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Switzerland hands back nearly $500 million of Abacha's loot

[Nigeria] President Olusegun Obasanjo will face strong competition in next year's polls.
West African heavyweight Olusegun Obasanjo has slammed the transition of power in Togo (AP)

Switzerland has agreed to hand back to the Nigerian government almost US$500 million of illicitly obtained money deposited in Swiss bank accounts by the late Nigerian president Sani Abacha.

Switzerland's Federal Office of Justice (FOJ) said in a statement on Wednesday that the $493 million of frozen funds was "clearly of criminal origin" and should not be given to Abacha's family and associates.

A further $7 million deposited in Swiss accounts by Abacha during the 1990s was of "probable" criminal origin and would be placed in an escrow account for the time being, it added.

Abacha was a Nigerian army general who seized power in a 1993 coup. His iron-fisted rule of Africa’s most populous country and biggest oil exporter ended in 1998 when he died suddenly from an apparent heart attack.

"President Olusegun Obasanjo and Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala assured the Swiss authorities last May, that once transferred to Nigeria, the Abacha funds are to be used for development projects in the healthcare and education sectors, as well as for infrastructure projects," the FOJ said.

"The Swiss mission in Abuja will monitor the use of the Abacha funds in accordance with this assurance," it added.

The FOJ said the funds would be transferred to Nigeria in 30 days time, unless Abacha's surviving relatives appeal against the ruling. Switzerland's Supreme Court would then make the final decision over who gets the money.

A lawyer acting for Abacha's family said they almost certainly would make a last ditch attempt to get their hands on the cash.

"I presume, in fact, I am practically sure, my client will decide to appeal," Bruno de Preux, a lawyer for the Abacha family, told IRIN by telephone from Geneva on Thursday.

Obasanjo's elected government estimates that over $4 billion of public funds were siphoned off into secret overseas accounts by Abacha, his family and close associates during the military strongman's five years in power.

Obasanjo, who had been imprisoned by Abacha on suspicion of plotting a coup, was released soon after the dictator's death and went on to win the presidential election 1999, ending 15 years of military rule. He was returned to power for a second four-year term in a fresh poll last April.

Soon after taking over as head of state, Obasanjo initiated moves to recover the funds stolen by Abacha. These investigations led to the freezing of several bank accounts controlled by Abacha and his family in Switzerland, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein and Jersey.

Other than Switzerland, only Jersey, an offshore banking centre that belongs to the UK, has returned funds. Nigeria's Finance Minister said it had handed over US$149 million in November last year.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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