INTERVIEW: Our govt officials don’t steal public funds; they don’t use private jets or fly first class — Swiss Ambassador

Hans Rudolf Hodel, Switzerland ambassador to Nigeria

Switzerland is a small but an extraordinary country that has largely tamed official profligacy and has succeeded in instilling a rare sense of accountability in its leaders and people, says Hans-Rudolf Hodel, the country’s ambassador to Nigeria. As a diplomat, Mr. Hodel is only allowed to fly economy class, not business or first class, much more a chartered or private jet commonly used by Nigerian elites. There are only two presidential jets used only when a large number of officials travel.

Mr. Hodel spoke to PREMIUM TIMES’ editors in Abuja in August about his country and its administration, Nigeria, corruption, Abacha’s loot, and more. Excepts:

PT: Switzerland like Nigeria is also a Federal state, but your country appears to have been able to manage its diversity successfully?

Ambassador: This is a subject I like to talk about very much because our federalism is really a success story. There are different types of federalism even in Europe, but for me the main difference between states or nations like ours, where the federalism comes from bottom up and states where federalism is decided by the central government….

Our nation was founded more than 700 years ago when people from three different regions- what we call Cantons- decided that they want to become independent and they threw out the Habsburg, the famous family which led to the founding of Austria and the huge success led to a huge empire. In present day Switzerland, there is a Castle called Habsburg. The Castle of Habsburg is in Switzerland. The last war against them was in 1315 when they had to disappear for good.

I had to explain this because it shows that people came together and decided that “we are stronger together”, it should not be every valley for itself and it’s better to do things together. For centuries, this remained our national idea. Hundred years ago that Switzerland was created and we had for the first time, a Constitution and the basis of that constitution is that all competences lie within the Cantons. We have three levels of administration; the Federal, the Cantons, which is like the states in Nigeria and what you call local governments, to us the Communities. But the decisive thing is the Cantons.

The Cantons have sovereignty about everything; but they said if we want to be able to defend ourselves against foreign powers, France, Austria-which was very powerful too-, Italy and Germany, then we have to do certain things together, and so like in every state, what will come to mind is what will be regulated at Federal and not Cantonal level which is Defence and foreign policy.

This was the competence that was given to the Central state.

But, of course, modern development does not allow you to do too many things at the local level and that is why more and more competences went to the Federal state. Nowadays, our Federal Constitution says all competences come to the centre if the cantons agree with that. Don’t forget that each canton also has its own constitution.

So, many competences are shared; for instance under Education, we have two Federal Universities; but all lower level schools and most universities are at cantonal levels. Police used to be at the Cantonal levels, but the bigger cities also had Police, at the moment, we have only Cantonal police; we have no federal police. We have a small unit at the Ministry of Justice called Federal police, but that is just for International Relations or some crimes involving explosives, but they have no uniform, it is just for administration.

Health, also remains a Cantonal competence, we have no Federal hospitals. Social Affairs is also a cantonal competence; that means that not just that they have the authority, but also that many things are not the same in all Cantons. Each Canton decides on its own how to conduct its affairs. It’s just recently that we began to unify the school year, which is now in autumn. Before, some cantons started in spring, others in autumn. That was causing confusion for people travelling or moving within Switzerland.

Some Cantons used to have seven years as mandatory school years, but now all have nine years. So you see a tendency of having more and more things go at a federal level.

This system is also a success because it is absolutely necessary that finances go together with competencies. That means if you are in charge of social security or health, you must also have the money to do it. So, all our three levels have their own authority on taxes; When I live in Switzerland, in a community like Bern, which is my home town, I pay taxes on my income to the city of Bern, I also pay taxes to the Canton of Bern and also pay to the confederation.

All these taxes are decided by the people themselves; that is a guarantee that the tax are executed well, because if my cantonal government in charge of the Cantonal University wants to improve it and needs more money, they have to convince the population that this one is needed and if they have to raise taxes for this reason, they will have to convince them so that people will be willing to pay taxes. Imagine how many countries in the world where people will agree to pay more taxes; in Switzerland, they do.

At Cantonal level we have taxes on income and wealth, while at the Federal level we have Value Added Tax, VAT. There is also income tax at federal level, but no wealth tax at federal level. That in a few words is how our federalism is working.

PT: In the light of what you just explained, how does your country ensure that corruption does not set in whereby people in authority corner what belongs to all citizens.

