A picture taken on February 14, 2012 on the Avenue Foch in Paris shows a truck at the entrance of Paris residence of the son of Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang, being searched by French police as part of a corruption probe.

© 2012 Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images

A Paris criminal court recently convicted Equatorial Guinea’s vice president in absentia of laundering more than US$120 million of his country’s assets in France, and seized his ill-gotten gains. The case, initiated by two French organizations and litigated for a decade, is a first for France and paves the way for holding officials accountable for stealing from the public they are meant to serve.

But justice will remain half-served unless the French government returns the money to the people from whom it was stolen. Currently, French law does not guarantee this, but the French Senate is this week debating a bill that would require any assets France seizes from foreign officials gained through abuse of office to be repatriated.

Systemic corruption, notably by the vice president, Teodorin Nguema Obiang, who is also the president’s son, has frustrated hopes that oil riches would transform the lives of ordinary citizens. Despite having the highest per capita national income in Africa, Equatorial Guinea has one of the world’s worst vaccination and primary school enrollment rates, reflecting chronic underinvestment in health and education. Indeed, France seized more money from Nguema than his government spent on health in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available.

The United States, Switzerland, and other countries have already returned hundreds of millions of dollars under similar laws to the one France is considering. Admittedly, risk is high that the money will be lost again to corruption if returned to the government without proper controls. But, done right, it is possible to successfully transform the luxury assets of kleptocrats into vital social programs. For example a joint US-Swiss program, established in 2008, returned US$115 million to poor people in Kazakhstan through direct cash transfers to families with pre-schoolers and via university scholarships.

If France simply keeps holding the seized cash in its treasury, it risks bolstering Equatorial Guinea’s claim that the trial was a “neo-colonial” effort to extract African riches. The organizations that brought this case, Transparency International-France and Sherpa, have initiated similar cases against senior officials from two other African countries, making it essential to dispel these accusations.

To do so, France should pass the law that repatriates embezzled public funds back to the people they were stolen from.