Wednesday, June 12, 2024

EXCLUSIVE: Tinubu’s minister Atiku Bagudu moves to block France from repatriating $150 million Abacha loot; demands $30 million cut

Depriving the country of $150 million as it endures a steep crunch in cash and forex may complicate the president’s avowed efforts to mollify the hardship ravaging Nigerian masses.

• December 18, 2023
Atiku Bagudu
Kebbi State governor, Atiku Bagudu (Photo Credit: @AABagudu)

Atiku Bagudu, a notorious raider of Nigerian treasury now serving as budget and planning minister under President Bola Tinubu, has activated steps to block France from repatriating $150 million in plundered funds linked to the infamous Sani Abacha loot, Peoples Gazette can report, saying he had an interest in the tranche and would only back down if paid $30 million. 

Since 1999, Mr Bagudu has worked against Nigeria during efforts by previous administrations to recovered some of the vast loot, estimated to be worth more than $8 billion with its backing documents strewn across Western jurisdictions, but this is the first time he would be working at cross purposes against a cabinet he belongs and associates. 

Diplomatic sources told The Gazette over the weekend that the former Kebbi governor, serving in Mr Tinubu’s cabinet since August 21, informed French authorities he was demanding $30 million cut based on some novel business arrangement with Mr Abacha, Nigeria’s brutal dictator who died in June 1998 after a protracted illness. 

Our sources, who spoke under anonymity to comment on an ongoing dispute of international dimension, said France’s hands have been consequently tied by a legal action recently triggered in Paris by Mr Bagudu and his associates. 

Mr Bagudu, 62 next week, declined comments about the controversial move, telling The Gazette the matter had nothing to do with his role as a minister. A presidential spokesman sidestepped questions on the matter. 

But Mr Bagudu had said previously that he was not seeking to cut directly from Mr Abacha’s loot, but that his family members were involved and he had no control over how they pursued their respective interests. Since tracing began shortly after his death, Nigeria has recovered nearly $4 billion of cash deposits that Mr Abacha and his cronies, chief among them Mr Bagudu, tucked stilly in Switzerland, United Kingdom territories and elsewhere. 

Some of those cash assets have been returned and tied to specific developmental protects, although anti-corruption campaigners said they found multiple instances in which some of the funds were stolen through federal racketeering and illicit contract awards over the years. 

Still, Mr Bagudu’s move to deprive the country of $150 million at a time it’s enduring steep crunch in cash access and foreign exchange could complicate Mr Tinubu’s avowed efforts to mollify the hardship ravaging Nigerian masses since he abolished federal subsidies on petrol effective his assumption of office on May 29, first time since they were instituted in 1970s as a form of wealth distribution to the poor. 

Mr Tinubu started looking forward to the money following a meeting with a French diplomat in Abuja in early November, which would have been the first Abacha booty repatriation on his watch.

The Gazette heard that French officials had previously indicated intention to seal the release at the recent United Nations Convention against Corruption Conference of States Parties summit in Atlanta. 

Nigeria had made a formal submission to recover the funds. Submitted by the nation’s attorney-general, the process involves trilateral understandings between the United States, France, and Nigeria, only to be thwarted following the sudden move by Mr Bagudu, a notorious bagman of Mr Abacha and other kleptocrats of Nigerian origin. 

Catherine Colonna, the minister for Europe and foreign affairs of France, who led the French envoy in the November discussions, had described the funds as “assets stolen from the Nigerian people by General Sani Abacha and his family.” She also disclosed that her government is interested in committing the funds to development projects that would benefit the nation. 

Mr Tinubu, in response, thanked the French envoy and affirmed that the recovered loot “will be judiciously applied” in realising the country’s development goals. 

Emmanuel Macron
France President, Emmanuel Macron (Photo Credit: Twitter)

But Mr Bagudu has made it clear to the Nigerian front in the negotiations that he would not cease legal hostilities until he has been assured of his $30 million cut, a position that starkly undermines the posturing of his principal, who says he is doing everything possible to arrest the country’s economic woes and salvage all the resources it can to put the country on a sustainable economic path. 

While diplomatic sources characterised Mr Bagudu’s chances of absolutely blocking the $150 million without his $30 million slice as slim, they nonetheless appreciated his ability delay the transfer, which would, in turn, prolong implementation of designated developmental projects set to commence in Nigeria upon the receipt of the funds.

While the roles of some Nigerian businessmen in Mr Abacha’s plunder have long been acknowledged, Mr Bagudu has more recognition as the mastermind behind the money laundering operation that flourished under Mr Abacha, successfully establishing channels within both local and international financial institutions to siphon Nigeria’s wealth from mid to late 90s. He set up a multilayered covert structure to conceal stolen funds and coordinated a notable network of enablers and accomplices.

Five years after Mr Abacha died in 2003, investigations revealed that several billion dollars in stolen funds had been traced to banks in Jersey, the largest of the autonomous islands in Europe with a dependency on the United Kingdom. During this period, Mr Bagudu and some members of his illicit operation group resided in Texas. 

He was subsequently arrested in the United States at the request of Jersey authorities seeking to extradite him to face charges related to funds traced to the account of Doraville Properties Corp, a shadowy company he managed alongside Mohammed Abacha, the late dictator’s eldest son. The company held accounts at Deutsche Bank International in Jersey.

After six months in detention, Mr Bagudu struck a deal with American and Jersey authorities. In exchange for returning over $163 million of the laundered assets to Nigeria, Jersey withdrew the extradition request, and Mr Bagudu was returned to Nigeria to face trial. This information was disclosed in a court document made public in 2019.

Upon his extradition to Nigeria, despite evidence supporting various allegations of embezzlement, money laundering, and criminal misappropriation of funds gathered from Switzerland, Jersey, and the United States, Mr Bagudu has not been prosecuted. Instead, he was cleared to contest the 2009 National Assembly elections and was subsequently elected as the senator representing Kebbi Central Senatorial District.

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the repatriation of $480 million, which had been stolen by Mr Abacha and his co-conspirators. The U.S. government’s complaint asserted that the late dictator, his son Mohammed, their associate Mr Bagudu, and others had engaged in embezzlement, misappropriation, and extortion, siphoning off billions of dollars from the Nigerian government and other entities. Their criminal proceeds were laundered through U.S. financial institutions and the acquisition of bonds backed by the U.S.

In February 2020, the U.S., in collaboration with Nigeria and Jersey, entered into a trilateral agreement aimed at repatriating over $300 million in additional funds that Mr. Bagudu played a role in pilfering during the Abacha regime. Simultaneously, the U.S. declared its ongoing efforts to pursue the forfeiture of over $177 million in additional laundered funds held in trusts, where Mr Bagudu and his relatives were listed as beneficiaries.

Mr Bagudu has for years evaded accountability within the Nigerian legal system, ascending to the positions of senator and subsequently governor for an eight-year term starting in 2015. After completing his two governorship terms in May 2023, he was tapped to join Mr Tinubu’s cabinet a few weeks later, a position that would strengthen his ability to advance his network and wealth while still shielding himself of any serious backlash.

In his 2024 budget estimates, Mr Tinubu earmarked N4.4. trillion to the budget and planning ministry under Mr Bagudu , the largest that ever allocated to that ministry since its creation. The move immediately sparked controversy, with Nigerians urging the parliament to significantly cut the proposal. But analysts said they have little expectation lawmakers would go against Mr Tinubu’s request in any meaningful way.

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