DIGITALIZING THE FIGHT AGAINST DIRTY PROPERTY
The Economist Magazine of February 17th 2018 carried what readers of the magazine often regard as a commonplace advert. Yes, right there on the top right hand corner on page 79, it says that a detached 6-bedroom chalet with ‘stunning views’ over the Meribel valley in France, and close to the Rond Point des Pistes, with slopes and amenities will be going for E3.3million. The advert also said that the property is decorated with a relaxation area, a Jacuzzi and underground parking. It has a 20-year fixed rate and a mortgage rate as ‘low’ as 2.16%.
But that advert is not a commonplace advert. Its appeal is not commonplace and the money involved with the acquisition thereof of that detached 6-bedroom chalet, 3.3million euros, is not commonplace. I reckon that anyone thinking about purchasing that kind of building must either possess an oil field or must be an Aristotle Onassis. For when he was alive Onassis was one of the world’s richest and most famous of men. He had business success and great wealth, what Chinua Achebe would have called achievements built on solid personal achievements. As owner of the world’s largest privately owned shipping fleet, he purchased an entire island where he was eventually buried.
However, instead of men who have made their money through hard work and through solid personal achievement, mean and common men without any evidence of solid personal achievements are the ones rushing to France to buy that choice property. What makes that prospect rather painful is the fact that a lot of these mean and common men with dirty money would be from Africa and Nigeria especially, a country on the throes of underdevelopment, disease and appalling poverty in spite of its great natural endowments. Examples of Africa’s mean and common men who exploit their nations’ weak systems to enrich themselves at the expense of the generality abound. Take for example Theodorine Obiang, son of the President of Equatorial Guinea Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. With no visible means of income apart from the fact that his father is head of state of an impoverished African country, assets that have been traced to him include a €107m mansion near the Champs-Élysées, France. That mansion like the one put up for sale in the Economist boasts a Hammam (Arabic for Jacuzzi), disco hall, gym, hair-dressing studio, gold-plated taps and hundreds of artworks including Michael Jackson Memorabilia. As Vice president of his country, he was known to have spent more than 1,000 times his official annual salary on the six-storey mansion on one of Paris’s most exclusive avenues as well as a fleet of fast cars and artworks, among other assets. He spent over 50million in purchasing furniture, including a €1.6m Louis XV desk, a Rodin sculpture and a dozen Fabergé eggs with respect to that house he bought in France.
But this is not peculiar to Equatorial Guinea. There are many Obiangs here in Nigeria. What they do is this: realizing that the anti-corruption agencies have upped their game and are hot on their heels, they make sure that their illegally acquired wealth via ‘predicate crimes’ like large-scale fraud, human trafficking, drug dealing and terror-related income are taken out of the country. Some of these monies are spent on property in places like the UK, Canada, Germany and the UAE. It is relatively easy to manipulate the internal regulatory systems abroad because these Nigerian Obiangs are ready and willing to pay a tax on these properties to the governments where these properties are domiciled. But there are already issues with owning illegal property abroad and especially in the UK.
So to bypass issues of property ownership in the UK, most Nigerians with dirty money are trying very hard to ascribe legitimacy to their dirty wealth through property ownership. Recent reports said that former Petroleum Minister Alison Madueke acquired property in Banana Island worth $37.5million now forfeited to the Federal government.
Another report credited to The Guardian of Nigeria, February 2017, in saying that the ICPC had seized 100 houses from public officials, also revealed that 62 of those properties were linked to one female public official. More shocking was that while trying to put in place a digital platform for the purpose of improving transparency in property ownership, we found out that just a plot in Asokoro in Abuja could go for as much as 100million naira. The questions that these kinds of information quickly throw up include the following: who are the owners of these properties? How in God’s name would somebody without the business acumen of an Aristotle be paying N100million for a plot of land in the nation’s capital? Do these people pay any tax on their illegally or legally acquired property?
These were some of the questions we tried to expatiate on with our Properti Tracka at the just concluded Social Media Week, Lagos. At the heart of our project is the fact that even though technology has been a great help with governance, technology has also helped corruption thrive. Just with the touch of a button, millions and millions of dollars get moved around with relative ease these days. Therefore, it becomes imperative that since digital methods aid and abet corruption in Nigeria, these digital crimes should be unbundled via digital stratagems. With our Propati Tracka, (pidgin for Property Tracker), a digital platform, we will map and share information on property ownership by politically exposed persons and civil servants. Nigerians must better know how institutions like the AGIS, FIRS and the FCDA work, and with that information Civil Society and the public can easily engage the EFCC & ICPC and to work towards resolving all the lacunas in the policies and laws which govern property acquisition in Nigeria. If this works out well, it will be a win-win for Nigeria because property tax will bring a nice income for use in needy areas like health, power and education while updating our database of clean and dirty property. Ultimately, this is expected to lead to an asset recovery management institution.
Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku is ANEEJ communications manager