US warns Buhari against handing over $106m Abacha loot to Gov. Atiku Bagudu

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The United States government has warned the Muhammadu Buhari administration that plans by the federal government to hand over $100 million the American authorities say was stolen by the late Gen. Sani Abacha, to Kebbi State Governor, Abubakar Atiku Bagudu, will adversely affect relations between Washington and Abuja; including hampering future cooperation between the two nations to recover stolen funds stashed in foreign bank accounts by Abacha and his cronies, which the global anti-graft watchdog, Transparency International, estimated at over $5 billion during his 1993-98 rule. The Buhari administration argues that a 17-year-old agreement entitles Bagudu to the funds and prevents Nigeria from assisting the US, according to recent filings from the District Court in Washington DC.

Insisting that the commitment to transfer the stolen funds to Bagudu flew in the face of Buhari’s war against corruption, lawyers  from the Criminal Division of the Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section of the US Department of Justice (DOJ) argued that Bagudu was the money-laundering kingpin for Abacha and his family, saying the Kebbi governor “embezzled, misappropriated and extorted billions from the government of Nigeria” and then laundered the proceeds through eight US banks in violation of American laws, hence the assets were subject to forfeiture.

A massive cache of documents obtained exclusively by Huhuonline.com has exposed the hidden financial dealings and offshore holdings of Gov. Bagudu and reveals how during the reign of Abacha; Bagudu, former finance minister, Anthony Ani, former National Security Adviser (NSA), Ismaila Gwarzo, then CBN governor, Paul Ogwuma, and other corrupt officials conspired with Gen. Abacha and his son, Mohammed Abacha to embezzle, misappropriate, defraud, and steal billions of dollars from the Nigerian people using criminal schemes; and then secretly shuffle and laundered the money through a network of shadow companies, offshore banks and investment portfolios in tax havens from the British Virgin Islands to the Bailiwick of Jersey.

The DOJ also contends that the Buhari administration is guilty of obstruction of justice by hindering US efforts to recover laundered money it has traced to Bagudu. A spokesman for the President who elected anonymity because he had not been authorized to comment on such matters told Huhuonline.com that the issues were matters for the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation (AGF), Abubakar Malami (SAN). Neither Bagudu nor a spokesman for Malami responded to Huhuonline.com requests for comment. A spokesman for the DOJ was also unavailable to comment.

But Matthew Page, an associate fellow at London-based Chatham House and former Nigeria expert for US intelligence agencies, was quoted by Bloomberg news as saying: “This case illustrates how complex and contentious repatriating stolen assets to Nigeria can be. Instead of welcoming US efforts, Nigeria’s lawyers appear to be supporting the interests of one of the country’s most powerful families.”

The US Department of Justice in a statement dated February 3, 2020, said Bagudu was part of a network controlled by Abacha that defrauded the Nigerian people using three principal fraudulent schemes – security vote fraud; debt buy-back fraud and outright extortion and kickbacks from public contracts. The security vote’s fraud began in January 1994, shortly after Abacha seized power. At Abacha’s direction, then National Security Adviser (NSA), Ismaila Gwarzo, prepared fake security votes letters and addressed them to General Abacha purporting to request millions of US dollars, British pounds, and Nigerian naira to address unidentified emergencies that threatened Nigeria’s national interests. Abacha then endorsed each letter with his signature and the fake letters were sent to then CBN governor, Paul Ogwuma, for disbursement.

Successive Nigerian governments have sought to recoup the money looted by Abacha, who died in office, and have so far repatriated more than $2 billion with the cooperation of other countries, according to US court filings. In the case involving Bagudu, the US in 2013 initiated a forfeiture action against a host of assets, including four investment portfolios held in London in trust for him and his family, according to the district court filings.

The US forfeiture action was initiated following a formal request by the administration of then President Goodluck Jonathan in 2012. After years of legal histrionics which culminated in a tripartite agreement between the US, Nigeria and the Bailiwick of Jersey to repatriate $308 million Abacha loot, the Buhari administration now says it can’t assist the US in another forfeiture case involving over $170 million traced to Bagudu because it’s bound by a settlement Bagudu reached with the administration of then-President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2003, according to the court filings.

