Abacha’s Loot & Mohammed’s Deal By Olusegun Adeniyi
Apparently taken aback by what it considered a crooked deal by the Federal Government, Transparency International (TI) has described the withdrawal of charges against Mr. Mohammed Abacha as an act of encouraging impunity. A statement by its Regional Director for sub-Saharan Africa, Chantal Uwimana, said: “Allowing the theft of public funds to go unpunished sends the wrong message that those with powerful connections can act with impunity. The case should have been fully prosecuted and the government has not given adequate reasons for dropping the charges. Corruption is widespread in Nigeria and despite claims by the government to make tackling corruption a priority too few people have been held to account for a series of high profile scandals.”
Given the way this administration has treated (with levity) the challenge of corruption in our country, it is very easy to understand the basis of the damaging statement by TI. However, having followed the Abacha loot recovery story for almost 15 years, I support all efforts to bring a closure to the sordid affair. Nevertheless, I am also aware that there had been at least four previous agreements with the Abacha family that did not stand so I keep my fingers crossed about this deal. For those who may not be fully acquainted with the dirty details, a recap may be necessary here.
Following General Sani Abacha’s death on June 8, 1998, General Abdulsalami Abubakar assumed power. A month later on July 13, 1998, apparently having seen evidence of monumental looting of the treasury by his late predecessor, then Head of State instituted the Special Investigation Panel to establish “cases of swindled public funds and recover same back to the federal government coffers”. The panel was also to identify the culprits and recover all properties or assets illegally acquired by the culprits.
Within a matter of days, the panel had secured records from the apex back which revealed that between November 1994 when he took over and June 1998 when he died, Abacha had taken from the CBN funds totaling $2,263,520,497 in cash withdrawals, travelers cheques and telegraphic transfers, in the name of “security vote”. However, the job of the panel was made easy by the fact that one of the Abacha family associates, Alhaji Abubakar Bagudu (currently a senator representing Kebbi Central) was ready to cooperate by returning some of the loot.
The first yield came just a few weeks after Abacha’s death when the CBN Director of Foreign Operations, Mr. M. R. Rasheed, on 21 September 1998 acknowledged receiving from Bagudu the sum of US$604,743,187.19 and GB £60,090,984.93. There was an additional GB £ 5.25 million from Bagudu a few days later to complete what was considered full and final settlement with the Federal Government. And with that, on May 26, 1999, just three days before handing over power, General Abubakar promulgated Decree 53 of 1999 on forfeiture of assets by certain persons which listed the monies returned by the Abachas.
The import of the decree was that the family of Abacha and some of their conduits like Bagudu, Gilbert Chagoury, Mark Risser et al would not face any civil or criminal prosecution on account of the forfeitures. But a few months after President Olusegun Obasanjo assumed power on May 29, 1999, it became evident that Abacha and his cronies had actually fleeced Nigeria to the tune of about $ 4 billion in several deals that included inflation of (or unexecuted) contracts, the Ajaokuta debt-buy—back scam, shady oil transactions etc. That began another round of tricky negotiations with the family with then Attorney General and Justice Minister, Mr. Kanu Agabi, SAN, acting on behalf of the federal government.
The yields from those negotiations were: $110 Million from Uri David; $50 million from Abdulkadir Abacha (younger brother to the late Head of State); $170 million from Doraville Properties and various sums totaling hundreds of millions of US Dollars from Switzerland. Since then, the Abacha family, even while instituting several legal actions of its own against the Federal Government, has been seeking a closure to the civil and criminal proceedings in Switzerland, United Kingdom, Liechtenstein, Luxemburg, Spain, New Jersey (USA) etc. as well as at home. That was what the Jonathan administration recently obliged and interestingly, part of the deal is that “the Abacha family would wish to bring assets back to Nigeria so that these could be invested in the Nigerian economy.”
