Recovering stolen loot: SERAP’s work on asset recovery in Nigeria

10 December 2016, by Timothy Adewale, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP).

Asset recovery (UNCAC chapter V), along with preventive measures (UNCAC chapter II), is the focus of the second cycle of the UNCAC review process. The UNCAC promotes international cooperation on the return of stolen assets to its “prior legitimate owners” (Article 57). Below is a brief summary of SERAP’s activities seeking to promote Nigeria’s UNCAC commitments on asset recovery.

World Bank information request

Following an information request to the World Bank on 21 September 2015 – the first in Nigeria using the Bank’s Access to Information Policy – SERAP obtained 700 pages of documents related to the spending of recovered stolen assets. However, the information raises more questions than it answers and so the documents are currently under investigation by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.

Commitment to fighting judicial corruption

SERAP’s 2016 report Go Home and Sin No More: Corrupt Judges Escaping Justice in Nigeria, contributed to the on-going crackdown on corrupt judges across the country and the Attorney General and Minister of Justice Abubabar Malami committing to fighting judicial corruption. At the report’s launch he said: “I can assure SERAP today that … we shall ensure that every appearance of corruption in the judiciary is dealt [with] among other measures through criminal prosecution and forfeiture to the state of illegally acquired assets…”

Meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry

On 24 August 2016, SERAP was invited to meet US Secretary of State John Kerry in Abuja. A SERAP representative presented an agenda on the return of stolen assets from the US, and stressed the need for the US to help speed the return of billions of dollars looted from the country’s treasury. Secretary Kerry promised to work on SERAP’s request, and his commitment received wide media coverage including by the Associated Press.

Freedom of information request on stolen assets

SERAP’s freedom of information request for the federal government to “release the names of suspected looters and the circumstances under which recovered stolen public funds were recovered” was referred to the Minister of Information on 8 June 2016. The case is currently at the High Court in Lagos and will be heard in early 2017.

Freedom of information request success

The Nation newspaper did an interesting editorial on SERAP’s freedom of information request to the former Minister of Finance Mrs Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala requesting an explanation of the spending of N30 trillion. This led to a 2015 freedom of information suit against the minister and the federal government. The Nation reported the May 2016 conclusion of Justice Ibrahim Buba of the Federal High Court: “This landmark judgment represents a triumph for public accessibility to critical information through the FOI Act. We commend SERAP for its persistence and resilience and urge other citizens and groups to take advantage of the FOI Act in pursuit of good, accountable and transparent governance”.

Plans for future work

SERAP’s work will remain focused on asset recovery and the transparent and accountable spending of recovered loot. This will include seeking and vigorously pursuing full and effective enforcement of the judgment SERAP obtained in February 2016 from the Federal High Court, which ordered the authorities to provide SERAP with up to date information on the spending of recovered stolen funds since the return of democracy in 1999.

The information ordered to be released by Justice Muhammed Idris of the Federal High Court Lagos includes: specific details on the total amount of recovered stolen public assets by governments since 1999; the amount that has been spent from the recovered stolen public assets and the objects of such spending; as well as the details and location of specific projects on which recovered stolen public assets were spent.

About the author

Timothy Adewale is Senior Staff Attorney with the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) in Nigeria and member of the UNCAC Coalition Coordination Committee.