Attorney-General of the Federation

Vie Internationale
with Bola A. Akinterinwa Telephone : 0807-688-2846 e-mail:

Nigeria and Switzerland maintain an interesting diplomatic relationship in which trade is weak and the issue of sovereign equality was indirectly, but constantly, raised in the past two decades, and without due attention paid to it by the foreign policy makers. The relationship is particularly interesting from the Nigerian perception of Switzerland as a safe haven for stolen funds from Africa, especially with Switzerland’s neutralist foreign policy.

Explained differently, Nigeria and Switzerland strongly underscore the principle of sovereign equality in their foreign policy, apart from the fact that the principle is a major pillar on which the conduct and management of international relations is based. Switzerland ensures the application of the principle in her relations with Nigeria but the same is not true of the Nigerian government in its relationship with the Swiss. The stashing of the ill-gotten funds by the late General Sani Abacha, former Head of State, in some Swiss banks and the imposition of some conditions by the Swiss authorities before the Abacha loot can be released to Nigeria is a clear illustration of this point.

The reported value of the Abacha loot in Swiss banks was US 4 billion. The Government of Nigeria has made several strenuous efforts to ensure repatriation of the total amount but the Swiss government has been cooperating half-heartedly, by imposing political conditionalities. In fact, the Swiss government had only repatriated $1.3 billion out of the $4 billion as at 1999. The repatriation of the balance of $2.7 billion became a critical issue in Nigeria-Switzerland relations to the extent that Senator Lekan Balogun, the National Coordinator of the Africa Liberation Organisation (ALO) asked, on 29th April, 2008, the Swiss ambassador to Nigeria to repatriate the outstanding balance without any attached conditionality. Besides, Senator Balogun wanted Switzerland to repatriate the money with interests thereon since 1998 and calculated at the rate of 10%.

The position of Switzerland is equally interesting: the money would not be returned until there was clear evidence of financial transparency and due process in Nigeria
(vide Section 4.1 on Switzerland and Outstanding Abacha Loot, Bola A. Akinterinwa, Vie Internationale Contemporaine, 2007-2012: Reflections on Nigeria in a Pluriverse World of Decline and incline; Volume 2 (Reflections on Bilateral and Plurilateral Questions)(Lagos: NIIA, 2014, p.107 et s.).

What is disturbing and noteworthy about the repatriation of the ill-gotten funds from Switzerland is that the act of repatriation has become an instrument of control and a special mechanism for interference in the domestic affairs of Nigeria. In 2008, when this column criticized the Swiss people of imposing unnecessary conditions on Nigeria, which was, and still is, a sovereign state like Switzerland, the Swiss Embassy replied on May 11, 2008 and gave three main arguments: that the Swiss government had set up a special Commission to monitor how the $1.3 billion already released was spent but found out that the money was not well managed.

Secondly, the repatriation of the money would be in tranches and would also be for the execution of United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Thirdly, the Federal Court in Switzerland, in its ruling of 7th February 2005, authorized the Federal Office of Justice to return the sum of $458 million of the remaining assets ($506 million) in two installments of $290 million, which was repatriated following agreement with Nigeria and $168 million which was transferred on 19th December, 2005.

As further explained by the Swiss, ‘a further USD 7million was to be transferred to a blocked account in Nigeria as it was not possible to trace the origin of the funds. Therefore the amount remains blocked in Nigeria. The balance of $40 million whose origin was considered illegal was transferred to Nigeria in January 2006 reportedly when the Abacha family was unable to prove the legality of the amount. On this basis, the Swiss Embassy declared that ‘Switzerland has therefore now returned ALL (emphasis mine) Abacha funds.’

Problems of Sovereign Equality
When the first tranche of the repatriation was made in May 2005, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, then Minister of Finance, complained about the foot-dragging of the Swiss in promptly repatriating the money. The unanswered question is why the foot-dragging? One major rationale is the Swiss belief that the Government of Nigeria will not expend the money well.

