Banks hiding stolen money should be prosecuted – Osinbajo

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Acting President Yemi Osinbajo yesterday called for the prosecution of banks and their officials who aid corruption by hiding looted funds.

He faulted those who accuse the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) of engaging in media trial, saying it was corruption fighting back.

The Acting President spoke in Abuja at the opening of a three-day conference on “Promoting International Cooperation in Combating Illicit Financial Flows and Enhancing Asset Recovery to Foster Sustainable Development”.

It was organised by the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC).

Other speakers were Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF) Abubakar Malami (SAN), Foreign Affairs Minister Geoffrey Onyeama, PACAC Chairman Prof Itse Sagay (SAN), a member of the High Level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows from Africa, Mr Akere Muna, who was the keynote speaker, former EFCC chairman Nuhu Ribadu, PACAC Executive Secretary Prof Bolaji Owasanoye and activist-lawyer Femi Falana (SAN), among others.

Referring to a report by the High Level Panel that was headed by former South Africa President Thabo Mbeki and commissioned by the African Union and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), Osinbajo said most of the illicit funds from Africa were from Nigeria.

Anti-graft agencies, he said, should do more to curb the trend.

“That shows us very clearly, especially the security agencies, that we simply have to do more. It is evident that so much money is leaving our shores,” he said.,

Osinbajo said financial institutions that aid corruption should face the consequences.

He said: “There is no way the transfer of these assets can happen without a handshake between the countries that they are transferred from and the international banking institutions in the countries in which they are transferred. There is no way it will happen without some form of connivance. ,

“We have to look at somehow delegitimising those kinds of financial institutions and criminalising them.

“Banks and financial institutions that actually engage in this must be called out and made to face the consequences of engaging in criminal practices. If that is not done, we are not likely to go very far.

“In the agreement and conventions we will be signing, we must ensure that financial institutions are not given a free run and to hold them accountable., “

The Acting President said corruption fights back when stolen monies find safe havens and are accessed by the corrupt.

“In Nigeria, for instance, corruption fights back so eloquently that government itself, if not careful, can be overwhelmed,” he said. ,

Osinbajo said some of those guilty of corruption fight back through media attacks on government.

“If you look at the anticorruption fight in Nigeria, there is a major fight back in the media. There is a media war, between people fighting corruption and those behind the stolen funds. ,

“It is called ‘media trial’ – I don’t know what that means. If you discover, for instance, large sums of money in an air conditioned room, there is no where it will not make news in the world. ,

“So, this whole idea of trying to legitimise corruption is definitely being fuelled and sponsored by those who have these resources, who have stolen funds.

“Unless we see it as a problem that can bring down our system then we will never be able to fight. I hope we will be able to advance this with other African countries,” he said.,

The Acting President said some development partners were reluctant to provide funding for Nigeria because they believed the country was not poor.

“Clearly it is sometimes absurd that when we are asking for aid, so much money is being stolen. So we ourselves must take responsibility and ensure we keep talking about this,” he said.

Osinbajo said developing countries must realise that it is their responsibility to ensure that not only are stolen funds traced and returned, but calls for return of stolen assets must be strident.

“Some countries are somehow reluctant about it. Many have civil processes that make it difficult. They said: ‘Our courts are handling this matter and there is very little we can do about it.’ ,

“We must make it a national call, a call for other developing countries to have the same outrage for drugs, terrorism financing as for illicit financial flows.

“We must emphasise at every point and call out institutions that are not cooperating and ensuring that they recognise that this for us is a serious issue,” he said.

According to Muna, Africa loses between $50billion and $80billion through illicit financial flows; the continent remains a net creditor despite the inflow of development assistance.

He said secrecy in financial transactions, which he noted had been hijacked by greed and self-interest, must end.

“It is imperative that we make it a priority to double efforts to end the use of financial secrecy for corruption, drug smuggling, money laundering, terrorism, people trafficking and other illicit financial practices,” he said.

Muna reiterated a recommendation by the Mbeki Panel – that escrow accounts should be created within development banks to keep recovered stolen assets, pending when they are returned to the owners.

“Frozen money should not stay with the complicit bank, but in an escrow account with a third party pending the courts’ or competent authorities’ determination as to the rightful owners of the funds,” he said.

Sagay said most of the financial assets pillaged from state coffers deprive Nigeria of the capacity to realise the sustainable development goals of no poverty, zero hunger, good health and wellbeing, quality education, clean water and sanitation and affordable clean energy.

“None of these goals is affordable in a developing economy whose wealth is hemorrhaging and flowing to already developed societies,” he said.

Noting that an annual flow of proceeds of crime is an estimated $1.6trillion, half of which he said come from developing economies, Sagay said Africa must improve its capacity to stem illicit financial flows if it must realise its development goals.

To Onyeama, the fight against corruption and illicit financial flows is a shared responsibility that must be tackled by the global community.

“We urge the international community to strive to eliminate safe havens that create incentives for foreign transfer of stolen assets and illicit financial flows.

“We urge destination countries to remove bottlenecks and conditionalities hindering the recovery of illicitly acquired funds and assets,” he said.

Onyeama said there was the need for the global community to urgently redouble efforts to substantially tackle illicit financial flows through strengthened national regulation and increased international cooperation.

“We urge that concerted efforts be directed at the enhancement of disclosure practices and transparency in both source and destination countries, including by seeking to ensure transparency in all financial transactions between countries and companies to relevant tax authorities,” Onyeama said.

Malami said Nigeria must join the international community in stemming illicit financial flows, improving asset return and ensuring sanctions for perpetrators of acts of corruption.

According to him, the passage of the Mutual Legal Assistance Bill by the Senate shows a political will to fight corruption and trace, freeze and recover stolen assets.

Malami called for international support “through aggressive action of repatriation of illicit wealth,” adding that government has the political will to tackle graft.

“The initiation of the ongoing review of the Nigeria Financial Intelligence Agency Establishment bill will aid in tackling illicit flows.

“The commitment to prosecute corrupt public officials and recovered looted public funds is reflected at all levels and sectors where corrupt practices occur,” the AGF added.

Prof Owasanoye said PACAC was pushing for the prosecution of “middlemen” such as accountants, lawyers and customs officials who aid looting.

“When you pick up the politically exposed person, you must also pick up the middleman – the accountant, the lawyer, the customs official who looks the other way. Let them suffer the consequences together. That is what we are pushing for at PACAC,” he said.

Ribadu, who chaired a session, said corruption cannot take place without the active connivance of banks and other financial institutions. To him, the culpable officials must be brought to book.

Falana said no developed country would willingly return stolen assets, as they use such funds to develop their countries.

He urged the AGF to set up team of lawyers who will file lawsuits against foreign banks holding funds taken away from Nigeria.

“Once we locate the illegal funds, they should go after the banks warehousing the funds and file actions in court on behalf of our government,” Falana said.

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