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Africa Watches Nigeria's Battle Over Cash

Fight to recoup billions purportedly held by son of ex-dictator is seen as a test case for continent.

May 28, 2003|Davan Maharaj | Times Staff Writer

KANO, Nigeria — Mohammed Abacha says he made his hundreds of millions of dollars the old-fashioned Nigerian way: He cashed in when his father, the late Gen. Sani Abacha, ruled this West African nation.

"I was fortunate to be my father's son," Abacha, 36, said nonchalantly during an interview in his northern Nigeria home. "Opportunities were there, and we took them.

"My father was not the first person to be the president, and he will never be the last," Abacha said. "The present one has children, some a little older than me and some my age. Opportunities abound. I'm sure they are making use of it."

By some accounts, Abacha controls billions of dollars in family wealth, enough to count him among the richest people in the world. But his bank accounts in Switzerland, Britain, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein, among other places, were frozen after the Nigerian government claimed that his father looted the country when the general ruled from 1993 to 1998.

The funds, officials say, could be used to improve the lives of millions of Nigerians, most of whom live in grinding poverty. But analysts and others doubt this nation's citizens will ever see a penny now in Abacha's hands.

Some question whether the government has done enough to seize the wealth. President Olusegun Obasanjo, who last month was reelected for a second four-year term, and other officials blame Abacha and foreign banks for not cooperating.

The fight to recoup the billions is seen as a test case across the continent. Obasanjo and other African leaders, seeking much-needed debt relief and increased foreign aid, have promised to fight government corruption, end civil wars and promote democracy.

If Nigeria is successful in its battle with Abacha, other African countries -- which, by their calculations, have lost a total of $140 billion to corrupt leaders in the last three decades -- might be emboldened to follow suit.

Late last month, the new government in Kenya disclosed plans to recoup $2 billion in allegedly looted public funds stashed in foreign bank accounts of 10 unnamed people, widely believed to be linked to the administration of former President Daniel Arap Moi.

"It is completely unacceptable that only 10 individuals can own a sum of money roughly equivalent to the total of Kenya's annual budget while our hospitals go without medicine and schoolchildren have to contend with scarce materials in our schools," said Justice Minister Kiraitu Murungi.

In the annals of corrupt dictatorships, Gen. Abacha stands out for the speed with which he swiped his loot. Zairian despot Mobutu Sese Seko took 30 years to plunder billions from his mineral-rich country, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Former Indonesian strongman Suharto also took three decades to amass a business empire worth about $30 billion, at least some of it from legitimate enterprises.

Investigators say that during his nearly five-year rule, Abacha skimmed money from the country's oil exports, siphoned funds from state-owned companies and, in a Nigerian twist, sent errand boys to fetch him truckloads of cash from the nation's central bank.

Mohammed Abacha said that his family was independently wealthy and that he was involved in a "lot of [business] activities," though he declined to elaborate. "If I tell you, it would take three days," he said.

Abacha spends much of his day in his low-slung house near the center of Kano. The house is decorated with items imported from Dubai and Taiwan: faux gold ornamentation, cut-glass chandeliers, gold- and silver-plated light fixtures. Clear plastic runners protect plush Chinese rugs.

On a recent day, the temperature soared past 110 degrees. Outside, a covered garage protected Abacha's fleet of Mercedes-Benzes. Inside, he soaked up the air-conditioning and the reality TV cable channel. The big-screen television competed for wall space with life-size portraits of himself, his father, his mother and other family members.

Associates say the younger Abacha operated an oil services company, a now-defunct airline, a tannery and other businesses that required him to travel extensively to Europe and the United States.

There was a time when Abacha's lifestyle changed dramatically, just after the sudden death of his father in 1998, which paved the way for freedom of political prisoners -- including Obasanjo, a former military head of state who spent three years in prison after the general's regime convicted him of treason.

In 1999, Obasanjo received the support of Nigeria's powerful generals when he won the presidency in a military-supervised election. Once elected, he vowed to tackle the rot of corruption.

His biggest target was the younger Abacha, who was charged with dozens of crimes, including money laundering and conspiracy to commit murder. The government maintains that the Abacha family stole about $4 billion during the general's rule.

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