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Of African Dictators And Foreign Assets

By Emmanuel Onwubiko 

Forty eight hours ago, in The Hague Netherlands, the United Nations funded International Court of Justice gave a ruling which should worry Africans. But sadly, African media gave the story a blackout.

This story could have easily made the cover pages of almost all of the mainstream media in Africa if these media establishments are focused towards developmental and sustainable development affiliated reports that will put the future and wellbeing of Africa over and above the financial wellbeing of the media owners in Africa.

This landmark judgment was made in a case filed against France by Equatorial Guinea over the attempts by France to confiscate multibillion dollar worth choice assets of the rogue son of the President of Equatorial Guinea. Ironically, it is the same family who stole these assets from their African nation that used the people’s resources to file the suit against France. Equatorial Guinea under the thieving dictator did not go to the global court to retrieve the assets the Son of the President diverted to this European nation of France but rather it went to court to ensure that the boy who stole these funds belonging to Equatorial Guinea continues to enjoy these stolen assets.

France on the other hand does not wish to seize the assets so as to keep them for the people of Equatorial Guinea so any time their current rogue leadership fizzles out these properties would be returned. I doubt it. No, France apparently wants to keep these assets to enrich their own nation. The same France watched as the boy continued to pillage his home nation and was warehousing these stolen funds in France but France did not complain but they now want to harvest the stolen assets like a thief in the night who wants to reap from where they never sowed.

Assuming without conceding that France will inevitably return the assets in future to Equatorial Guinea governed by a democratically elected government, France would have benefitted substantially from keeping back the ownership of those assets based on the controversial verdict of the International Court of Justice in The Hague .

The UN affiliated Court ruled that France has the jurisdiction to seize these massive assets built over time in France by this corrupt son of the long term dictator of Equatorial Guinea. But for a European owned press AFP, this story would have disappeared into insignificance.

The story which should worry any rational thinking African is that the UN’s top court found in favour of France on Friday in a bitter battle with Equatorial Guinea over a swanky Paris house seized in a corruption probe into the playboy son of the African nation’s long-term president. Equatorial Guinea argued that the luxury mansion could not be confiscated as it was part of its diplomatic mission in France, and that it did not belong to Vice-President Teodorin Obiang as French investigators alleged.

But the International Court of Justice upheld France’s objections that Malabo had only tried to designate it as such after the investigation began into Obiang, the son of iron-fisted President Teodoro Obiang Nguema.

“The court finds that the building at 42 Avenue Foch has never acquired the status of the mission of the Republic of Equatorial Guinea in the French republic,” ICJ President Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf said. The 107-million-euro property seized in 2012 boasts a cinema, a disco, a spa and gold-leafed taps and is located near the Arc de Triomphe in one of the French capital’s most prestigious streets.

French authorities also seized a fleet of luxury cars including two Bugatti Veyrons — one of the world’s fastest and most expensive supercars — and a Rolls Royce Phantom. A Paris court handed the younger Obiang a three-year suspended term and $32.9 million fine in 2017 for plundering tens of millions of dollars from the oil- and timber-rich African nation’s coffers to fund his jetset lifestyle in France.

In 2016, lawyers for Equatorial Guinea went to the Hague-based ICJ — the world’s legal referee in disputes between countries — to order France to stop Obiang’s criminal prosecution, arguing that he had immunity. They also asked judges to rule that France broke the Vienna Convention, which safeguards diplomats from interference by a host country, when they seized the mansion. But the ICJ ruled that France had objected to Malabo’s attempts to designate it as a diplomatic property “in a timely manner” that was “neither arbitrary nor discriminatory.” Equatorial Guinea already had an embassy in the French capital, it said.

Obiang is famed for his fondness for Michael Jackson memorabilia, parties, supercars, fancy suits, jewellery, yachts and the company of hip hop stars, documenting many of his exploits on Instagram. The 52-year-old is the oldest son of Africa’s longest-serving leader. As vice president, he has been groomed to succeed his father as head of a state awash with oil but mired in poverty and a reputation for corruption.

Paris has long been a favoured destination for the ill-gotten gains of wealthy figures linked to political leaders in Africa, particularly in France’s former colonies. Legal experts had argued that a ruling in favour of Equatorial Guinea could harm France’s long-term attempts to bring groups and individuals to book for misappropriating public funds at home and then stashing the proceeds in France.

Cecily Rose, an assistant professor of public international law at Leiden University in the Netherlands, said the case “advertises the fact that France is a sort of leader in the anti-corruption fight.” “That’s very powerful, and could lead to some very interesting public interest litigation concerning corruption in the future,” she said.

