from Africa in Transition

Nigeria’s Sani Abacha: Where is the Loot?

November 26, 2013

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Heads of State and Government

The head of Nigeria’s last military government was Sani Abacha. Abacha, who was in power from 1993 to 1998 and who died under suspicious circumstances in 1998, is commonly regarded as Nigeria’s most brutal dictator. Because of human rights violations committed under his regime, the Commonwealth of Nations suspended Nigeria’s membership in the Commonwealth and the United States and many other western countries cooled their bilateral relationship with Nigeria.

Nigerians also believe that Abacha systematically looted the state. Just how much he looted has become the stuff of urban legend. According to the Nigerian media, the civilian government of Olusegun Obasanjo traced about U.S.$4 billion in foreign assets to Abacha, his family members, and their agents. Of this, some U.S.$2.1 billion was returned by the family. But, Abacha and his family allegedly hid much of the loot overseas. In addition to Switzerland, alleged recipients have included Lichtenstein, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The Swiss ambassador in Abuja, perhaps in response to persistent rumors that much of the loot remains in his country’s banks, on November 25 told the press that Switzerland has returned U.S.$1.7 billion in cash and assets to Nigeria and other countries over the past fifteen years. He said that in addition to Nigeria, Switzerland returned looted funds to Peru, the Philippines, and Angola. According to the ambassador, the Swiss returned U.S.$700 million that was associated with Abacha to Nigeria. He strongly denied that Switzerland has retained any of the Abacha money. The press reports Obasanjo as saying that U.S.$1 billion of Abacha money has been or still is in Switzerland. The ambassador has made his points before, but may have felt they needed repeating because of the widespread Nigerian view that Switzerland is still holding on to at least some of the Abacha loot.

Abacha’s son, Mohammed Abacha, faces charges of having received money belonging to the federal government. He strongly denies the charges and states that the Abacha family’s immense assets were legally acquired. His defense attorney, a former president of the Nigerian Bar Association, argues that Abacha deposited state money in private bank accounts outside the country because of, quoting the Daily Trust, “uncertainties associated with governance especially the threat by some Western nations.” According to that lawyer, the father as chief of state had the right to do so.

Such an argument on the face of it appears to be self-serving. But, it does raise the possibility that Abacha’s overseas deposits had what he regarded as a national security dimension.