ILLICIT FUNDS: How we tracked $700m Abacha loot – Swiss Ambassador Hodel

By Victor Gotevbe & Victoria Ojeme

Hans-Rudolf Hodel, Ambassador, Embassy of Switzerland to Nigeria, Chad and Niger, speaks on the bilateral relationship between Nigeria and his country.

Switzerland  is one of the most politically and economically stable countries in the world. Also, reports of violent crimes emanating from your country are almost non-existent. What is your secret and what can Nigeria learn from your country?

I don’t think there are secrets to Switzerland’s stability because everybody  can  see  what we do. Think of what happened in Tunisia yesterday-no country is immune to  such an event. I mean look at what happened in Norway when one silly person started shooting in the parliament- no one is really safe from such things, but I think there is something peculiar to Switzerland: the participation of the population in   political and economic decisions. For instance, no matter your position, you have to pay taxes like everybody else. We are certain about our taxes, and if you want to raise taxes you must have good arguments for it. Another point is the sentiment of the state being not our enemy (like what I have observed in many countries), that the state being us, ourselves even when I spend my money I always think this is tax payer’s money and I am a tax payer myself and we have to make sure that this money is used in the best way possible. For instance, when I go on official trip I fly economy class because I think it is my tax-payers’ money and with that money I can make more intelligent things than just to have the opportunity to fly business class. Or when I make invitations at my house, it is my tax-payers’ money so I invite people who are interested in our bilateral relations, who are interested from Switzerland, from Nigeria and not just colleagues to have free dinner and drinks. This is probably an attitude which is rather uncommon. Another element could be (and this is also the case for Nigeria) that we don’t have a common religion, we don’t have a common language, we don’t have a common political idea; what makes Switzerland a country is the will of the population to form one country together. The German speakers never wanted to be part of Germany, the French speakers never wanted to be part of France, the Italian speakers never wanted to be part of Italy, we choose to be together; that is probably the only thing we have in common; the will to form a country that brings us together.

With oil glut, we will like to know if there is any volume of non-oil trade between Switzerland and Nigeria.

Zero! I mean one percent probably. It is a pity because I travel a lot in Nigeria and I am probably the most travelled ambassador here and I see a lot of land which can be used for agriculture and also a high population of youths which can yield the building of industries, but Nigeria as a country  doesn’t export much of non-oil products. It is not as if we don’t want it, but there is little possibility because there is not much that we could buy from Nigeria if it is not oil. I think 90 percent of Nigeria’s export is oil and 60 percent of the state income is also from oil; so I think Nigeria should try to change its export structure and we will adapt and import from what you offer.

Does Nigeria actually import from Switzerland?

Yes but much less than your export. I think our export is around 200 million dollars a year and our import is about 800 million a year from Nigeria, the bilateral ones. Our export is a bit more of varieties- mostly machineries, pharmaceuticals, few chemicals, and consumables-which is not much because Nigerians prefer to buy their Swiss watches in Switzerland and not Nigeria and then they are sure they are real Swiss watches. The volume of oil import from Nigeria which I said earlier is 800 million dollars. The export last year was 240 million dollars and, by the way, we don’t have euro but actually everything is the same, the dollar to the Swiss franc is about 99 cents and euro to the Swiss franc is about 106 so Swiss franc, euro and dollars are almost the same actually; just slight differences.

For decades, Swiss pharmaceutical companies manufactured and shipped high quality drugs to Nigeria. In recent years, some of these drugs have been known to have been counterfeited in some Asian countries and shipped to Nigeria leading to avoidable deaths. Could the Swiss authorities and pharmaceutical companies have done more to help stop these counterfeit drugs from reaching Nigeria?

What we try to do is to work with the countries where such drugs are produced so that they don’t allow their companies to produce  counterfeit drugs. When it comes to Nigeria, of course it is not us that have to check your imports, it is the Nigerian authorities who have to make sure that no fake drugs are imported; Swiss police and Customs can’t be at your borders, it is Nigerians that have to do that. But of course we have good relationship with the authorities of Nigeria; we are presently working with the food and drug authorities, we have exchanged views and they have asked us about our products and it is definitely a good cooperation. But at the borders, it has to be a Nigerian affair. We can’t put ourselves in the internal affairs of Nigeria. Our cooperation is purely advisory and not on the really hard intervention side.