Ambassador: In Switzerland, people consider public wealth as their own; so if I will use my government’s money to do private things, then I will really have the impression that I am stealing from my fellow citizens because I am also a tax payer. For instance, whenever I travel for official duties, I fly economy because it’s my taxpayer’s money. I can’t say oh! Now I have an opportunity to fly Business or even first class because it is government money.

PT: As an ambassador, you fly economy? We believe Nigerian officials fly first class.

Ambassador: Oh yes, that is why I hardly meet them, I must fly economy. The only exception is that when you are first appointed and when you are going back, that is the first and last trips; you are allowed to fly on Business.

PT: Other top officials use presidential jets?

Ambassador: No we have only two presidential jets and they use them rarely. They are mostly used when a large government delegation is travelling, like when the Minister recently came here to lead a delegation to your government.

But, none of our Cantonal Governors fly official or private jets. Perhaps it is due to the proximity between citizens and their elected representatives. They walk in the street and take the trains to work just like any other citizen. For instance if I take a train to work, I may be in the same Wagon as the Member of Parliament representing my constituency or even the Minister who also often travels to work by train. That proximity favours a high degree of accountability as well.

Secondly, the fact that we don’t have any resources coming from the extractive industry, we don’t have oil, we don’t have minerals, so that “easy money” or that easy generated revenue, if I may say, is not there. So, the wealth that is generated is through the work of the people and the higher the value that the Swiss economy has become.

Therefore, that income that is generated is easily traceable when it is spent for public affairs.

That is a very strong point because cost of living is very high, what costs a dollar in other countries, costs five dollars in Switzerland. We have to earn this money, and so we have to be careful not to misuse this money so that we don’t become poor again.

Switzerland, two hundred years ago, was a very poor country and many citizens had to go abroad because there was not enough to eat in Switzerland. We have to be better than others, or we cannot maintain our level of living.

PT: I don’t know what you call leaders of your Cantons, here, we call them governors. But my question is on the level of their vehicle convoy?

Ambassador: Never! Our system of government is the same at both federal and cantonal levels. What we have is the Ministers coming together to form a government. There is not a President. For instance, our Head of State formally are the seven Ministers called the Federal Council. One of the seven persons is the president, but he is just a primus Inter Pares, he just presides over the Council of the Ministers once a week, one is vice president, and after one year, the Vice becomes the President, and the former president becomes a regular member. This is the same at Cantonal level. The Swiss do not like outstanding personalities who dominate the office.

On vehicle convoys, there was once a big scandal, it was in all papers because the wife of the president used her husband’s official car for shopping. Our Ministers have one official car, with a regular local registration plates, and he has one driver, so that he can work in the car, but there is no police car either in front or at the back.

Sometimes, the Ministers use the train, I remember one time I was coming back for holidays from St. Gallen to Bern as a student and I saw the Minister of Finance asking one employee of the Federal Railways when the next train going to Bern is leaving, and this fellow did not know that he was talking to the Minister of Finance, and we ended up taking the same Wagon with the Minister, I was seated right opposite him.

There is no reserve compartment for any top government official or police escort in the train for anyone. They don’t have to hide or fear anything from the population because they are doing the job that the population wants them to do.

PT: Was it a shock to you when you saw how our government officials generally move about and conduct their affairs?

Ambassador: No! I have served in many countries in the world, and what obtains here is basically what happens everywhere. People are actually shocked when they go to Switzerland, because the Swiss is the exception, not you.

PT: So even here you have only one official car?

Ambassador: Yes, but it is a bullet proof car, because my government has decided that in some special countries, we should have bullet proof cars for the ambassador, but they belong to the government. But I have a private car which is normally used by my wife. But when I am in another country, we always use private cars, we don’t have official cars. I buy the car I use with my own money, and whenever I am leaving I can decide to sell it or do whatever I like with it.

That is because I have a small allowance in my salary as part of transport. It is my decision to either go by taxi or train. The only privileged I have as an ambassador is that I normally have a driver.

PT: I know diplomats hardly talk about their areas of assignment, but without sounding as if you are interfering into Nigerian affairs, are you in a position to advise Nigeria on how best to curb this perception about corruption using your experience in your country?

Ambassador: A foreign ambassador is not here to give advice to his host country; we are not allowed to speak about Nigerian politics and similar affairs. I can explain how we do it in our country without saying it is a model for the world. I find it ok for Switzerland. But Nigerians must organise their country as they think is best for them; whether it is the government that should do that or the population. It is up to Nigerians to decide what is best for you, what I have to do is my job and have to adapt to the local conditions.

