Russia’s Oligarchs, Africa’s corrupt and Joe Biden’s war



The lizard, our elders say, does not eat pepper for the frog to sweat. But when Russia’s President Vladimir Putin declared war on Ukraine, some of Russia’s super-rich started to sweat profusely.

Whether the oligarchs endorse the war or not, whether they watch the invasion of Ukraine with pleasure or displeasure, they cannot enjoy some of their most luxurious symbols of leisure. Luxury mansions, superyachts and private jets are among the oligarch’s assets around the world that are being touched by the freezing hands of some Western governments, particularly the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain Canada and the United States.

The freezing of assets came with reports that some of the assets may have been acquired illegitimately. Those allegations may not be new. And they were not known to the governments freezing them only after Russia invaded Ukraine.

So, if you make your country a safe haven for stolen wealth, can you be absolved of the thievery? Can you be described as an accomplice?

This was the question I put to Harvard Law Professor Matthew C. Stephenson.

“So, this is what I was trying to get out of the third of three themes that I touched on.  Thinking about the broader system of corruption, and I think you said it better and more succinctly than I did,” Professor Stephenson said.

I was part of 50 investigative journalists across the world, who took part in the 2022 virtual reporting tour on the United States anti-corruption efforts organized by the Washington Foreign Press Center. With a combination of practical experience and research, Professor Stephenson, who is described as an expert in anti-corruption law, couldn’t have set a better tone for the tour.

In his remarks before the question and answer session, he had explained that corruption often goes beyond the individuals engaged in it.

“First, it is important to focus on the fact that corruption has systemic consequences; second, it is important to appreciate the fact that corruption has systemic causes; and third, it is important to recognize that corruption operates in and is facilitated by larger systems, systems that include actors others than those who are directly involved in the corrupt acts such that an understanding of combating corruption requires thinking about those systems and the other actors in it,” he had explained.

In many parts of Africa and the developing world, where corruption appears to be the norm rather than the exception, the wealth stolen is often stored in the developed world. From Nigeria’s Sani Abacha to Teodoro Obiang Mangue, the son and vice president of Equatorial Guinea’s leader, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, oligarchs, kleptocrats and the super corrupt have often looked beyond their national borders after they dip hands into the wealth of their nations.

Matthew Stephenson Chair Lecture LGranger011 2550
Chair lecture with Matthew Stephenson                  Credit: Harvard Law School

Professor Stephenson believed the host countries could not be absolved of wrongdoing in this manner of looting and stashing beyond the borders of the poor countries whose resources their ruling and elite and cronies plunder.

“The corruption that takes place in many parts of the world including poorer countries often is facilitated by wealthy individuals, including in the United States, and Western Europe, and Dubai, and Singapore, and other places.  So, in a non-legal sense, yes, these Western institution individuals are accomplices in the corruption,” he explained.

Being a lawyer, Professor Stephenson emphasised that the complicity was well-established, but not in the strictest legal sense of the word. For complicity in the legal sense to be valid, certain elements in law have to be established, such as “knowledge or awareness. And sometimes you see these problems where people don’t technically know that the money is dirty, but they don’t look too hard, and they don’t ask too many questions, so that [they] don’t have sufficient controls in this.  So yes, 100% absolutely this is an enormous, enormous issue.”

Italy Seizes Yachts, Villas Worth $156 Million From Russian Elites: AP
The Italian government seized this yatch worth $156 million from a Russian Oligarch        Credit: Business Insider

The freezing and seizure of assets of Russia’s super-rich have attracted a barrage of criticism from some anti-graft campaigners who question why Western nations closed their eyes to the suspicious wealth all these years. If, for instance, Ghana’s government does not declare an unpopular war, would countries like the U.S., UK, Canada and the rest not notice the hundreds of millions of worth of property Ghana’s ruling elite and their associates acquire in their countries?

Like the critics, Professor Stephenson pointed out that the U.S., UK and the European Union had already taken some steps to deal with the systemic weaknesses that serve as enablers of corruption by powerful economies. He mentioned, among others, President Joe Biden’s anti-corruption measures, which were obviously not precipitated by the war in Ukraine.

