Abacha: Grandmaster of Larceny


Since the news broke that the British Island of Jersey has seized about $268 million, plundered from the Nigerian treasury by former military Head of State, Gen. Sani Abacha, Nigerians have wondered how long it would take to unravel the grand heist the late dictator carried out against the nation. Yemi Ajayi examines the Abacha kleptocracy and its price for Nigeria

Behind his inscrutable visage, perfectly coveredby a pair of dark goggles, he hid his lust. General Sani Abacha, Nigeria’s most brutal dictator, who died in power in 1998, was as enigmatic as he was taciturn. In him, Williams Shakespeare’s immemorial quote in Macbeth that “there’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face” was befitting just as Robert Greene, the author of 48 LAWS OF POWER, could have been proud of what a good example of the principles he enunciated in the book on how to take and retain power.
He must have learnt so much from his years of involvement in successive military coups in Nigeria that he became so adept in the art of deception, which he elevated to statecraft during his five years brutal regime.

The Road to Infamy
In 1993, Nigeria, which was on the cusp of an unravelling new order, was plunged into turmoil.In June, the then military President, General Ibrahim Babangida, had superintended over the conduct of the presidential stanza of a general election that would have ended 10 years of military interregnum and birthed the return to democracy after the sacking of President Shehu Shagari by military adventurists a decade earlier.
The election, considered historic in Nigeria’s annals, was between business mogul, Chief M.K.O Abiola of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and Alhaji Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention (NRC).

Abiola was on the verge of being declared winner when Babangida struck to abort the process. Acting on a contrived judicial crisis following the order of Justice Bassey Ikpeme that stopped the conduct of the election, despite an ouster clause in the enabling decree, Babangida ordered the electoral commission to stop further announcement of the results.
The annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election triggered a global outrage and a national crisis that consumed the regime. Babangida was forced to step aside.
In leaving, he announced the constitution of an interim national government, headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan.

However, contrary to the expectation that Babangida would go with key military officials of his regime, he left behind Abacha, the then chief of army staff, on the excuse that his presence would safeguard the Shonekan administration by discouraging junior officers, who were rumoured to be disenchanted with the mishandling of the transition programme, to seize power in a bid to course-correct the political scheme.
It was, however, widely speculated that leavingAbacha behind was tactical as there was said tobe an understanding between Babangida and Abacha that he would succeed him.

A Blemished Stewardship
On November 17, 1993, Abacha, who as defence minister in the transitional administration was the most senior cabinet member, took over the government, which was wracked by June 12 violence, by forcing Shonekan to resign.
He justified his action in a nationwide broadcast, with the accusations that the Shonekan administration had suffered paralysis and had been unable to discharge its core function of managing the democratic process in the country. He served notice of his unravelling dictatorship when in September 1994, he enacted a decree that placed his government above the jurisdiction of the courts, effectively giving him absolute power. Another decree gave him the right to detain anyone for up to three months without trial.

Abacha took over and unleashed a brutality never witnessed before on the people. Human rights activists, politicians, journalists and other credible opposition voices became targets of state-sponsored terror. He turned the arms bought with public funds on taxpayers.
Many were killed in protests seeking the de-annulment of Abiola’s mandate, while many others were kidnapped by security agents right before their families. Those who could were forced to flee into exile.

The international community became incensed with Abacha’s human rights records, especially in the wake of the execution of the Ogoni Four,which included renowned writer and poet, Mr. Kenule Saro-Wiwa. Nigeria became a pariah nation, suspended from many international organisations, including the Commonwealth of Nations, an agglomeration of former British colonies

However, under him, Nigeria made some appreciable progress. The nation’s foreign reserves grew from $494 million in 1993 to $9.6 billion by the middle of 1997. External debts fell from $36 billion in 1993 to $27 billion by 1997.
Abacha reviewed the controversial privatisationprogramme of the Babangida administration and brought down inflation rate that stood at 54 per cent under Babangida to 8.5 per cent between 1993 and 1998. This was at a period that the price of oil, Nigeria’s chief source of foreign exchange, averaged $15 per barrel.

He created the Petroleum Trust Fund, a special purpose interventionist agency through Decree 25, which became one of his signature achievements. He picked former Head of State, Major General Muhammadu Buhari, whom he led other military officers to oust from government in December 1983, to chair the organisation.

During the period, the PTF intervened in so many developmental issues across varying sectors. It built between 25km and 100km of road in major cities such as Kano, Gusau, Benin, Funtua, Zaria, Enugu, Kaduna, Aba, Lagos, Lokoja, andPort Harcourt each. In 1996, it awarded N27.3bn contract for road rehabilitation in many parts of the country. As at December 31, 1997, funds available to PTF stood at N115.1bn. It realised a total of N1.049bn from various investment activities.
On the security front, he cracked down on criminals; albeit state actors such as Sgt. Rogers and his colleagues replaced non-state actors as merchants of insecurity.

