- The Swiss Ministry of Justice has decided to hand over to Nigeria "the greater part of the US$ 500 million of Abacha funds" frozen there. The Ministry found that this money by Nigeria's ex-dictator was "clearly of criminal origin." Nigeria had agreed to use the assets to finance development projects under Swiss supervision.
Nigerian authorities accuse a "criminal organisation" founded by its former military head of state, Sani Abacha, of systematically having plundered the country – and the Nigerian central bank in particular – for many years. From 1999 onwards they have applied to Switzerland and a number of other countries for judicial assistance.
Today, the Swiss Ministry announces a full victory for Nigerian authorities, while lesser amounts earlier had been promised. In 2002 and 2003, Switzerland handed over to Nigeria extensive legal assistance files, specifically including bank documentation.
Furthermore, it had earlier been possible to date to return more than US$ 200 million from Switzerland to Nigeria, following settlements between the parties concerned - including late Mr Abacha's family - and Nigerian authorities, as well as seizure orders issued by the public prosecutor's office of the Swiss Canton Geneva.
According to Swiss authorities, assets may be returned to a foreign state "in exceptional cases – such as where the frozen assets are obviously of criminal origin." A government statement issued today confirms that this was the case with Mr Abacha's large funds, hidden in the banking paradise Switzerland.
- On the basis of information and documentation from Nigeria and from the criminal proceedings in Geneva, the Federal Office of Justice was able to follow the paper trail left by the US$ 500 million of Abacha funds still frozen in Switzerland, the statement says. It states in its ruling, which runs to more than 50 pages, that the greater part of these assets are "obviously of criminal origin."
- The Federal Office of Justice has therefore ordered the transfer of these assets to an account at the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) in favour of Nigeria, the Swiss Ministry adds.
The criminal origin of a small proportion of the assets, worth around US$ 7 million, was regarded as being only probable. The Swiss Ministry had thus ordered that they be transferred to an escrow account in Nigeria, to which the Nigerian authorities will have no access until a corresponding seizure order has been issued.
Both Nigerian President Olusengu Obasanjo and Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala had assured the Swiss authorities last May that, once transferred to Nigeria, the Abacha funds were to "be used for development projects in the healthcare and education sectors, as well as for infrastructure projects - roads, electricity and water supplies - to help the rural and poor people."
The Swiss embassy in Abuja had been ordered to "monitor the use of the Abacha funds in accordance with this assurance," authorities in Bern said. There was given no explanation into why Nigeria had to document how it was to spend funds stolen from her to a foreign government.
For the time being, however, the Abacha funds are to remain in Switzerland, as the Ministry's ruling was not yet final and absolute. Persons involved may still lodge an appeal against it with the Swiss Federal Supreme Court within 30 days. In the event of such an appeal, the Supreme Court - as court of final instance - will decide "whether or not the funds are to be handed over to Nigeria," the Swiss Ministry says.
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