Experts have identified ways of strengthening the whistleblowing policy of the Federal Government as well as other means of tracing property and investments linked to proceeds of bribery and corruption. The experts spoke at a recent training conference on tracking noxious funds, which held both in Lagos and Abuja. The conference was organized by the University of Kent, The McArthur Foundation, Corner House, Global Witness and Human and Environmental Development Agenda (HEDA).
In attendance at the conference were Nigerian, anti-corruption activists, compliance officers, anti-corruption agencies, registrars, senior state counsels, senior civil servants, judicial officers, accountants, journalists, lawyers, estate managers, diplomats and legal advisers.
Also represented were the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC), Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) and Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB).
The conference provided a practical, doctrinal and procedural introduction to researching the law and practice of the Whistle Blower Policy in Nigeria and the tracking of stolen funds and the proceeds of bribery from developing states to the developed world.
It equally exposed participants to the domestic whistle-blowing programme which compensates whistleblowers; researching of tax manipulation, scams and shell companies; tracing of assets of politically exposed persons (PEPs) and way by which (PEPs) disguise their wealth and use tax havens as well as financial hubs for stashing stolen wealth. Participants were also trained on the use of the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) state land registries and the Freedom of Information Act.
Equally made available to attendees was knowledge in how to engage with the UK Companies House in conducting searches; how to work with Company Registrars in other countries; use of company annual reports and prospectuses; examining the procedural rules that apply to researching companies and corporate networks; examining e-resources to trace proceeds of corruption and financial crimes; and interaction with world-renowned experts who have worked on some of the most high-profile corruption investigations in Nigeria, United States of America, Europe and the UK.
A communique issued at the end of the programme stated that after X-Raying the theme and sub-themes of the subject, participants and resource persons made a number of observations.
According to the communique jointly signed by Messrs. Gbenga Oduntan, Nick Hildyard, Simon Taylor and Lanre Suraju, participants and resource persons observed that proceeds of bribery and corruption from Nigeria have found a safe haven in the banking and financial institutions of Western countries. They also noted that an increasing amount of illicit financial flows from Nigeria is ending up in the real estate sectors of many foreign capitals, especially London, Dubai, Paris and New York.
Equally, it was noted that yearly, billions of money stolen by corrupt politicians, public officials and business corporations are moved unreported into countries like the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Switzerland, United States, tax havens and financial hubs.
It was noted at the programme that the emergence of cryptocurrencies and other digital investments are providing new avenues for the diversion of proceeds of corruption and money laundering, which may prove to be more difficult to track than cash and investments in property.
The conference declared that Nigerians constitute a significant number among the owners of over £4.2 billion worth of properties bought with stolen funds in and around London, which have been identified as owned by politicians and public officials from around the world.
"Recent study shows that those buying apartments in 14 landmark London developments are overseas investors and 40 percent of the investors are often Politically Exposed Persons (PEPs) that have come from countries with a high corruption risk such as Nigeria)," the conference said.
It observed that laws and enforcement mechanisms in Nigeria are inadequate to identify, trace, investigate and confiscate proceeds of crimes. The situation, explained the conference, has led to the increase in the rate of corruption.
"Laws, mechanisms and platforms available for tracing, tracking, confiscating and repatriating stolen assets and funds internationally are underutilised by successive Nigerian governments leading to unimpressive levels of success in the actual repatriation of stolen funds. The innovative whistleblower policy of the Nigerian Government has not achieved its true potential as a result of the absence of a dedicated legal instrument backing whistleblowing activities in the form of an Act of Parliament; hence it is recommended that such an Act must be passed as soon as practicable," said the conference.
It also observed that the unwillingness of Nigerians at home and in the Diaspora to expose obscene wealth and opulent lifestyles by PEPs emboldens treasury looters.
"Nigerians in Diaspora, particularly those residing in Western countries, must act in a more concerted manner in helping to detect illicit financial flows from the country and prevent their unchallenged entry on a systematic basis into foreign countries.Nigerians in Diaspora should also be carried along in taking full advantage of the new whistleblower policy of the Nigerian Government in order to expose the avalanche of looted resources in the UK, US and other Western capitals," the conference stated.
The conference frowned at the practice of foreign financial institutions and governments giving Nigeria outrageous conditionalities before returning looted funds to her. It described the practice as condemnable and one that should be challenged by Nigeria and other victim states.
Another observation was that law enforcement and judicial institutions in high corruption risk countries like Nigeria are deliberately weakened and compromised by politicians and their international business collaborators to escape justice and provide legitimacy for their proceeds of crime.
"In violation of the UNCAC provisions on Stolen Asset Recovery, recipient countries of stolen assets tend to deploy all possible technical and legal obstacles to prevent expeditious repatriation of tracked and confiscated loots to countries of origin," said participants and resource persons.
In addition, they noted that Nigerians are not putting enough efforts into conducting company and land registry searches and the use of Freedom of Information laws as tools for anti-corruption research and in the prevention of grand corruption. The conference also noted that stolen assets are also moved to lesser-known recipient nations like India and China. The conference called for a halt to the situation.