I think one of our added values is that because we don’t have 350-400 languages, we don’t have 170 million people; we have only four official languages and a population of 8 million. But at our own level we have that high degree of diversity within our country as well; religious diversity, language diversity, dialect and cultural diversity with the Italians, Germans, French and Romans.

So there are similarities between Switzerland and Nigeria, albeit on different proportions. So what we can do as an embassy rather than to come and give advice is to provide platforms of interaction between our two countries so that there can be a mutual type of learning, understanding and then people are free to take whatever they want back to their own country to say for instance this and this is a good idea, let us try and see how we can implement them.

To add to your previous question, I think a lot boils down to education as well. The way Swiss people are educated promotes an element of modesty in the system. We don’t go for people who stand out, that is why we have so many famous persons, Michael Schumacher and many others who have houses in Switzerland because people leave them alone.
If they go to other countries for instance and go to the shop, there will be a crowd around them, but Schumacher for instance before he got his accident can walk to the village bakery and buy his bread without anyone disturbing him.

That is a bit of the education that we have. For instance, we fly economy because I will surely feel a level of guilt to fly business for a flight that cost $5000 in business and $1000 in economy. The thing is what value can that $4000 difference add to my country, and that has always been the guiding principle.

If I am CEO of a very large private company, that is ok, but as a public servant, a government official, it is not possible. That is the kind of mindset that we have.

Interaction is very important. I am very appreciative of this exchange we are having, especially with a medium like yours. I am really impressed by the work you do here, I have you as a favourite news source on my Ipad. These types of discussions is what will help so much, not just to you but us as well, because that way we understand our host country better.

Coming back to education, let me add that we all went to public school, our best schools are the public schools; private schools are for those students who are not bright enough to go to high school without additional teaching. For students who are not bright enough and their parents have to take them to private schools for more teaching time so that they can be able to meet up with the required standard to get to the next level. I attended public schools up to my PhD Degree.

One thing also is that it’s people like you that have that transformative power. When we read your investigative pieces which facilitated our meeting with Tobore (Premium Times reporter) for instance, going through that investigative process which brought that story out, this touches the imagination of people well beyond Nigerian borders as well. So, I think it is through such independent-minded mediums, individuals that genuinely have the good of the nation and the good of the Nigerian people at heart that can expose abuses and corruption and also hold the leaders accountable. That is what is going to change Nigeria, if Nigerians want. It is very important for us to show support to people that have the good of their nation at heart.

PT: How much of Abacha loot has been returned to the country? You also said you don’t have oil and yours is a small country; do we benefit from trade relations with you?

Ambassador: Wherever I go in Nigeria, whoever I meet and who is a little bit linked to Media, we can discuss football, we can discuss art, handcraft, but every discussion we had, all lead to the Abacha question. This appears to be the real question and my answer is standard. In 2007 the Swiss government gave back 700 million Swiss Francs through bilateral agreement because we wanted to make sure the money does not disappear again.

So we had an agreement between Nigeria, the World Bank and Switzerland. The World Bank was guaranteeing that the money was used for the good of the people and that is it, all money is given back. Sometimes people mix up things. There was discussion about a son of Abacha who apparently lived in Europe; but the 700 million Swiss franc which is about $800 million Abacha money has been given back seven years ago.

On trade relation, it is mostly in favour of Nigeria. It is about $600 million export value from Nigeria, while we export about $220 million. We export mostly chemicals, pharmaceuticals and machinery.

For Nigeria, it’s sad to say, it is 100% oil and it is a pity because I travel a lot in Nigeria. In less than two years I have been to 27 states and I see that you have huge agricultural potential. Unfortunately, wherever I go, I see all these people trading on the road. Nigerians have the tendency to like trade and not that much for production. So, the potential that Nigeria has is not yet fully used such that the export structure of Nigeria is also reflecting that and, especially with Switzerland, it’s only oil. In that sense, Nigeria profits from our trade relations.

PT: You talked about oil, a lot of the commodity trades are based in Switzerland, and I am sure you have been following reports in the last two years about how the NNPC here has been largely colluding with Swiss traders to basically rob Nigeria of its resources. What is the Swiss Government doing about that?

Ambassador: About two to three years ago, we found out that there should be a better control, but you know it is difficult. The activities of some of these companies are not very transparent, some are based in Geneva but most are in foreign hands.

