Africa, Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Headlines

AFRICA: Bid To Unlock Secret Swiss Vaults Holding Stolen Wealth

LONDON, Sep 2 1996 (IPS) - New pressure on traditionally secretive Swiss banks to open their books has raised hope that the millions plundered and stashed in their vaults by corrupt African dictators and their bureaucrats could be returned to their home countries.

The new optimism follows the qualified success so far of continuing campaigns with similar objectives, staged by Jewish organisations and the Philippines government.

The Jewish groups seek to force Swiss bankers to detail riches left in their care after the Nazi genocide of European Jewry during World War II and the Philippines government wants to recover billions taken by the late Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

But African activists are determined that any funds recovered from secret Swiss bank accounts should not be used to pay off international debts — and should go direct to poverty alleviation programmes.

“These debts are unrepayable and have given rise to a situation where governments are spending more on debt repayment than on health and education,” says Ann Pettifor, coordinator of the Debt Crisis Network NGO in London. “I believe the funds (in Swiss banks), if they can be got at and confiscated, must be used for investment in human development.

“I have spoken to a lot of influential Africans like former President (Julius) Nyrere of Tanzania and the economist Professor Adebayo Adedeji, who say that the monies must be returned to the respective countries and used for development purposes.”

Pettifor recognises that the task will be herculean, given the reticence of the Swiss authorities, and the reluctance of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to bring their own pressure to bear on the Swiss banking establishment.

The difficulties which African countries are likely to encounter with the Swiss banks are illustrated by the Marcos case. The Philippines government’s claim was officially made in the late 1980s, but it was only a few years ago that the banks even acknowledged the existence of the “Marcos money”.

Then there was the problem of establishing how much exactly Marcos had secreted away to Switzerland — estimates range between a few hundred million dollars to 10 billion dollars in gold bullion and cash. The current, three-way negotiations between the Philippines government, the Swiss authorities and the Marcos family have arrived at a provisional figure of 475 million dollars.

“It has been a long struggle, but at least we are getting somewhere,” says Eduardo Maranan, press attache at the Philippines embassy in London. “The banks have agreed that the money is there and a working figure has been agreed on. We are now in on/off negotiations with the Marcos family, and with the Swiss government, for a settlement. It may take years. Who knows?”

Many analysts contend that claims to the funds — and their accumulated interest —

Millions of dollars worth of cash, gold and property was deposited in Swiss banks by Jews before they were seized and murdered by the Nazis during World War II.

Millions more were placed in the banks by the Nazis themselves, who plundered Jewish homes and businesses across Germany and then occupied Europe, and then put their ill-gotten gains in neutral Switzerland as the defeat loomed.

By now well organised Jewish community groups have been working away on behalf of the surviving families of the dead for half a century. African groups on the other hand, are just starting and will have to work hard to catch up.

“Of course we will work together with our partners in Africa, and also raise the issue with the European parliament,” Helen O’Connell, London spokesperson for the development NGO One World Action. But she thought it would be hard to find a lobby in Africa that could match the heroic efforts of the Jewish community.

Although they support moves to recover funds stolen from Africa, some within the NGO community maintain that it is a side issue and that the funds recovered will only make the barest difference to the wider African economic predicament.

Many fear that the prospect of recovering the fund will provide creditors with another excuse to delay debt relief and some believe that any increased focus on African corruption feeds racism and undermines the credibility of African authorities. Many note that the sums involved are minor compared to fraud in other countries.

“We support any effort to recover funds stolen by Third World leaders, from Africa or any other place,” says Kevin Watkins, senior policy adviser at the British emergency aid NGO Oxfam.

“But what we are concerned about is for it to be used as an excuse for not taking action on debt relief measures, obviously one of the most important issues facing poor African countries.”

Pettifor argues that the whole debate about corruption in Africa as conducted in the West is racist: “Although corruption is big in Nigeria, for Africa as a whole it is small beer, a drop in the ocean, if you look at what goes on in the West and in Russia.

“But you hardly hear about that in the news. In most cases it is these same Western leaders bribing African officials that start the process in the first place.”

The Debt Crisis Network is supporting a campaign by the pressure group Transparency International to get the British government to pass legislation allowing the prosecution of Britons caught bribing officials in other countries, as in the United States.

And according to Pettifor, a case could also be made for prosecuting banks that hold their clients’ ill-gotten gains.

“In many countries you can go to jail for handling or receiving stolen goods, but these banks that collude in the plundering of whole nations don’t have to answer to anyone,” she says.

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