Nigerian property owners in the UK face nervous times as the government demands to know the source of funds; Liberia’s Johnson Sirleaf wins the Ibrahim Prize but not everybody is pleased; and in the Gambia, the police faced a rude awakening. West African round-up by Desmond Davies.
Nigerians who own property in the UK are jittery. They have been busy trying to ensure that their assets are properly registered following the recent coming into force of Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWOs). The UWOs are a new tool by British law enforcement agencies to fight organised crime and corruption.
What this means is that if there is a shadow of a doubt over how someone acquired a property in the UK, the authorities can use UWOs to get the owner to provide a statement to explain how he came about the funds to buy the property. The threshold is £50,000 (N25m).
So, when Nigerian property owners in the UK heard of the UWOs, they bombarded Nigeria’s Ministry of Finance’s Voluntary Assets and Income Declaration Scheme (VAIDS) with calls, causing the lines to crash, according to the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN).
VAIDS came into effect last year and is meant to give tax defaulters time to regularise their tax status without incurring a fine. The Nigerian government is hoping to raise an extra $1bn from VAIDS.
Nigerians who own property in the UK have been asking for time to fill out their VAIDS forms in order to protect their assets. Of course, UWOs are not just there to target Nigerians. They are also aimed at Russians who have used the UK to launder money. Figures reveal that some £90bn was laundered in the UK last year, and the British government wants to halt this.
Nigerians have owned property and kept their money in the UK for ages. But many have done so legally. A source at the VAIDS office told NAN: “Most calls are from high net worth individuals, such as bankers and even a governor. All seem to be in a panic over the prospect of losing their investments.”
They added that most callers wanted some assurance that VAIDS would protect their UK assets.
Over the years, various Nigerian governments have had running battles with the British authorities over the recovery of stolen funds from Nigeria that were lodged in UK banks. Pressure from transparency watchdogs has finally forced the UK government to act against money launderers, who previously had a field day in cleaning their ill-gotten gains.
Charlotte Wright, an associate in the criminal litigation team at UK law firm Kingsley Napley LLP, explains: “Although welcomed by many as a useful additional tool against the laundering in the UK of the proceeds of grand corruption overseas and serious crime, UWOs are potentially very wide in scope and draconian in nature so will need to be subject to careful scrutiny by the courts.
“This is particularly so where, although the information obtained under UWOs cannot be used against the respondent in separate criminal proceedings, it can be relied on by investigative agencies to build evidence against potential defendants.”
Rights and wrongs of whistleblowing
Fighting corruption in Nigeria has been the mantra of President Buhari since he came to power in 2015. He has taken this further by creating a whistleblowing programme at the Finance Ministry “to encourage anyone with information about a violation of financial regulations, mismanagement of public funds and assets, financial malpractice, fraud and theft, to report”.
There is an incentive for whistleblowing. Those who provide information the government does not already have will be rewarded with up to 5 per cent of the amount recovered. Those who provide false or malicious information, though, will be prosecuted.
However, there are some Nigerians who do not agree with giving rewards to whistleblowers. Chido Onumah, coordinator at the African Centre for Media and Information Literacy, believes that it is the “patriotic duty” of Nigerians to fight against corruption.
He told NAN: “We think that the whistleblowing policy is one of the most effective additions to the fight against corruption because at the end of the day, it’s Nigerians who feel the impact of corruption. The reward system is a great idea but people should see beyond the incentive and do the needful. If the health sector works, it works for everybody. If the roads are good it is good for everybody. If the education system is good it is good for everybody. It is something we have to see from a patriotic point of view.
“Whoever is blowing the whistle in their environment or workplace is actually doing a patriotic duty for the service of the country.’’
Liberia: Another windfall for Johnson Sirleaf
Having shared the Nobel Peace Prize with two others in 2011, the former President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has had another windfall. She has been awarded the 2017 Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership.
Having served two terms as president over 2006 to 2018, she becomes the fifth recipient of the multi-million-dollar prize, after a hiatus of three years. It would seem that good leaders do not come along often in Africa.
