Participants at the pre-GFAR Consultative meeting held in Abuja

The Africa Network for Environment and Economic Justice, in partnership with the Socio Economic Rights and Accountability Project, the Office of the Attorney General and Ministry of Justice and the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Nigeria Secretariat, recently organised a consultative meeting in Abuja ahead of the Global Forum on Asset Recovery (GFAR), taking place in Washington D.C. in early December. Abimbola Akosile captures the deliberations and outcomes from the high-level meeting

Crucial Consultation

Anti-corruption stakeholders in Nigeria recently convened for a preparatory consultative meeting ahead of the Global Forum on Asset Recovery (GFAR) scheduled to hold in Washington DC.

The Pre-GFAR Consultative Meeting, held at Reiz Continental Hotel, Abuja on October 26, was organised by the Africa Network for Environment and Economic Justice (ANEEJ) in partnership with Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), the Office of the Attorney General and Ministry of Justice and the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Nigeria Secretariat. The event was supported by the Macarthur Foundation and UKAid.

The forum attracted high level participation from government, the legislature, civil society, the private sector, international development partners and the diplomatic community. Goodwill messages were presented by the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami (SAN), the Coordinator of Nigeria’s OGP Secretariat, Mrs. Juliet Ibekaku-Nwagwu, the EFCC/NFIU, ICPC, the Swiss Ambassador to Nigeria, HE Eric Mayooraz, and the representative of the UK Embassy.

There was also a strong civil society delegation from across Nigeria including the Centre LSD, the Centre for Social Justice, CSJ, the OGP Secretariat, Gender Awareness Trust, Policy Alert, HEDA Resource Centre, Youth Accountability Forum, SERDEC, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), Nigerian Institute of Estate Surveyors and Valuers, BudgIT/Open Alliance, and the UK Department for International Development (DfID).

The aim was to engender frank discussions among participants at the Anti-corruption stakeholders in Nigeria ahead of the Global Forum on Asset Recovery (GFAR) in Washington.

Among those billed to make remarks at the meeting were the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami, SAN; British High Commissioner/Ambassador to Nigeria, US Ambassador to Nigeria, Swiss Ambassador, the MacArthur Foundation, UNODC, and SERAP executive Director, Adetokunbo Mumuni. There were also two sessions for key stakeholders to discuss issues related to the Nigerian position prior to the Washington GFAR meeting in December.

Global Forum

The Global Forum on Asset Recovery (GFAR) was established as an outcome of the London 2016 Anti-Corruption Summit hosted by former British Prime Minister, David Cameron. The US government committed to hosting GFAR and the inaugural forum will be held in Washington, DC from December 4 to 6.

The core objective of GFAR is to convene practitioner experts to provide an effective opportunity for States to cooperate on asset recovery cases, highlighting the importance of strong political commitment, multijurisdictional coordination, and practitioner interaction.

GFAR will bring together the Group of Seven (G-7), financial centres, and countries in transition seeking to recoup assets stolen through corruption. The inaugural GFAR will focus on the asset tracing and asset recovery efforts of four focus countries: Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, and Ukraine.

In addition to providing a venue for case specific meetings, GFAR seeks to provide a forum for training and discussion of best practices on cases, and identifies country-specific capacity building needs.

Useful Presentations

There were four presentations at the forum, which included ‘Nigerian government guidelines for Asset Recovery’ by the incoming chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, Prof. Bolaji Owasanoye; ‘Ongoing effort at tackling corruption and recovery of looted assets’ by the Acting chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Mr. Ibrahim Magu; ‘Nigeria government priority for GFAR’ by Ladidi Mohammed of the Federal Ministry of Justice, and a formal presentation of the CSO country report and the proposed Charter on Accountable Asset Return, by the Executive Director of ANEEJ, Rev David Ugolor.

There was also a panel discussion on the topic: Setting agenda for an enduring asset recovery regime in Nigeria: focusing on priority for GFAR and beyond, with the following panelists: EFCC/NFIU representative; Soji Apampa of the Integrity organisation; Mrs. Juliet Ibekaku Nwagwu; Adetokunbo Mumuni of SERAP, and Eze Onyekpere of the Centre for Social Justice.

