How can 5,789 billion CFA francs looted from Cameroon over a period of 40 years be confiscated and returned?

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1fa6d2793b8e95e4083023f1d552ef40Marafa Hamidou Yaya and Yves Michel Fotso were sentenced on September 22, 2012, to 25 years imprisonment for embezzling 14.5 billion CFA francs released by the Government of Cameroon, in 2001, for the  purchase of  a presidential jet. With regard to the same case, two other people were also sentenced to prison terms ranging from 10 to 15  years. The accused persons have filed an appeal against their conviction and pending the disposal of the appeal, the citizenry perceives the conviction and the subsequent appeal with a certain level of scepticism and as an episode in a continuing drama.

Sequel to  the conviction of the Marafa band, “Operation Sparrowhawk” conceived and implemented by the Government of Cameroon, led to the imprisonment of more than a dozen senior Cameroonian officials for embezzling  200 billion CFA francs of public funds (for more details on these embezzlements, read the analysis of Edouard Kingue in the September 27, 2012 edition of Le Messager, a local newspaper). As incisive as Edouard Kingue’s assessment appears to be, the 200 billion CFA francs is  only the tip of the iceberg as it is estimated that  5,789 billion CFA francs, at the minimum has been looted from the coffers of  the country in the past 40 years!

A study conducted by the Global Financial Integrity programme (GIF) of the Centre for International Policy and published in 2010, confirms that the  flow of funds from Cameroon between 1970 and 2008 amounted to 5,789 billion CFA francs. These estimates were revised upwards in 2011 to 10,000 billion CFA francs through the work of  Léonce Ndikumana and James K. Boyce, two brilliant economists of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, in their best-selling book Africa’s Odious Debts: How foreign loans and capital flight bled a continent. GIF used the model of the World Bank and the IMF Directorate of Trade Statistics to calculate these leakages. If we consider flows on existing services and gaps (including bank interests) in the calculation, the figures for Cameroon may be even greater.

There are various channels through which money floods out of the system: embezzlement of public funds and development aid, clandestine transfer of dividends, tax evasion and overcharging of imported products, undervaluation of export earnings, etc. The magnitude of the financial haemorrhage is significantly higher than the sum of Cameroon’s external debt and its gross domestic product. Clearly, as long as the country continues to lose such massive volumes of capital, human development and the fight against poverty will remain an illusion.

How can this money be recovered to finance the country’s development?

Not only must this devastating haemorrhage of capital which is essential for achieving the goals of economic development and poverty alleviation in Cameroon be stopped but there is also the important need to have the political will and a strategy to try to recover this money.

It is vital to confiscate and return these criminal funds looted from the country, which is in great need of it. Even a partial recovery of these assets could provide the resources needed to finance basic social services or infrastructural services that are severely deficient in the country. Returned assets will in some way repair the damage caused by these white collar criminals comprising former leaders and corrupt officials, many of whom shamelessly wander in the West, setting themselves up as preachers with political and media spams that are as stupid as their packages.

Based on the calculations of some research institutes, the recovery of 5,789 billion CFA francs could fund a complete vaccination programme for 479 million children, provide piped water to some 28 million households, or fund treatment of more than 67 million people living with HIV/AIDS for a whole year.

The restoration of illegally acquired assets has been expressly enshrined in the United Nations Convention against Corruption. To finally deal with this problem, which is a fundamental principle of the said Convention, the international community has thus adopted the measure of negative consequences for countries and citizens who are victims of billions of dollars diverted each year by their corrupt leaders.

Subsequent to the UN Convention against Corruption, a number of initiatives have been put in place for the recovery of stolen assets. The International Centre for Asset Recovery (ICAR) of the Basel Institute on Governance, founded in 2006, is part of such initiatives. In 2007, the World Bank, in collaboration with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, launched the StAR Project to help developing countries recover assets stolen by corrupt leaders, invest the returned funds in effective development programs and to combat the existence of international refugees.

While it is true that, once out of their country, these funds are extremely difficult to recover, as was the case of recovery procedures in Switzerland, assets of former dictators like Mobutu Sese Seko of ex-Zaire, now Democratic Republic of Congo, and Jean-Claude Duvalier (Haiti). Even the Nigerian case of General Sani Abacha which is generally lauded as a success story in recovery of looted funds actually had very limited success as the Nigerian authorities estimate that only part of the funds looted by the deceased dictator was recovered. For whatever it is worth, the details of these procedures are available on the ICAR website.

