Abacha Returns (Again) Why the US is Returning $23 Million to Nigeria

In recent years, the recovery of Abacha-related funds has been a recurrent fixture in successive administrations. With Nigeria’s present economic challenges, many Nigerians believe the recovered funds may help improve affairs.

On Tuesday, the Nigerian government signed an arrangement with the United States to repatriate $23 million of funds allegedly looted by former military head of state, General Sani Abacha, to Nigeria.  

Abacha ruled Nigeria from 1993 until his death in 1998. His regime is largely remembered for human rights violations and pilfering of funds, estimated at around $5 billion, according to Transparency International. The military dictator kept much of these funds in foreign accounts mostly based in Switzerland, Jersey Island in the United Kingdom, the US and Liechtenstein. Abacha was also never charged for looting public funds. 

At a ceremony to mark the signing of the $23 million repatriation, US Ambassador to Nigeria, Mary Beth Leonard, stated that the funds were originally seized in response to a complaint alleging that ‘General 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 U.S. financial institutions and transactions in the United States.’  

At the same ceremony, Nigeria’s attorney general, Abubakar Malami, explained that the returned funds will be used to finance local infrastructure projects such as the Abuja-Kano Road, the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway and the Second Niger bridge. The government also expects the Nigerian Sovereign Investment Authority to oversee these projects. 

With Nigeria’s present economic challenges, many Nigerians believe the recovered funds may help improve affairs. However, not everyone agrees that the government should prioritize spending on infrastructure development over other parts of the economy. Dachung Musa Bagos, a lawmaker in the House of Representatives, for instance, said the recovered $23 million Abacha loot should be used to settle the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) strike. The ASUU strike—which has seen millions of federal university students nationwide out of classes—is currently in its sixth month. 

In recent years, the recovery of Abacha-related funds has been a recurrent fixture in successive administrations. In 1999, when Abdulsalami Abubakar was military head of state, the government recovered $750 million from the Abacha family. During Olusegun Obasanjo’s presidency, the government recovered $1.2 billion from Abacha’s family (2002); $149 million from the UK (2003); $500 million from Switzerland (2004) and another $458 million from Switzerland in 2005. Between 2012 and 2015, under President Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria recovered nearly $2 billion from Switzerland, Liechtenstein and the US.  

In 2017, the Swiss government issued a statement declaring that it had struck a deal with the Nigerian government and the World Bank to return $321 million in assets taken as part of criminal proceedings against Abacha’s son, Abba Abacha.  

In 2019, authorities in Jersey stated that they had seized more than $267 million from Abacha’s family and associates. Laundered cash retrieved was from confiscated properties belonging to the late dictator’s son, Mohammed Abacha, and was discovered in a Channel Islands account held by a shell company. After a five-year lawsuit, the Jersey government recovered these funds and paid them into a special recovery fund, which was agreed to be split between the Nigerian government, Jersey, and the US government. 

At the ceremony on Tuesday, US Ambassador Leonard also said that the recovered $23 million is an addition to the $311.7 million in Abacha loot that the US returned to Nigeria in 2020

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