In a recent meeting with the leadership of the World Bank Group, African Finance Ministers requested assistance in supporting the battle to fight what is now estimated to be over $50 billion of illicit financial flows out of Africa.  The ongoing global efforts to recover the billions of dollars allegedly siphoned by the late Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha confirm the increasingly multi-jurisdictional nature of kleptocracy and the resulting need for cooperation and assistance.

In Nigeria, the federal government has filed new charges against Abacha’s son for receipt and concealment of over $2.8 million dollars allegedly stolen from public coffers between 1995 and 1998.  In the UK, a High Court in London has rejected attempts to overturn a freezing order pertaining to up to $200 million of assets allegedly derived from Abacha’s activities.  And, in perhaps the most significant development, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) has moved to freeze more than $550 million in corruption proceeds concealed around the world by Abacha and conspirators.  This record-breaking kleptocracy forfeiture action was brought by the DOJ’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, one of the U.S.’s most significant contributions to combating kleptocracy.

Announced by Attorney General Eric Holder at the African Union Summit in July 2010, the Initiative addresses what the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the World Bank have called “the other side of the equation,” which is the fact that “stolen assets are often hidden in the financial centers of developed countries.”  (A February 2010 U.S. Senate Subcommittee report provided clear support for this point with respect to the U.S. financial system.)  The Initiative also rightfully recognizes that the true cost of corruption is borne by the people who have been stripped of their right to the political and socioeconomic development which results from responsible management of public funds.  As Attorney Holder has noted, “There is no gentle way to say it: When kleptocrats loot their nations’ treasuries, steal natural resources, and embezzle development aid, they condemn their nations’ children to starvation and disease.”

Although the recovery of these assets is a commendable victory, it is “the transparent, efficient, and effective management of returned assets that constitutes the final step in this process.”  There are models for achieving success in overcoming this last hurdle.  Over the last decade, with the assistance of the World Bank and civil society, the governments of Nigeria and Switzerland have worked closely together to ensure that $700 million of illicit assets held in Swiss bank accounts by the Abacha family are repatriated to Nigeria and put towards helping the country achieve the Millennium Development Goals.  Similarly, Nigeria and the U.S. already are working together to recover and ultimately repatriate the over $550 million frozen under the DOJ’s most recent forfeiture action.