Liechtenstein’s government has agreed to return to Nigeria €167m linked to the late General Sani Abacha, ending the country’s longest running battle to recover money that the late military dictator laundered through European banks.
Nigeria first requested Liechtenstein’s assistance in recovering the assets in 2000, two years after Abacha’s sudden death at the age of 54 paved the way for the return of civilian rule.
Liechtenstein’s constitutional court dismissed a final appeal over the return of the funds in March 2013, but the principality still refused to release the money, infuriating Nigerian officials.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s minister of economy and finance, late last year accused Liechtenstein of “aiding and abetting corruption” by refusing to accept Nigeria’s guarantees that it would pay compensation if any liabilities resulted from a last-ditch effort by Abacha-linked companies to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.
Officials in the principality feared they could be open to compensation claims from the Abacha-linked companies if it was shown they had not had a fair hearing.
But on Tuesday a statement by the principality said: “In May 2014, the complaint pending in Strasbourg was withdrawn by the four Abacha companies, clearing the path for repatriation of the assets once and for all.”
Abacha was the penultimate and most brutal of Nigeria’s military rulers. He and what Switzerland’s Supreme Court dubbed the “Abacha family criminal enterprise” amassed a fortune estimated at $3bn-$5bn from misappropriation of public funds during his 1993-1998 rule.
In a bizarre twist on Tuesday, the Nigerian government dropped embezzlement charges against Mohamed Abacha, the late dictator’s eldest son saying there had been new developments in the case.
Mohamed Abacha was accused of receiving N100bn ($600m) of the late dictator’s money, and has fought off various attempts to charge him over the years.
Enrico Monfrini, a Swiss lawyer working with the Nigerian government, has traced $2.4bn of assets linked to Abacha, most of which were channelled through European banks.
Criminal investigations and subsequent forfeiture proceedings established that the Lichtenstein funds originated from bribes paid by Germany’s Ferrostaal AG to companies whose ultimate beneficiary was Abacha. They related to a grossly inflated contract for the construction of an aluminium smelter.
So far, Nigeria has recovered $1.3bn, the largest tranche of which – $500m – came from Switzerland in 2005. A further $1.1bn – in France, the UK, Luxembourg and the Channel island of Jersey – is still tied up in legal proceedings. The US in March froze more than $458m linked to Abacha in Jersey and France.
Nigeria has engaged the World Bank’s Stolen Asset Recovery unit (Star), which was set up by Mrs Okonjo Iweala when she was at the bank, to ensure that the funds recovered from Liechtenstein are used properly – as it has done with other recovered assets.
While the Abacha funds are being recovered belatedly, fresh allegations of grand scale corruption have emerged in Nigeria this year.
The government of President Goodluck Jonathan has hired PwC to carry out a forensic audit of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation in response to allegations by Lamido Sanusi, the former central bank governor, that the state oil company failed to remit as much as $20bn in revenues due to the treasury between 2012 and 2013.