The United States Justice Department said Thursday it had won legal control of nearly a half-billion dollars worth of corrupt gains hidden in bank accounts by former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha.
The department said a court judgment on Wednesday gave it title to more than $480 million that Abacha, who ruled Nigeria from 1993 to 1998, and associates had embezzled and placed in accounts in Jersey, England, Ireland and France.
That took US authorities one step closer to eventually repatriating the money, only a portion of the billions allegedly stolen by Abacha, to Nigeria.
The US is still seeking control over another four Abacha-tied investment portfolios in Britain containing $148 million.
Based on the court judgement, the department will seek to have authorities in those four jurisdictions order banks to transfer the money to it, on the basis that the corrupt funds were originally moved through the US financial system.
“General Abacha and others systematically embezzled billions of dollars in public funds from the Central Bank of Nigeria on the false pretense that the funds were necessary for national security,” the justice department said.
“The conspirators withdrew the funds in cash and then moved the money overseas through US financial institutions.”
An army general deeply involved in Nigerian politics since the 1960s, Abacha ousted a transitional government in 1993 and assumed the role of head of state until he suddenly died in June 1998.
Assistant Attorney General Caldwell branded Abacha’s theft “brazen acts of kleptocracy” aided by his son Mohammed and his former associate and still-prominent politician Abubakar Atiku Bagudu.
Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said it was not clear how long it would take to take possession of the funds and give them back to Nigeria.
“Our goal is to repatriate the recouped funds for the benefit of the Nigerian people,” he said.