circle of stealing about $40 billion. In 2017, Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council stated that $1.5 billion of stolen money will be ‘returned to the state budget’. The same year, more than half a ton of gold – that was stolen and smuggled out of Ukraine – was recovered.
Between 2006 and 2012, Australia, Switzerland, France, Luxemburg, the UK and the US froze $2.6 billion worth of corruption-related assets. Other countries which have successfully recovered stolen assets include Peru, Kazakhstan, Angola and Tanzania. World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim declared corruption “public enemy number one” in developing countries. Poverty and corruption go hand-in-hand. To ‘end poverty, you have to end corruption’. According to the World Bank, “corruption robs developing nations of $40 billion annually”.
International asset recovery is a four-step process: tracing, freezing, forfeiting and repatriating. Yes, the recovery of stolen assets is a tedious and a time-consuming effort, undertaking, requiring ‘specialised knowledge, forensic accounting techniques and forfeiture schemes’. Fortunately, there is now a lot of institutional help available including the UNODC, Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative, International Center for Asset Recovery, International Association for Asset Recovery, OECD, OSCE and the Financial Action Task Force.
The UNODC has developed a Mutual Legal Assistance Request Writer Tool to “assist criminal justice practitioners in drafting expeditiously MLA requests”. To be certain, the biggest impediment to recovering stolen assets is the ‘lack of political will to enforce recoveries’. Other impediments include ‘lack of sufficient information, lack of technical capacity and lack of funding’.
According to the National Crime Agency, “at least a hundred billion pounds of illicit wealth is likely to be laundered through the UK each year”. Yes, a large portion of that illicit wealth comes from the poorest of the countries. On February 1, the Unexplained Wealth Orders legislation went into force. The new rules ‘allow authorities to freeze and recover property if individuals cannot explain why they own assets worth more than their income…’
Former president Musharraf also planned an asset recovery campaign. In 2000, a company based in the US told Musharraf that “anything between $30-$50 billion in illegal assets” belonging to Pakistan were outside of Pakistan. Within Pakistan, Musharraf was told that if he went ahead with his plans money will leave Pakistan. Musharraf fell into the trap and halted his recovery campaign. Once again, the biggest impediment in recovering stolen assets is ‘lack of political will to enforce recoveries’.
The writer is a columnist based in Islamabad.
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