“I am not going to demand an apology from anybody. What I am demanding is a return of assets … This is what I am asking for. What would I do with an apology? I need something tangible.” – President Muhammadu Buhari, 2016
In May 2016, President Muhammadu Buhari made the above statement at a Commonwealth conference in London in reaction to Mr. David Cameron, then Prime Minister of the Great Britain, who called Nigeria “fantastically corrupt”.
Cameron had in a discussion with Queen Elizabeth II at a Buckingham Palace reception, ahead of an anti-corruption summit in London described Nigeria and Afghanistan as fantastically corrupt countries.
Buhari’s refusal to demand an apology had generated reactions around the world, but in truth, he Buhari was in fact only demanding what was expected under international law adopted by the United Nations.
The United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) resolution 58/4 of October 31, 2003, negotiated by member states of the United Nations and adopted by the UN General Assembly entered into force in December 2005 as the only legally binding international anti-corruption multilateral treaty.
A key aspect of the UNCAC is the repatriation of stolen assets of developing countries in the West. Former Secretary General of the UN, Dr. Kofi Anan, under who the treaty was adopted had noted that the repatriation of the stolen assets is vital to the development of the developing countries of Africa where the assets were carted away from.
In his words, “the Merida Convention, together with the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime, gives us the tools to address crime and corruption on a global scale… The provision of UNCAC on asset recovery which obligates Member States to return assets obtained through corruption to the countries from whom they were stolen is a major breakthrough that will help tackle a pressing problem for many developing countries, where corrupt elites have looted billions of dollars that are now desperately needed by new governments to redress the social and economic damage inflicted on their societies.”
This provision and the need to return stolen assets lodged in developed countries resonated at the 42nd annual convention of the Nigerian Society of International Law (NSIL), held at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), Lagos.
The conference with the theme ‘Is International Law at a Cross Road?’ deliberated on issues of global corruption with emphasis on the need to repatriate Africa’s stolen assets lodged in the developed countries and how corruption has affected governance in Nigeria and other African countries.
NSIL was founded in 1968 by Dr. Taslim Olawale Elias, one-time Attorney General and Commissioner of Justice in Lagos State, who was also Attorney General and Minister of Justice of the Federation, and later served as a Judge of the International Court of Justice at the Hague.
The society’s objectives are the study, dissemination and advancement of Public and Private International Law, Comparative law and Institutions, International Relations, and related subjects.
In her welcome address at the NSIL convention, Prof. Yinka Omorogbe, President of the association, who is also Attorney General and Commissioner of Justice in Edo State lamented that international laws and conventions have suffered because “the superpower leaders in recent times manifest attitudes that appear to show an increasing tendency to promote domestic interest over and above international commitments and obligations.”
She said, “Even as the structures and forms of municipal law are being tested to their limits, the strength of the international legal system- particularly in areas of security and economic integration are having to adapt to the realities of the 21st century. Presently, conflicts abound, different from those that led to the emergence of the United Nations, after the collapse of the League of Nations and the 2nd World War.”
Chairman of the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission (ICPC), Prof. Bolaji Owasanoye, in a paper titled ‘Interrogating International Law and Global Collective Action against Corruption: Return of Stolen Assets in Perspective’, insisted that return of stolen assets is germane to the global fight against corruption.
He said, “Corruption is a threat to global peace and security, undermines governance, economies, causes poverty, undercuts public trust in institutions, and encumbers the ability of states to deliver infrastructure, quality education, health, and other social services. Consequently, collective action must aggregate the efforts of global, regional institutions, states and governments, companies and organized private sector, civil society organisations, the media and average citizens.”
He also canvassed for the extension of the mandate of the International Criminal Court to cover grand corruption, or, the creation of an International Anti-Corruption Court.
“An emerging area in the international anti-corruption debate is the need to either extend the mandate of the International Criminal Court to cover grand corruption, or, the creation of an International Anti-Corruption Court that would wield powers like the various Tribunals that the international community constituted to punish war crimes after WW II, Yugoslavia, and Rwanda…Grand corruption are as egregious as genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity because they also shock the conscience of mankind…”, he added.
Resolution of NSIL
At the end of their deliberations, the NSIL noted that international law “is not only at a crossroads, but will continue to remain so mainly for reasons of conflicting national interests.”
In a communiqué signed by its General Secretary, Dr. Asikia Karibi-Whyte, the society commended the renewed effort of the Federal Government through the ICPC, for the return of assets stolen from Nigeria, a project which the NSIL vowed to support.
It also called for more action to strengthen the UN Conventions against transactional organised crimes and urged UN member states to take necessary measures to enable confiscation of proceeds of crime derived from offences.
The group also urged the Federal Government to up its game from signing and rectifying various international law and treaties but by ensuring their implementation, because “it is time to shift from negotiation to implementation of a normative legal order”, NSIL said.
Need to repatriate stolen funds
Nigeria continues to struggle with infrastructure deficit, and there is no doubt that if the stolen funds are repatriated, the country could address some of its development challenges.
In May 2017, the Chatham House report titled, ‘Collective Action on Corruption in Nigeria, a Social Norms Approach to Connecting Societies and Institutions’, estimated that about $582 billion has been stolen from Nigerian treasury by public officials since independence,1960.
The report added that “acts of diversion of federal and state revenue, business and investment capital, and foreign aid, as well as the personal incomes of Nigerian citizens, contribute to a hollowing out of the country’s public institutions and the degradation of basic services.”
Another report published in 2018 by the Financial Derivatives Company (FDC), an economic and financial research firm, further said that “Nigeria requires $15bn (N4.59tn at N306 to a dollar) worth of investments annually for 15 years in order to adequately develop its infrastructure nationwide.”
At $15 billion annually for 15 years, the implication is that the country needs about $225 billion to meet her infrastructure requirements. This is just a fraction of the $582 billion the Chatham House said had been pilfered from the country since independence.
However, the FDC report said that “the Federal Government’s limited access to foreign credit and revenue constraints had made it difficult for the country to source for funds to meet its infrastructural needs.”
The ICPC chairman noted that the return of stolen assets is increasingly discussed at various global fora on international law and corruption because of the implicit nexus between stolen assets, illicit financial flows and attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The exact figures so far recovered by the Federal Government may not be known, but as at June 2018, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami said in Abuja that the country has struck a deal with the United States, United Kingdom and France for the return of $500 million allegedly stolen by the Late General Sani Abacha. He said under the agreement, specific projects to which the funds will be committed were identified.