Sani Abacha - the hunt for the billions stolen by Nigeria's ex-leader
Sani Abacha became head of state in 1993 in a military coup in Nigeria
When Nigeria's then head of state, Sani Abacha, stole billions of dollars and died before spending his loot, it sparked an international treasure hunt that spanned decades. The man who was hired to get the money back tells the BBC's Clare Spencer how Search took over his life.
In September 1999, Swiss lawyer Enrico Monfrini answered a call that would change his next 20 years.
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"He called me in the middle of the night, he asked if I could come to his hotel, he had something important. I said, 'It's a little late, but OK.'"
The voice at the end of the line was that of a senior member of the Nigerian government.
"Can you find the money?"
Mr Monfrini says the official was sent to Geneva by then Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo to recruit him to retrieve the money stolen from Abacha who ruled from 1993 until his death in 1998.
As a lawyer, Mr. Monfrini had built a Nigerian client base since the 1980s who worked with coffee, cocoa and other raw materials.
He suspects that these customers recommended him.
"He asked me, 'Can you find the money and block the money? Can you get this money back to Nigeria?'
"I said yes.' In fact, I didn't know much about work at the time. And I had to learn very quickly, so I did. "
Initially, the Nigerian police gave him the details of some closed Swiss bank accounts that apparently contained some of the money Abacha and his staff had stolen, wrote Monfrini in the book Recovering Stolen Assets.
He said a preliminary investigation published by police in November 1998 found that Abacha and his staff had stolen more than $ 1.5 billion (£ 1.1 billion).
"Dollars from the truckload"
One of the methods of accumulating such a colossal sum was particularly bold.
Abacha asked a counselor to ask him about money for a vague security issue.
He then signed the request, which the advisor then forwarded to the central bank, which often issued the money in cash.
The counselor would then bring most of the money to Abacha's house.
Some were even taken "from the truckload" in dollar bills, Mr Monfrini wrote.
This was just one way Abacha and his staff stole huge amounts of money. Other methods ranged from giving government contracts to friends at highly inflated prices to pocketing the difference and demanding foreign companies pay big setbacks to operate in the country.
Abacha stole more than a billion dollars by pretending the money was needed for "security".
This took about three years until everything changed when Abacha suddenly died on June 8, 1998 at the age of 54.
It's unclear whether he had a heart attack or was poisoned because there was no autopsy, his personal doctor told the BBC.
Abacha died before spending the stolen billions, and a few banking details served as clues as to where the money was being kept.
"The documents showing the history of the accounts gave me some links to other accounts," said Mr Monfrini.
Armed with this information, he took the matter to the Swiss Attorney General.
And then there was a breakthrough.
Mr. Monfrini successfully argued that the Abacha family and their employees formed a criminal organization.
This was crucial as it opened up more ways for authorities to handle their bank accounts.
Who Was Sani Abacha?
The picture from August 30th shows the Nigerian President General Sani Abacha at the last meeting of the summit meeting of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Abuja. Britain ruled October 22nd, allowing a Nigerian delegation to attend the next Commonwealth Summit, due to begin in Edinburgh on October 24th. "They would need visas to come here and under the current restrictions they couldn't get them." Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth after the execution of nine human rights activists in November 1995.
Fought in the Nigerian Army during the Civil War
Key player in two coups before becoming Secretary of Defense in August 1993
Became head of state in a military coup in November 1993
His government has been charged with widespread human rights abuses
Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth after the execution of nine human rights defenders in 1995
Died unexpectedly on June 8, 1998 at the age of 54
Father of 10 children
The attorney general warned all banks in Switzerland in general and asked them to disclose the existence of accounts opened under the names and aliases of the Abachas.
"Within 48 hours, 95% of banks and other financial institutions explained what they had that appeared to belong to the family."
This would reveal a network of bank accounts around the world.
"Banks would deliver documents to the public prosecutor in Geneva and I would do the prosecutor's job because he didn't have the time," Monfrini told the BBC.
"Bank accounts talk a lot"
"We would find out exactly where the money came from and / or where it was going on each account.
"Seeing the pros and cons of these bank accounts gave me more information about other payments that were being received from and sent to other countries.
"So it was like a snowball. It started with a few accounts and then a large number of accounts, which in turn created a snowball effect that indicates a huge international operation.
"Bank accounts and the related documents speak a lot.
"We had so much evidence of various funds being sent here and there, Bahamas, Nassau, Cayman Islands - you name it."
The size of the Abacha network meant an enormous effort for Mr. Monfrini.
"Nobody seems to understand the amount of work involved. I have to pay so many people, so many accountants, so many other lawyers in different countries."
Mr. Monfrini had agreed a 4% commission on the money returned to Nigeria. One rate he insists on was comparatively "very cheap".
Intrigues over Abacha's sudden death in 1998
It turned out that the money was found relatively quickly compared to returning it to Nigeria.
"The Abachas fought like dogs. They appealed to everything we did. This delayed the process for a very long time."
Further delays came when Swiss politicians argued over whether the money would only be stolen again when it was returned.
After five years, some money was returned from Switzerland.
Mr. Monfrini wrote in 2008 that between 2005 and 2007, US $ 508 million found in the Abacha family's many Swiss bank accounts had been sent from Switzerland to Nigeria.
By 2018, the amount Switzerland returned to Nigeria had reached more than USD 1 billion.
Other countries returned the money more slowly.
"Liechtenstein, for example, was a disaster. It was a nightmare."
In June 2014, Liechtenstein finally sent Nigeria 277 million US dollars.
Six years later, in May 2020, USD 308 million in accounts on the Channel Island of Jersey were also returned to Nigeria. This came after the Nigerian authorities agreed that the money would specifically be used to finance the construction of the second Niger Bridge, the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway and the Abuja-Kano Road.
Some countries have yet to return the loot.
Mr. Monfrini is still awaiting the return of $ 30 million in the UK, along with $ 144 million in France and an additional $ 18 million in Jersey.
It should be, "but you never know," he says.
In total, his work secured reimbursement of just more than $ 2.4 billion.
"In the beginning people said Abacha stole at least $ 4-5 billion. I don't think they did. I think we pretty much took most of what they had, a very large part of what they had. "
Other notorious presidents. [Mohamed Suharto, President of Indonesia, 1967-98, stole an estimated $ 15-35 billion. ], [Ferdinand Marcos, President of the Philippines 1972-86, stole an estimated $ 5-10 billion to $ 10 billion. ], [Mobutu Sese Seko President of Zaire, 1965-97, stole an estimated US $ 5 billion. ], Source: Source: Transparency International, Image: Mobutu Sese Seko, Ferdinand Marcos, Mohamed Suharto.
He has heard rumors that the Abacha family are no longer so rich.
Or, as he puts it: "They are not swimming in money as they used to be".
When he looks back, he seems satisfied with his job.
"When I speak to my very many children about this case, I tell them that I found money and blocked the money. I persuaded the authorities to go after these people and bring the money back into the country for the benefit of the Nigerian people.
"We did the job."
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