Last week, June 25 to be specific, the Federal Government received the sum of $227 million from the Government of the Principality of Liechtenstein as part of the looted funds from the Abachas and another $380 million is expected from Luxembourg within the next two weeks. And quite typically, a committee has been set up by the Jonathan administration, this time on how to spend Abacha loot! Yet for me, since these monies are coming in because of a deal that grants reprieve to the Abacha family, the Federal Government needs to come out clearly to tell us how much has been recovered from 1999 to date, how much has been spent (and on what and when) and what remains (if any). Aside the issue of transparency, the fact also remains that Abacha loot really does not belong to the Federal Government alone but indeed the Federation which means the 36 states and the 774 Local Governments ought also to be beneficiaries.
However, the jury is still out as to whether the deal between the Federal Government and the Abacha family will stand. For instance, Decree 53 promulgated by General Abubakar was premised on the assumption that the Abacha family had “vomited” enough of the loot. Under Obasanjo, there were also three of such agreements that never worked. The first one was in 1999 but the most interesting was that of March 2002. Acting on behalf of the Obasanjo government, Agabi had signed the “Global Settlement Agreement” which also stipulated a complete resolution of all civil and criminal issues worldwide between the government and the Abacha family as well as associates. The seven-page document also did not stand. So, I am waiting to see how this one too will work out and if it does, whether another government will not in future discover reasons why the Abacha family should “cough out” more money.
I know many people have wondered how Abacha was able to take as much money from the Nigerian treasury but the manner in which he did it would make for a bestseller novel because the details are actually stranger than any fiction: His National Security Adviser, Allhaji Ismaila Gwarzo, would make a request, Abacha would endorse and the CBN would release the cash. And it all started less than two weeks after he took over power from Chief Ernest Shonekan.
In a letter dated 30th November 1994, Gwarzo requested for US $100 million to combat “an economy that was deflected and distorted through the black market”. By the arrangement, the dollar was to be sold through Bureau De Change dealers at the then prevailing exchange rate, with a view to mopping up the naira, and beefing up its value. Having apparently been briefed by Abacha, then CBN Governor, Dr. Paul Ogwuma released the cash in the following sums: US $95 million and GB £ 3.2 million. Abacha’s son, the late Ibrahim was to sell the dollars in the black market and remit the naira equivalent to the CBN through Gwarzo. The transaction was indeed carried out even though the money eventually returned to the CBN was not up to what was received.
However, the import of that first transaction was that Abacha had realized just how easy it was to directly take money out of the CBN and that became a perfect scam for him. All that was then needed was a letter from Gwarzo seeking approval for any sum of money in the guise of “security” and the CBN would release such demand in cash. So primitive was the whole arrangement that the principal job of some security officials was to be bagging and re-bagging millions of Dollars and Pound Sterling. The following are a few of the documented transactions:
On February 13and 15, 1995 Gwarzo collected US$200,000 and US$600,000 respectively (totaling $800,000) from the CBN. This was sequel to Abacha’s approval of his letter dated 15th February, 1995 in which he requested for US dollars $4 million and GB£ 2million “to take care of some developments in a number of areas…” The $800,000 was part payment for the approved sum of US $4 million while the balance was paid in Travellers’ Cheques. On 29th December 1995, Gwarzo collected from the CBN the sum of US $5 million based on Abacha’s approval of his letter to deal with “situation at hand”!
The reasons given in many of the letters seeking approval to take money out of the CBN beggar belief but having “started small”, Abacha apparently became more emboldened with time. On 23rd August, 1996, Gwarzo collected US $30 million from the CBN following Abacha’s approval of his letter dated 20th August 1996, requesting for the said money to “assist our immediate neighbours and others within this sub-region”. On 18th December, 1996, Gwarzo collected US $ 66.5 million and GB £20 million following Abacha’s approval of his letter to meet “some requests from Heads of State of some Francophone countries, and to cultivate African solidarity.”