Strategic Meeting

A strategy meeting took place at the Reiz Hotel, and there were 20 participants including Bolton-Akpan Tijah of Policy Alert; Ralph Ndigwe of CIRDDOC; Mohammed Attah of PRADIN; Dr. Igbinedion Simeon of the University of Lagos; Charles Osagie of Save the Future Initiative; Onyekpere Eze of Centre for Social Justice; Uche Igwe of OGP Support Unit; and Tijani Abdulkareem of the Social-Economic Research and Development Centre.

The strategy meeting resolved to present a new paradigm in favour of what work Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can carry out in the areas of prosecution, investigation and policy in the areas of asset recovery.

A key observation during this meeting was that technology, apart from the lawyers and accountants, has often helped to get the monies out of Nigeria, and therefore there is need to set up a committee to train NGOs and create a website for updating the knowledge base of stakeholders.

Setting the Tone

In an address of welcome, Ugolor said, apart from needing a new national asset recovery architecture to deal with the multiple challenges facing Nigeria, the country’s anti-corruption agencies need to explore more creative strategies to respond to the new-large scale incidences of corruption in both the public and private sectors.

“We need to strengthen our legal and institutional anti-corruption systems through the introduction of innovative legislative agenda. The Proceeds of Crime Bill and other anti-money laundering reform bills deserve urgent attention. The Panama Papers Leak and the Thambo Mbeki Report provide strong evidence why we should all work together to stop illicit financial flows out of Nigeria.

“It is equally important to emphasise that the rising migration from Nigeria and other poor African countries is directly connected to the looting of the public funds, funds which should have been used to tackle the problem of unemployment and the implementation of the SDGs in Nigeria”, Ugolor said.

In addition, he said considering the relevance of GFAR to Nigeria’s anti-corruption initiative with particular reference to asset recovery, the pre-GFAR consultative meeting in Nigeria became imperative as it provided an opportunity for the Nigerian government, anti-corruption agencies, civil society organisations and other stakeholders including development partners to interact and reach a common understanding on a number of issues ahead of the December meeting.

Some of the issues include the proposed Charter on Accountable Asset Return as a set of principles for asset return, initial findings and recommendations from CSO reports for the GFAR, and priority topics for Nigerian delegation and CSOs at the GFAR.

Ministerial Remarks

The Justice Minister, Mr. Malami, SAN, said Nigeria was willing to support the transparent return of stolen assets but also wants the international community to improve on procedures for faster return of stolen assets to enable Nigeria meet the sustainable development goals.

According to the minister, Nigeria had concluded negotiation with Switzerland on the return of $321 million recovered from the late Abacha family, and he used the opportunity of the ANEEJ-SERAP pre-GFAR meeting to reveal that CSOs in Nigeria would be involved in monitoring the use of the funds.

“With the conclusion of negotiation, parties hope to sign the Memorandum of Understanding at the Global Forum on Asset Recovery Meeting and repatriation will follow within weeks as agreed by the parties. I am also pleased to inform that Nigeria has just recovered the sum of $85 million on the Malabu Restrained Funds from the UK”, Malami said.

The Justice Minister used the forum to reiterate the need for the international community to ensure the implementation of easing the legal technicalities and procedures associated with recovery and repatriation of stolen funds, the reduction of opportunities and incentives that enable stolen funds to be placed in banks, or laundered through property acquisition and investment in offshore locations, sharing information and intelligence on the movement of stolen funds and assets, and promptly and providing information on beneficial owners of corporate bodies.

Other Inputs

Other keynote speakers included the British High Commissioner, Paul Arkwright, who commended Nigeria’s anti-corruption fight and pledged the continued support of the UK towards efforts to boost Nigeria’s anti-corruption fight.

“Our government recognises the frustrations in the fight against corruption, and we are committed to help Nigeria resolve those frustrations”, Arkwright said, a position which was reiterated by Michael Bonner, a representative of the United States ambassador.

