Swiss make deal with Nigeria on final payout for Abacha loot

Sani Abacha's death in 1998 paved the way for a return to civilian government in Nigeria. File photo dated June 1993.
Sani Abacha's death in 1998 paved the way for a return to civilian government in Nigeria. File photo dated June 1993. Photo: AFP Photo/Fethi Belaid

Swiss authorities and the Nigerian government came to an agreement this week on the repayment of more than 320 million dollars stolen by the family of former military leader Sani Abacha. The payment represents the latest Abacha loot to be clawed back by Nigeria – Abacha is suspected of embezzling at least 2.2 billion dollars from the country’s central bank between 1993 and 1998.


“We looked at a way to restitute the money in order that the money can profit the population of Nigeria,” Ambassador Roberto Balzaretti, head of International Law at the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, told RFI.

Q&A: Roberto Balzaretti, Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs

The deal sees Switzerland return the money to Nigeria through a World Bank-supported project that aims to make cash transfers to poor and vulnerable Nigerians. Discussions on such an agreement kicked off in March last year with the signing of a letter of intent.

“To start negotiating such a complex agreement and concluding it within one and half years is quite a short time in international relations,” said Balzaretti, referring to the time it has taken to reach a deal.

The cash was originally frozen in Luxembourg and confiscated by the Swiss as part of a criminal investigation into Abba Abacha, Sani Abacha’s son. Switzerland had already returned some 700 million dollars following appeals by Nigeria.

“We don't have any assets of the former president or entourage or family in Switzerland,” said Balzaretti. “We've restituted all we had been able to freeze and confiscate.”

A number of Nigerian administrations have attempted to recover money stolen by Abacha with varying degrees of success.

“Apart from the Swiss, Nigerian governments haven't made much headway with respect to bringing the sums back,” Pallavi Roy, a researcher on anti-corruption initiatives in Nigeria at the School of Oriental and African Studies, told RFI. “This is still a small fraction of the amount still outstanding,” she added, referring to an often cited figure of five billion dollars.

Liechtenstein was to return 227 million dollars, according to a news report in June 2014, following a 16-year effort to recover the money.

More than 480 million dollars was recovered by the US Justice Department in what it described as the “largest forfeiture ever obtained through a kleptocracy action” following a judgement in August 2014 relating to bank accounts in France and Jersey.

British authorities also identified some 1.3 billion dollars related to 42 accounts held at 23 banks linked to Abacha family members, according to a report by the Financial Services Authority.

"It’s part of the hypocrisy of the West when they talk about corruption in developing countries,” said Yemi Adamolekun, the head of Enough is Enough Nigeria, a group promoting good governance. “He doesn't steal the money and keep it under his pillow.”

“You acknowledge that this money was stolen, yet you keep it in your financial institutions because it actually supports your financial institutions,” Adamolekun added, discussing the timely repayment of the looted money.

Adamolekun is also sceptical about how the funds will be used despite the promise of a World Bank-supported project overseeing the Swiss repayment.

"Just tied to this administration’s general fight against corruption, there's been a lot of pushback in terms of the lack of clarity around exactly what all these recovered funds are been used for," she said.

The World Bank said the 321 million dollars from Switzerland would be used in Nigeria’s National Social Safety Net Project. The project, launched in June 2016, aims to pay poor households 25 dollars per month and is being monitored by the World Bank.

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