Opinion: Kleptocracy assets recovery initiative: Dog that bites!

By Tayo Oke

The Kleptocracy Assets Recovery Initiative, is an American extra-territorial legislation aimed primarily at treasury looters in Africa. By contrast, and in a twist of irony, the latest (homegrown) parliamentary initiative against the same crime emanating from Nigeria is one offering “amnesty” for looters; a kind of “Looter’s Charter”, which has been roundly condemned by many prominent figures in the country. That being so, though the biggest amnesty being offered to treasury looters in this country, at the moment, is arguably a paralysed and ineffectual Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. The organisation’s operations are being stymied by the continuing row over its Chairman, and the cobweb of legalism in the justice system. Despite tons of recovered loot in the last couple of years involving public figures: army generals, former ministers, senior civil servants, top-rank party managers etc), not a single “big fish” has been convicted and sentenced. People have been paraded, yes. The cameras have filmed the EFCC operatives in action several times, yes, but where are the convictions and sentences in a court of law flowing from all of that? And, crucially, where are the recovered loot?

Asset stripping of the state for personal gain in Africa has been with us since the “Berlin Conference” of 1885, which formalised the partition and subsequent balkanisation of Africa into the several bits that it is today. Then, the colonial powers focused on digging up and repatriating Africa’s natural resources to accelerate the development of the “Motherland” of European countries. Then, upon independence, African leaders carried on this trend by laundering the proceeds of loot from the newly-established states and repatriating the same to the Motherland by buying properties and stashing away money there, protected by the doctrine of privity of contract. That means, in effect, that whatever transpires between an individual and the bank in which they stash away their stolen wealth is entirely a matter for them.

This cosy arrangement was what made it possible for African wealth to be funnelled into European and American banks and real estate for decades. This, to put it simply, is what is meant by “kleptocracy”.  To remove all ambiguities, however, it also means, according to the Cambridge English Dictionary, “a society whose leaders make themselves rich and powerful by stealing from the rest of the people”.

The consciousness of European leaders was suddenly awaken to this phenomenon in the 1980s, as a result of numerous “bad deals” entered into by their banks with African leaders, and also owing to the growing economic migration into Europe by people fleeing poverty and mismanagement from Africa and the developing world. Several anti-money laundering pieces of legislation were enacted and various foreign aid were tied to “economic reform” and “democratisation”.  These exerted a great deal of pressure on a lot of obdurate and sit-tight African dictators to loosen their grip on power, but it was never enough. Internal agitation from civil society groups across Africa also gave rise to a new awakening and push for more transparency and accountability of political leaders. It was thus against this backdrop that, the United States of America elected its first African-American President, Barack Obama, who then appointed America’s first African-American Attorney General, Eric Holder, in 2008.

It was a momentous period in America and world history. The incoming administration carried a wave of expectation and hope that was far above anything the constraints of the office could ever allow to materialise. That expectation included the faint hope that, maybe – just maybe, the power of the American Presidency could be used to alter political events on the African continent. President Obama gave speeches in Cairo, Egypt, in June 2009, and Accra, Ghana, the following month in July 2009. The Ghana speech was particularly noted for its symbolism and substance. The main thrust of the speech is best paraphrased thus: “If a President stays in office because he fears no one else can hold the country together without him – that in itself, is an acknowledgment of failure; a failure to build long-lasting institutions”.

The stage was thus set for Holder’s big moment at the African Union Summit precisely a year later in July 2010, in Kampala, Uganda. He spoke with eloquence, wit and passion. He drove home his message in the spirit of brotherhood and a rare evangelical zeal. “I am proud to bring greetings from President Barack Obama and the American people”, he said to a thunderous applause. “I am proud to be counted among the African Diaspora – this continent is my ancestral home, I am of this place. Your work is of special and emotional importance to me”.

With those soothing words, Holder surreptitiously landed the spine-crushing blow; the introduction of KARI. Henceforth, any type of property identified in America as being even tangentially connected to corruption in Africa will be impounded and confiscated. The main targetsof the move were, of course, the numerous heads of state and government in the audience, glumly starring the combative Attorney General in the face as he declared an auspicious end to a safe haven for Africa’s stolen wealth found in America.  It has since been used to devastating effects against various individuals and bodies across the continent. The latest of this is the wire-taped conversation between Mr Kola Aluko and Mrs Diezani Alison-Madueke, in which the former Minister for Petroleum Resources in Nigeria warned Aluko against buying a 200-foot yacht costing close to $90m. “You can lease instead of sinking funds into a yacht… Nigerian oil and gas industry are under all kinds of watch”. She is alleged to have warned the benefactor of her ministry’s largesse, Aluko. How he must now wish he had heeded that onerous and ultimately prophetic warning.

Anyway, the US prosecutors are now confiscating those assets running into several hundreds of million dollars as “the fruits of an international bribery scheme”. In time, the individual persons will also be made to face justice in a court of law for laundering proceeds of crime. The EFCC have moved quickly to cooperate with both the US and the UK authorities in these cases, as they regularly send personnel to give evidence in court, where conviction and sentencing are bound to follow. KARI is a relatively new (2010) initiative, but has quickly shown that it can bite. The EFCC has a relatively longer pedigree in this battle. The organisation, established in 2004, has demonstrated its ability to bark from time to time, but has yet to prove of late that it can bite. Punch

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