Are Swiss Banks Really Returning Africa’s Stolen Loot?
By Dana Sanchez Published: November 14, 2016, 12:16 pm
Zurich's Paradeplatz has some of the most expensive real estate in Switzerland. It's home to Swiss banks including UBS and Credit Suisse. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
If you want to know what U.S. President elect Donald Trump thinks of African governance, read his tweets.
“Every penny of the $7 billion going to Africa as per Obama will be stolen—corruption is rampant!” Trump tweeted. Clearly he seems to have a pessimistic view of the continent, Business Daily reported.
That doesn’t make Trump right, but he has managed to tap in to a fear shared by some African leaders in countries including Tanzania that some local officials and business people are hiding ill-gotten money in Swiss bank accounts.
Opposition lawmakers in Tanzania have long criticized authorities for not taking action against officials accused of hiding their wealth abroad, AP reported.
Tanzania’s foreign minister announced earlier this month that the country has signed a memo of understanding with Switzerland to help recover money illegally stashed in Swiss banks by Tanzanians.
Since being elected in 2015, Tanzania’s new President John “The Bulldozer” Magufuli has been on a mission to stop wasteful government spending and official corruption.
Benno Ndulu, the central bank governor, said the agreement with Switzerland will help recover some of the money lost through corruption, AP reported.
Switzerland is trying to shake off the stereotype as a safe haven for stolen money and other ill-gotten gains, said Peter Fabricius, a consultant for the Pretoria-based policy think tank, Institute for Security Studies Africa (ISS).
To some extent it’s succeeding, with some success stories of money traced and recovered, ISS reported:
Switzerland’s (had) success in recovering and returning US$800 million, which the notoriously corrupt Nigerian military dictator Sani Abacha stashed away in Swiss bank accounts during the 1990s. After Abacha’s death in 1998, the new Nigerian government gave Switzerland full legal cooperation in persuading its courts to unfreeze Abacha’s accounts.
But other world centers are quickly fill the vacuum including Dubai, a highly secretive, new financial center, said David Lewis, head of the South African NGO Corruption Watch. Lewis predicts that many unexplained recent visits to Dubai by members of the South African government and its associates will eventually reveal something nefarious. “It if walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck,” he said, according to an ISS account.
ISS is an Africa-focused security policy think tank with offices in Addis Ababa, Cape Town, and Nairobi. It works towards a stable and peaceful Africa characterized by sustainable development, human rights, rule of law, democracy and collaborative security.
Valentin Zellweger is a legal advisor of the Swiss Foreign Ministry and director general of Public International Law. He says Switzerland is at the forefront of international efforts to recover and return stolen loot, and shine light into its bank vaults.
The world is becoming tougher for the corrupt, Zellweger said in a panel discussion on “The Panama lessons: how to effectively fight corruption and return funds,” held earlier this year at at the South African Institute of International Affairs.
Published in April 2016, the Panama Papers revealed 11.5 million documents and attorney-client information for 214,488 offshore entities held by the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. These contained information about the offshore, secret bank accounts and transactions of hundreds of thousands of the firm’s clients. The documents were leaked to journalists, prompting many governments – including South Africa’s – to start investigating people exposed for tax evasion and other offences.
The release of the Panama Papers showed how difficult it is to hide dirty money today when so much information can be moved electronically, but it’s still difficult to recover stolen assets, Zellweger said.
Africans criticize Switzerland and other European financial centers for failing to do more to return the money stolen from the continent by corrupt leaders and stashed in their banks, ISS reported.
Zellweger said they are helpless without the legal cooperation of the governments in the countries where the money came from. And that is not always forthcoming.
Files leaked to the Washington, D.C.-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and published in February 2015 exposed some corrupt Tanzanians, Tanzania Daily News reported.
Prominent Tanzanian business people secretly stashed away $196 million US and some top government officials have hidden $114 million in the Swiss banking arm of HSBC.
“The East African country is ranked 100 out of 188 countries with the largest dollar amounts in the leaked Swiss files,” reads the report, Face 2 Face Africa reported.
Between 1982 and 2006, Tanzanian nationals opened 91 client accounts in Swiss banks. One client deposited $20.8 million.
According to the governor of the Bank of Tanzania serves as the central bank of Tanzania, Professor Benno Ndulu, added that the agreement will help recover some of the money lost through corruption. BoT also serves as the central bank of Tanzania.
It is not illegal to have a Swiss bank account, but the privacy offered by the Switzerland banking system means such accounts have often been used for illegal activity such as tax evasion.
In 2015, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists reported in its “Swiss Leaks” project that global banking giant, HSBC used its Swiss branch to profit from doing business with international criminals.
“These disclosures shine a light on the intersection of international crime and legitimate business, and they dramatically expand what’s known about potentially illegal or unethical behavior in recent years at HSBC, one of the world’s largest banks,” the report reads.
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