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Lock the Door to the Safe

May 30, 2003

In too many developing nations, the line between the personal and the public blurs or vanishes. Elect a president, install a kleptomaniac and enrich his family.

For a graphic example of abuse, look to oil-laden Nigeria, where Gen. Sani Abacha, a onetime defense minister, seized power in a 1993 coup.

He died five years later, by which time his relatives had helped themselves to an estimated $4 billion of the nation's oil wealth. Abacha's son, Mohammed, says he made hundreds of millions of dollars when his father was president because opportunities were there "and we took them." This in a country -- Africa's most populous -- where three-quarters of the people live on less than $1 a day.

Don't expect banks to hand the money over -- not when they can earn money from deposits in Geneva, London and New York and claim that, so far as they know, the sums are legal.

Here's one way to cut the plundering by autocracies built around a single commodity: Press the foreign firms that drill for oil or mine diamonds to announce what they pay for their contracts. Watchdog groups and the Open Society Institute established by financier George Soros have launched a "publish what you pay" campaign to pressure companies to divulge that information.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair's government is pushing from the other side, urging governments to allow audits of the money they receive from commodity sales and publish the results. That initiative warrants discussion and support by leaders of the world's richest countries at their Group of 8 meetings next week in Evian, France.

Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria's current leader, was sworn in Thursday for his second and last four-year term. He should embrace the Blair initiative. A year ago, Obasanjo said he had reached a deal with Mohammed Abacha and Swiss authorities; Abacha would keep $100 million if he returned $1 billion of family money that investigators had located. The deal fell through.

The Bush administration has pledged to increase foreign aid and direct the extra funds to nations committed to sound economics and honest government. That's a good way to keep money out of dictators' pockets and put it in the hands of villagers desperate to buy rice and cooking oil.

The world's rich nations need to unite to find and freeze the ill-gotten gains of plundering heads of state. An even more important action would be for governments of developing countries and companies doing business there to open the books to show where the money came from and where it went.

The Abachas grabbed the natural riches of Nigeria for more than a decade, while the rest of the world shrugged and took the cash they spread around. It's time to lock the door to the safe.

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