The Swiss Ambassador; Dr. Kole Shettima of the MacArthur Foundation and a representative of the UNODC all made remarks which highlighted the need for a collaboration between the international community and Nigeria in the effort to return assets stashed in banks in Europe and the Americas.

Notable Observations

The panel discussants at the meeting observed that corruption undermines economic development, political stability, rule of law and destroys public trust in democracy, and that recovery of wealth stolen by politically exposed persons (PEPs) and stashed in developed countries, especially in secrecy havens, continues to be a tedious process in spite of international frameworks such as the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) to which Nigeria is signatory.

They also noted that the close collaboration between Nigerian government and civil society on the issue of asset recovery is highly commendable, and that the return of stolen assets is an important mechanism for financing the 2030 Agenda / Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Recommended Actions

At the end of the forum, various actions were agreed upon along three levels. Firstly, the Government of Nigeria was urged to divest the EFCC, ICPC and other law enforcement agencies of the responsibility of managing recovered assets and expedite action on the setting up of a special Agency under the proposed Proceeds of Crime (POC) Bill 2017 charged with applying, managing and coordinating the whole process of asset recovery, forfeiture and management of asset.

Government was also asked to strengthen the performance of existing institutions such as the EFCC, ICPC, Code of Conduct and, by providing clear mandates, sufficient resource allocation, data management and sharing, and effective coordination through an Inter-agency Task Team (IATT), to ensure that capacity, skills and resources are improved at all levels both as an interim measure ahead of the enactment of the POCA and within the framework of POCA

It was also enjoined to continue to provide revenue lines for recovered assets in the annual budgets to ensure that such resources can be expeditiously deployed as soon as they are received into projects that impact on the lives of Nigerian citizens; and to build capacity of the judiciary, media, lawyers, civil society, staff of anti-corruption agencies and legislators on asset recovery and management

Participants also called on government to strengthen existing laws on asset recovery in Nigeria particularly in the areas of non-conviction based confiscation powers and crimes of illicit enrichment, and provide accelerated hearing for the Proceeds of Crime (POC), Whistle Blower, Witness Protection and the Nigerian Financial Intelligence bills, among other anti-corruption legislation.

It was urged to institutionalise a framework for working with Nigerian civil society post-GFAR to ensure effective implementation of the recently adopted National Anti-corruption Strategy, Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) and Mutual Legal Assistance (MLA) negotiations on stolen assets, and the management and utilisation of such assets when recovered.

Government was also asked to rethink the definition of national assets beyond financial assets and develop a national inventory and database of assets to ensure that illegal movement of public assets are easily tracked.

Secondly, the Nigerian civil society was urged to identify specific niche areas for advocacy within the asset recovery value chain and build capacity of non-state actors to engage in asset recovery efforts; review the commitments of the London Anti-Corruption Summit and demand full implementation; and also to   conduct investigations and utilise the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act to demand for data on looted assets for use in advocacy.

The CSOs were also enjoined to scale up campaigns for sanctions against safe havens and illicit financial flows, including highlighting the illicit roles of banks, investment agencies, real estate agents and other third parties; and to participate actively in the implementation and monitoring of Nigeria’s Open Government Partnership (OGP) commitments on anti-corruption at both national and sub-national levels

They were also urged to raise public awareness on asset recovery issues and build grassroots demand for the prevention, recovery and repatriation; and develop, adopt and drive a shared domestic framework for monitoring the recovered loot.

Thirdly, the International Development Partners / Requested Countries were urged to fulfill their countries commitments under the 2016 London Anti-corruption Summit, and specific anti-corruption commitments made at the 2016 Nairobi 2nd High Level Meeting on Effective Development Cooperation, the Accra Agenda for Action and the Busan Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation.

They were asked to comply with the straightforward provisions of UNCAC rather than insist on less effective domestic laws and other complicated requirements in the matter of return of Nigeria’s assets; and to insist on participation of CSOs in the negotiations of bilateral agreements and Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) and in monitoring of returned assets to ensure

The development partners were also urged to push for the use of existing laws in their home countries for the tracing, recovery and repatriation of stolen wealth from Nigeria and other developing countries; and to scale up support for Nigerian Civil Society groups working on anti-corruption and asset recovery.