I was watching a British owned broadcasting station Sky News and in one of a well researched documentary, the reporter uncovered a company based in central London tjat specialises in registering British licenced firms for all kinds of foreigners outside of Great Britain for the purposes of using the banking networks in Great Britain to launder billions of dollars Monthly. Britain is said to be a safe haven for a lot of Nigerian public office holders who hide under the cover of diplomatic passports to ship in billions of stolen cash and invest into British housing and banking systems which are never traced.

So this piece of news that a small Island nation near Nigeria known as Equatorial Guinea has lost multibillion dollar worth of choice assets stolen from them into France and the United Nations controlled judicial forum actually allowed the foreign power which tolerated the warehousing of stolen assets out of Africa, is to say the least, shocking and indeed sad. Equatorial Guinea is a nation of just 1.5 million people but the tiny nation is enormously resource rich.

However, the family that used the barrels of the gun to capture political powers has siphoned away a greater quantity of their national wealth thereby leaving the less than two million people hungry, poor and confused. Sadly, the thieving ruling family are still in power. Same story is replicated in all of Africa with Nigeria as amongst the most corrupt nation’s. Erstwhile British Prime minister David Cameron said Nigeria is fantastically corrupt. Indeed, the current administration has increasingly failed to stop massive heist of public fund going on in virtually all the department and offices of the central government.

The 36 States and Abuja are not any different because some of the governors engage in capital flights through some fronts and professional money launderers. A former governor of Delta state James Ibori served 7 years in a British jail for robbing Delta State of humongous sums of money. Although some of the assets traced to James Ibori were recovered but Great Britain kept back a chunk of these cash. Whilst reflecting on why Europeans allow African dictators to rob African countries and conceal these stolen assets in the banking system of Europe, tells me that these European countries are not any different from the thieving elites in Africa who divert public funds from Africa to Europe.

The big question is- How to Get Back Africa`s Stolen Assets? Gladys Mirugi-Mukundi, research intern, Organised Crime and Money Laundering, ISS Cape Town, took her time to adumbrate on this conundrum and the following are the product of her research thus: “Addressing the AU Summit in Kampala in July 2010, Eric Holder, the US Attorney General reiterated that combating corruption generally and in the United States was his government’s top priority.

It is in that vein that he announced that the US Department of Justice is launching a new Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative ‘aimed at combating large-scale foreign official corruption and recovering public funds for their intended – and proper – use: for the people of our nations.’ He informed the gathering of Heads of State and Governments of the African Union that his office was ‘assembling a team of prosecutors who will focus exclusively on this work and build efforts already underway to deter corruption, hold offenders accountable, and protect public resources.’’

The significance of these words, the writer said, was not lost on curious observers across the continent that have become accustomed to rhetoric from political actors on ending corruption and recovery of stolen national coffers. Indeed, if Holder’s words were translated into real action, it will have an impact not only on governance and development in Africa but also on the numerous asset recovery initiatives on the continent.

She said, the seriousness of recovering assets stolen from public coffers in Africa, most of them stashed away in foreign bank vaults and off shore investments cannot be overemphasised. African policy makers and law enforcement agencies are indeed aware and concede that tracing and retrieving proceeds of crime, tax evasion and corruption is a monumental task. She cited the report by the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, which stated that at least 25 percent of the GDP of African countries is lost annually to corruption. In such situations, the political and economic elites almost always elude the tax authorities.

The joint Stolen Assets Recovery Initiative by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the World Bank summed up the challenges encountered in locating proceeds of corruption by political or economic elites, especially where they have been moved across borders.

The challenges according to her include: limited legal, investigative and judicial capacity; inadequate financial resources to pursue complex cases; and non-responsive foreign jurisdictions where stolen assets are hidden, often in developed countries, to requests for legal assistance.

Experiences from Nigeria, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Kenya are a clear indication that countries embarking on asset recovery operations encounter legal and practical difficulties as they tread on the thin line between justice and repatriation. The first challenge they, encounter according to her is the immunity from the process of criminal and civil law proceedings vested in sitting heads of states.

Second, and closely related to the first, is the failure to initiate domestic proceedings or conclude already initiated proceedings by the state. Third is the role of states to effectively recover assets. Fourth is the need to obtain and secure cooperation and collaboration among state agencies that have a bearing on asset recovery.

Accordingly, Gladys Mukundi affirmed that effective tracing and recovery demands bilateral and international legal and political cooperation – the kind announced by the US Attorney General in Kampala. As Daniel Scher puts it ‘recovery attempts are complicated within African countries, because those who are most implicated in public looting usually have the most power and influence. Yet the potential rewards in the form of the repatriation of money into development-starved countries, make asset recovery an attractive undertaking.’

 *Onwubiko is the Head of the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA)

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