A fresh diplomatic row is brewing between Nigeria and the United States’ over the return of $100 million, which the American authorities say was stolen by the former Head of State, late Gen. Sani Abacha.
It is understood that the U.S. is ‘seriously’ opposing plans by the Federal Government to hand over $100 million to Kebbi State Governor, Abubakar Bagudu.
But in a swift reaction, the Presidency last night debunked speculations that it was plotting to divert the $100 million of the loot recovered, after it signed an agreement with the U.S. government to deploy it to three key infrastructure projects.
According to Bloomberg, the disagreement may hamper future cooperation between the two nations to recover state money moved offshore by Abacha, who Transparency International estimates may have looted as much as $5 billion during his 1993-98 rule.
However, a commitment by Nigeria to transfer the funds to Bagudu appears to undermine President Muhammadu Buhari’s pledge to quell rampant graft in Africa’s top oil producer.
To underscore this fact, the U.S. Department of Justice alleged that Bagudu was involved in corruption with Abacha. The DoJ also contends that the Nigerian government was hindering U.S. efforts to recover allegedly laundered money it says it’s traced to Bagudu.
President Buhari’s administration, however, said a 17-year-old agreement entitled Bagudu to the funds and prevents Nigeria from assisting the U.S., according to recent filings from the District Court for the District of Columbia in Washington.
Commenting on the issue, an associate fellow at London-based Chatham House and former Nigeria expert for U.S. intelligence agencies, Matthew Page, said: “This case illustrates how complex and contentious repatriating stolen assets to Nigeria can be. “Instead of welcoming U.S. efforts, Nigeria’s lawyers appear to be supporting the interests of one of the country’s most powerful families.”
In the case involving Bagudu, the U.S. in 2013 initiated a forfeiture action against a host of assets, including four investment portfolios held in London in trust for him and his family, according to the district court filings.
The DoJ said in a February 3 statement that Bagudu, 58, was part of a network controlled by Abacha that “embezzled, misappropriated and extorted billions from the government of Nigeria.”
Bagudu is the chairman of an influential body of governors representing the ruling All Progressives Congress.
Despite the forfeiture action being initiated following a Nigerian state request in 2012, Buhari’s government now says it can’t assist the U.S. because it’s bound by a settlement Bagudu reached with the administration of then-President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2003, according to the court filings. Under the terms of that accord, which was approved by a U.K. court, Bagudu returned $163 million of allegedly laundered money to the Nigerian authorities, which in exchange dropped all outstanding civil and criminal claims against him “stemming from his involvement in government corruption,” according to a Dec. 23 memorandum opinion by District Judge John D. Bates in Washington D.C.
That meant “Nigeria renounced any interest whatsoever” in Bagudu’s trust assets, including those the U.S. is attempting to recover for the West African nation, the opinion stated. Bagudu was able to return to Nigeria after concluding the settlement and was elected as a senator in 2009. Six years later, he was voted in as Kebbi’s governor in elections that brought Buhari and his party to power.
After Bagudu successfully sued Nigeria for violating the 2003 settlement, Buhari’s administration reached a new agreement with him in October 2018, according to the court filings. That would result in the transfer of ownership of the investment portfolios, worth 141 million euros ($155 million) to the Nigerian state, which would then pay 98.5 million euros to Bagudu and his affiliates, according to Bates’ Dec. 23 opinion.
The funds are currently restrained by the U.K. at the request of the U.S. Nigeria’s government claims the updated 2018 agreement with the Kebbi governor, which requires court approval in the U.K., will “curtail and mitigate its looming exposure” from the judgment in Bagudu’s favour. The full text of neither settlement was published in the court filings. Buhari’s administration submitted the 2018 deal to the U.K. court in September to support its application to unfreeze the assets so they can be sent to Nigeria, according to the opinion.
The court has yet to make a decision. Meanwhile, the Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Mallam Garba Shehu, has said that there was no truth in the reports that a certain governor in one of the states in the North-West region had made a deal to divert $100 million out of the loot expected from the Island of Jersey and the US.
Shehu said going by the agreement reached between Nigeria and the other parties, the entire sum would be paid to the Nigerian Sovereign Investment Authority (NSIA) and would be used in expediting the construction of the three major infrastructure projects across Nigeria – namely Lagos – Ibadan Expressway, Abuja – Kano Expressway and the Second Niger bridge.
He said: “We have a lot more money to recover oversees and no one has the right to complicate things for the government of our country. “The United States and the British crown dependency of Jersey have agreed funds connected to former Nigerian military ruler General Sani Abacha, the three governments said.
“By a decision of this government, the entire sum will be paid to the Nigerian Sovereign Investment Authority, NSIA and will be used in expediting the construction of the three major infrastructure projects across Nigeria – namely Lagos – Ibadan Expressway, Abuja – Kano Expressway and the Second Niger Bridge.”