As Nigeria's point man in the fight to recoup the billions a dictator allegedly stole from the country and hid in Western banks, Christopher Kolade employs diplomacy and moral argument to get the world behind his cause. He says his most important weapon is patience.

Kolade believes his patience is about to pay off. Independent experts also see a growing political willingness to address the issue, but caution that momentum may be slow in the West and that Africans still have to persuade the world to act.

The effort, however distant the reward, is necessary for reasons both symbolic and practical, said Kolade, Nigeria's ambassador to Britain.

"First, we think it is important to establish the principle that it is wrong to steal public funds," he said in an interview. "Second, we're not talking of small money, we're talking of big money, and Nigeria needs all the money it can get for development purposes."

His government says military dictator Sani Abacha looted oil-rich Nigeria of more than $2.2 billion from when he seized power in 1993 until his death in 1998. The hunt for the money began in earnest after a restored democracy elected Olusegun Obasanjo president in 1999. Kolade believes that much of the money is still in banks in Switzerland, Britain and elsewhere.

He says common sense dictates that a bank holding stolen money should hand it over, but "things aren't done this way." And Abacha's heirs have gone to court to block recovery efforts. Nigeria is as interested as Western governments in seeing legal processes are followed, Kolade said.

The Commission for Africa, appointed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, cites a study estimating that stolen African assets deposited overseas amount to half the continent's foreign debt. It wants recovered money to go into African development, and Kolade agrees.

Among the commission's suggestions: Help Africans develop their legal infrastructure so Western courts will take their claims seriously.

The commission's involvement shows that the issue is getting increasing weight, said Tara O'Connor, head of the African office of Kroll Associates, an international firm that has traced stolen assets for several countries.

O'Connor dates the change to Sept. 11, 2001, when the rush to cut terrorists' cash flow focused attention on how other criminals -- whether drug lords or corrupt dictators -- were using the international banking system.

"Your worst nightmare as a bank is to be splashed on the front page of the Financial Times as 'Abacha's money launderer,' " O'Connor said.

She sees a shift away from dictatorship across Africa that should produce governments more responsive to citizens' complaints of corruption. But she said change is only in the early stages.

"It's not one election that's going to do it," she said. "It's not the first election won on an anti-corruption platform -- it's the fifth."

"Nobody wants to return the assets to governments that are as corrupt as their predecessors," O'Connor said.

Legal processes can slow the return of money to its rightful owners. Britain says it is powerless to freeze money Nigeria was able to show Abacha deposited in British accounts, allowing Abacha's heirs to move it to other countries. A government spokeswoman said Britain hopes to close that loophole with new legislation this year.

In February, the Swiss Supreme Court ordered $458 million of Abacha's deposits returned to Nigeria. But the Swiss have been slow to pay -- in part because they want to be sure the money goes toward development, as Nigeria promised, Swiss officials say.

Such arguments try Kolade's patience. "Abacha steals money in Nigeria, and we all agree that stealing is bad. And he brings it away and hides it in Europe with the knowledge of European leaders," Kolade said. "The West should be handing it over. No, they keep dragging their feet."

The ambassador has taken on high-profile corruption-busting jobs for President Obasanjo. Several senior officials have been ousted in cleanup drives, though critics note that there have been no significant convictions during Obasanjo's six years in office.

Western governments that are worried repatriated loot will only feed corruption could reduce the risk by creating trusts to pump the money directly into development, said Richard Dowden, head of Britain's Royal African Society.

The West may not be able to do much to fix what's wrong with Africa, he said, but at least it shouldn't help the dictators hide their loot. "We should stop doing damage," Dowden said. "That, at least, we can deliver."