INTERVIEW: What UK govt is doing about stolen funds, artefacts from Nigeria – British Envoy

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Catriona Laing, whose term as British High Commissioner to Nigeria ends in 2023, sat with PREMIUM TIMES’ Chiamaka Okafor, Kabir Yusuf and George Kaduna to talk about a variety of topics from education and football to illicit financial flow as she ruminates on her experience so far in Africa’s largest economy.

Ms Laing arrived in Nigeria in November 2018, just before the general election of 2019 and is looking forward to the next elections in 2023.

She described Nigeria as a big, complicated yet fascinating country where she has tried to make the most of her time.

“It has been a real journey but I think I am fortunate to be the British High Commissioner to Nigeria because our partnership is very rich, very deep, based on historical foundation; very strong people-to-people link and I find that I have very good access here, I have a very warm welcome here,” Ms Laing told PREMIUM TIMES.

She believes she is putting in the work and accomplishing her core mission as a British envoy to Nigeria.

“I feel like I am getting stuff done in deepening and strengthening the partnership, so it has been a wonderful three and half years here and I am looking forward to the rest of my time here,” she said.

Excerpts:

PT: Having lived and interacted with Nigerians over the years, do you think Nigerians need the English proficiency test they are made to take? English is the official language here.

Ms Laing: English is the official language of many countries around the world but we have to set a clear uniform standard. I do not think it (the test) is a problem for Nigerians because as you said, Nigerians actually do well in the English proficiency test, so it is actually an advantage for Nigerians who can pass much more easily than a lot of other people can.

But it is standard practice across the globe so we could not give particular special treatment to anyone. But as far as I am concerned, it is actually an asset and advantage to Nigerians compared to many others.

L-R: Chiamaka Okafor, reporter for PREMIUM TIMES and the British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Catriona Laing, in an exclusive interview with PREMIUM TIMES.
L-R: Chiamaka Okafor, reporter for PREMIUM TIMES and the British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Catriona Laing, in an exclusive interview with PREMIUM TIMES.

PT: Nigerians are perhaps the biggest lovers and fans of the English football league, although we have our own national league. Are there considerations to reciprocate this ‘loyalty’ by way of training football administrators in Nigeria; football academies among others?

Ms Laing: You cannot help but notice how big Nigerians are a fan of football, particularly the Premier League. Arsenal seems to be the team I hear most about actually, it is the team most Nigerians support and I think it is a strong example as I mentioned of the people-to-people link.

The Nigerian Super Eagles, many of them have played in our teams; Kanu, J.J. Okocha, and Saka when he very bravely took his penalty and we watched with great trepidation; he is an amazing, talented, young player and I think he is doing very well in the United Kingdom. This is a shared passion for Nigeria and the United Kingdom.

In terms of what we are doing, there is actually a very good programme which is called premiere skills which the British Council supports. And that is about supporting grassroots coaches, training coaches to work with their communities and through sports, coaching, exposures to some of the controversial issues around violence against women, for example, so as you are coaching young boys to play football, you have them as a captive audience and you can introduce them to some of those difficult topics, helping them to respect women and to increase their attendance in school. There is a very strong correlation between kids who play sports and who do better at school.


So that is a programme that we are very proud of. I think it is 800 grassroots coaches and referees that we have supported and that has reached about 25,000 young people.

More on the subject of sports, I do want to mention the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, July 2022, and I am sure there will be many very strong Nigerian athletes competing. But please get your visa application in early, otherwise, you will not be going.

This year, in particular, we are celebrating diversity, so there is a very strong paralympic focus and for the first time ever, there is going to be more prizes for women than for men in sports. It will be a great, exciting opportunity and will be another example of strengthening the Nigeria-UK bond.

PT: The UK prides itself as accountable and transparent yet the Nigerian political elite stash stolen money away in foreign bank accounts in countries including the UK, some also use these stolen monies to have their children school abroad. At what point will the UK insist on not accepting such funds?

Ms Laing: Well, you are right. I think you are referring to a recent study that managed to trace funding through the system, that corrupt funding might be funding kids’ education for example. We have been collaborating with Nigeria for many years on illicit finance and the big example is of course the James Ibori, previous governor of Delta State, where there is a long ongoing complex case where we have managed to return £4.2 million of funds to start with, that were illicitly moved by him to the U.K.

This case is very complex and it takes a lot of very good collaboration between our law enforcement bodies because the evidence has to be there to prove how the money got trafficked.

