Rattled by reports that the United Kingdom was planning to lift the lid on owners of property in that country, Nigerians, especially politically exposed persons, who own property in the UK have begun moves to dispose of the property.
LEADERSHIP gathered that, following the revelation last week of efforts being made to expose them, many of Nigeria’s elite, including former civil servants, elected office holders, serving and former, who own property in the United Kingdom but would not want to be linked with such properties were trying to either sell them outrightly or transfer their ownership to shadow owners who will front as their owners.
The executive secretary, Presidential Advisory Committee against Corruption, Mr Bolaji Owosanoye, had informed journalists last week that, while negotiations between the government of Nigeria and the UK to get information about Nigerians who own property in that country has reached advanced stage, the UK government was set to provide the information by next year.
He noted that the measure being taken by the governments of both countries was a step forward in the fight against corruption.
Owosanoye said, “There is no doubt that rogues in government oppress and impoverish their people by corruption and this must be sanctioned by collective action. We need to make sure that there is no safe haven for you (corrupt officials) to run to. Britain has promised that by 2018, she will provide Nigeria with the information about who owns what and where; that is very helpful.
“These include all the houses that have been bought by public officials or accounts that are held by public officials on which they are right now not paying taxes or which they cannot explain the sources. So, if you cannot buy a house in England, you have to look for somewhere else. But if all countries criminalise this, then it becomes much more difficult unless you want to buy the house on Mars”.
Following the revelation by Owosanye, LEADERSHIP learnt that some of the property owners who acquired property in the UK with ill-gotten wealth were now taking measures not to be caught up by the law.
A former zonal general manager of a federal government agency who owns property in the UK who spoke in confidence said, while he was already making plans to sell his property in that country before the announcement, with the announcement now, he will fast track and complete the process before the bill becomes law.
“I do not wish to be called upon by the government to make any explanations about the property. So, I will rather sell it before they say it was acquired with stolen funds”, he said, even as he however declined to say if the property was acquired with his income while he was in service.
Similarly, it was learnt that several politicians were also running from pillar to post, in frantic moves to sell their estates in the UK and are already contacting realtors.
A Nigerian resident in the UK, who is familiar with the development, confirmed to LEADERSHIP that some former political office holders who own property in the UK had indicated interest to sell them off.
“I’m aware that a couple of them have contacted some real estate firms to find buyers for their property. I cannot categorically say if it has anything to do with the new law but there has been an increase in the number of people requesting to sell their property”, the source who preferred anonymity stated.
The UK’s decision is based on the provisions of the country’s criminal finances bill which seeks to, among other things, significantly improve the country’s capability to recover the proceeds of crime, including international corruption.
The bill which was introduced to the House of Commons on 13 October 2016 will significantly improve the UK government’s ability to tackle money laundering and corruption, recover the proceeds of crime and counter terrorist financing.
According to information on the UK government’s website, the bill will enable seizure and forfeiture of the proceeds of crime that are stored in UK assets, extending current provisions to include value stored in bank accounts and high-value property, such as precious metals and jewels. It will also create unexplained wealth orders requiring those suspected of corruption to explain the sources of their wealth, helping to facilitate the recovery of illicit wealth and stopping criminals using the UK as a safe haven for the proceeds of international corruption.
It further indicated that hundreds of British properties suspected of belonging to corrupt politicians, tax evaders and criminals could be seized by enforcement agencies under tough new laws designed to tackle London’s reputation as a haven for dirty money, pointing out that huge amounts of corrupt wealth is laundered through the capital’s banks.
According to a report by the UK’s National Crime Agency, up to £100bn of tainted cash could be passing through the UK each year and much of it ends up in real estate and in other assets such as luxury cars, art and jewellery.
The UK criminal finances bill is designed to close a loophole which has left the authorities powerless to seize property from overseas criminals unless the individuals are first convicted in their country of origin.
It will introduce the concept of “unexplained wealth orders”. The Serious Fraud Office, HM Revenue and Customs and other agencies will be able to apply to the high court for an order forcing the owner of an asset to explain how they obtained the funds to purchase it.
The orders will apply to property and other assets worth more than £100,000. If the owner fails to demonstrate that a home or piece of jewellery was acquired using legal sources of income, agencies will be able to seize it.
The UK government further explained that the law targets not just criminals, but politicians and public officials, known as “politically exposed persons,” adding that depending on how quickly it passes through parliament, the bill could come into force as early as spring 2017.
“There are some hundreds of properties in the UK strongly suspected to have been acquired with the proceeds of corruption”, said the campaign group Transparency International, which has been pressing for the new measures.
“This will provide low-hanging fruit for immediate action by law enforcement agencies, if those agencies are properly resourced”, it added.
Unexplained wealth orders will also help expose the owners of properties. Land Registry figures show UK real estate worth more than £170bn is held by more than 30,000 tax haven companies.
Those targeted will not need to be resident in the UK. So long as their assets are in the UK, an order can be enforced. The law will apply to property acquired before it is introduced.
