Last week, Nigeria’s Foreign Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama engaged in an unusual vilification of the government of Switzerland for their role in money laundering and asset recovery processes. In a speech delivered at the opening of the 2nd International Conference on Combatting Illicit Financial Flows organized by the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC) on Tuesday, 11 September 2018, the Minister called out Switzerland for being an accessory to the looting of the country by the former Head of State, Sani Abacha.
He further decried the difficulties faced by Nigeria in repatriating the infamous Abacha loot from Swiss authorities, referring to the process as “daylight robbery”. For stakeholders working on issues of asset recovery from Nigeria and in foreign jurisdictions, this is a situation that is somewhat bizarre. The potential impact of statements like this in the short and long-term can impede the progress made by the asset recovery regime in Nigeria over the last couple of decades. There are obvious reasons for this.
Firstly, irrespective of the issue in question, no good can come from the manner of the expressions used by the country’s top diplomat. One does not have to be a career diplomat to understand the importance of effective communication in diplomacy. According to Sir Isaac Newton, diplomacy requires the “ability to assert your ideas and opinions, knowing what to say and how to say it without damaging the relationship by causing offence”.
The manner in which the Minister of Foreign Affairs expressed himself last week couldn’t be farther from these fundamentals and could easily alienate a country that has been a partner and proved instrumental in achieving the most repatriations of stolen wealth to Nigeria since 1999. The cooperation between both countries was demonstrated with the signing of an MoU and subsequent repatriation of the recent tranche of $322.5 million dollars Abacha loot within the last nine months.The Swiss Ambassador to Nigeria also recently hosted a forum in June 2018 for officials of Switzerland, Nigeria and other donor organisations and stakeholders to dialogue on ensuring transparency and accountability in asset recovery and utilization in the country.
For civil society organisations like the Africa Network for Environment and Economic Justice (ANEEJ) that has been involved throughout these processes, the continued cooperation between Nigeria and countries like Switzerland is essential to the build on the progress made so far by the country in recovering looted assets to finance development efforts in the country.
Admittedly, there is a point to be made about the role of Switzerland’s financial secrecy regime in encouraging money laundering. This an issue that has been reiterated by most countries and actors globally as the country struggles to introduce reforms. However, there are arguably other ways for the country’s top diplomat to make this point, considering the broader implications of his words, having regard to his position. A language that acknowledges the progress made through the partnership between the countries, whilst noting areas for improvement like the concerns raised would have been a preferable approach.
Secondly, the position emerging from the Foreign Minister’s speech curiously appears at odds with the stance of President Buhari in this respect. The President in 2016 in London, went as far as admitting that Nigeria is “fantastically corrupt” as long as foreign countries would heed his plea to return looted assets in their jurisdictions. The obvious inconsistency between this and the approach of the Minister does not bode well for future relationships between Nigeria and other countries in the dealing with asset recovery issues. It is essential that the country projects a coherent approach in its dealings with partner countries in this area.
Thirdly, the words of the Foreign Ministry echoed the sort of rhetoric used by countries in the Global South in the 1960s and 1970s when there was a push for Import Substitution Industrialisation and a New International Economic Order. Whilst these movements ultimately proved unsuccessful for a wide variety of reasons that cannot be covered here, most countries using such rhetoric did so in unity with other countries. They also had experience and confidence in their ability to thrive within such Order. We live in a very different reality today where globalization and neoliberal predominance mean that countries require interdependence and cooperation to thrive.
By all considerations, the rhetoric emerging from the officials of the current administration detracts from the tact and diplomacy required to leverage the gains made by the country in the area of asset recovery. Whilst much still needs to be done, this escalating situation is immensely counter-intuitive. It has the potential to jeopardise the efforts of dedicated professionals on both sides and those in civil society and the private sector who have worked hard to get us to where we are now.
Rather than engaging in such confrontation and mixed messaging, our interests as a country will be best served by focusing on strengthening the internal regime for asset recovery, especially through ensuring the enactment of the Proceeds of Crime Act. More action is required to plug all loopholes to prevent looting of the nation’s resources as a permanent panacea. There is also a need to demonstrate transparent and accountable utilisation of recovered assets and strengthen the general anti-corruption regime in the country.
This will eliminate the need to call out external actors in the long run. And if a point has to be made, our diplomats and officials must keep to the rudimentary principle of “making a point without making an enemy”. Successful diplomacy for asset recovery demands it.
This piece was contributed by Dr Matthew Ayibakuro, ANEEJ policy and research director