The plunder of the nation’s treasury by the late General Sani Abacha, who passed away on June 8, 1998, leaves a great deal of unresolved issues. After taking over in 1993, Nigerian military leader and politician Sani Abacha governed as the country’s military head of state until his passing in 1998. By the way, the last successful coup d’état in Nigerian military history occurred with Abacha’s takeover of power.
Abacha has been satirically compared by some Nigerians to a kind-hearted ancestor who has been donating money to his native country ever since he passed away. It is significant to remember, though, that Abacha’s demise was what permitted his probe. He lost favour. Thus, the search for the Abacha-stolen riches is more of a personal grudge war. If not, why has only Abacha’s loot been tracked down?
Large sums of money were pilfered from the public treasury by General Sani Abacha, and foreign governments are still involved in getting the money back to the country. Except for the most recent $150 million, which France offered to repatriate a few days ago, an estimated $4 billion in cash and $2 billion in assets have been recovered from the Abacha loot from 1999 to 2023. This amount adds to the $23 million that the US government agreed to repatriate to Nigeria after striking an agreement with the then-Buhari-led federal government.
The amount of money that Abacha stole is still a mystery. But even though it’s still unclear how much was smuggled overseas during Abacha’s tenure, here’s a rundown of what Nigeria has managed to recover from his loot. According to a statement made by US Ambassador to Nigeria Mary Leonard, Abacha and his allies took around $334.7 million in cash, which the US later returned to Nigeria.
Many Nigerians questioned how Abacha was able to amass such a large fortune in other nations. The federal government’s use of the money to finance infrastructure is one of the agreed conditions for the return of the pilfered money.
The majority of the recovered funds were hidden away in Jersey Island, the United States, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland. In 1999, during the Abdulsalami administration, $750 million was found. The Obasanjo administration was responsible for the recovery of $1.2 billion in 2002, $149 million from Jersey Island, UK in 2003, $500 million from Switzerland in 2004, and an additional $458 million from Switzerland in 2005.
The Jonathan administration saw the recovery of $1 billion from Switzerland in 2012 and $380 million in 2015. In 2014, the Jonathan administration also recovered $227 million from Liechtenstein and $48 million from the US. In February 2020, the Buhari government was able to retrieve $311 million from Jersey Island, United Kingdom, and $322 million from Switzerland. The Federal Government under Buhari and the United States government inked a deal in August 2022 for the restitution of more than $23 million that Abacha had embezzled.
Some have an opinion on the loot that Abacha left behind. Some have made an effort to explain Abacha’s alarming looting. Some claim that it would have been nearly impossible for anyone to recover the stolen money if Abacha had truly intended to take it. This school of thought contends that Abacha most likely stole money in a bid to protect it from the thieving nature of those in power.
This viewpoint is not supported by any official documentation, with the possible exception of a statement made in this regard by his former chief security officer (CSO), Al Mustafa. Other than that, no official of that draconian government ever claimed that Abacha was putting money away for rainy days on behalf of his country. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that Abacha was accumulating wealth for himself. Over $6 billion in cash and assets have been recovered, and the number is continuously growing. This does not include his vast holdings and cash reserves in Nigeria and in Nigerian banks that are attributed to the deceased former maximum ruler of Nigeria.
The true unsolved question is: Did Abacha commit the country’s largest-ever looting of its treasury alone? That is unlikely to be the case. Following the Yakubu Gowon regime, corruption in Nigeria flourished, a fact that was further enhanced by the succession of military governments that not only institutionalised corruption but also ushered in a climate of impunity. Who then will repatriate the loot of other Nigerian leaders since Abacha is not alone?
With the probable exception of Murtala Mohammed, who ruled for just six months, every military government has been connected to widespread corruption and large-scale theft of public funds. Nigerians are still curious about the $12 billion oil windfall that occurred during the IBB government and what happened to the country’s foreign reserves, which fell during General Abdulsalami Abubakar’s 11-month tenure as head of state from an impressive $12 billion to less than $4 billion.
The current civil dispensation, which assumed power in 1999, is similarly deeply mired in widespread corruption, and a large portion of the billions that were stolen are also stashed abroad in the form of cash and assets, with no one questioning the whereabouts.
When will these other ancestors, both living and dead, begin to send money to Nigeria and Nigerians, like Abacha has been doing since 1999, is the question. To believe that Abacha is the only former head of state or political figure who blindsided the country would be naive. After all, some Nigerians were on Abacha’s side to launder the cash. These Nigerians—who are they?
It’s also crucial to consider whether Western governments and foreign banks that accept money from African leaders and government officials, including Nigeria, knowing that it’s stolen state funds, are contributing to the issue. It is illegal in Nigeria to receive money or property that has been stolen. By doing this, the person becomes an accessory to the crimes. Because they are aware of the sources of this cash and the financial resources of the government officials from whom they obtain the billions of pounds and dollars, their activities are immoral and illegal.
If the true idea is for Nigeria to be rid of corruption, the Tinubu Presidency must do more than merely talk the talk. By all accounts, Nigeria needs to return all of the billions that have been stolen to deal with the fiasco that is now Nigeria’s economy. The Tinubu Presidency, however, is not prepared to prosecute corrupt Nigerians. Instead, he decided to face up with the already oppressed and depressed Nigerian people with subsidy removal and multiple taxation.
The Tinubu Presidency needs to scour the world for places where Nigerian leaders and government officials, both past and present, are concealing the stolen money and assets in addition to shining a light on corrupt Nigerians at home.
According to some well-informed sources such as Transparency International, Nigeria should have far more than $500 billion in thefts over the past few decades. The enormous sum can be used to finance economic growth and recovery on all fronts and alleviate suffering for the over 130 million Nigerians who live in multidimensional poverty, even if only a small portion of it is returned.
· Dr. Law Mefor, an Abuja-based forensic and social psychologist, is a fellow of The Abuja School of Social and Political Thoughts; [email protected]; Twitter: @Drlawsonmefor.