The bill also contains stronger seizure and forfeiture powers designed to make it easier for police and investigators to freeze bank accounts and confiscate assets such as jewellery and art, which are harder to seize under current laws.
“We will not stand by and watch criminals use the UK to launder their dirty money or fund terrorism,” said the security minister, Ben Wallace. “This legislation will ensure the UK is taking a world-leading role in cracking down on corruption and send a clear message to criminals – we will take your liberty and your money,” the government stated.
It would be recalled that Transparency International UK issued a report in June 2015 proposing the introduction of “Unexplained Wealth Orders” (UWOs) to enable UK officials to question individuals in relation to “unexplained wealth” and to support civil recovery proceedings against such assets where necessary. The proposed orders could be made even where there is no substantial proof that the property in question is connected to crime.
According to information on Kingsley Naple’s website, since the report’s publication, UWOs have been discussed favourably in the House of Lords and Sir Eric Pickles recently came out in support of the introduction of such orders, which are currently used in Ireland and Australia.
“Under Part 5 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (POCA), an order can be made for civil recovery of property said to be derived from crime. In order to obtain such an order, there needs to be evidence that the property was obtained through criminal activity or in return for a specific criminal offence. The existence of unexplained wealth on its own is not sufficient for the purposes of civil recovery under POCA.
PMB Strengthens CCB, Approves Standard Operational Procedure
Meanwhile, as part of measures to demonstrate his administration’s commitment to fighting corruption, President Muhammadu Buhari has approved a standard operational procedure for the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB).
The move, which is set to strengthen the agency in discharging its mandate of combating corruption, is in accordance with Section 160 (1) of the 1999 constitution as amended.
A statement issued yesterday noted that the president’s approval came after members of the Bureau’s Executive Council “submitted a robust standard operational procedure proposal to the president through the Honourable Attorney General of the Federation, as required by the constitution.
“Their move was a bid to strengthen the CCB internal structure and working mechanisms”, the statement made available to LEADERSHIP added.
The statement listed key features of the standard operational procedure (SOP) to include “strengthening the operations of CCB as an anti-corruption agency; clear cut procedure on assets investigation and tracking; streamlining of activities at the state offices of CCB and unfettered access to funding of their activities in line with budgetary provisions among others”.
The standard operational procedure was approved by President Muhammadu Buhari in December 2016 and gazetted as Code of Conduct Bureau Standard Operational Procedure, 2017 on January 27.
The CCB which was established in 1988 and incorporated in the 1989 Constitution, making it the first anti-corruption agency in Nigeria, has an enormous constitutional power to function as a watchdog over the conduct and behaviour of all public officers, ministries, department and agencies of government at all levels.
The constitution provides the Bureau with two important instruments to fight public sector corruption: the code of conduct for public officials and the asset declaration mechanism.
However, absence of a standard operational procedures has, over the years, impeded the agency’s drive towards discharging its constitutionally guaranteed mandate.
FG Insists On Closing Some Foreign Missions
The Federal Government reaffirmed it determination to close some foreign mission insisting that although it was expensive to close a country’s embassy, it will be beneficial in the long run.
The minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Geoffrey Onyeama, who stated this at the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) Forum in Abuja yesterday maintained that the reduction of Nigeria’s foreign missions was on the agenda of the administration.
He said, “The government is following up on that and we have sort of prepared the roadmap; we have started in the implementation of that and made also recommendations in that context. Paradoxically, closing missions are extremely expensive.
“At first sight it seems obvious that you close it you are saving cost but you will actually find that the cost of closing is almost prohibitive. But in the long run it will be cheaper, but in the immediate and short term it is expensive but we have started the process.”
Nigeria currently has 119 foreign missions.
The minister also said that President Muhammadu Buhari’s foreign trips have started yielding positive results, noting that the results were in the areas of the economy and national security.
He said such visits had started attracting investors and enhancing Foreign Direct Investment into the country.
The ministers said the trips were aimed at re-launching Nigeria in the mind of countries that hitherto distrusted it by rebuilding its image and restoring its past glory.
“You have to look at it from the point of view of where the country was when the president took over; we had existential security challenges with Boko Haram occupying some territories.
“We had rampant corruption and the oil price crashing, so his outreach to the rest of the world was to get the international community to buy into the priorities of the government.
“He identified security as one of it, and on the security you will recall that a number of our traditional allies in the western world stopped cooperating with Nigeria militarily.”
Onyeama said some countries had stopped providing weaponry and pulled out advisers from Nigeria, while troops engaged in mutiny before the Buhari administration.
He said that in the area of security the president sought to allay the fears of other countries and get them back on board to support government’s security initiatives against Boko Haram.
His words: “On the governance and anti-corruption side, you will also recall large amounts of money stashed away, and a lot of them in the western world.
“So those visits were used to get those foreign countries to buy into the anti-corruption initiative and drive of the government and to help in the restitution of the stolen funds into the country.”
The minister noted that Nigerian faced real economic challenges with the dramatic crash in oil prices which needed urgent attention.
He said that the president’s drive in that context was the diversification of the economy and the promotion of foreign direct investment.