This view stems from the report on the utilization of the first tranche.
Secondly, the Swiss government similarly had problems with the Swiss branch of the NIDO (Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation). In 2011, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the Swiss chapter of the NIDO entered into an agreement to create a Diaspora Vocational Training Initiative (DVTI) in order to teach much needed skills to rejected asylum seekers. The estimated cost of the project was 1.5 million Swiss francs (N302, 403, 543.42k). However, the project was stopped prematurely by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation when the sum of 340,000 Swiss francs was discovered to have been misused by the Swiss-NIDO

Thirdly, Switzerland wants to be on record to be fighting corruption, as well as promoting democracy. This point is evident in the various Swiss conditions for final repatriation of the outstanding Abacha loot given to the Nigerian government last week. And true enough, emphasis is generally placed on the development of democracy in the Eurocentric-driven international relations. It was at the La Baule Conference of Franco-African leaders that democracy was first made a conditionality for development assistance to African countries. Besides, the perception of Switzerland as a safe haven for ill-gotten funds cannot but also give the impression of Swiss conspiracy.

From the foregoing comes the conflict between sovereign equality and Swiss interference in the domestic affairs of Nigeria, an interference which no one appears to be much concerned with. In this regard, the conception of sovereign equality has two main aspects, the legal and the political. Regarding the legal dimension, every member of the international community has only one vote, regardless of its territorial size or demography or military strength.

Additionally, and perhaps most significantly, no state has the right to query the legality of the acts of another sovereign state, even though new developments have compelled a review of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries. Even the African Union has gone beyond the OAU’s principle of non-interference into imbibing the principles of interference and intervention. Thus, the essence of sovereignty is simply not to accept the supranational authority of any other country.

Regarding the political aspects of sovereign equality, it is more of the operational modalities of the principle that are involved. It is about the practical distribution of economic viability, military strength, use of cultural power. For instance, at the level of the UN, there is the principle of ‘weighted voting’ which simply means that the amount of money contributed determines the corresponding number of votes. In this regard, it is possible for An Africa of 54 countries to have just 100 votes on the basis of the totality of their assessed dues while a group of developed countries numbering just eight or twenty members can have 150 votes or more.

The implication of this is that the equality established at the level of sovereign equality as a legal conception is nothing more than inequality at the level of sovereign equality at the political level. Thus, how do we explain the issue of sovereign equality in both senses at the level of Nigeria-Switzerland relations? At the level of legal conception, the relationship is horizontal but vertical at the level of political conception. Again, to what extent can Nigeria insist on the legal conception to the detriment of the political conception? Should Nigeria close her eyes to the legal conception because of the need for repatriation of the stolen funds in Swiss banks? In other words, what is the place of self-respect or respect for Nigeria? In the absence of respect, what about the implications of a partnership or cooperation, and even an entente predicated on inequality of perception and attitudinal disposition?

Swiss Interference through Political Conditionality
Interference, which may be direct or indirect, in the domestic affairs of another country, takes different forms: offer of advice through note verbales; direct comments by accredited diplomats in their receiving states; engagement of foreign diplomats in the political activities of their host countries; verbal criticism of activities in another country, especially through radio and television programmes, etc. It is useful to recall the example of Egypt necessary and indecent interference in Nigeria’s affairs in 2005. The Egyptian Foreign Minister convened an international press conference in Cairo during which he accused Nigeria, by direct implication, President Olusegun Obasanjo and his Foreign Minister, Ambassador Oluyemi Adeniji, of not protecting the interests of the African Union but those of Nigeria.

This accusation was made against the fact that President Obasanjo was Chairman of AU Assembly of Heads of State while Ambassador Adeniji was Chairman of the Council of Ministers. A Committee of Ten, two from each region of Africa was set up, with a mandate to consult with other countries interested in the democratization of the UN Security Council. Ambassador Adeniji executed the mandate to the admiration of everyone but Egypt created a press platform to lambast Nigeria. In Egypt, it is forbidden to criticize the President on the pages of newspapers or in the press. Yet this was done to Nigeria. When the attention of President Obasanjo was drawn to the matter, he simply brought long-time experience to bear to ensure respect for Nigeria and that put an end to Egypt’s indirect and undue interference.

