A report by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has shed more light on how former military Head of State Gen. Sani Abacha stole billions of dollars using “security” purposes as a cover. The details were released by Swiss lawyer Enrico Monfrini, who was contracted by the Federal Government in 1999 to trace the public fund looted by the late military head of state. He spoke exclusively with the British broadcasting giant.
Abacha, who ruled from 1993 to 1998, died in office in mysterious circumstances on June 6, 1998. According to the man hired to get the money back, an international treasure hunt spread over decades revealed that the former head of state stole billions of dollars through dubious methods, including directly withdrawing humongous cash from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) for fictitious projects.
Although Monfrini had amassed huge Nigerian client base as a lawyer since the 1980s, working in coffee, cocoa and other commodities, he admitted that he was initially afraid to take up the task when he was recruited to get hold of the money stolen by Abacha. When asked if he could find and block the money and arrange that the looted money be returned to Nigeria, he said he accepted the job, “but in fact, I didn’t know much about the work at that time. And I had to learn very quickly. So I did.”
Among many brazen methods used for accumulating colossal sums involved Abacha asking an adviser to make a request to him for money for a vague security issue. Monfrini said Abacha would then sign off the request, which the adviser would then take to the CBN, which often had no qualms handing out the money, often in cash. The aide would then take most of the loot to Abacha’s house – with some taken in dollar notes “by the truckload.”
This was just one way Abacha and his associates stole huge amounts of money. Other methods ranged from awarding state contracts to friends at highly inflated prices and then pocketing the difference and demanding foreign companies pay huge kickbacks to operate in the country. This went on for around three years until everything changed when Abacha died suddenly, aged 54. Though Abacha died before spending the stolen billions, Monfrini said a few bank details served as clues as to where that money was stashed. “The documents showing the history of the accounts gave me a few links to other accounts,” he said.
Armed with the information provided by the Nigerian government at the time, the lawyer took the issue to the Swiss attorney general, leading to a breakthrough, after he argued successfully that the Abacha family and their associates formed a criminal organization that almost stole Nigeria blind. The attorney general issued a general alert to all the banks in Switzerland demanding that they disclose the existence of any accounts opened under the Abachas’ names and aliases.
“In 48 hours, 95% of the banks and other financial institutions declared what they had which seemed to belong to the family. Banks would deliver documents to the prosecutor in Geneva and I would do the job of the prosecutor because he didn’t have time to do it,” Monfrini told the BBC.
The success in Swiss banks uncovered a web of bank accounts all over the world. “We would find out on each account exactly where the money came from and/or where the money went to. Showing the ins and outs on these bank accounts gave me further information regarding other payments received from other countries and sent to other countries.
“So it was like a snowball. It started with a few accounts, and then a large amount of accounts, which in turn created a snowball effect indicating a huge international operation. Bank accounts and the documents that go with them talk a lot. We had so much proof of different money being sent here and there, Bahamas, Nassau, Cayman Islands – you name it,” the famous lawyer said.
Because the size of the Abacha network was massive, Monfrini said nobody seemed to understand how much work it entailed, as had to pay many people, many accountants, and many other lawyers in many countries to get to the heart of the matter. He disclosed that he had to agree on a commission of 4 per cent on the money sent back to Nigeria – a rate he insisted was comparably “very cheap.”
Unfortunately, as it turned out, finding the money turned out to be relatively quick in comparison to getting it returned to Nigeria. “The Abachas were fighting like dogs. They were appealing about everything we did. This delayed the process for a very long time.” Further delays came as Swiss politicians argued over whether the money would just be stolen again if it was returned.
While Monfrini wrote in 2008 that $508m found in the Abacha family’s many Swiss bank accounts was sent from Switzerland to Nigeria between 2005 and 2007, he added that the amount Switzerland had returned to Nigeria had reached more than $1bn by 2018. He lamented that other countries were slower to return the cash. “Liechtenstein, for instance, was a catastrophe. It was a nightmare.” But in June 2014, Liechtenstein did eventually send Nigeria $277m.
Six years later, in May 2020, $308m held in accounts based in the Channel Island of Jersey was also returned to Nigeria. This only came after the Nigerian authorities agreed that the money would be used, specifically, to help finance the construction of the Second Niger Bridge, the Lagos-Ibadan expressway and the Abuja-Kano road.
But some countries are yet to return the loot. Monfrini said he is still expecting $30m, which he said is sitting in the UK, to be returned along with $144m in France and a further $18m in Jersey. On the whole, he said his work secured the restitution of just more than $2.4bn. “At the beginning, people said Abacha stole at least $4-$5bn. I don’t believe it was the case. I believe we more or less took the most, took a very large chunk, of what they had. They are not swimming in money like they used to do in the past.
“When I speak to my very many children about this case, I tell them I found money and I blocked the money, I persuaded the authorities to go after these people and get the money back to the country for the good of the Nigerian people. We did the job,” Monfrini told the BBC.
Since Abacha’s death, Nigeria has received $3.61 billion of the money looted by his military government with the latest being the $311m returned by the U.S. and the British dependency of Jersey. According to the anti-corruption agency Transparency International, the military ruler stole as much as $5 billion during his time in office, with Switzerland believed to have returned around $1bn over the last decade.