BY LAWRENCE ETIM.
Barely a week after President Goodluck Jonathan honoured the late Head of State, Gen. Sani Abacha, with an award for “his contributions to the nation,” the United States has ordered a freeze on $458m in assets stolen by the former dictator and his accomplices. US Justice Department was quoted to have stated on Wednesday that the corruption proceeds – stashed away in bank accounts in Britain, France and Jersey – were frozen at Washington’s request with the help of local authorities.
According to a civil forfeiture complaint unsealed in the US District Court in Washington, the department wants to recover more than $550m in connection with the action. “This is the largest civil forfeiture action to recover the proceeds of foreign official corruption ever brought by the department,” said Mythili Raman, acting assistant attorney general.
“General Abacha was one of the most notorious kleptocrats in memory, who embezzled billions from the people of Nigeria, while millions lived in poverty,” she said. The Justice Department said the frozen assets, along with additional assets named in the complaint, represented the “proceeds of corruption” during and after the military regime of Abacha, who became Head of State through a military coup on November 17, 1993 and held that office until his death on June 8, 1998.
The complaint alleges that Abacha; his son, Mohammed Sani Abacha; their associate, Abubakar Atiku Bagudu, and others “embezzled, misappropriated and extorted billions from the government of Nigeria and others, then laundered their criminal proceeds through the purchase of bonds backed by the United States using US financial institutions.” Raman said that the action sent a “clear message” that the United States was “determined and equipped to confiscate the ill-gotten riches of corrupt leaders who drain the resources of their countries.”
The US government’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, where appropriate, provides for the return of stolen proceeds “to benefit the people harmed by these acts of corruption and abuse of office.” It did not specify what action would be taken with regard to the Abacha case. The funds frozen include approximately $313m in two bank accounts in the Bailiwick of Jersey and $145m in two bank accounts in France, the department said.
Four investment portfolios and three bank accounts in Britain were frozen, with an estimated value of at least $100m, but the exact amounts in the accounts have not yet been determined, it said.The Justice Department said that on February 25 and 26, authorities in Jersey, France and Britain complied with the US action to freeze the assets. The complaint also seeks to freeze five corporate entities registered in the British Virgin Islands. According to the complaint, Abacha and others systematically embezzled billions of dollars in public funds from Nigeria’s central bank on the false pretence that the funds were necessary for national security. They withdrew the funds in cash and then moved the money overseas through US financial institutions.
Abacha and his Finance minister, Anthony Ani, also allegedly caused the government to buy Nigerian government bonds at vastly inflated prices from a company controlled by Bagudu and Mohammed Abacha. That operation created an illegal windfall of more than $282m. In addition, Abacha and his co-conspirators allegedly extorted more than $11m from a French civil engineering company, Dumez, and its Nigerian affiliate in connection with payments on government contracts. Funds involved in each of these schemes were laundered through the US in nine financial institutions, the complaint alleged.
The financial institutions involved include Citibank, Chase Manhattan Bank and Morgan Guaranty Trust Company, now JPMorgan Chase, and New York-based units of Britain’s Barclays Bank and Germany’s Commerzbank.