A month later on 30th September, 1996, Gwarzo collected US $ 50 million and GB £20 million from the CBN sequel to his letter dated 24th September 1996, requesting for the money to “prop some African and other Third World countries” to assist in Nigeria’s “democratization and economic recovery”. On 28th April, 1997, Gwarzo collected US $60 million GB £30 million sequel to Abacha’s approval of his letter dated 22nd April 1997, in which he requested for the said sums for “public relations to international communities and organizations”.
On 9th July, 1997, Gwarzo collected US $ 5 million from the CBN following Abacha’s approval of his letter dated 23rd May, 1997 to meet all “demands and commitments as directed”. A month later on 8th December, 1997, Gwarzo collected US $120 million and GB £50 million sequel to Abacha’s approval of his letter dated 26th November 1997. And on 19th January, 1998, Gwarzo collected from the CBN the sums of US $100 million and GB£ 50 million to “counter insinuations that (Lt. General Oladipo) Diya’s coup was not real, and the government framed them to remove and replace the coupists with stooges.”
The interesting thing about this particular transaction was that while re-bagging the money, “four cartons containing a total of about US$ 8 million were set aside” in Gwarzo’s own residence, while the balance of US $57 million and GB£ 30 million were delivered to the late Head of State through Mohammed Abacha. On 25th October, 1997, Gwarzo collected US$ 80 million and GB £40 million “to sponsor military intervention in Sierra Leone, and garner support for same in the West African Sub-region.” On 30th April, 1998, a few weeks before Abacha died, Gwarzo collected US $ 80 million, GB £50 million and N250 million based on his letter dated 29th April 1998 for the conduct of an enlightenment campaign on the “virtues” of an “Abacha Presidency”.
On 5th July, 1996, Gwarzo collected from the CBN the sum of US $8.1 million and GB £ 5.2 million based on his request dated 14th June 1996, to support five presidential aspirants in the Niger Republic general elections. On 21st February, 1997, Gwarzo collected from the CBN the sums of US $60 million and £20 million for “pro-Nigeria propangada” abroad. On 1st April, 1998, Gwarzo collected from the CBN the sums of US $65 million and GB £30 million for “Public Relations at home and abroad, to counter the European Union campaign against the transition programme.” On the 8th of May, 1996 Gwarzo collected US $3 million and US $9 million respectively from the CBN. Out of this sum, he reportedly sent US $ 7 million (on behalf of Abacha) to then President Matthew Kerekou of Benin Republic as “assistance to the country to pay outstanding workers’ salary” while US $2 million was for Kerekou himself.
On 13th November, 1996, Gwarzo collected US $5 million and GB £3 million from the CBN based on his letter dated 7th November, 1996 “to take care of foreign dignitaries who will attend the burial ceremonies of the first President of Nigeria, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe.” On 10th September, 1997, Gwarzo collected US$ 60 million and GB£ 30million from the CBN “to finance a campaign for a seat on the Security Council of the United Nations Organisation.” On 9th December, 1996, Gwarzo collected US $5 million from the CBN sequel to Abacha’s approval of his letter dated 21st November, 1996 in which he requested the said sum “to finance the purchase of ten Toyota Land Cruisers, and ten Peugeot 505 saloons for the Republic of Mali”.
I can go on and on because the list is actually very long but I believe the point is already made, even though it need to be said that more than half of the entire money was diverted to the private accounts of Abacha and his cronies, rather than for the purposes for which they were collected.
Given the foregoing, I can understand the position of those who believe that while a deal like this may be financially and politically expedient, it is ultimately dangerous and debilitating for the possibility of any future confrontation with the forces of corruption in our nation. Unfortunately, Nigeria is left with few options on the issue.
For me, now that the Abacha family has finally decided to settle with the Federal Government, I cannot in good conscience oppose the deal and I will explain why.
