The United States is opposing plans by the Nigerian Government to hand over about $100m stolen by late military Head of State, Sani Abacha, to Kebbi State governor, Abubakar Bagudu.
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 $5bn during his 1993-98 rule, Bloomberg reports.
A commitment by Nigeria to transfer the funds to Kebbi State governor, Bagudu, appears to undermine President Muhammadu Buhari’s pledge to quell rampant graft in Africa’s top oil producer.
The U.S. Department of Justice says 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 was traced to Bagudu.
Buhari’s administration says a 17-year-old agreement entitles 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.
“This case illustrates how complex and contentious repatriating stolen assets to Nigeria can be,” said Matthew Page, an associate fellow at London-based Chatham House and former expert for U.S. intelligence agencies.
“Instead of welcoming U.S. efforts, Nigeria’s lawyers appear to be supporting the interests of one of the country’s most powerful families.”
Neither Bagudu nor a spokesperson for Attorney-General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, responded to requests for comment.
Successive Nigerian Governments have sought to recoup the money looted by Abacha, who died in office, and have so far repatriated more than $2bn with the cooperation of other countries, according to U.S. court filings.
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 governors representing the ruling All Progressives Congress.
Under the terms of that accord, which was approved by a U.K. court, Bagudu returned $163m 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 December 3 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 $155m to the Nigerian state, which would then pay 98.5 million euros to Bagudu and his affiliates, according to Bates’ December 23 opinion. The funds are currently restrained by the U.K. at the request of the U.S.
Nigerian 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 texts 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.