Yes, in the case you mentioned, we do have zero-tolerance.

Another example is something we called Unexplained Wealth Orders. So if surprisingly someone is suddenly able to procure a very large mansion in Mayfair, for example, the onus is on them to show us where the funds came from and if they cannot show us where the funds came from legally, that is what is called an unexplained wealth order and the assets can be confiscated.

So, actually, I see this as a very strong area of UK-Nigeria collaboration where we both have interests in ensuring that we stamp down on corruption, particularly crime corruption of this very big scale where people are moving huge sums which are not theirs – they belong to the people of Nigeria and they need to come back to the people of Nigeria.

L-R: The British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Catriona Laing and Rwanda High Commissioner to Nigeria, Stanislas Kamanzi speaking on CHOGM Rwanda 2022.
L-R: The British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Catriona Laing and Rwanda High Commissioner to Nigeria, Stanislas Kamanzi speaking on CHOGM Rwanda 2022.

PT: Repatriation of stolen artefacts has begun, when should Nigerians expect a total return of all stolen artworks?

Ms Laing: It is an ongoing process as you said and recently, we have seen the return of the cockerel, for example, from Cambridge University and I did a trip actually in November to Benin City and had a very good set of discussions with the traditional leader and the governor of course.

I think we have really good plans in place to support Nigeria’s endeavours. But I do want to emphasise that our system is a little different from other countries; it is the museums themselves or the universities who own the artefacts at the moment, in this case the Benin Bronze, who decide whether they can return the artefacts and it is ultimately the trustees of the museum who make this decision.

The role we (the UK government) can play is by talking to the recipients (federal or state governments) understanding what their objectives are and helping to play a bit of a brokering role in discussing. For example, in Benin City, the governor’s aspiration is to house a lot of these artefacts in a beautiful new museum under construction at the moment and the British Museum is helping with that, actually doing the excavation to make sure that that is done well, to retrieve any artefacts that are underground and to help design it in a way that will meet the high international standards.

Because one of the things that is crucial in returning something like Benin Bronzes is that they will be housed in an environment where they will be protected and preserved for the benefit of Nigeria and humankind.

I think we have got a good constructive discussion going on but it is work in progress.

PT: There has been a plethora of debate on the UK-Rwanda migration deal with the most recent being the stall from the EHRC. Can you help us make sense of that decision to send asylum seekers/migrants to Rwanda?

Ms Laing: I think the details are out there, there is nothing to hide on this. So the way the U.K. government sees it is that we are working in partnership with Rwanda to solve what is a very challenging global problem that the world is facing. With a lot of people seeking asylum and, unfortunately, being sort of moved through people smugglers, they pay a lot of money to people smugglers and end up in very precarious positions and the most important issue for us is to deter people taking this terribly dangerous journeys, particularly across the channel.

We have seen some really tragic cases… our number one objective is to deter those dangerous pathways. So we have been in discussion with Rwanda for some time to see if there is a solution we can come to where people who do end up in the U.K. will be moved to Rwanda for processing their asylum claims and if those asylum claims are successful, they will be able to start a new life in Rwanda.

But of course, this needs to be complemented by legal pathways to migration, as we have recently for people coming from Ukraine, Afghanistan. And there is still more work to be done on that to ensure people do not feel they need to make these precarious journeys.

The flight that was due to take off (U.K.-Rwanda) did not take off because there were legal challenges. Those were anticipated and we are working through those legal challenges, addressing the concerns of the lawyers representing the individuals and that is essential. We respect the rule of law.

That is basically what the partnership is about. There are different views on this but we feel confident that we have a good collaboration with Rwanda on this particular issue.

L-R: Chiamaka Okafor of PREMIUM TIMES and The British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Catriona Laing and Kabir Yusuf.
L-R: Chiamaka Okafor of PREMIUM TIMES and The British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Catriona Laing and Kabir Yusuf.

PT: Still on the Rwanda migration deal, the UN Refugee Agency in its report said Rwanda has most of the refugees from neighbouring countries in overburdened camps. Is there a provision for separate housing for asylum seekers who will be moved to Rwanda?

Ms Laing: Indeed, there is. That has been absolutely essential for securing this partnership. We have agreed with Rwanda that there will be housing, very good accommodation and I have seen photographs of it. I have not seen it for myself but I know that our High Commissioner (in Rwanda) has seen it.

Rwanda is being supported with economic development funds to ensure that they have the resources to ensure that asylum seekers are treated well, they have very good accommodation and opportunities.


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