I left Nigeria with my family in June 2010 and did not return until late in 2011 so I was not around in the country for the 2011 general elections. However, when I learnt that Mohammed Abacha was seeking to be Kano State Governor, I wrote a piece published on 11 February 2011 to challenge him and his family. Now that they seem to have fulfilled that obligation, I reproduce the piece as my own conclusion to this long-running drama of shame.
However, since the Federal Government has come to some form of agreement with the Abacha family and assuming the next tranche of $380 million arrive the country as planned, then they should also be assisted to repatriate the remaining loot home for investment in Nigeria. I am also aware that nothing has been tidied up yet because what the Federal Government expects from Abacha family is US$ 550 million and GB £ 95,910 all domiciled in 10 bank accounts and six investment portfolios in United Kingdom, British Virgin Islands, France and the United States. If they pay up, I believe Nigeria should put the unfortunate Abacha saga behind us.
However, we should worry about the kind of system we are running that would allow for what the late Head of State did. To worsen matters, the kind of pillaging of public resources perfected by Abacha is being replicated at practically all levels, though it may not be on the same scale. Today, Governors loot their state treasuries at will. In fact, I have heard of some who receive bank alerts on their mobile handsets, not of their personal bank balances but rather of money belonging to their states which they can spend as they like. And as for the presidency, most Nigerians are quite aware that whoever occupies the number one office in our country is the “sole proprietor” of the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC)!
All said, given the position I have taken in the past concerning this issue (as captured in the piece below), I wish Mohammed and the entire Abacha family well as I also put a closure on the reportage of one of the most scandalous stories of corruption in Africa.
February 11, 2011: Before Mohammed Abacha Becomes Kano Governor
I have met Mohammed Abacha on a number of occasions and I consider him a likeable person. I also believe that whatever might have been his father’s transgressions as a leader, Mohammed should be judged on his own merit. I, however, feel that for anybody to seek public office, even in Nigeria where almost anybody can aspire to be anything, honour and integrity should still count for something and that is where I have problem with Mohammed’s aspiration.
When early in 2002, President Olusegun Obasanjo confirmed that his government had come to a compromise deal with Abacha’s family whereby Nigeria would get about $1.2 billion while the family would retain $100 million in cash and per bonds worth $300 million, there was a public outcry. But in defending his action, Obasanjo cited several examples of countries where stolen wealth have remained abroad notwithstanding years of litigation. From Ferdinand Marcos in Philippines to the late Shah of Iran and Mobutu of Zaire, the funds are still trapped, the President argued. And in one of those rare moments as a commentator on public affairs, I commended the former president in a piece I wrote titled “A dirty but very good deal”.
I was viciously attacked for the position I took on the issue but my argument was that it must have been difficult for a man like Obasanjo, who is ever concerned about his international image, to settle for such crooked deal which I considered to be in our collective interest as a nation. “In a way he sacrificed his prestige to get a good deal for us under a patently dirty bargain akin to pleading with a notorious armed robber to send relief materials to his victims,” I wrote. What many may not have known at the time is that the Abacha loot case is one issue on which I have devoted considerable time as a reporter.
My interest began in February 2000 when I went to London to cover the Ajaokuta debt buy-back scam legal tussle involving Mr. Nessim Gaon of NOGA (founding partner in what is now known as Transcorp Hilton), the federal government and the Abacha family represented by Abubakar Atiku Bagudu, one of the prominent custodians of Abacha loot. From then, I have seen the complexity as well as the difficulty in attempts to retrieve stolen public money siphoned in Swiss banks. Bagudu, now a PDP Senator representing Kebbi Central, I must add, was the person who actually helped the General Abdulsalami Abubakar regime to recover about 800 million Dollars following Abacha’s death. But Senator Bagudu knows, as we all know, that there is much more of the loot out there.
