The hunt for missing billions of Muslim money a charade

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

M.S. Ahmed

Rajab 26, 1419 1998-11-16

Special Reports

by M.S. Ahmed (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 18, Rajab, 1419)

From Nigeria through Pakistan to Indonesia, there is talk of tracing the billions of Muslim money salted away by the corrupt regimes that have taken turns to send their countries to the cleaners. But the effort can only be a charade as those giving the order for the search are either directly or indirectly involved in State corruption and the foreign bankers and agents that have facilitated the hiding of the plundered resources have taken their cut and are not likely to assist in the hunt for the loot.

In Nigeria, said to be the world’s most corrupt country, the search is limited to the millions of dollars pillaged by the late general Sani Abacha, who died on June 8. During five years of a secretive and autocratic rule, the general and a circle of aides and business partners raided almost every stage of the oil business, which is the country’s most important industry and the source of 80 percent of public revenue. Nigeria earns $10 billion a year on average in oil sales. Abacha’s family returned $750 million - peanuts in comparison to the amount stolen - to the Nigerian government, it was reported on November 11.

But Abacha and his associates did not invent the art of raiding the country’s oil resources. Their particular contribution was that the oil business was tightly supervised by presidential aides, who negotiated personally all contracts; that the kickbacks were severely limited to a small circle, and that money was directly withdrawn from oil refineries, which became too poor to refine enough gasoline for the consumption of the local population, leading to the absured situation of an oil-exporting country importing petrol.

When Abacha came to power in 1993, he set up a commission to investigate the dissappearance of oil revenues generated by the rise in oil prices following the 1991 Gulf war. The commission reported that $12.2 billion in oil earnings had disappeared between 1990 and 1994, but no one was ever prosecuted.

There will be similar commissions in the future but Abacha has salted away his loot in diverse foreign accounts and his business interests are well-hidden in the Gulf region, Brazil and Asia. No one will be prosecuted and his family will be able to keep their ill-gotten inheritance.

In Indonesia - where ex-president Suharto and his family amassed a fortune estimated at $40 billion during a 32-year rule ending last May, when he resigned in the face of country-wide protests - there are similar obstacles to meaningful investigations. When vice-president B J Habibie, took over as president, he promised to order searching enquiries into corruption and nepotism.

Justice minister Muladi said later that officials who had served with Suharto, including Habibie himself, would be investigated. But the investigation team, led by attorney general Muhammad Ghalib, met Suharto at his Jakarta home on September 21 only briefly and closed the inquiry soon afterwards. Ghalib said the former president had assured them that he had no overseas bank accounts and that he would send a list of his assets. Consequently, he added, the investigation could not proceed any further as the authorities had no evidence of wrongdoing.

With president Habibie, a virtual creature of Suharto, and other officials deeply involved in the malpractice of the former president’s regime, it is not surprising that the investigation has been brief and cosmetic. Habibie, a close ally of his former boss, whom he used to call ‘Super Genious Suharto,’ was research and technology minister from 1978 until he was appointed vice president in March.

Other missing millions are said to belong to the Sultan of Brunei, who, until the loss of billions of dollars over a year now, was the richest man in the world. The poor man may not even be the second richest after the huge loss, said to be due to royal extravagance, bad investment and the oil-price slump.

The annual spending of Sultan Hasanal Bolkiah, his three brothers and their families amounts to almost $2 billion, according to recently published western estimates. Brunei’s entire oil and gas revenues, which account for nearly all its annual income, fluctuate between $2.5 billion and $1.7 billion, and the drop in oil prices makes the figure closer to $1.5 billion. The Sultan has two wives, four sons and six daughters.

The ruling dynasty has been able to milk the system because the Sultan has total control of government machinery, including the treasury. Not only is he head of State but he is also prime minister, defence minister and finance minister. The details of the country’s finances are also treated as State secrets. All this makes it impossible to know what belongs to the State and what belongs to the ‘royal family.’

The Sultan blames none other than his youngest brother, prince Jefri, who is held responsible for the staggering failings of the Brunei Investment Agency (BIA) which controls most of the State’s assets. The BIA has reportedly lost 40 percent of its value during the past year (about $20 billion of its estimated total value of $60 billion). Jefri’s private company, Amedeo Development Corporation (ADC), also collapsed under ú10 billion of debts. The issue was brought into the open only because western firms began to sue the prince for failure to honour deals he had entered into.

Brunei has appealed to the British government to help trace the billions of missing dollars, Jefri is supposed to have squandered in Britain and elsewhere. Arthur Anderson, the accountancy firm, has been appointed to review the accounts of the BIA and ADC and to conduct a world-wide search for the ‘missing billions.’ But this search will be confined to the billions blown by Jefri, and will not amount to a full review of Brunei’s finances or corrupt practices.

Western accounting agencies, like Arthur Anderson, act as consultants to foreign governments, politicians and businessmen, generating a good deal of their income, and are not likely to rock the boat. Similarly many western politicians, including ministers and businessmen, are deeply involved in corruption in foreign countries.

A case now unfolding before the British courts shows how deeply involved a British conservative minister, Jonathan Aitken, was in corrupt deals with king Fahd’s second son, prince Muhammad. As minister for defence procurement for two years, Aitken lobbied the Saudi government for British defence firms. Agreements over the proposed sale of a range of heavy equipment to Saudi Arabia were completed between 1993 and 1995. Aitken also promoted a separate arms deal involving submarines worth ú1 billion. The entire package is estimated at more than ú2 billion, and the commissions on such deals vary between 10 percent and 25 percent.

But princes Jefri and Muhammad are not the only Muslim businessmen and former officials in the public eye. The Pakistani former prime minister, and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, may not be a ‘Super Genious Suharto’ but she has great aptitude for maintaining a high profile - although, apparently, for the wrong reasons. A Swiss magistrate has formally demanded the indictment of Bhutto on money laundering charges related to alleged kickback from two Swiss companies.

Judge Daniel Devand started his investigation of Bhutto and her husband Asif Zardari following a request for Swiss legal assistance in late 1997 from the Pakistani government, which accuses her of stealing millions of dollars of State money and salting them in foreign accounts. The Pakistani government has also asked British authorities for legal assistance in tracing Bhutto’s missing millions.

But Bhutto and other thieving Muslim politicians and businessmen will take heart from the fact that western countries, where the ‘missing billions’ are stashed away or spent, are not keen to assist in the hunt for their loot, as the case of Mrs Imelda Marcos, widow of the former Filippino dictator shows. After years of investigations of their huge hidden wealth nothing has come to light. And in fact the country’s top court acquitted her of corruption charges in early October.

Even indicted war criminals, like Rodovan Karadzic, seem immune to real investigation. He was accused in late September of transferring ú17 million out of Republika Srpska.

But so far he has successfully evaded any inquiry into the affair, as he has arrest for his war crimes.

Muslimedia: November 16-30, 1998

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