Unending Recovery of the Abacha ‘Assets’

Late Sani Abacha

The recently repatriated $311million from the US, being part of the monies reportedly stolen by the late General Sani Abacha, must be judiciously used to regenerate Nigeria’s economy, writes Shola Oyeyipo

Although the incumbent leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari came into power riding on its promise to Nigerians that it would fight corruption to a standstill, not many are currently convinced that the administration is truly committed to its pre-2015 presidential election anti-corruption campaign promises.

This is reflective in the way Nigerians have reacted to a twitter statement by the Attorney General of the Federation, Mallam Abubakar Malami (SAN), where he described the recently recovered $311million Abacha loot as “Abacha assets.”

Malami wrote thus: “I am happy to confirm that the Federal Republic of Nigeria, on Monday, May 4, 20202, received $311,797,866.11 of the Abacha assets repatriated from the United States and the Bailwick of Jersey.”

For a man in Malami’s position, there is significant difference between an asset and looted fund, even though it is also being described in some quarters as the appropriate legal terminology.

Interestingly, a statement by the Special Assistant on Media and Public relations to the AGF, Dr. Umar Gwandu, described the money as “alleged stolen funds by the country’s former military ruler, General Sani Abacha, from the United States and Jersey.”
These statements had only papered the fact and arousing suspicions among Nigerians, who feel that rather than redefine the looted fund, it should be put into meaningful and measurable uses that would impact on the economy and Nigerians especially, as agreed between the US and Nigeria before the monies were released.

This is however coming amid allegations by Nigeria’s main opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) that there were plots by the so-called ‘the cabal’ in the presidency and the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) to use fake subheads and duplicated projects as ploy to re-loot the repatriated $311million.

But President Buhari was more definitive in tagging the money as it is. His Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Mr. Garba Shehu, in a statement Monday, May 4, 2020, said: “$311 million stolen from the citizens of Nigeria during the Abacha regime were safely returned to our country from the United States.”

He added that: “These funds have already been allocated and will be used in full for vital and decades-overdue infrastructure development: The second Niger Bridge, the Lagos-Ibadan and Abuja-Kaduna-Kano highways–creating tens of thousands of Nigerian construction jobs and local skills, which can then be useful in future projects.

“Part of the funds will also be invested in the Mambilla Power Project which, when completed, will provide electricity to some three million homes – over 10 million citizens – in our country.

“The receipt of these stolen money – and the hundreds of millions more that have already been returned from the United Kingdom and Switzerland – are an opportunity for the development of our nation, made far harder for those decades the country was robbed of these funds. “Indeed, previous money returned last year from Switzerland – some $320 million– are already being used for the government’s free school feeding scheme, a stipend for millions of disadvantaged citizens, and grain grants for those in severe food hardship.
“Without these funds, the fight against COVID-19 would be even tougher.”

Facts from the US government have shown that necessary legal procedures had been taken and the money had already been clearly defined as ill gotten from Nigerian by Abacha. This was clarified in an agreement signed by the Nigerian government with the US authorities before the money was released.

A Monday, February 3, 2020 publication in an official website of the United States government, where the Department of Justice noted that it entered into a trilateral agreement with Nigeria and Jersey to repatriate over $300million to Nigeria, described the money as “assets stolen” by former Nigerian dictator, General Sani Abacha.

According to the Department of Justice, on behalf of the U.S. government, it executed the trilateral agreement with the governments of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Nigeria) and the Bailiwick of Jersey (Jersey) to repatriate to Nigeria approximately $308 million traceable to what was termed “kleptocracy of former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha and his co-conspirators.”

The statement read further: “In 2014, U.S. District Judge John D. Bates for the District of Columbia entered judgment forfeiting approximately $500 million located in accounts around the world, as the result of a civil forfeiture complaint the Department of Justice filed against more than $625 million traceable to money laundering involving the proceeds of Abacha’s corruption. After appeals in the United States were exhausted in 2018, the government of Jersey enforced the U.S. judgment against over $308 million located in that jurisdiction.

