Page last updated at 23:00 GMT, Wednesday, 2 July 2008 00:00 UK

Nigeria makes progress on stolen cash

By Sam Olukoya
BBC News, Lagos

Man with Nigerian money in his back pocket
The trail of money from Nigeria is complicated and involves many hands

"Britain to return 40m stolen funds to Nigeria."

That was the screaming headline on the pages of several Nigerian newspapers recently.

While it may be a lot of money, it is a far cry from the actual amount public officials are known to have stolen from Nigeria and hidden in bank accounts in the UK and elsewhere.

One former state governor alone is facing charges of looting more than a $100m (50m) while he held office from 1997 to 2007. His official earnings were only $80,000 a year.

Nigerians have become all too familiar with reports of huge sums of stolen public funds being recovered abroad. Most often the culprits are serving, or former, public officers and their cronies.

Nigeria is Africa's largest oil exporter and earns billions of dollars annually from oil sales.

But with many key public posts held by greedy officials with itchy fingers, and little accountability in place, it is not surprising that a lot of public funds end up in private bank accounts in Europe.

Banks in Switzerland are particularly well-known hiding places.

$400bn theft

Nigerians are generally a pretty tolerant bunch. When hunger pushes people to steal, Nigerians show a sense of understanding.

But what they cannot understand is why public officers have to steal far more than what they, and even unborn generations, can spend in a lifetime.

An official of the Swiss embassy in Nigeria recently said a total of $500m had been recovered from the Swiss bank accounts of former Nigerian military ruler, the late General Sani Abacha.

The recovered money - popularly tagged "the Abacha loot" - has already been returned to Nigeria.

But Nigeria is not an isolated case.

Dr Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations office on drugs and crime, says $400bn was stolen from Nigeria and kept in foreign banks before the country returned to democratic rule in 1999.

The World Bank says individual African countries lose about 25% of their economic output to corruption annually. If true, that is close to $500bn.

This may be a tip of the iceberg. As one anti-corruption official puts it - if you put the stolen money in a row it will form a path to the moon and back.

Concrete steps

The immediate fall-out of this corruption is the hunger, disease, poverty and the lack of adequate basic infrastructure which hold back the continent.

Many Africans believe Europe has a hand in Africa's plight for allowing the free flow of stolen funds into its banks.

The fact that money is coming back suggests progress is being made.

But one Nigerian analyst - Tony Iyare - recently asked a pertinent question.

Rather than sending all manner of aid to Africa in the name of solving the continent's problems, would it not be better if Europe took concrete steps to ensure its banks are less of a safe haven for looted African funds?

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