The late Dr. Myles Munroe, in his book, cited the fall of the Swiss wrist watch industry. Growing up with memories of the wrist watches, they were almost synonymous with Switzerland. And you are also known for your premium watches and knives. Has Switzerland yielded ground to Asian knockoffs in these two areas?

Let’s talk first about the knives from China and other Asian countries. It is the same problem you are encountering with  drugs but people who want the original ones buy good quality and they have the best value for their money. The problem they have is that they sell much less in the airports because, when you are travelling by air, you are not allowed to carry such things in your suitcase. Coming to watches, they are doing very well; some Asian watch companies from Japan and China have competed with us because they produce the cheap ones and we produce the premium ones and, in the more economical field, we are also very successful with the very famous prime Swatch. We have managed to produce watches for a low cost 100 percent Swiss because they have fewer components that make them cheaper but they are of good quality. There was a moment when electronic watches came out and everyone wanted to buy electronic since Swiss traditionally produces mechanical watches. However, we had to work on it and, in 1982, Nicolas Hayek, a Swiss engineer, had the idea of creating Swatch and that was when again the Swiss watches became very competitive at the high end. We consider middle class watches from 500 to 2,000, 3,000 dollars and high end is 5,000 to no limit because we have watches with diamonds; that is why I said there is no limit but the watches that sell a lot are from 5,000 to 20,000 dollars.

How much has the Swiss government repatriated to Nigeria from Abacha’s loot?
700 million dollars but that was 10 years ago.

It has been reported that your government is keen on modifying your banking secrecy laws in order to discourage politically exposed persons from depositing illicit funds in your country. What is the status of these intended modifications and to what extent will these modifications help countries like Nigeria identify and retrieve illicit funds deposited in your country by politically exposed persons?
Of course there are two things; one is the criminal money and the other is the money of   politically exposed persons. In general, the policy in Switzerland has changed a lot and I am very happy about that because our banking secrecy was much disputed. We always said it was the problem of the country where these people lived; it was not our problem. If people come and deposit money and the bank can accept that money except there is a criminal process in the transaction, then we incorporate the authorities, but this has changed very much. Now banking secrecy doesn’t exist anymore for foreigners, it continues to exist for Swiss people so the Swiss tax authorities can’t ask our banks questions, but I also believe this will change with the coming on stream of the  Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and other international organisations, so there will be automatic exchange of information. Now when it comes to criminal monies, the Swiss banks are no longer interested in such monies and, when you want to deposit such monies before, you will just have to prove the monies are yours, but now you will have to prove that you have earned the monies  in a legal way. Of course if you deposit 200 dollars and you are a journalist, we say as a journalist you can have such money. But if you want to deposit 2 million dollars as a journalist, you have to prove that you earned that money or inherited it or you did a super job because normally a journalist doesn’t have 2 million dollars. Yes, some journalists are rich but they can prove that they got the money in a legitimate way. This has changed completely and, of course, there is legal assistance in some cases. For instance, a journalist has effectively deposited his  money and then it turns out that not everything was legal. A country where criminal prudery is going on, we can ask for legal assistance and help the authorities to clarify these things and eventually return the money. For the politically exposed persons also, we have new rules- we don’t want those monies anymore. Of course it becomes complicated because if you are a head of state and you go to a country, there is also the respect. You can’t tell a president he is a criminal; even if you ask for confirmation from his minister of finance, the minister of commerce and so on, all will sign that he is a very good president and his money is legal, but as soon as he ceases to be president, things might change. People may find out that it was not that legal and those who signed for him also participated in all the illegality, and back then, countries that wanted such monies returned had to prove that the monies deposited in the Swiss banks were truly illegal. Now a head of state or even a former head of state has to prove that his monies are legally acquired, which, of course, is much more difficult. By the way, Switzerland is the country that has returned more illegal monies from former heads of state than any other country in the world that were  deposited in its banks; 2.5 billion dollars returned. In the Abacha case, it was also like this-the Nigerian authorities said they had the inking that Abacha had stolen monies from Nigeria, so the Swiss authorities informed all the banks if they had any account belonging to Abacha and they all returned such monies which amounted to 700 million dollars. The Nigerian government asked that the monies  be returned and we did. We said the monies will be given back to the people; so there was a repatriation   agreement between the World Bank and the Swiss government that the monies will be used for projects in the interest of the population and not just sent to the account of the new government which was done and there was a report on that. Of course such agreement is difficult because the Swiss government can’t tell the Nigerian government how to use their monies, but we filed an agreement that they will go to the budget of the state for infrastructure like schools, roads and drugs and the World Bank confirmed it.
Aside telling Nigerians how to channel the Abacha loot, was there any follow up from the Swiss government to ensure what could be done?
We can try to do as much as possible, which is acceptable in the field of good relationship between two countries, and you know I can’t go to the finance minister and tell her to build this and that school because these are Nigerian monies.  As Swiss authorities, we can’t tell Nigerian government what to do with the monies which belong to Nigerians, but we convinced them not to put them in bank accounts or private properties, we convinced   them to use the monies for projects in the interest of the population and, of course, when it comes to details, we can’t follow every naira.

