FIGHTING DIRTY PROPERTY ACQUISITION IN NIGERIA: LEGAL HURDLES & SHENANIGANS

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The Economist Magazine of February 17 2018,  https://www.magzter.com/GB/The-Economist/The-Economist/Business/266421, carried what readers often regard as a commonplace advert. That advert, on the top right hand corner on page 79, had details of a detached 6-bedroom chalet with ‘stunning views’ over the Meribel valley in France. The Chalet is close to the Rond Point des Pistes, with slopes and amenities. It would go for only 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 monies involved for acquisition of that detached 6-bedroom chalet, 3.3million euros are not commonplace. Anyone thinking about purchasing that kind of building either must 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 Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe would have called success/fame built on solid personal achievements. As owner of the world’s largest privately owned shipping fleet, Onassis purchased an entire island where he was eventually buried.

However, instead of men who have made their money through grit and through solid personal achievement, ordinary men with access to state funds would be the ones rushing to France to buy that property. What makes that prospect rather distressing is the fact that a lot of them would be from Africa and Nigeria especially, a country on the throes of underdevelopment, disease and appalling poverty in spite of its natural endowments. The StAR Report https://siteresources.worldbank.org/NEWS/Resources/Star-rep-full.pdf, already highlighted the tracks most politically exposed persons tread to illegally acquire property to launder illicit funds. Now, realizing that the anti-corruption agencies have upped their game and are hot on their heels, they make sure that 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. In most cases, it is relatively easy to manipulate the internal regulatory systems abroad because Nigerians with property there are usually ready and willing to pay a tax on these properties but will not pay to their country.

To own land/property in Abuja Nigeria is akin to owning mini-oil well. Land and property in Abuja Nigeria is what crude oil is to Nigeria. Most times its mode of acquisition is built around a framework of political patronage. Its mode of acquisition is said to be mired in intricate political patronages. Abuja land can be acquired anonymously through companies registered in secrecy jurisdictions. Because of the political dimension in the processes of its acquisition, background checks and Anti-money laundering checks can be bypassed with relative ease. These lands and property are often used to launder illicit funds.

While the international community beams its light on property acquired through money laundering by Nigerians through its Unexplained Wealth Orders, the effort of the Buhari government produced two instruments. The one is the Extradition Treat early in 2018 and the other the Executive Order 6. Even though the Extradition Treaty with the UAE was supposed to haul in corrupt Nigerians with illegally acquired property abroad, what has been most distressing and unexpected is that some of the Nigerians on the government radar easily wriggled from the long arm of the treaty by just shifting their political base. Aside from the disappointment that the Extradition Treaty is perhaps an instrument to boost the political base of the party in power, the Executive Order 6 as announced by the Buhari administration to get a hold on property seized from persons undergoing investigations for corruption has also come under somewhat harsh criticism. Opponents of the Executive Order 6, and who have dragged the Federal government of Nigeria to court on the EO6 cite previous orders promulgated by Major General Buhari, https://www.thisdaylive.com/index.php/2018/08/31/resurrection-of-decrees-2-and-4/ when he was head of state, and aver that the EO6 is indicative that his administration is a throwback of an odious past.

In the wake of these bureaucratic uncertainties over the instruments that the government is using to fight corruption, an innovative measure was what seemed the answer. The Africa Network for Environment & Economic Justice, ANEEJ, therefore took the lead with using other methods apart from the instruments of governance to fight dirty property acquisition with Property Tracka. The project, inter alia, seeks to assist with unmasking the beneficial owners of property in three highbrow districts of Abuja namely: Maitama, Garki and Wuse as well as encourage the Nigerian government to adopt the non-conviction approach to tackling corruption and channel proceeds of seized property to finance development in Nigeria. In addition, ANEEJ sought to build the capacity of target CSOs and Media on the concept of beneficial ownership. The idea includes seeking to unpack ill-gotten proceeds through ownership of Landed property with building(s) in Abuja. The plan is to develop an on-line platform to map and share information with anti-corruption agencies on ownership of property by politically exposed persons in specific districts of Abuja.

But the Propati Traka in itself has come under hot fire https://guardian.ng/opinion/on-200-owners-of-illicit-property-in-abuja/. First, it has been misconstrued as wholly government-owned apparently a result of ANEEJ seeking the buy-in of the Federal government, to help complement the fight against dirty property acquisition by corrupt Nigerians. Second, even before its takeoff, the Propati Tracka has been handed a death sentence by certain sections of the media who insist that a three-month timeline should be enough time to unmask and unravel all the owners of illegally and illicitly acquired property.

ANEEJ verily believes however that getting the buy-in of the Federal government was expedient, and takes full responsibility for birthing the project. At inception, the Federal government of President Buhari announced that it would fight corruption to mitigate its negative effect on Nigeria’s development. Therefore, if ANEEJ was not seeking the buy-in of a government – which had made a committed to themes of zero tolerance to corruption, access to information, fiscal responsibility and citizen participation –  with a project seeking to unmask the owners of dirty property at key cities in Nigeria ANEEJ would be happy to be enlightened otherwise. Again, a proper investigation at unravelling beneficial ownership of illicit property is not always as straightforward as it would seem. Actually, if ANEEJ were to be frivolous and untidy, less than proper with an investigation involving property illegally acquired, and with illicit funds, it exposes us to avoidable issues related to litigation and trust. Even though there are usually shenanigans and hiccups involved in the attempt to rid Nigeria of corruption, it is best to avoid the legal issues arising from shoddiness in handling property investigations.

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