Switzerland is to give Nigeria $380m (£260m) that was allegedly looted by the former military dictator Sani Abacha and stored in European bank accounts, officials announced on Tuesday.
The transfer will be carried out under the supervision of the World Bank, ending 16 years of court wrangling.
Abacha, who ruled Nigeria for five years after a 1993 coup, is believed to have stolen $4.3bn while in office, placing him among the ranks of Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko as one of Africa’s most avaricious kleptocrats.
Following his death from a sudden heart attack in 1998, the Nigerian government asked Switzerland to help it recover $2.2bn that he was said to have stashed in European bank accounts. The tax haven was forced to relax banking secrecy regulations after some landmark rulings.
The decision to return it to Nigeria follows a deal struck last July between the west Africa country’s government and the Abacha family. Under the agreement, the funds will be confiscated and sent back to Nigeria, while the government will drop its case against the deceased dictator’s son Abba Abacha.
The greed of Abacha appalled even Nigerians used to plundering on a grand scale. After his death aged 54, his wife Maryam was caught trying to flee the country with 38 suitcases stuffed with cash. The $5m Peace Foundation set up by the family to sell “Abacha-themed” televisions, sandals, rice and soap later collapsed.
Abacha was also notoriously brutal autocrat accused of countless human rights abuses. The hanging in 1995 of writer and human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other dissidents caused worldwide revulsion.
It would not be possible for African leaders to loot … if there were no countries willing to receive these fundsJohn-Mark Iyi
Dr John-Mark Iyi, a Nigerian academic, was among students who demonstrated against Abacha on the night he took power, recalling student organisations were instantly banned. “It is more or less common knowledge that the Abacha regime was a criminal syndicate that looted Nigeria blind. His was the most brutal regime Nigeria ever had. People say he ruled with an iron fist; in my view that is an understatement. He ran hit squads, people disappeared and a whole lot of human rights violations took place.”
Iyi, now based at at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa, expressed satisfaction at the return of the funds but said Europe must take responsibility for effectively assisting Africa’s kleptocrats. “It is a welcome development on the part of the Swiss government, but it is only one of several cases of looted funds awaiting return from European governments.
“It would not be possible for African leaders to loot their national treasuries if there were no countries willing to receive these funds. If you preach transparency and accountability, you should not have the facility to transfer illicit funds to your own country.”
Switzerland has previously returned to Nigeria more than $700m that Abacha hid in Swiss accounts – the first time European banks had returned looted money to an African country.
Last month an African Union report found that the continent loses more than $50bn every year in illicit financial outflows as governments and multinational companies engage in fraudulent schemes aimed at avoiding tax payments to some of the world’s poorest countries.
In total, Africa lost about $850bn between 1970 and 2008, the report said. An estimated $217.7bn was illegally transferred out of Nigeria over that period, while Egypt lost $105.2bn and South Africa more than $81.8bn.