The Ibrahim Prize recognises and celebrates excellence in African leadership. It “aims to distinguish leaders who, during their time in office, have developed their countries, strengthened democracy and human rights for the shared benefit of their people, and advanced sustainable development”.
The Prize Committee said Johnson Sirleaf showed “exceptional and transformative leadership, in the face of unprecedented and renewed challenges, to lead Liberia’s recovery following many years of devastating civil war”.
Dr Salim Ahmed Salim, Chair of the Prize Committee, said: “Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took the helm of Liberia when it was completely destroyed by civil war and led a process of reconciliation that focussed on building a nation and its democratic institutions. Throughout her two terms in office, she worked tirelessly on behalf of the people of Liberia.
“Such a journey cannot be without some shortcomings and, today, Liberia continues to face many challenges. Nevertheless, during her 12 years in office, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf laid the foundations on which Liberia can now build.”
According to the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, since 2006, Liberia was the only country out of 54 to improve in every category and sub-category. This led Liberia to move up 10 places in the Index’s overall ranking during this period.
But there are those who feel that Johnson Sirleaf does not deserve the $5m award, which is paid over 10 years, with $200,000 annually for life thereafter. She may have been Africa’s first female head of state but she has a chequered past. For instance, she was one of those who backed Charles Taylor to start Liberia’s civil war in 1989.
Indeed, she should not have been head of state in the first place because in 2009 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended that she be barred from politics because of her links to Taylor. This has always been a blot on her presidency: going against the wishes of Liberians who suffered a great deal during the bitter and bloody conflict.
Granted, there was peace and quiet in the country under Johnson Sirleaf’s watch, but she was not able to rein in the excesses of her close relatives and associates, who were accused of lining their pockets. She did not do much for the economy either, with ordinary Liberians struggling to make ends meet.
So, although the Ibrahim Prize “recognises and celebrates African leaders who, under challenging circumstances, have developed their countries, lifted people out of poverty and paved the way for sustainable and equitable prosperity,” Johnson Sirleaf’s critics say this could not be said of her.
The Gambia: Boot on the other foot
The year-old government of President Adama Barrow has had its first major experience of the heavy-handed treatment of The Gambia’s police. Under former President Yahya Jammeh, the police had free rein to deal with perceived critics of the regime. They tried it again last month and got the shock of their lives.
When the police in Banjul hauled in University of Gambia political science lecturer Ismaila Ceesay for criticising the government, for not doing more to win the trust of the army, they were surprised by the response.
Hundreds of students from the university besieged the police station, demanding the release of their lecturer. Suddenly, the police realised it was not going to be business as usual. Under Jammeh, arrests were met with stony silence among the populace.
This time round, Gambians were up in arms. Ceesay was charged with incitement to violence because of his newspaper comment about the army. But as the demonstrators continued to make their voices heard, the police begged Ceesay to leave the station. “I told them, I’m going until you tell me why you charged me and you publicly apologise to me. They pleaded with me to go home,” Ceesay said.
After he left the police station, the recriminations began. The police claimed that they had acted on the government’s orders. Indeed, they said, the directive came from the Office of the President. The Minister of Information, Demba Ali Jawo, begged to differ, saying that the arrest of Ceesay had “nothing to do with the Office of the President”. He said the
whole thing was not politically motivated.
But Gambians were not convinced by Jawo’s explanation. They are beginning to feel that Barrow is not up to the job and that, as such, he will not take kindly to criticism. They are right to a certain extent because Barrow became president by default. For the December 2016 elections, most of the opposition leaders were in prison and he was the only candidate to challenge Jammeh. Once there was a united opposition to Jammeh, he was voted out of office.
The Ceesay case happened a few days before The Gambia re-joined the Commonwealth, which Jammeh took the country out of in 2013, claiming it was “neo-colonial”. Given the Commonwealth’s strict adherence to the rule of law, the Barrow administration will need to take due care not to go down the road of the previous regime. NA