by Akan Ido
Switzerland is battling hard to shake-off the image of the go-to country hiding looted funds. Several dictators, including Nigeria’s former president, Sani Abacha laundered public funds into Swiss vaults during their tenure in government.
In this Punch Newspapers interview, Ambassador of Switzerland to Nigeria, Hans Rudolf Hodel, talked about the ongoing trial involving Abba Abacha, son of the late Nigerian ruler, and the $700m so far returned to Nigeria by the Swiss government.
The Swiss banking system is famous for its secrecy. Some have argued that this has given rise to various forms of abuse, what is the situation today?
Our banking secrecy protects the privacy of bank clients, but it is not unlimited. If there are suspicions of criminal activities such as terrorism, organised crime, money laundering or tax fraud, it is lifted and authorities are given access to banking information. Banking secrecy is not a Swiss peculiarity; it exists in many other countries. No anonymous accounts exist in Switzerland (today). The bank is obliged to know the identity of the accounts holder and of the actual financial beneficiary.
What about the issue of money laundering?
Highly-developed financial centres run the risk of being misused to launder money and to finance terrorism. Money laundering has been recognised as an offence in the Swiss Criminal Code since 1990 and our Money Laundering Act of 1998 introduced due diligence obligations, particularly the obligation to report suspicious transactions. These apply to all financial intermediaries, not just banks, but also insurance companies, independent asset managers and so on. On February 1, 2009, various improvements in Switzerland’s anti-money-laundering arsenal entered into force, enabling Switzerland to stay abreast of the more sophisticated international standards. Switzerland’s legislation in this field is as rigorous as any in the world.
Money laundering and terrorism are linked in a lot of ways, what specifically is your home government doing in concert with the rest of the world to deal with this issue?
We are an active member of the Financial Action Force against Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing. At the international level, Switzerland has been at the front line of the fight against financial criminality. It is a founding member of FATF and has since been very active in contributing to strengthening its standards and their implementation. Important progress has been achieved by the revision of the FATF standards earlier this year. It will now be important that jurisdictions implement them effectively. As for Switzerland, we are currently in the process of analysing and implementing the changes to the Swiss regime of anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing that might become necessary. The Federal Council appointed an interdepartmental working group to draw up recommendations on implementing the revised recommendations of the FATF by the first quarter of 2013.
Can you shed some light on your country’s efforts at ensuring that countries get back funds illegally taken from them, especially by leaders and organised criminals?
Switzerland has a fundamental interest in ensuring that assets of criminal origin are not invested in the Swiss financial centre. Swiss laws and procedures to combat money laundering, corruption and financing of terrorism are effective means of keeping out illicit funds of politically exposed persons.
What in specific terms have been your achievements in this area?
Together with the states concerned, Switzerland seeks ways of returning assets of illicit origin to their rightful owners. In the last 15 years, Switzerland has returned around CHF 1.7b (about the same amount in USD) to their countries of origin, which is more than any other financial centre.
Can you be more specific about some of these cases?
Individual cases attract considerable publicity on account of the high profile of the people and amounts of money involved. Examples include the Montesinos case, Peru, 2002; the Marcos case, the Philippines, 2003; the Angolese assets case, Angola, 2005 and of course the Abacha case, Nigeria in 2005.
The Abacha case is of particular interest to Nigerians, can you please elaborate?
I am glad to quickly elaborate on it. In December 1999, Nigeria presented to Switzerland a formal request for mutual legal assistance involving the former Head of State, Sani Abacha. Switzerland and Nigeria agreed to ask the World Bank to participate in the review of the use of the funds- in the framework of the budget-control process of various welfare projects. Additionally, Switzerland funded a project of an NGO network which monitored the use of the recovered funds in the various development projects.
How much of these funds were returned to Nigeria?
Through this mechanism, the entire $700m blocked in Swiss bank accounts have been returned to Nigeria. In the same context, proceedings for support of a criminal organisation are still pending in Geneva against Abba Abacha, the son of the former Nigerian Head of State. As this is an ongoing case, we can give no further information.
Apart from assistance in the arena of curbing financial crimes, in what other area is your country and Nigeria collaborating?
Swiss-Nigerian relationships have developed very dynamically over the last few years. We concluded a migration partnership in 2011 and have jointly started to initiate innovative projects such as a project enabling Nigerian expatriates in Switzerland to teach young people in Nigeria in the field of automotive engineering. We also have a “Swiss Scholarship” for young Nigerian technicians to get specialised training at Nestlé Nigeria. Thanks to a pilot project on police cooperation, inaugurated in 2011, several members of the Nigerian police visited Switzerland to enhance operational co-operation with selected cantonal authorities in the fight against drug trafficking. Additional activities such as the capacity-building of the Nigeria immigration authorities, the support for Nigeria in the implementation of a protection policy for internally displaced persons, or for cooperation in the multilateral dialogue and development are also taking place. In 2011, both governments agreed to hold regular human rights consultations and to engage in joint project work regarding human rights and policing. More thematic priorities were discussed and further projects are in the pipeline.
With regards to trade and economy, we are working together to make the Nigerian market known to increasingly interested Swiss businesses. Nigeria is Switzerland’s second most important export market in sub-Sahara Africa. Nigeria is importing mainly machinery, chemicals, pharmaceutical products and textiles from Switzerland. Switzerland is mainly importing crude oil from Nigeria. At the end of 2010, Swiss business invested 255.5m CHF into the Nigerian market, up from 201.7m CHF in 2009. Swiss companies in Nigeria employ about 4000 people.