Given the difficulties associated with the recovery of looted funds, it is imperative that preventive structures, and this point is very important, especially in the  public procurement process, be put in place as the  best solution to fight against corruption in  African countries. This issue was extensively discussed in the author’s  recent presentation of 25th September, 2012 at the International Anti-Corruption Academy based in Laxenburg, Austria, and is available on the Slideshare of his LinkedIn profile, entitled “Preventing corruption through the regulation of public procurement and the goPRS project.”

Who should do it?

There are recent examples of successful asset recovery, including the limited success of the recovery of the Abacha funds in Nigeria, Marcos funds in the Philippines, as well as in Kazakhstan and Angola. Recovered assets are used to fund poverty reduction programs, job creation, health promotion, education, agriculture, roads or development of rural areas.

The government of Cameroon has a moral and national responsibility, in this case and in many others, of demonstrating a political will by officially joining the organizations listed above and engaging in recovery procedures. No need to recruit other international scammers, experts in everything and finally in nothing at all, as was recently the case with the support of the former Minister for Justice, Amadou Ali.

Since 1991, following a decision of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, embezzlement of public funds is considered a violation of human rights. Cameroonians are deprived of their rights and as stated in the International Bill of Human Rights, we are rightly victims of organized looting by these Cameroonian “Don Vito Corleone”. Their practices are injurious to the populace, especially to  children and women,  who constitute the largest and most vulnerable population group in the country.

What is the role of the National Agency for Financial Investigation?

The National Agency for Financial Investigation (NAFI) is the Financial Intelligence Unit of Cameroon, established by Regulation N°01/03-CEMAC-UMAC-CM of 4th April, 2003 on the prevention and suppression of money laundering and funding of terrorism in Central Africa. Decree N° 2005/187 of 31st May, 2005 makes it operational by establishing its organization and operating procedures.

NAFI has to take the leading role in the recovery of looted funds, given its status as the financial intelligence unit of Cameroon, but it will appear that the key advantage it can leverage on is missing. NAFI needs is a member of the Egmont Group of financial intelligence units. The membership of the Egmont Group accords a mutual and reciprocal exchange of information about the existence of assets and funds in member jurisdictions. Outside of the basic role of a financial intelligence unit having access to financially related information that provides a base for financial investigations, NAFI is responsible for receiving, analysing and processing reports required from financial institutions or person referred to in national anti-money-laundering legislation, which are then be transmitted, upon request, to competent law enforcement agencies (LEAs) for further investigations,

NAFI should be at the heart of the institutional and organizational environments of the prevention and fight against corruption, and should work with (a) anti-corruption agencies, local banks, the Bank of Central African States (BEAC) and the Central African Banking Commission (COBAC), (b) sub-regional organizations such as Action Group against Money Laundering in Central Africa (GABAC) and the Inter-Governmental Action Group against Money Laundering in West Africa (GIABA), and (c) financial intelligence units members of the Egmont Group. The primary aim of this threefold collaboration is to exchange financial intelligence and assist NAFI to increase its operational capacity as a leading provider of financial intelligence to organizations responsible for conducting investigation and prosecution of criminals.

Like many financial intelligence units in the world, NAFI must be reformed, independent and have coercive powers over reporting entities and the obligation of result from LEAs. While it is conceded that most financial intelligence units globally are domiciled within another ministry or agency of government, in its current configuration of a public service linked to the Ministry of Finance, NAFI cannot be effective even if it has, on paper, a financial autonomy and decision-making authority on matters within its field of competence.

The requirement of the Financial Action Task Force, irrespective of domiciliation, is that a financial intelligence unit must be operationally autonomous. This assumes that it has it budget, can recruit on its own, set up policies and practices without interference and is independent in decision making. The conspicuous absence of NAFI from all ongoing debates and programmes on corruption reinforces the general feeling that it is not operationally independent.

The Government must urgently reform NAFI to finally begin to give some credibility to its strategy on the fight against corruption which it lacks with “Sparrowhawk”.