ABUJA, Mar 27 – Assets worth $458 million stolen by former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha and frozen by the United States should ultimately be returned to Nigeria, the country’s justice minister said Wednesday.
The US has said the funds held in various European accounts were the “proceeds of corruption” during Abacha’s iron-fisted military rule in Africa’s most populous country between 1993 and 1998.
Nigeria had not previously commented on the asset freeze, which the US Justice Department said was “the largest civil forfeiture action to recover the proceeds of foreign official corruption” it had ever brought.
But in a statement, Nigeria’s Justice Minister Mohammed Adoke said it applauded “the efforts of the United States to recover the (funds) for the benefit of the people of Nigeria”.
Adoke said his office was cooperating with Washington’s legal efforts against Abacha’s relatives and associates, which could result in the permanent forfeiture of all the money.
“The overall objective of these efforts is to ensure that Nigeria as the Victim State is able to have the forfeited assets repatriated,” Adoke said.
Nigeria “will do all that is required to realise this objective”, he added.
The US Justice Department did not specify what actions would be taken with regard to the Abacha funds when the seizure was announced on March 5.
The US government’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative “where appropriate” provides for the return of stolen proceeds “to benefit the people harmed by these acts of corruption and abuse of office”.
Civilian rule was restored in Nigeria a year after Abacha’s sudden death in 1998 but corruption has persisted and even worsened, according to some experts.
The repatriation of the Abacha funds directly into Nigeria’s coffers would likely spark criticism among civil society leaders who claim the government cannot be trusted to spend money on public services.
Nigeria is Africa’s top oil producer but most of its roughly 170 million people live on less than $2 a day and despite the abundant energy resources electricity supply remains woeful.