“General Abacha and his cronies robbed Nigerians of vast public resources and abused the U.S. and international financial systems to launder their criminal proceeds,” said Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. Today’s landmark agreement returns to the people of Nigeria hundreds of millions of the embezzled monies through a lawful process that ensures transparency and accountability.”

“The forfeited assets represent corrupt monies laundered during and after the military regime of General Abacha, who assumed the office of the president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria through a military coup on Nov. 17, 1993, and held that position until his death on June 8, 1998. The complaint alleges that General Abacha, his son Mohammed Sani Abacha, their associate Abubakar Atiku Bagudu and others embezzled, misappropriated and extorted billions from the government of Nigeria and others, then laundered their criminal proceeds through U.S. financial institutions and the purchase of bonds backed by the United States. Jersey’s cooperation in the investigation, restraint and enforcement of the U.S. judgment, along with the valuable contributions of Nigeria and other law enforcement partners around the world, have been instrumental to the recovery of these funds.

“Under the trilateral agreement signed today, the United States and Jersey will transfer 100 per cent of the net forfeited assets to the Federal Republic of Nigeria to support three critical infrastructure projects in Nigeria that were previously authorised by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and the Nigerian legislature. Specifically, the laundered funds under this agreement will help finance the construction of the Second Niger Bridge, the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway and the Abuja-Kano road – investments that will benefit the citizens of each of these important regions in Nigeria.”

Apart from the repatriated $311, the US Department of Justice said it was still working to ensure forfeiture judgment against approximately $30 million stashed in the UK and over $144 million in France.

“The United States is also continuing to seek forfeiture of over $177 million in additional laundered funds held in trusts that name Abacha associate Bagudu, the current governor of Kebbi State, and his relatives as beneficiaries. The United States has asked the government of Nigeria to withdraw litigation it has instituted in the UK that hinders the U.S. effort to recover these additional funds for the people of Nigeria. The United States entered into the trilateral agreement to repatriate the Jersey assets, because of its longstanding commitment to recover asset for the benefit of those harmed by grand corruption and because of the important safeguards embodied in the agreement,” the statement added.

Mark that Senator Abubakar Atiku Bagudu, a chieftain of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), is the Governor of Kebbi State and he is one of the president’s men. There are already allegations by the US government that the Buhari-led federal government was planning to give Bagudu $100m out of the recovered loot. But Bagudu had denied this, alluding to an understanding that’s unrelated to the Abacha loot and which the UK government was privy to.

However, if Bagudu was a member of the opposition PDP, the media trial and the harassment that would be ongoing by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission is better imagined.

The latest tranche of money has brought the total Abacha loot recovery to $3.626bn. In 1998, Gen. Abubakar Abdulsalami recovered $750m from the Abacha family; in 2000, Gen Olusegun Obasanjo recovered $64m from Switzerland; still in 2002, Obasanjo got another $1.2bn from a deal with the Abacha family and another $160m in 2003 from Jersey, British Island. Obasanjo got another $88m in 2003, $461m in 2005 and $44 in 2006, all from Switzerland.

On his part, former president, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan retrieved $227m from Liechtenstein while President Buhari got $322 in 2018 and the last $311 in 2020.

The decision of this administration to have purportedly expended the 2018 $322 recovered loot for conditional cash transfer of N5000 monthly to about 300,000 poor homes in the country under the government’s Social Investment Programme (SIP) was largely disapproved by Nigerians, who considered it wasteful expenditure in the face of more important needs such as the Ajaokuta Steel Company, the unreliable healthcare system and moribund educational system.

If the Buhari government is truly committed to fighting corruption by any inch, it must not only invest the $311m on meaningful projects, it must be very transparent in the use of the fund.

Spending it on intangible social investment cash transfers or other forms of paltry benevolence to the poor masses is simply laying the foundation for the mismanagement of the money.

Government should therefore put away all forms of hurdles preventing the US government from accessing and repatriating other Abacha loots for the common good.