Nigeria Sues UK’s National Crime Agency  over £150m Abacha Loot

Nigeria’s government is at odds with Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA) over the control of €180 million (£150 million) stashed abroad by a former head of state, the late Gen. Sani Abacha, a case that is once again likely to raise fresh concerns about dirty money flowing through the City of London.

The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) website reports the official exchange rate of the British Pound Sterling at N563. Therefore, the amount in contention is N84.5 billion at yesterday’s rate.

In the most recent legal dispute over the money, known in Nigeria as the Abacha loot, Nigeria wanted the crime-fighting agency, NCA, to release funds that it froze at US authorities’ request.

In May 2020, Nigeria’s federal government announced the receipt of $311 million looted by the late dictator, Abacha, and returned from the United States and Island of Jersey.

“The amount increased significantly from over $308 million to over $311 million because of the interest that accrued from February 3rd, 2020, to 28th April, 2020, when the fund was transferred to the CBN,” said Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami.

The payment was made after the Swiss government recovered $322 million in 2018.

Malami stated at the time that the government had committed to use the assets to expedite the construction of three major infrastructure projects in Nigeria, namely, the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, Abuja-Kano Road, and Second Niger Bridge.

The amount returned to Nigeria from various parts of the world between 2007 and 2020 was estimated to be about $1.5 billion.

Abacha and his associates are suspected to have stolen $2.2 billion during the dictator’s five-year rule, according to a new report from American prosecutors.

Because of the complicated issues surrounding the repatriation of funds, officials in the US sought to return the money to “the people of Nigeria”, under the Kleptocracy Initiative.

However, the Nigerian government was alleged to have attempted to get the funds directly through a High Court application, despite opposition from the United Kingdom and the United States, according to documents cited by London-based The Telegraph and SourceMaterial.

At least $2 billion is believed to have been stolen during Abacha’s five years as president, despite the fact he died more than 20 years ago.

As investigators unravel the intricate web he and his associates spun across the globe, dozens of offshore bank accounts have been linked to the former dictator’s fortune.

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According to the investigation, British and American authorities have been arguing about tens of millions of pounds of cash they say can be traced to Abacha’s plundering.

In this case, a serving Nigerian politician who was one of Abacha’s top henchmen is involved, as well as cash in British bank accounts that the National Crime Agency has frozen.

According to reports, Nigeria has taken its own legal action against the NCA to end the tussle.

The report stated, “It is a complicated story with many twists and turns. But the ongoing struggle for ‘Abacha’s loot’ reveals the difficulty in recovering stolen funds, the frustrations of law enforcement, and the way people accused of corruption have relied on respectable law firms to argue their cases in court.”

In describing the looting strategy of Abachi, the report said that after seizing power in a coup in 1993, Abacha used his power as the head of state to set himself above the law and steal vast sums of money from Nigeria.

As a brazen example, according to documents filed in US courts, he would order advisers to make requests for money in response to national “emergencies”.

The CBN would then provide cash, travellers’ checks, or arrange a wire transfer after receiving signed letters.

It is further stated that the money was placed in boxes or bags and transported by associates to Abacha’s house, where it was arranged to be sent abroad.

More than 60 letters to the central bank are believed to have been used to steal at least $2 billion.

In addition, Abacha arranged for the government to sell bonds to a company controlled by his allies, then buy them back at inflated prices. This resulted in an illegal windfall of $282 million.

According to the report, Abacha and his associates used their spoils to live a luxurious lifestyle after extorting $97 million from French engineering firm, Dumez Group.

Abacha was said to have kept a collection of sparkling jewelry, including gold necklaces and rings, and at one time as much as $100 million in cash among his many sprawling homes.

As a result of the dictator’s sudden death in 1998, the money Abacha and his associates plunder became the subject of an international search.

Several weeks after his death, Abacha’s widow was caught fleeing the country with 38 suitcases filled with money and his family lost nearly $1 billion.

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“Yet the only clues hinting at where other stashes of money could be found were a few details of secret offshore bank accounts discovered by authorities,” it said. “Since then, the Nigerians have sought foreign help to recover as much as possible, with more than $1 billion eventually returned from Switzerland alone,” it added.

Due to Abacha’s complex ties as well as lengthy legal battles involving former associates, the process has been hindered.

Reports stress that US prosecutors claim they are aiming for a recovery of more than $480 million in one of the remaining cases. According to court filings, Abacha and his associates used bank accounts in Lagos, London, New York, Paris, Zurich, and Geneva to launder money. That is but one example of the web of transactions criss-crossing the globe.

Allegedly, the assets were stashed in Deutsche Bank, HSBC, and Banque SBA, but there was no evidence that the banks committed any wrongdoing.

Ultimately, the legal action led to a deal in 2020 to repatriate about $321 million that had been laundered through US banks and then held in accounts in Jersey under the names of Doraville Properties Corporation, a British Virgin Islands company, and Mohammed Abacha.

Meanwhile, another legal tussle is also playing out in the UK. Over €90 million is at stake, with some of that coming from Abacha’s security votes fraud, according to a 2014 High Court ruling.

Money from the fund is said to be controlled by a trust based in Singapore, which was set up for the benefit of the family of Abubakar Bagudu, the governor of Kebbi State, who the US accuses of playing a key role in many of Abacha’s corrupt schemes.

Despite all allegations against him, Bagudu has maintained his innocence. Ibrahim, his brother, is a director of two Singapore trust-owned companies called Blue Holdings.

According to a leaked cache of documents discovered by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists last year, the Bagudu brothers enlisted Farrer & Co, an elite law firm in London that advised the Queen, for help setting up the businesses.

€98 million was transferred from a British Virgin Islands trust into a new structure encompassing Singapore and the Cook Islands.

Farrer & Co said it performed “extensive due diligence” on Bagudu and obtained SOCA approval, the precursor to the NCA, before moving the funds.

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It is believed that the Singapore trust now has control of as much as €180 million. The funds are held in accounts at Waverton Investment Management and James Hambro & Partners, both located in London.

The NCA worked with American authorities to seize the funds and return them to “the people of Nigeria,” the report stated.

It appears that Nigeria’s government prefers that they be returned directly to the country, and lawyers for Bagudu are already negotiating a settlement, according to US court filings.

The Nigerian government reached a deal with Bagudu in 2003 that required him to return a sum of money without admitting wrongdoing, and it was reaffirmed by President Muhammadu Buhari in 2018. As a result, almost 70 percent of the UK money could be handed to Bagudu if it was returned.

According to court filings, the Nigerian government took legal action against the NCA to unlock and repatriate the funds, a move opposed by the UK and America.

A British law firm, Kingsley Napley, has been hired to represent the country, a firm whose clients include a number of celebrities, including actress Rebekah Vardy. 

Spotlight on Corruption, a non-profit campaign group, was quoted in the report as saying that the case raises questions about whether law enforcement is resourced and paid well enough to be effective.

The NCA was accused of effectively cleaning the money by approving the transfer to Singapore and warned against returning cash to Bagudu.

The case also highlighted the sheer complexity of efforts to reclaim Abacha’s loot, said former NCA detective Jonathan Benton, who runs the consultancy Intelligent Sanctuary.

Benton stated, “I care passionately about tackling corruption and it is important we hold people to account.

“But it can be a challenging and drawn-out process and sometimes you have to be pragmatic. In those situations, the law allows you to negotiate. It is repugnant. But Nigeria desperately needs the money that Abacha stole.”

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