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Experts Help W. African Nations Fight Money Laundering - 2003-11-26

International experts are trying to help law enforcement agents in West Africa fight more effectively against money laundering. The region is prone to the problem because of a lack of controls on the flow of money.

Legal advisors and financial crime experts from the International Monetary Fund met in Dakar this week with regional law enforcement agents to discuss ways to combat money laundering in West Africa.

Money laundering is the processing of criminal profits, usually in cash, using banks or legal businesses to disguise their origin and make them usable in the banking system.

The international experts say the fight against money laundering is particularly important because criminals tend to support rebellions or engage in transactions with them to increase their profits and expand their areas of operation.

The experts say criminal profits in West Africa come mainly from the illegal exploitation of natural resources, especially mining. The region's criminals also earn profits from illegal arms sales, smuggling, organized crime, computer fraud schemes and corruption.

In many countries like Sierra Leone, there are no laws against money laundering and no enforcement or investigative units with the power to scrutinize banks and other financial institutions.

The head of the economic crimes department of the Sierra Leone police force, Saikou Kamara, says he has very little power to combat money laundering.

"We the police do not have the authority to just jump into the various banks to check their business transactions unless we have authority from the high court or the Attorney General," said Mr. Kamara. Basically we do not have a specific legislation on money laundering, that is a problem here."

A legal advisor at the International Monetary Fund, Antonio Hyman-Boucherau, says laws are needed to control both the formal and informal sectors of the economy. He says many governments in West Africa don't even require banks to report large cash deposits, which could be from criminal enterprises.

"In general, they need to adopt the appropriate legislation to cover all the aspects of the fight against money laundering," explained Mr. Hyman-Boucherau. "They have to strengthen the financial regulations and supervisions both legally and institutionally. They have to provide for measures such as confiscation, extradition and strengthening the law enforcement agencies. They have to create the financial intelligence units and allow them sufficient independence in order to do their work."

The West African country most notorious for money laundering is Nigeria. Even though Nigeria is the only country with comprehensive legislation to combat money laundering, the director of its economic and financial crimes commission, Emmanuel Akomaye, says he lacks qualified employees.

"You need forensic experts, you need computer analysts, you need those who are trained specialists, because the criminals keep changing their methods every day," noted Mr. Akomaye. "And you know that most of the developing countries, particularly those in the sub-region, we don't have the resources for training, we are relying on our international partners to come to our aid in this area."

The international experts at the meeting in Dakar also said civilians have a role to play in fighting money laundering. They say if they see a fancy restaurant or shop with no one inside they should report it to the authorities. The experts say it could be a front for money laundering or other criminal activities.