The interference of Switzerland is different and more decent on this matter of repatriation of Abacha’s ill-gotten funds to Nigeria. On March 8, 2016 Nigeria, represented by the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice and Switzerland, represented by the Foreign Minister, Mr. Didier Burkhalter, signed a letter of intent for the repatriation of outstanding Abacha’s illicit assets in Swiss banks.

As explained by Mr. Burkhalter, ‘the fight against corruption is a priority of our government and it is important to work together in order to restitute the money that has been stolen to the population. Switzerland and Nigeria have already written the history ten years ago with the restitution of 700 million dollars of the Abacha funds.’ More importantly, the Swiss Minister said ‘today, it is another amount of $321 million that can be restituted. We are at the end of the process but it is very important now to make everything right and above all to organize a monitoring mechanism by the World Bank for the use of these stolen assets.

And then there will be restitution and it will be and can be swift, transparent and can be at the end of the good of the population.’
And most importantly, Mr. Burkhalter also noted that ‘there is the necessity of a monitoring mechanism by the World Bank and it is also necessary to have good projects in social way. For instance, there could be the initiative to save one million lives. If we have this mechanism by the World Bank for monitoring and the good project to the good of the population, then the money will be restituted.’

While the implications of Mr. Burkhalter’s statement are far reaching and assertive, those of Nigeria are not. They are, at best, very subservient. As noted by the Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, ‘the intendment arising from the signing of the letter of intent is to communicate to the world and the Nigerian state in this regard that the intention is there and the fund is going to be repatriated as quickly as soon as possible.’ Additionally, he said ‘the message is clear that this government is up and doing as far as the repatriation of looted funds wherever they are located, wherever they are situated in the globe is concerned. The government has the desired commitment, has the desired political will, has the desired cooperation and has put in place the desired road map for the recovery of the looted fund.’

Explained in other words, the Swiss Foreign Minister is saying that Nigerian government and people cannot be trusted in terms of good performance, judicious management of public funds, non-reliability of Nigerian professionals, bad governance, especially in terms of inability of Government to know that there is the need to save the lives of one million Nigerians, as well as identifying good projects for which the would-be restituted funds will be devoted.

If the Swiss government has trust in the government, why insist on the monitoring by the World Bank? Is the World Bank free from corruption and sharp practices? Are there no criminals in Switzerland? If there are no criminals how do we explain the existence of prisons in the country?
Nigeria’s Minister of Justice talked about communicating to the world Nigeria’s commitment, political will to recover looted funds. This is good but at what cost?

Preventing a Foreign Policy of Retrogression
The direction of foreign policy in Nigeria has the potential of leading to retrogression. What Nigeria needs now is a foreign policy of self-respect and self-reliance that can culminate in greatness. Without any repatriation of funds from any country, Nigeria’s growth and development cannot be said to be tied to the stolen funds. Even if the outstanding balance of $321 million is restituted today, will that put a stop to the galloping institutional corruption in Nigeria? Is the recidivist character of corruption in Nigeria not partly sustained by many development partners of Nigeria?

And true enough, if Nigeria is to be able to make u-turn and prevent a foreign policy of retrogression, greater emphasis should be on respect for Nigeria. The looted funds belong to the people of Nigeria, not to people of Switzerland.

Switzerland is therefore guilty of even keeping stolen funds. The Swiss authorities are not even talking about the interests thereon. To me, it is better to have the global community give respect to Nigeria and to Nigerians than accepting repatriation of ill-gotten funds on political conditions that directly undermine national sovereignty. There is no good basis for Switzerland to be pointing to what constitutes good projects on which to spend the money.

Let Nigeria remain Nigeria. Let Nigerians be Nigerians and let them govern themselves without imposition of any conditionality. Let the World Bank continue to govern itself and its stakeholders but not Nigeria. No Nigerian Minister should do anything capable of belittling Nigeria in international relations.