In the James Bond film, Casino Royale, a shady and brutal Bond enemy wants a quick solution to his unending financial problems. A banker visits his home with a quick fix.
He doesn’t ask many questions, and no one is surprised that the banker is Swiss because Switzerland has had a reputation for its secretive numbered bank accounts and bankers’ discretion.
But in a recent about-face and change in its banking laws, the Swiss government is asking Kenya to request restitution of its billions in stolen funds believed to be stashed away in Swiss banks.
Mwalimu Mati, the head of The Mars Group, says most of the stolen funds are either in secret accounts in banks in Switzerland or other European countries. The looted funds include over Sh158 billion from the Goldenberg scandal and Sh112 billion from Anglo-Leasing scam.
“The Swiss government is willing and ready to respond and act immediately to ensure that money looted and kept in our bank accounts is returned,” Switzerland’s ambassador to Kenya Jacques Pitteloud told the Sunday Nation.
The Swiss Federal Act on the Restitution of Assets of Politically Exposed Persons obtained by Unlawful Means came into force on February 1. The law governs the freezing, forfeiture and restitution of the assets of such people in cases where a request for mutual assistance cannot succeed in the requesting state due to the failure of its judicial system.
The Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs had said that the new law “can henceforth provide a solution”.
Mr Pitteloud said his government was helping in taking action against Anglo-Leasing suspects who are believed to have stashed billions of shillings in Swiss banks.
If the government does not ask for the money, Switzerland will freeze the accounts and channel back the money to Kenya through development projects.
“The new law allows us to ensure that illicit money is returned to the right people to assist them in development even when the government refuses or delays in asking for it,” Mr Pitteloud said.
Restitution of stolen funds involves a formal request from the state of origin following legal proceedings. The Anglo-Leasing scandal is just one of the many schemes through which the country has lost money.
In 2003 investigations by the international risk consultancy firm Kroll on behalf of the Government of Kenya into allegations of corruption revealed that more than Sh160 billion was stolen and kept in Swiss accounts.
The leaked report, which was handed to the Kenyan Government in April 2004 but was never made public, claims the money was deposited in secret accounts in Switzerland, Britain, Luxembourg and several Caribbean nations.
The names of Credit Suisse (Zurich) and Citibank (Geneva) came up several times as the institutions where most of the stolen money had been deposited.
Other secret accounts were said to be held by banks in Switzerland’s southern Ticino region.
The 110-page report pointed to a level of corruption in Kenya on par with the Zaire of Mobutu Sese Seko, Nigeria under Sani Abacha and The Philippines under Ferdinand Marcos.
Switzerland is mounting a concerted campaign to portray itself as a clean and respectable world financial hub.
“We no longer deserve the reputation as a save haven for ill-gotten money. It is not in our national interest to harbour money from criminal origins,” Mr Pitteloud said.
One of the measures adopted by banks to guard against accepting illicit money are the Know Your Customer rules that oblige providers of financial services to identify their clients and ascertain the origin of their assets.
“Previously it was difficult to know whom you are dealing with. Even now, one can still deposit money using intermediaries,” Mr Pitteloud said.
Measures against Politically Exposed Persons are also extended to family members and close associates.
“If any such Kenyan turns up with money in a Swiss bank, he will attract attention,” Mr Pitteloud said.
According to the African Union, about $148 billion is taken illegally from Africa every year. Boston Consulting Group alleges that Switzerland alone manages nearly one-third of global offshore wealth.
A ruling by the Court of Appeal in October last year allowed the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission to work with any international body to trace ill-gotten assets deposited in foreign accounts.
Commission director Patrick Lumumba said the government planned to freeze all foreign accounts held by State officers as a weapon in the anti-graft war.
But credible sources at the anti-graft agency told the Sunday Nation that neither the agency nor the government had written to seek help in recovering stolen funds held in Swiss banks.
“It may turn out that this new law will not assist us because the Kenya Government has never been serious in seeking legal assistance to get back stolen funds,” Mr Mati said.