Britain’s National Crime Agency is locked in a legal battle with the Nigerian government as part of a tug-of-war over a €180 million pot of cash allegedly looted 25 years ago.
The unusual turn of events is the latest twist in a saga that began with the death of the military dictator Sani Abacha in 1998. During Abacha’s five-year tenure up to $5 billion is thought to have been plundered from the state coffers of Africa’s biggest oil producer.
“The Abachas acted like gangsters,” said Stephen Baker, a lawyer involved in the 2019 recovery of Abacha funds in Jersey. “Foreign financial institutions largely turned a blind eye to the looting and cashed in on the profits.”
Now a tussle is playing out in courts in London and the US over assets held by Abubakar Bagudu, who according to US authorities was Abacha’s key bagman in laundering stolen cash—but could nevertheless be in line for a €90 million payout if the Nigerian suit succeeds.
The Nigerian government is attempting to overturn an NCA freezing order on the London bank accounts of two Singaporian companies controlled by Bagudu, Blue Holdings 1 and 2. The NCA initially froze the accounts in 2014 following a request for assistance from the US authorities.
In 2018 Nigeria agreed a settlement that allowed the state to claw back €40 million of the frozen assets left the lion’s share of the Blue Holdings cash, nearly €100 million, for the “peaceful enjoyment” of Bagudu and his family. Since then the value of the contested accounts are understood to have grown to €180 million.
Bagudu has since returned to Nigeria to become a key ally of President Muhammadu Buhari and US prosecutors to claim that the settlement amounts to a sweetheart deal with the current regime.
The NCA was asked to freeze Bagudu’s accounts in 2014 by US officials, who had begun forfeiture proceedings against him following a request from Nigerian authorities.
But Nigeria withdrew its request the following year, shortly after Bagudu moved back to the country and was elected a provincial governor in the election that brought Buhari to power. Bagudu, who has never admitted any wrongdoing, is a member of Buhari’s All Progressives Congress party and the pair are reportedly close friends.
The 2018 agreement “describes an orchestrated effort to acquire over €141 million in assets allegedly born out of an international conspiracy to launder proceeds from government corruption in Nigeria,” a US judge, John Bates, said in a December 2019 memo in which he agreed to make the settlement public.
It was a deal “designed to wrest control of the proceeds of corruption away from the US and UK courts,” and will allow millions to be “secreted into the hands of one of the primary architects of the kleptocracy scheme”, according to a 2019 motion by the US Department of Justice that sought to publish the settlement.
Nigerian officials deny this and say they are tied by an earlier deal with Bagudu, who handed back some $160 million in 2003 after his arrest and extradition to the US. If the NCA refuses to unfreeze the accounts, they argue, the Nigerian state could expose itself to a claim from Bagadu and lose any chance of a new agreement to reclaim at least some of the outstanding cash.
The Bagudu episode shows that in Nigeria the fight against corruption can be distorted by political influence, said David Enweremadu, a lecturer at Nigeria’s University of Ibadan who has studied the efforts to recover the Abacha loot.
“It’s hard to divorce anti-corruption measures from politics,” he said. “Sometimes those in government have vested interests in protecting allies or punishing opponents.”
The unpalatable bottom line may be that the only way of returning some of the fortune looted by Abacha is to strike a deal with one of the dead dictator’s associates, says Jonathan Benton, a former NCA senior detective who now runs a consultancy, Intelligent Sanctuary.
“It is repugnant. But Nigeria desperately needs the money that Abacha stole.”