Lagos — New deal in exchange for freedom from prosecution
Relief seems within the reach of the embattled Abacha family as they have agreed in principle to surrender about $1.2 billion, being the lion's share of their fortune under a new compromise deal with the Federal Government.
The family of the late Head of State, General Sani Abacha are expected to refund to government 80 per cent of what is left of their liquid asset which presidency sources put conservatively at $1.2 billion.
The out-of-court settlement, THISDAY checks revealed, is a proposal the details of which is being worked out by the returning Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Mr Kanu Agabi, SAN.
Under the deal, the Abachas, whose scion, Mohammed, is currently facing sundry charges in Nigerian courts, are expected to pay back to the country $1.2 billion to secure a "pardon" from the government.
If the compromise deal goes according to plan, the Abacha family will pay the $1.2 billion as a full and final settlement of what the Federal Government believed the late Gen. Abacha looted from the treasury.
With the payment of that amount, the Abacha family, presidency source said, will not only get relief from prosecution on all matters except criminal, it will be left with about $300 million.
Analysts however, believe that with the new deal it may be possible to resolve all the criminal matters against Mohammed.The criminal charges against Mohammed, who has been in detention for the past three years, include the murder of Alhaja Kudirat Abiola, wife of the presumed winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential elections, Chief MKO Abiola, on June 4, 1996.
Following the death of their patriarch, General Abacha, on June 8, 1998, the family have been under intense searchlights of the Nigerian authorities. It is believed that the former Head of State who ruled the country for five years, stashed about $4.5 billion away in legion foreign accounts.
The succeeding Abdulsa-lami administration was able to recover some of the landed local assets belonging to the family as well as freeze some of their accounts in local banks.
But the massive hunt by the Abdulsalami regime and the Obasanjo administration to recover the liquid assets of the Abachas in Europe, particularly London and Switzerrland and America has yielded little dividends owing to legal barriers.
The compromise option, THISDAY gathered, had earlier gained currency in the first stint of Mr. Agabi as Justice Minister.
Before his portfolio was given to the now late Chief Bola Ige in 2000, it was gathered, Agabi had always favoured such a compromise arrangement, his argument being that protracted litigation would not only be financially exacting but also prove fruitless at the end of the day.
The money-for-pardon deal, THISDAY checks revealed, is attractive to the Obasanjo administration for two main reasons. One, it will afford the government an opportunity to halt once and for all the long-drawn legal fireworks which have proved very expensive. For, the government continues to spend fortune as legal charges to lawyers to sustain its battle against the Abachas in foreign courts.
Two, the government, THISDAY checks further revealed, also considers the deal a political strategy to appeal to the local sentiments in Kano, the home of the Abachas where the Obasanjo administration has been experiencing relentless criticisms spearheaded by the one-time governor of the old Kano State, Alhaji Abubakar Rimi.
Indeed, the hunt for the Abacha loot has been dogged. Not too long ago, accounts belonging to the family in nineteen banks in London were ordered frozen by the British court.
The Financial Times reported that the banks involved included Deutsche Bank, BNP Paribus, HSBC, Barclays, GoldmanSachs and Citibank.
The court action came six months after the FSA found that 23 London banks had handled 1.3 billion ($1.9 billion) on behalf of associates of the former Head of State.
The court order came as the international financial community tried to get to grips with the flows of clandestine money funding nefarious groups including terrorists.
Nigeria had for months been seeking British government help in getting to the bottom of the funds allegedly looted by Abacha.
The FT said it was lawyers acting for the Nigerian government who had obtained the court orders. The FSA would not confirm the information.
Mohammed, meanwhile is contesting a decision to allow bank accounts to be frozen so that supposedly stolen funds can be recovered. His legal challenge had been heard in a London court.
Abacha, who as Head of State from 1993 until his death in 1998, is accused in Nigeria of having diverted $3 billion of public money into secret accounts in Switzerland, principalities of Liechtenstein and Jersey as well as Luxembourg.
The governments of these countries were said to have frozen identified accounts of the Abacha family, in response to the plea of the Nigerian government, though the sums in the accounts were not disclosed.
Meanwhile, most of the banks named as having hanlded the Abacha funds were unwilling to comment on their involvement.
Barclays said only that it always co-operated fully with the authorities on issues of money-laundering.
HSBC, the London-based group, said it had strong anti-money laundering controls that were constantly reviewed. Last year it had introduced "special procedures for accounts held by public officials and other high-risk category clients."
Only Goldman Sachs, the US investment bank, was prepared to deny the involvement of its private banking arm: "It has no existing or past relationship with the Abacha family and consequently has asked to be removed from this action."
Some of the banks said their involvement was minor. Commerzbank, Germany's fourth-biggest bank, said its only role was as a correspondent bank for a Nigerian bank for which it handled a "bank-to-bank" transfer to Luxembourg.
In March 2000, the Federal Government won a 21 month legal tussle against the Abacha family over the attempt to stall further enquiry and repatriation to Nigeria of funds alleged to be loted and stashed in European banks.
In what observers claim was part of the stalling tactics of the Abacha family, lawyers acting for Mohammed and Alhaji Abubakar Bagudu, his business partner sought and obtained two applications from another British court challenging the decision of the British government to assist Nigeria in the bid to recover the looted funds.
The contention of the lawyers was that since the Abacha family had earlier repaid all monies traced to it through the Ajaokuta debt buy-back scheme, it would amount to double jeopardy to be subjected to further legal inquiries over Nigeria's request.
The Abacha family specifically accused the Federal Government of being reluctant to bring other suspected looters to book, claiming that it should be left alone since it had earlier refunded about $800 million after which it was reportedly granted a reprieve by government.
However, Justice Rix of the Commercial Court in Central London, who delivered the March 2000's ruling, said the payment of DM300 million (N15.58 billion) as refund from the Ajaokuta debt buy back scam as "full and final settlement" for the looted monies from Nigeria had been denied any "global waiver," stressing that it does not prevent the recovery of more money.
In arriving at the judgment, however, Rix berated Mr. Agabi, Mohammed, Bagudu and some top Federal Government functionaries for their role in the matter.
Rix, while commenting on Agabi's evidence about his role in negotiating the agreements, said it was "extremely hard to believe" and implied that the minister was used as an instrument by senior members of the defunct Abacha government. The judge also blamed Mohammed for his failure to disclose his assets as required by the earlier freezing orders.
"The $380 million frozen in Switzerland, with $232 million in the single account at Credit Suisse, all of this undisclosed in the London action highlights this fraud," he said.