Then in 1994, he set up a National Constitutional Conference to birth a fresh process that would return Nigeria to democracy effective October 1, 1998.
As part of the plans to return the country to democracy, the military ruling council had got ready the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1995 (with Amendments) to be promulgated by decree to usher in a new administration on October 1, 1998.

The constitution, based on experience garnered over almost four decades of Nigeria’s independence, introduced some fundamental changes, including the creation of six geopolitical zones to guarantee a stable Nigerian polity
But while politicians and the world were awaiting the impending democratic order, Abacha was scheming into a farcical exercise. He planned to succeed himself, a vogue then among military dictators in Africa by transmuting from a military leader to a civilian president. His plan was to either suborn all the political parties to adopt him as their presidential candidate or force them to do so.

Kleptocracy as State Policy
In his time, Abacha ran Nigeria as a personal fiefdom. He brooked no opposition and silenced virulent critics, such as his former military boss, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, Abiola’s wife, Kudirat, the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi and the late Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, through death or prison terms based on contrived charges.
His brutality served as a perfect decoy for him to pillage the treasury. Nigerians and the global community were more focused on his human rights records and political agenda than his management of public funds.

According to a report by Transparency International, the late military dictator was suspected of looting between $3 and $5 billion in public money; is more than the annual spending of the federal government and enough to build at least two of the 11.8km long Third Mainland Bridge, reputed to be the longest bridge in Africa when it was opened in 1990 and until it was displaced by the October 6 Bridge, located in Cairo.
According to Babangida, he completed the Third Mainland Bridge with less than N1 billion then.
The amount of money stolen by Abacha then was enough to build two or three power plants in the mould of the3,050-MW Mambilla hydropower plant, whose cost would have been significantly lower than the $5.79 billion that the current Buhari administration is spending on the project to address the nation’s power supply deficiency.

But how did Abacha perfect and execute such a grand heist, the biggest so far in Nigerian history? In a detailed account published in his column on the back page edition of THISDAY on July 3, 2014, Chairman, Editorial Board of the newspapers, Mr. Olusegun Adeniyi, said he committed the grand larceny with the looting of the government accounts with the CBN and shady business deals.
By his account, before his death in 1998, Abacha had pilfered a total sum of $2,263,520,497 “in cash withdrawals, travelerscheques and telegraphic transfers, in the name of “security vote”.

Further investigation by the Obasanjo administration, which heralded the return tocivil rule in 1999, showed that the late maximum ruler was involved in shady deals, including “inflation of (or unexpected) contracts”, that resulted in his scamming the country of about $4 billion.
These stolen funds were stashed in safe haven for illicit wealth in the United States, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Liechtenstein, Luxemburg and Spain.

Abacha got help in masking his spoils of office from some foreign businessmen in Nigeria and the incumbent Kebbi State Governor, Alhaji Abubakar Bagudu, who squealed on him upon his death to the late Abacha’s successor, General Abdulsalami Abubakar.
In addition, Bagudu returned at various times $604,743,187.19, £60,090,984.93 and £5.25 million to government coffers out of the loots in his custody.
The duo of Abubakar and later Obasanjo launched probes into the Abacha looting and began tracing them. But the government faced a challenge from the Abacha family, which headed to court to challenge the recovery process.

However, the recoveries were met with stiff opposition from countries were the loot was stashed. A worried Obasanjo, miffed by the recalcitrance of the recipient nations, seized the occasion of his address to the United Nations General Assembly in 1999 to prick their conscience.
“It is morally reprehensible, unjust, unfair and against all established human values to engage in actions that actually encourage corruption in poor countries to fatten your own country…. The thief and the receiver of stolen items are guilty of the same offence,”Obasanjo said.

Over the years, Nigeria has continued to receive different tranches of the Abacha loot both from nations and individuals. These include $110 million from Uri David; $50 million from Abdulkadir Abacha (younger brother to the late Head of State); $170 million from Doraville Properties and about $700 from Switzerland. Nigeria has also received $227 million from Liechtenstein as part of the looted funds from the Abachas and another $380 million from Luxembourg.
The latest of such recoveries was announced during the week, with the seizure of $268 million Abacha loot by the British Island of Jersey, after a four-year legal battle. However, the cash is to be shared between Nigeria, the US and the Island of Jersey.

Protecting the Loot from Re-looting
One major dilemma facing the international community in helping Nigeria to recover Abacha loot is the fear of the illicit wealth being stolen by another set of unconscionable leaders.
This led to negotiations between Nigeria and the international community on how to deploy the returned loot. The understanding is that Nigeria would use the loot to fund social intervention programmes to reduce poverty.

In line with this agreement, the Buhari administration has used part of the Abacha loot to fund the Tradermoni, N-Power andschool feeding sectors of its social intervention programme.
But given the crisis of confidence over the programme, following recent broadsides by Buhari’s wife, Aisha and the opposition, the time is auspicious to review the spending pattern.

Such funds could be helpful to redress the decay in public education and health sectors that are severely overstretched by inadequate and lack of infrastructure as well as personnel and equipment deficits.
The nation needs to spend the loot wiselyand across several sectors as Abacha’s alerts from the grave would not be for eternity.