Asset tracers and recovery specialists watched intently the announcement by British Prime Minister David Cameron at last month’s Anti-Corruption Summit in London that a renewed international commitment to anticorruption has formed. And many of us still continue to debate whether Cameron’s call for public registries of beneficial owners will have an impact in the countries that agreed to publish registers of who really owns companies in their territories.

Prior to the London summit, The Guardian reported that Nigerian Attorney General and Minister for Justice Abubakar Malami said Nigeria’s government – often cited for endemic corruption – would support publicly accessible registers of beneficial ownership and an open government partnership to disclose contracting agreements for public funds.  

Even as President Muhammadu Buhari, who attended the summit, called for the conference to agree upon swifter measures to return stolen assets, as also reported by The Guardian, and issued a statement of commitment to other countries to curb corruption, money laundering and opaqueness, we’re still left to wonder whether Nigeria’s voice would carry greater authority if it were possible to have greater access to such information as is held by Nigerian governmental agencies and bodies.

Currently, access to information about registered companies in Nigeria is really only possible through the use of persons accredited by the Corporate Affairs Commission, the body responsible for regulating the formation of companies in Nigeria. The public does not have direct access to much of this information because the Commission’s internet portal is so poor as to be essentially of little value. The public can only search the name of a company to ascertain whether it is registered. Information about its shareholders and directors is not available online. Further, its systems tend to be down for long periods of time, making Internet searches frequently pointless.

Additionally, Nigeria does not yet require the disclosure of the beneficial ownership of companies.   Individuals seeking to register companies must provide proof of identity, such as copies of passports.  However, corporations may also register companies and proof of the incorporation of a company will not disclose its beneficial ownership.

Presently most registers will record the information provided to it without much detailed checking to confirm the accuracy of such information.  Consequently, it would be little surprise if Messrs. Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck were found to be members of numerous companies.

Another issue that receives little comment when such calls are made is how public access can be given to such information as is recorded, in the light of data protection laws that exist in many jurisdictions. This is a problem that Nigeria does not have at present, as its data-protection laws leave a great deal to be desired. Something that should be of concern given that biometric information of millions of Nigerians is held variously for every registered mobile telephone number and for every individual with a bank account. This information is held outside the telecommunications companies and banks, but there does not appear to be any law that regulates how this information is kept or who may access it.

While the UK boldly announced the creation of the first ever global forum to improve international asset recovery with a focus on returning assets to Nigeria, as well as Ukraine, Sri Lanka and Tunisia, the proof is in implementation. 

Calls for registers of beneficial ownership of corporate vehicles and for such registers to be publicly accessible all make for great sound bites in the current climate. Little discussion, however, is heard about how such registers should be compiled. Clearly, there is much that needs to be done.