Since General Abubakar left, nothing much has been achieved with regards to the money stolen by Abacha while the only people who have been benefitting from efforts to use legal means to recover the loot have been some fat cats in the Nigerian bar with access to the villa and their counterparts in Britain and Switzerland where some of the cases have been fought. I therefore felt back in 2002 that if Obasanjo could recover some of the loot after bargaining with Abacha family, it was in the nation’s interest.
There was, however, a problem about the deal that would surface afterwards: it was conditioned on the release of Mohamed Abacha, then facing trial for his alleged involvement in the murder of Kudirat Abiola. In what was generally considered part of the bargain, the Supreme Court, in a ruling of four to one, would order that Mohammed be discharged and acquitted for the murder charge.
Interestingly, the drama was not limited to the court as there was also politics involved. For instance, a delegation was sent to Aso Rock from Kano to plead with the president. It was led by then Governor Rabiu Musa Kwakwanso, his Deputy, Dr. Umar Ganduje and former Solid Mineral Minister, Kaloma Ali who had become the representative of the Abacha family. After the delegation had made their representation pleading with Obasanjo to order the release of Mohammed from detention, the president responded: “I want you to know that there was no malice whatsoever, no ill-feeling whatsoever on my part, only a desire to do what was right and what we can stand before God and man to defend.
“If you are talking of reconciliation, as a believer, I know that whatsoever we do, we must remember God. I am here today; we may not be here tomorrow. What matters is what happens to the people we leave behind. I believe very strongly that as I ask God for forgiveness, because I know that I am a sinner, I will readily forgive those who wrong me. I have no ill feeling whatsoever, no malice whatsoever, no bad idea whatsoever, against anybody and certainly not against [the] Abacha family. But we must be guided by fairness and justice. When you introduced Mohammed Abacha as our son, what do you think he is to me? He is my son too.”
On the issue of Kudirat Abiola’s murder over which Mohammed was standing trial, Obasanjo explained to his audience the gravity of the situation: “There are two issues. One, the issue of Sergeant Rogers’ allegation against Mohammed; there is also an issue of SaniAbacha family, including all members of the family, with Mohammed Abacha at the center of it all. And that is the stashing away of this country’s money. Let me tell you what I have done, in case you don’t know. My predecessor, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, and in fairness to him, he recovered $600million and £120 million.
“When we came in, we looked at things again, and we discovered that there are much more. I asked my Vice President to invite Mrs. Abacha as a wife of former Head of State. I asked him not to take her to the office, but to his home but to let her know that these things she is holding must be dislodged. Then Mrs. Abacha phoned me, for the first time, she said she did not know I could be generous and could treat her that way. She said she had always feared me. But I told her that we hear that they have $2 billion. We went on and on and we discovered very close to $1.5billion.
“We hired lawyers and took them to five different places, Switzerland, Britain, Luxemburg, Spain and New Jersey (USA) for a long-drawn legal battle. We got through their lawyers to say we will settle out of court. So, we have a legal document. So, our lawyers and their lawyers agreed. The document made me to forgo $100 million. I know they don’t deserve it, with another $400 million in bond on face value. The agreement was signed and sealed, but when it got to the time of exchange, they reneged. If only for the interest of the nation, nobody should perpetrate this kind of blatant corruption.
“Governor, (looking in the direction of Kwakwanso) you are making a special request, and I am also making a request, because the money belongs to all of us and should be disgorged, we will not let up until every kobo is recovered. I hold no malice, ill-feeling, only for us to do what you can stand before God and man as just.”
With his sermon done, the former president now handed over to Kaloma Ali a document containing the agreement prepared by both the lawyers to the Abacha family and those of the Federal Government, saying “If he (Mohammed) signs he will be released to you and you can take him with you.”
But following Mohammed’s release, Mrs. Maryam Abacha decided to call Obasanjo’s bluff. In repudiating the agreement, she claimed that whatever was in the accounts of the Abachas belonged to the family: “Our lawyer came here with this piece of paper. It was not on any official letter-head; there was no coat of arms or anything like that yet they want us to surrender money.” Adding that the money in their accounts included that of her late eldest son, Ibrahim, Mrs Abacha said “Mohammed too was doing business so his money is there too. Now, they (federal government) say they want all the money”.
