Switzerland Is Returning Stolen Nigerian Assets—will the UK Follow Suit?

The U.K. government should follow the Swiss example and repatriate funds allegedly stolen by Nigerian officials and siphoned offshore, an analyst has told Newsweek.

Switzerland announced on December 6 that it would return around $321m (£240m) allegedly stolen by Nigeria's late military ruler Sani Abacha. The announcement followed a deal signed with the World Bank.

The Swiss government has already paid $700m of the so-called "Abacha loot". The oustanding $321m will be remitted in the next two or three years, according to the BBC.

In 2014, Nigeria and the Abacha family reached an agreement for the country to get back the funds, which Switzerland had frozen, in return for dropping a complaint against the former military ruler's son, Abba Abacha, Reuters reported.

Abacha allegedly stole between $3bn and $5bn of public funds during his five-year presidential term from 1993 until his death in 1998.

Stolen funds stashed in the UK

Rachel Davies Teka, Head of Advocacy at anti-corruption NGO Transparency International (TI), told Newsweek that Abacha was believed to have laundered an estimated $148m through the U.K. However "there is is no public record of any of this being repatriated," she said.

Abacha, however, is not the only Nigerian official thought to have stashed stolen assets in the U.K. James Ibori, ex-Governor of Delta State in Nigeria, is estimated to have embezzled £150m of Nigerian public funds.

"Some of Ibori's stolen money ended up in a £2.2m house in Hampsted in North London," TI said on its website.

Matthew Page, analyst and author of Nigeria: What Everyone Needs to Know said: "The UK and any other country that has seized Abacha-linked funds should return them expeditiously, but with transparency provisions that make it difficult for today's politicians to re-loot them.

"This latest repatriation of stolen Abacha loot is welcome news. Sadly, Abacha was not a one-off:Nigeria's kleptocrats still siphon funds offshore through shell companies registered in U.K. territories and crown dependencies, several U.S. states, and other secrecy jurisdictions," he continued.

Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari has vowed to recover millions of funds he alleged had been stolen during previous administrations. The leader, who has made his fight against corruption one of his top priorities, sought the help of other countries to repatriate stolen assets.

Last year, Nigeria and the U.K. signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the modalities for the return of Nigerian stolen assets. The move came after the U.K. seized "a total of £1.2 billion from criminals" between April 2010 and March 2016.

Both parties committed to ensuring that repatriated funds would not be embezzeled again and that the "highest possible standards of transparency and accountability are applied for the return of assets."

A spokesperson for the British High Commission in Abuja told Newsweek: "This U.K. government is committed to attacking criminal finances, making it harder to move, hide and use the proceeds of crime and corruption.

"We are increasing our investigative support to Nigeria. The National Crime Agency has a strong working relationship with the Nigerian anti-corruption authorities. They support one another in investigations of corrupt Nigerian Politically Exposed Persons (PEPs), including assisting in the prosecution of offenders and the location, freezing and recovery of criminally acquired assets."

The spokesperson added that the commission could not comment on individual cases under investigation, for legal reasons.

In October, the U.K. returned £85 million of funds that had been frozen at the request of Italian prosecutors investigating on the controversial $1.3 billion Malabu Oil deal.

Prosecutors alleged that Italian oil company ENI and Royal Dutch Shell illegally bought the offshore OPL 245 oil block in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta region in 2011. OPL 245 payments have been frozen in bank accounts around the world, Reuters reported.

"In the past the U.K.'s asset recovery system has been unable to seize the majority of corrupt funds which are laundered through the U.K. Only a small fraction of restrained illicit assets are ever returned," Teka said.

"Underlying the U.K.'s asset recovery system is a lack of transparency over the details of the Government's asset recovery work, preventing civil society and the public from understanding how much corrupt wealth is frozen and returned by law enforcement agencies.

"The introduction of Unexplained Wealth Orders next year should result in higher levels of assets being recovered, however to build faith in this system it is essential that efforts are made to publish comprehensive statistics on how much corrupt wealth is seized and returned," she concluded.