Joe Biden’s War on Corruption

The average Ghanaian or African is likely to reel with laughter if they hear that the United States of America has declared corruption a national “security threat”.

Corruption almost sounds like a Ghanaian or Nigerian word. Or an African word if one thinks beyond Ghana. And if one is adventurous enough to think about corruption as a serious global issue, one is likely to associate it with the Middle East and the poor states of Asia.

Perhaps, it is for this reason that Quoc Dat Dong from Vietnam asked Professor Stephenson about petty corruption in the United States. The response was that petty corruption is “relatively rare” in the United States.

However, in June 2021, President Biden declared: “Corruption threatens United States national security, economic equity, global anti-poverty and development efforts, and democracy itself.”

The White House said in a press statement that “President Biden established the fight against corruption as a core U.S. national security interest. Accordingly, he directed his national security team to lead the creation of a comprehensive strategy that, when implemented, would improve the U.S. Government’s ability to prevent corruption, more effectively combat illicit finance, better hold corrupt actors accountable, and strengthen the capacity of activists, investigative journalists, and others on the front lines of exposing corrupt acts.”

As a Ghanaian who looks at America’s institutions as almost perfect, I find Biden’s view of corruption as a national security threat hyperbolic. A critical look at the pillars of the U.S. strategy on Countering Corruption, however, resolves this.

The five pillars of the strategy are modernizing, coordinating, and resourcing U.S. Government efforts to fight corruption, curbing illicit finance, and holding corrupt actors accountable. The rest are preserving and strengthening the multilateral anti-corruption architecture, and improving diplomatic engagement and leveraging foreign assistance resources to achieve anti-corruption policy goals.

Apart from the first goal, which is U.S.-centered, the remaining four strategies focus on the role of the U.S. in fighting corruption internationally. A threat to the U.S. national security can, after all, come from anywhere in the world.

Implications for Africa’s Corrupt

I have said elsewhere that laws and strategy documents in Ghana appear to serve the same purpose as ornamental plants—decoration. And a typical Ghanaian might harbour doubts about the Biden-Harris administration’s enhanced anti-corruption efforts. Listening to the briefing from James Walsh, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs at the U.S. State Department, however, I was convinced that the fight would be taken notches higher even if it does not meet the expectations of all.

The administration has created a new portfolio, the Coordinator on Global Anti-Corruption, to “integrate and elevate the fight against corruption across all aspects of U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance.” Mr. Walsh said the US was increasing its efforts on “the transnational dimensions of corruption”.

“Through the multilaterally-supported Global Anti-Corruption Consortium, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, known as DRL, is substantially scaling up support to strengthen collaboration between investigative journalists and civil society to expose transnational corruption, drive policy reforms, and increase accountability for corrupt actors,” he said.

The US Department of State, he said, had partnered with the Departments of Treasury and Justice to launch “a Democracies Against Safe Havens Initiative, or DASH, at the Summit for Democracy.  This initiative will work to build partner-government capacity to deny corrupt actors the ability to hide ill-gotten gains, to encourage like-minded partners to adopt anti-corruption sanctions and visa restriction regimes, and to detect and disrupt complex corruption schemes”

The United States, Mr. Walsh said, had also “targeted over $3.4 billion in corruption proceeds.  We’ve confiscated over $1.7 billion of these assets and returned – and assisted in the return of over $1.6 billion to victim countries.”

History of Abacha's Theft is Being Rewritten Before Our Eyes - Notes From Atlanta
Abacha, a military dictator who led Nigeria from 1993 to 1999 when he died in office stole and hid billions of dollars outside Nigeria        Credit: Notes from Atlanta

In 2020, the United States returned $311 million in assets to Nigeria. According to Mary Butler, the Chief of the International Unit of the Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section of the US Department of Justice, these were resources linked to embezzlement by the late Nigerian leader, Sani Abacha.

