This past February, the United States signed a trilateral agreement with Nigeria and the British dependency of Jersey to repatriate to Nigeria $308 million in funds that the late General Sani Abacha had stolen from the Nigerian government during his time as Head of State from 1993-1998. This enormous sum was a mere fraction of the estimated $2-5 billion that Abacha had laundered through the global banking system. Back in 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a civil forfeiture complaint against more than $625 million that could be traced as proceeds from Abacha’s corruption. Shortly afterwards, in 2014, a U.S. federal court entered a forfeiture judgment against over $500 million of these assets, including the $308 million held in Jersey bank accounts. Appeals of the forfeiture judgment in the United States were finally exhausted in 2018, at which point the United States, Jersey, and Nigeria entered into negotiations to repatriate the recovered assets. The February 2020 trilateral agreement represents the culmination of those negotiations.
Back in 2014, when DOJ first froze Abacha’s assets, Raj Banerjee asked on this blog an important question, one that has come up in several other asset recovery cases too: Who will get Abacha’s assets? Would the United States simply give the money back to the Nigerian government? Or would the United States, out of concerns that the repatriated assets would be stolen again, insist on attaching conditions to the returned funds, or even create or empower a non-governmental nonprofit entity to allocate the funds (as the United States has done in some other cases)? Now, six years later, we finally have an answer. Under the terms of the trilateral agreement, the repatriated funds will be used to help finance three infrastructure projects that had already been approved by the Nigerian legislature and President Muhammadu Buhari: the construction of the Second Niger Bridge, the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, and the Abuja-Kano road. These projects aim to better connect people and supply chains in Nigeria’s impoverished Eastern and Northern regions to the developed Western region. Additionally, the agreement declares that the Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority (NSIA) will oversee the funds, that a yet-to-be-determined independent auditor will conduct a financial review, and that a yet-to-be-determined independent civil society organization with expertise in engineering, among other areas, will have a monitoring role.
There is much to admire about the agreement. Using these assets to fund critical infrastructure projects that Nigeria’s legislative and executive branches had already approved demonstrates a respect for Nigerian sovereignty and democratic institutions, while at the same time directing the money to projects that would tangibly benefit the Nigerian people, particularly in some of the country’s poorest areas—the people who were most victimized by Abacha’s looting of the national treasury. Yet while the governments of the United States, Nigeria, and Jersey all heralded the trilateral agreement has a landmark, some voices, particularly in the United States, have expressed skepticism. Most notably, U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley sent a letter to DOJ questioning whether the returned funds will truly be protected from misuse. Senator Grassley suggested that senior officials in the Buhari Administration, including the Attorney General, could not be trusted to ensure that the Nigerian government would face consequences if it misappropriated the returned funds, and he questioned why DOJ would return the money without “proper safeguards” to prevent misuse a second time. Unsurprisingly, Nigeria took issue with Grassley’s accusations. But his concerns have some merit.