In the past, it was very difficult to steal the huge amounts of money we hear being stolen and swallowed today. Looting of public funds was minimal, and my guess is that this was because technology had not advanced to the extent that it has today. I remember back then that a notable politician once said that if he were to see just a million naira, he would froth at the mouth in a fainting fit. The highest denomination in those days was a hundred or twenty naira note. If, therefore, there was any metaphorical snake then seeking to swallow as much as N34million, that snake would maybe have been an anaconda together with his kith and kin. After the swallow, it would have been easy to arrest them immediately because they wouldn’t disappear into thin air the way they do these days.
But today, at the touch of a button, billions and billions of monies are stolen with relative ease. First, the denomination is high. I am told that in some countries in the West, if you present a $500 bill, the cashier would take a record of your vital statistics and alert the FBI and the CIA. They would want to know who you are and how you got a hold of that amount. But here, you can stuff as much as a million in your jeans pocket. But today, technology has changed everything and made life easier to the extent that we do transfer of monies from one account to another while lying on the comfort of our beds.
And because of the advancements in technology, you can even carry all of your life savings in a microchip aka ATM. The other method fast gaining grounds and which threatens the very fabric of our, sometimes, weak financial ecosystems is the Bitcoin or virtual money. If you have stolen money, there are three ways Nigerians and, in general, the kleptomania would stash their illegally acquired wealth: one is the Bitcoin method, safe havens and investments in the property /estate business.
With the Panama Papers Leak, many illegally acquired monies and wealth stashed in offshore locations have been exposed. Just at the touch of a button, billions of dollars were wired from several locations around the world to an island (Panama) which does not even have a currency of its own. I remember then when the leak took place, a Barack Obama was said to have remarked that the tragedy was not that monies were being taken away from poor countries to rich ones but that the law and the instruments which technology bequeathed to us in the 21st Century seems to boost the swallowing of public monies by metaphorical snakes.
Yet because attention is already on the Panama Papers Leak, we will try to focus on the other method through which kleptomaniacs hide their stolen wealth. After they have stolen the monies via wire, they take it out and then invest the monies in real estate in countries like Canada, Germany, the UK, Australia and Switzerland. Last year, a klepto bus ride through the highbrow streets of the UK identified some very powerful Nigerians as owners of these very expensive buildings. Now, it is proceeds from the rent accruing from these buildings which the kleptocrat brings back into the country as legitimate income.
Even though the work of Nigeria’s financial anti-corruption commissions like the EFCC and the ICPC has checkmated the ease with which banks collude with politically exposed persons to swallow public funds, there are lacunae when it comes to the question of the investment of these now legitimate funds. If you take a walk around some of the streets in Maitama, Jabi and now the airport road, you see very many classy estates build with some of these dirty monies. Nobody but snakes and lizards occupy them. They are monies tied down, maybe untaxed and for which the federal government does not collect a tax.
I believe that government can use technology to track ownership of these estates and take a census on them. Working with civil society, government can help CSOs track ownership of these estate and block leakages of our public finances. Monies accruing from the blockage in the system can be ploughed into critical areas of need such as health, education electricity, and other infrastructural projects. On our own in ANEEJ, a civil society organisation, we have developed a property tracker which seeks to map and share information on ownership of property in specific locations in Abuja and Nigeria. The idea is to identify ownership of what property and to determine whether such ownership meet their tax obligations to government. Corruption is a killer disease that must be fought with every known antibiotic and strategy.
– Erhisowhode is of ANEEJ