Mrs. Abacha vowed back then that they would not release a dime of whatever may be in their family till, money that has been established to belong to the government of Nigeria. And she has remained true to her words. That is where I have problem with the aspiration of Mohammed to be Governor of Kano State or to hold any public office for that matter, until the issue of the money belonging to the people of Nigeria–which is being held illegally by his family–is resolved.
Now, I must make some points clear: I have no problem with whoever argues that Mohammed never stole Nigeria’s money since he was not in a position to do so as he held no public office. That indeed is a fact. But the fact also remains that his father did loot the treasury and unfortunately for the family, he was not as lucky as many other Nigerian public officials who have helped themselves to our common wealth: he was caught!
Mohammed is a young man who should consider his future. He may have so much money with which he now seeks political power, a legitimate aspiration. He should, however, realize that honour and integrity also count for something. The question he should ask himself is whether he is happy with the public image of his family when he has a golden opportunity to put a closure on the sordid affair. All he has to do is to fulfil his part of the bargain by returning to the public treasury the amount agreed with the federal government.
If he doesn’t do that, he will forever be condemned as not only the son of a thief but also a disreputable young man without honour. The good people of Kano State certainly do not deserve such a governor. I hope they are taking note.
Time-out with Fulani Herdsmen
Last week in Kaduna, the Office of the National Security Adviser, Col. Sambo Dasuki (rtd) held an international conference on “Security and Development Challenges of Pastoralism in West and Central Africa” with the theme: “The Role of Pastoralism in Preventing Insurgency and Conflicts for National Security”. Unfortunately, reportage from the two-day event was overshadowed by the embarrassing treatment to which the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon Aminu Tambuwal was subjected by some overzealous security men.
However, it was an important conference in which I also participated as one of the resource persons withmany members from the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN) in attendance. Interestingly, my session, moderated by respected veteran journalist, Mr. Mohammed Haruna was the last at the conference. I spoke on “The Role of the Media in Shaping Public Perception on Pastoralists, Insecurity, Peace Building and Conflict Resolution.”
In my presentation, I told the story of my village in Kwara State where there is a Fulani settlement called “Gaa Okanla” about a hundred metres away. I grew up to meet the settlement which I have been told has been there for more than a hundred years. It was founded by a nomadic Fulani man who reportedly mixed freely with our people. His first son was named Okanla and I grew up to know him even though he is now of blessed memory while some of his children, especially Sunmonu and Musa are my contemporaries and are friends of mine even till today. So in my village, we have had five generations of Fulani men who have lived in harmony with our people.
However, I understand that about three years ago, people in my village and the environs who happen to be farmers started having the usual problem with Fulani herdsmen of the more nomadic variant in the course of which there were violent clashes. In the bid to find a solution to the problem, many stakeholders, including representatives of the Emir of Ilorin had to intervene. After series of meetings, they arrived at a reasonable formula which is working till today: If anybody reports that cows entered and damaged his crops and the farmer did not meet the particular herds on the farm, the entire Fulani community living within that ward would be responsible for paying for the damaged crops. Since then the clashes have stopped in our area. That is what community efforts can achieve but as I pointed out at the conference, I am also sure this happened because my village is far removed from media spotlight since the reportage of such interactions could also generate its own tension that could make a peaceful resolution difficult.
However, having listened to some of the Fulani herdsmen as to the challenges they face, I believe it is an issue we have to address in a more dispassionate manner, in the interest of our peaceful co-existence as a united Nigeria. I am aware of the problem they themselves pose, especially to farmers. Yet, an honest conversation on the issue would help us in the bid to addressing this socio-economic challenge that is now being exploited by opportunists on both sides to serve political ends. It is not beyond our capacity as a nation to resolve.
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