U.S. Freezes Half-Billion in Dictator's Loot

The United States has frozen more than $458 million hidden in bank accounts in the Channel Islands and France by the former military dictator of Nigeria, the Department of Justice said Wednesday.

The department said is also seeking forfeiture of another $100 million suspected of being in four investment portfolios and three bank accounts in the United Kingdom, including the British Virgin Islands. The department called this the largest civil forfeiture case ever brought against a foreign leader by the U.S.

A complaint filed in federal court in Washington described an intricate conspiracy in which Gen. Sani Abacha, his sons and other conspirators allegedly spirited billions out of the country in the 1990s.

Some of those billions allegedly were taken from the Central Bank of Nigeria on national security grounds through a series of “security votes” letters, then used to buy hundreds of millions of U.S. dollar-denominated Nigerian bonds.

Image: Nigerian President Gen. Sani Abacha in 1997
Nigerian President Gen. Sani Abacha, shown in 1997, was accused of stealing billions from his country during his dictatorship. He died in 1998. ISSOUF SANOGO / AFP - Getty Images file

“The bonds generated tens of millions of dollars in interest paid through Citibank in New York and guaranteed by the United States,” the complaint said. “In effect the conspirators lent money stolen from Nigeria back to Nigeria with zero risk and at enormous profit.”

Abacha also stole nearly $300 million through a scheme in which the government bought non-performing debt from a company controlled by his son and a conspirator, the complaint said.

A variety of U.S. financial institutions allegedly were used in the schemes, including Barclays Bank, Citibank, Chase Manhattan Bank and Morgan Guaranty Trust Co., now JP Morgan Chase.

Abacha ruled Nigeria from a military coup in 1993 to his death in 1998. His son Ibrahim Sani Abacha died in a plane crash in 1996. Another son, Mohammed Sani Abacha, also named in the complaint, still lives in Nigeria. In January, the country’s Supreme Court ordered Mohammed’s arrest to face charges of theft from the government.

— Gil Aegerter

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