What is the population of Nigerians living in Switzerland?
2,355 Nigerians live in Switzerland.

What are the most common crimes committed by Nigerians in Switzerland?
I think the question you should ask me is what these Nigerians are doing in Switzerland and not the crimes they commit. We have three categories; one third of them have dual citizenship, so they are also Swiss. To us, they are Swiss and many probably see them as Swiss too. Then we have about one third with residency permits, most of whom are doing decent jobs in universities, simple jobs, etc and one third do not have legal status in Switzerland, so they are seeking asylum with no real good reasons often. A few ones of course are criminals but we have criminals in all nations. The crimes mostly, relate to drug dealings and 419 but we try to convince people that only a few Nigerians are criminals because Nigeria has bad reputation in many places all over the world which is not correct.

How many Nigerians are serving jail terms in Switzerland?
I don’t have that figure. But they are not many because for those who have illegal status, we have migration agreement with Nigeria. We offer a lot to Nigeria and one small element in that agreement is that illegal persons who didn’t commit crime in Switzerland can go home with an initiative that they can get help to start businesses  in Nigeria and very few will not want to go home but they have to go home.

What area do you think Switzerland should improve  in the relationship with Nigeria?
We have very good relationship. We have a very good migration partnership with Nigeria and we can indirectly try to promote investment in Nigeria; so if there is more investment, Nigerians will get better jobs and will not have to migrate to Europe or the United States. We could improve  business relationship because very few Swiss companies are in Nigeria; some are already successful like Nestle but others could come. We organise business trips and Swiss companies are coming. They know there is a high risk in coming to Nigeria business wise and they also know that if you are successful you will make a lot of profit. But many people are afraid to come because of the bad news they hear  about Nigeria. We try to convince people not to read only the bad news but also the good things about Nigeria because the media prefers to write negative things than positive things and it is the same with the European media. In Europe, if you ask about Nigeria, most people will say Nigeria is Boko Haram. Do you think Nigeria is just Boko Haram? No, it is much more than that; so we try to improve the image of Nigeria. We cooperate in the human rights field. Switzerland is one of the countries that value human rights a lot and we think that there are some international standards which should be respected everywhere. We have very interesting discussions, for instance, when it comes to death penalty, and even in Nigeria there are interesting discussions between the federal and state governments and we contribute in that discussion. Then there are areas where Western countries and African countries don’t agree- when it comes to gay questions, we can’t discuss that now because  we know that there is no possibility for us to come closer in such field. We also have political dialogue with Nigeria which is very important along with human rights dialogue and we don’t go public with such things because it is not necessary for the media. Some countries do that but we don’t.
How many of your citizens are living and working in Nigeria?

About 200 but the bosses of the Swiss companies, with a few exception, are not Swiss.

Apart from Nestle, which other companies does Switzerland have in Nigeria?
Syngenta Agriculture is very active here as well as ABB which is in charge of Mikano generators. We can also be very helpful in tourism in Nigeria, that is a sector we can help develop in Nigeria and share experiences; we can improve on the service quality but the infrastructures should be Nigerian style. You have Aso Rock, why is it that there no cable train on top, that at least should be a tourist attraction for Abuja. What is the tourist attraction for Abuja? None! But if you can do that (it is not much), then everyone will be talking about Aso Rock or Zuma Rock whenever they want to journey to Abuja. You can probably have a restaurant there, a park for children to play and you can even have a hotel up there. As a Swiss,the first thing I would think of is, why can’t I get to the top of that rock?

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