 If an American Company is corrupt in Ghana

The United States’ anti-corruption efforts are not targeting only individuals. And they are not targeting only outsiders who loot from their own countries and take it to the U.S.

Officials say the renewed fight against graft will see the stringent implementation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which deals with American companies that engage in bribery and other acts of corruption abroad.

A Supervisory Special Agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Jeffrey Coleman, explained that the law “prohibits certain companies and individuals from providing or promising to provide anything of value to a foreign official for the purposes of either influencing that official in their official capacity or to secure an improper advantage in order to obtain or retain business.”

The enforcement of this act has already caused a stir in Ghana. The involvement of a relative of former President John Mahama in the Airbus scandal was the most topical news item for weeks in Ghana when news of the collaborative investigations by the U.S., UK and France hit the country.

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American businesses owners face prosecution back home if they engage in corrupt practices abroad

Anti-graft campaigners in Ghana have advocated for legislation that will hold private companies accountable.

At an April 2022 forum in Accra on the breaches of procurement laws and how the public procurement system was hurting, instead of saving the public purse, the Executive Director of the Ghana Anti-Corruption Coalition, Beauty Emefa Narteh, had one major concern.

Her worry was that the Public Procurement Authority (PPA) in Ghana, which had the power to, at least, debar questionable companies from partaking in public procurement, often looked the other way while companies notorious for their involvement in corruption scandals kept on winning shady contracts and perpetuating corruption.

She cited an instance when a Ghanaian company, Zoomlion Ghana Limited, was debarred by the World Bank for engaging in corruption in Liberia but had not been touched back home. Her suggestion was that the PPA could partner with institutions like the World Bank so that any debarment by World Bank would mean an automatic debarment by the PPA.

When I asked how a journalist or individual could be heard if they had evidence of corruption against an American company, Agent Coleman said that person could go to the American Embassy in their country and lodge a complaint with the FBI agent there.

What Biden’s War Means for Africa’s Corrupt

Corruption, as Professor Stephenson explained, is universal. What makes it a norm in some countries and a rare exception in others is the availability or lack of consequences for the actors. In Ghana and most parts of Africa, for instance, there appears to be no price to pay for grand corruption.

Every year, the Auditor-General’s report is replete with acts of corruption and infractions of Ghana’s financial regulations. Corruption revelations by the media and civil society organisations do not yield much.

However, if the United States extends its tentacles to Africa—which it appears determined to do with Biden’s anti-corruption agenda—there is likely some fear of God in public officials and private citizens who collude to rob their people of the much-needed resources for development.

 In the coming years, investigative journalists like myself, who are battling the monstrous canker of corruption in countries with weak institutions, will want to assess the potency of Biden’s war on corruption not only on what it has achieved in the United States.

President Biden did not only see corruption as a national security threat. He said, “But by effectively preventing and countering corruption and demonstrating the advantages of transparent and accountable governance, we can secure a critical advantage for the United States and other democracies.”

The “other democracies” should include Ghana.

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  1. Very educative and interesting times ahead.
    This has been baffling me some time now.
    Is it the case that foreign countries and European countries to be specific have no idea that monies given to African leaders in the form of loans and grants are not used for what they are purported for?
    And in the end, these countries provide a safe haven for such individuals at the expense their people.
    I pray and hope that years to come, develop countries will all uphold the stance of the US and this will make corruption unattractive and eradicate if not all but limit the rate at which African leaders indulge in corrupt acts.
    Thumbs up ?

  2. The US is not immune to corruption. Depending on the angle one stands, defines what one thinks is corruption.

    I think Joe Biden is corrupt. In the sense that, wanting to boost the sales of arms to European countries by US arms dealers, he has provoked Russia. This automatically has increased the request of ammunitions by European countries.

    Now, Eastern and European countries are in mad rash for missile defense systems which is only procured from the US. Now arm dealers are smiling to the Bank and that, the Government is cashing in on millions of dollars in tax.

    Mind you, the word ‘corruption’ is not an Ewe, Dagbaani or a Twi diction. It is English!!!


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