"As a result, there must be a joint up approach to the prevention of illicit financial flows towards these countries as well and in asset recovery operations from these jurisdictions"," it said.
Additionally, the conference noted that there is a need to urgently remedy glaring instances of poor capacity development in key anti-corruption agencies. This, said experts, should be done through better funding, provision of adequate and continuous training and adherence to the provisions of the legal instruments governing the institutions.
Experts noted that the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) needs rejuvenation, given its centrality to the fight against grand corruption. They also submitted that the country’s criminal justice system must be studied and recalibrated to support a more robust anti-graft battle. The experts expressed surprise that there is currently no Nigerian tertiary institution offering Criminal Justice as a degree programme.
Participants recommended that the Nigerian public needs to be adequately educated on the terminology, concepts and principles that define the specialist areas of anti-corruption law, including money laundering, illicit financial flow, safe havens for stolen assets and shell/sham companies. They equally recommended that stakeholders should design and organise yearly refresher training programs to ensure comprehension of the many technical terms of law, strategy and other intricacies of tracing illegally owned properties abroad.
"Government and non-government actors to convene fora to identify and examine the phenomenon of illicit financial flows and highlight the main treaties, principles, soft laws as well as the legal, political, diplomatic and procedural steps by which corrupt assets can be traced, frozen, seized, forfeited and returned. State and Non-State Actors must engage the available legal mechanisms to recognize, prevent, recover and return all forms of Illicit Financial Flows from High Corruption Risk Countries. The inter-governmental framework developed around the conditions of return of stolen funds must take account of the integrity and peculiar vulnerabilities of requesting states," the participants recommended.
Furthermore, they suggested that returnable assets should include punitive fines, compensation and disgorged profits earned from settlements; other illicit outflows such as diverted tax, shifted profits, and illicit gains linked to operations of multinational corporations.
They recommended that Diaspora communities of Africa should help victim countries map scope of looted funds and come up with information on where assets are located, which assets are worth following and recovery mechanisms. The conference suggested that professionals among them can assist with the relevant processes. Also, it was suggested that Nigerians in the Diaspora should build the momentum in their host states to bring governments and law enforcement systems in conformity with their duties to account for, trace, track and confiscate Nigeria’s stolen assets within the receiving state.
"Several measures could be used to augment the search for illicit funds abroad including the use of online searches, physical investigations and analysis of varied sources of information in the public domain and on social media.
A mandatory requirement for CAC documents to be made available to the entire public ought to be implemented as soon as practicable as this will aid independent searches for beneficial ownership and disclosure of financial interests. A network of volunteer investigators and researchers is to be formed from the ranks of attendees of this conference to make a connection with other research groups and Africans in the Diaspora in order to engage in further specialist anticorruption activities including periodic and frequent online illicit property and investment tracking sessions," said the conference.
It suggested that recovered funds should be put into proper custody and handled with impeccable integrity pending the determination of cases; and whistleblowers should be encouraged and protected by law, particularly in the exercise of their freedom of expression and the provision of adequate rewards through prompt payment is essential.
Journalists, it was recommended, must begin to use more and varied effective investigative tools, while the judiciary should be independent.
The conference also called on every citizen to be a watchdog and be ready to pressure the government to deliver on transparency and anti-corruption law and practice. It urged the civil society to increase its pressure on foreign governments and international financial institutions to respect the demands of international laws; increase pressure on European Union Governments, the United States, the United Arab Emirates and Switzerland to deliver on their promises to combat the malaise of corruption by refusing their financial systems from being exploited by an unscrupulous political and business ruling class.
Attendees, said the conference, should see to the formation of a Nigerian citizen for 'Asset Recovery Action Group' dedicated towards independent studies, research and knowledge sharing activities on how to trace stolen wealth and ask for their return. The conference took a dim view of the conduct of some professionals such as accountants, auditors and lawyers, who collaborate and facilitate the illicit transfer of funds abroad. It recommended that they are investigated and confronted with targeted actions.
It was also suggested that more significant attention should be paid to animal husbandry, particularly cattle rearing, which is said to be a major means of laundering vast sums of illicit capital. "Its use in disguising the proceeds of corruption is capable of destabilising national and regional peace and security. More studies of this problem need to be carried out to determine the scale of the activities and the strategies to expose the offenders and differentiate them from making sure the real legitimate owners of cattle. Anti-money laundering laws regarding the regulation of farming and animal husbandry must be updated to cover all types of farming activities whether or not they are mechanised. The essence is to fill the lacuna in the law, which provides for the regulation of only 'mechanised' farming and therefore allowing the possibility of money laundering through cattle rearing," the conference suggested.
In conclusion, it recommended that the government should urgently review the law governing the operation of the Code of Conduct Bureau with a view to halting its descent into a farcical institution and improving its effectiveness.