LONDON (AFP) – Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari on Wednesday urged Britain to return assets stolen by corrupt officials in pointed remarks after Prime Minister David Cameron called his country “fantastically corrupt”.
“I am not going to demand any apology from anybody. What I am demanding is the return of the assets,” Buhari told an anti-corruption event in London.
He noted the case of Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, a former governor of oil-rich Bayelsa state who was detained in London on charges of money laundering in 2005, but skipped bail by disguising himself as a woman.
Alamieyeseigha, who died in Nigeria in October, left behind “his bank account and fixed assets, which Britain is prepared to hand over to us. This is what I m asking for”, Buhari said.
“What would I do with an apology? I need something tangible,” he said at the event organised by the Commonwealth secretariat.
Cameron was asked during a parliamentary debate about measures to clamp down on corruption, particularly in the London property market.
“Action is necessary by developed countries as well as developing countries,” he said.
“The steps we are taking to make sure that foreign companies that own UK property have to declare who the beneficial owner is will be one of the ways we make sure that plundered money from African countries can t be hidden in London.”
He also joked about his unguarded comments, telling MPs that “tips on diplomacy are useful, given the last 24 hours” and quipped that “first of all I had better check the microphone is on before speaking”.
Cameron is hosting a major anti-corruption summit on Thursday, which Buhari is attending alongside Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
Ahead of the talks, Cameron was caught on camera telling Queen Elizabeth II that the leaders of some “fantastically corrupt” countries were attending, adding that Nigeria and Afghanistan were “possibly the two most corrupt countries in the world”.
A spokesman for Buhari said the comments were “embarrassing” and reflected “an old snapshot of Nigeria”.
Buhari has embarked on a widespread anti-corruption campaign since taking office last year, although his critics have accused him of a political witch hunt.
The president said corruption was a “hydra-headed monster” that was “endemic and systematic” in Nigeria, and thanked Britain for helping his country tackle it, including by arresting some former state governors accused of fraud.
But in general, “our experience has been that repatriation of corrupt proceeds is very tedious, time consuming, costly”, Buhari said.
Other Nigerian politicians were less forgiving about Cameron s comments.
“I am taken aback. I am not happy about it,” said Chukwuka Utazi, chairman of the Senate committee on anti-corruption and financial crimes, who was attending the Commonwealth event.
“If there s no market for stolen goods, then there would not be a thief. As long as the criminals steal, and Britain is ready to welcome them over here… it smacks of irresponsibility.”
Senator Dino Melaye said he thought Cameron should apologise for his “reckless” and “demeaning” remarks, which were “insulting the integrity of my nation”.
“Nigeria, like many other countries across the globe, is corrupt, but corruption is a two-way traffic,” he said.
“The UK cannot continue to encourage and warehouse the proceeds of corruption and then accuse nations of being corrupt.”
Melaye, a public supporter of Senate president Bukola Saraki who is currently on trial for fraud, said the money involved “billions of pounds stolen from Nigeria, deposited in properties and cash in the UK”.
James Ibori, the former governor of the oil-rich Delta state who was acquitted in Nigeria on corruption charges but jailed in London for a similar offence, had owned six properties in London, according to anti-poverty group ONE.
These included a six-bedroom house with an indoor pool worth 3.28 million pound today (1.27 million euros, $4.73 million).
The properties have been seized but the proceeds have not yet been returned to Nigeria.
Jose Ugaz, chairman of global advocacy group Transparency International, told the Commonwealth event that Cameron s comments had only told part of the story and there was a “complicit participation” on the part of developed countries.
“It takes two to tango,” he said.