Switzerland is trying to convince these companies to certain rules that we are developing with other countries. There are also private initiatives such as the famous voluntary principles for instance; we have always tried to convince not only traders in Switzerland, but have also tried to convince Nigeria to join such initiatives.

Netherlands, UK are also active. The goal is to force them to have more transparency and to respect the rules in the countries where they are active. These rules are not just economic, but also involve human rights, including the rights of the workers, and that is what we can do. We cannot interfere directly in their day-to-day businesses because our economic system is that companies have to behave and obey the rules.

A lot of these issues that have now come out between the NNPC and Swiss-based companies were actually revealed by a Swiss civil society, which is also a testimony of the accountability monitoring and investigation of Swiss citizens and civil society. The government is very aware this represents a challenge for our image, so we are working closely with both the civil society and the private sector to try and address this.

One of the challenges is by enforcing rules and regulations, while legislating. It is difficult to do so if there is no international consensus and harmonisation on similar types of legislations and rules and regulations.

If Switzerland, whose economy is significantly dependent on a number of these major multinational companies, both for taxes and employment; Switzerland has become a hub; and if such legislations are imposed in Switzerland, it is easy for some of these companies to move out and go to either London, Singapore or wherever and to keep doing what exactly they have been doing, and then at the end of the day, we have put ourselves off site. So, a lot of what is being done now is to work together at multi-lateral level in order to harmonise some of these rules and regulations. There is a lot of bi-lateral agreement between the Swiss government and a lot of these multinational companies to work jointly on increasing the standards and respect for human rights and security in the conduct of their operations, making sure that whatever is decided at the headquarters is felt throughout subsidiaries that are operating on the ground especially in fragile countries.

So, there is a whole number of initiatives that Switzerland is spearheading. Of course one of them is the voluntary principle on human rights and security and another one is called the International Code of Conduct for private security companies and many others, but within our banking system and other companies that are operating in Switzerland.

As part of these initiatives, issues such as the Abacha case cannot come up again because we now have the Right Money Strategy programme in banks, which stipulate that the real owner of the money is always known; and the banking secrecy at the international level does not exist anymore. The idea was helpful for the development of the banks, but now we have seen that it aids criminals. The idea of the banking secrecy which still operates at the national level says that the authorities have no right to interfere in the affairs of the people. Authorities can only do so if one is seen to be spending may be 100% more than he earns and there is suspicion that he might be involved in criminal matters. That is just for people living in Switzerland, but at the international level, it doesn’t work like this, there is no banking secrecy anymore.

PT: Still on the Abacha thing, when you entered into an agreement with the World Bank and the Nigerian Government, are you aware then how the money was spent?

Ambassador: Yes, we have seen the report; what I can say is that it was not possible to do that in the sense of a project work. It was for financial regulation in Nigeria which was of course the responsibility of Nigeria. It was entrenched into the official budget of the Nigerian government. But the World Bank then checks in the field. For instance, where there is no university and one is set up there through the provision of schools, so we can say indirectly that this money helps in the building of schools which otherwise the Federal government would not have built.

There was a report, I have seen it once. I have not read it, it is rather thick. It was plausible we wanted to do a good job with the Nigerian government and there was cooperation because the situation was such that there was illegal money in Switzerland, but there was no government to claim it. This case cannot happen again.

A lot has also been achieved in terms of transparency and being reactive to situations. For instance, Switzerland was the first country to block the funds of former Tunisian president Ben Ali and Egyptian president Mubarak as well. There are serious efforts of legal and mutual assistance between the two governments now to return this money.

Sometimes it is difficult because when you are talking about countries in transition like in Egypt, where you have the election of Morsi and he is thrown out and a new one comes, so it becomes difficult to sustain a process of mutual legal assistance and a transparent process of returning money. Who do you return it to? Sometimes, a lot of efforts is also done to carry out paper work and often takes time and it is sometimes interpreted to mean Switzerland wanted to keep the money, which is absolutely always not the case.

Also there is a limit to how long the Swiss government will continue to block the money. For instance, if the government blocks a money on suspicion of being a proceed of crime, it will only be for some time. If the Nigerian government does not approach us to say such money was stolen from us, please help us to recover it; if Nigeria doesn’t do anything about it after three months, we have to give access to the account back to the owner; even if we know it was stolen. In the eyes of the law, it is the property of a civil person.

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