Abacha loot: Assets recovery ‘time-consuming, complex’ – U.S. officials

Former Head of State, Sani Abacha
Former Head of State, Sani Abacha

Following the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between Nigeria and the Swiss government for the return of $321 million, a United States government official has said assets recovery processes take time to unravel even when there is a strong political will from the affected country.

Robert Leventhal, Office of Anti-Crime Programs, U.S Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, speaking during a telephone press briefing on Thursday said the various ways to recover assets typically involve enforcing a conviction with confiscation from another country in the United States upon request; enforcing an order of confiscation from another country upon request; or the U.S government initiating its own investigations and prosecutions with the aim of providing the recovered assets back to the requesting country.

“Now, I said that this process can be time-consuming and complex,” Mr. Leventhal, who spoke from Washington DC, began.

“And here’s why: even when there’s strong political will and diligence by the requesting country, the victim country, and even where there’s strong political will and diligence by the requested country – for example, the United States where this is a strong policy for us – the movement of money across borders, the use of shell companies, the clever schemes put in place sometimes over years by corrupt officials and their enablers, takes time to unravel.

“And then unravelling them may not involve totally the two jurisdictions, the victims’ jurisdiction and a country like the United States. Money can move around from country-to-country through shell corporation after shell corporation and so it takes time and a lot of work, a lot of painstaking work, to unravel. And then the case is moved through our judicial system. We’re of course a rule of law country, the requesting countries typically have their own legal procedures to follow.

“There may be appeals by those who either in good faith feel that they have a claim to the assets or perhaps in some instances, trying to slow down the process and try to create obstacles. So, again, this is an area that takes time but the payoffs can be supremely important.”

The MOU between Nigeria and Switzerland was signed this week in the U.S during the opening ceremony of the Global Forum on Assets Recovery (GFAR) and was greeted with commendation by Nigerian civil society organizations.

At the pre-Global forum on GFAR last October, Abubakar Malami, Nigeria’s Attorney General of the Federation, said the repatriation of the funds would follow within weeks of signing the agreement.

According to Mr. Leventhal, the U.S government had frozen $3.5 billion in assets linked to foreign corruption.

“And since fiscal year 2016, the State Department and our U.S. Agency for International Development have dedicated more than $115 million each year to a wide range of foreign assistance efforts to build other countries’ capacity to counter corruption,” he said.

“Our Anti-Corruption Foreign Assistance Programs include capacity-building for governments to create stronger laws and more effective institutions to investigate, prosecute and secure convictions and to put in place measures to prevent corruption, foster oversight and promote government integrity and transparency.”

Another U.S government official, Kellen McClure, said despite the time-consuming nature of inter-government assets recovery procedures, certain lessons are learned over the process.

“And some of these lessons learned are these discussions need to start as early as possible,” said Mr. McClure, Anti-Corruption Advisor, Office of Anti-Crime Programs, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

“It’s really incumbent upon the countries to build trust in this partnership between them so that this dialogue can take place. And it’s always helpful to involve others in the process where possible and where appropriate, including civil society. And what we actually were able to do was to take some of these lessons learned and to develop notional principles on transparency in the transfer and disposition of these assets.”


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