Under the terms of that agreement, which was approved by a UK court, Bagudu returned $163 million of looted funds to the Obasanjo administration; which in exchange, dropped all outstanding civil and criminal claims against him “stemming from his involvement in government corruption,” according to a Dec. 23 memorandum opinion by District Judge John D. Bates in Washington DC. That meant “Nigeria renounced any interest whatsoever” in Bagudu’s trust assets, including those the US is attempting to recover on behalf of the Nigerian people, the opinion stated.

Huhuonline.com recalls that on May 22, 2003, Bagudu was arrested in Houston, Texas, on extradition on warrants issued by the Bailiwick of Jersey for laundering proceeds from the sale of Nigerian Par Bonds (NPBs), and related Payment Adjustment Warrants (PAWs); worth $572 million. After six months in detention fighting extradition to Jersey, Bagudu entered into an agreement with Nigeria and Jersey to return $163 million of Doraville's assets to the Nigerian government in exchange for Jersey's withdrawal of its extradition request and his return to Nigeria to face prosecution. Bagudu claimed the $163 million from Doraville's account transferred to the Nigerian government represented his share of the Doraville assets. The balance in the account (valued at $287 million) was seized by the US government in 2014. 

A US District Court in the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division, in the case USA v. Abubakar Atiku Bagudu (Case No. H-03-434M) released Bagudu on bail (pending extradition) to his wife, Aisha Bagudu on November 19, 2003. Bagudu returned to Nigeria after concluding the settlement and instead of facing prosecution; he was elected to the Senate in 2009, to represent Kebbi Central constituency. Six years later in 2015, he was elected as Kebbi’s governor in elections that brought Buhari and the APC party to power. He is serving his second term and is the current chairman of the Progressives Governors Forum (PGF).

Investment Portfolios
Court filings obtained by Huhuonline.com reveal that, at the request of the Jonathan administration, the US on November 18, 2013; filed a complaint for forfeiture in rem against five corporations, seven bank accounts, and four investment portfolios, owned by Mohammed Abacha and Bagudu. A lawsuit in rem is an action against an item or property, not against a person. On December 6, 2013, Justice Bates issued arrest warrants in rem for all the bank accounts and assets held in the name of Bagudu and Abacha. Bagudu then sued Nigeria for violating the 2003 settlement after Justice Bates rejected a motion by his lawyers to dismiss the civil forfeiture action against his investment portfolios.

After over five years of legal histrionics, the Buhari administration reached a new agreement with Bagudu in October 2018; that would result in the transfer of ownership of the investment portfolios, worth 141 million euros ($155 million) to the Nigerian state, which would then pay him 98.5 million euros ($106.8 million), according to Bates’ Dec. 23 opinion. The funds are currently restrained by the UK at the request of the US. The Buhari administration claims the updated 2018 agreement with the Kebbi governor, which requires court approval in the UK, will “curtail and mitigate its looming exposure” from the judgment in Bagudu’s favor. In September last year, AGF Malami submitted the 2018 deal to the UK court to support its application to unfreeze the assets so they can be sent to Nigeria, for Bagudu to get paid, according to the opinion.

The UK court has yet to make a decision but the US government has made its opposition to the deal known to the Buhari administration and continues to pressure the UK not to release the funds. Nigerians might be aware that Bagudu was a close associate of Gen. Abacha; what they did not know was that Bagudu was the kingpin of Abacha’s money-laundering activities. His finger prints are everywhere that Abacha laundered money; and to think that the same Bagudu is now the elected governor of Kebbi State is beyond disbelief. The scale and magnitude of the theft Bagudu perpetrated against the Nigerian people is within the realm of crimes against humanity; and the God-questioning incontinence that he not only moves around as a free man, but still holds public office, is a screaming barometer reading of the APC promise of change and President Buhari’s much vaunted fight against corruption.

Watch this space.