In her historical fictional narrative titled “The Lost Sisterhood,” Danish-Canadian writer Anne Fortier quotes one of her characters as saying that “those who control the present can rewrite the past.” This is playing out right before us in what I called the curious posthumous deodorization of Abacha’s grand larceny in a May 7, 2020 social media update.
Loyalists and beneficiaries of Sani Abacha’s dictatorship control Nigeria’s present, and they are trying to exploit this privilege to rewrite the sordid past of their benefactor while the rest of the country is fixated on other issues.
Muhammadu Buhari has always been invested in cleansing Abacha’s appallingly grubby reputation as a murderous larcener. During the 10th-year-rememberance anniversary of Abacha in Kano in June 2008, for instance, Muhammadu Buhari remarked that, contrary to settled narratives in the Nigerian public sphere, Abacha never stole from Nigeria.
This 2008 Buhari declaration birthed a fringe, outlandish but nonetheless popular narrative in northern Nigeria that Abacha’s reputation as a ruthless crook who stole billions of Nigeria’s patrimony and salted it away in Euro-American financial institutions was the handiwork of Olusegun Obasanjo who was taking a posthumous pound of flesh from Abacha for imprisoning him.
In the aftermath of the unrelenting repatriation of what has now been called the “Abacha loot” from Western banks, a new farcical story line was fabricated, which is that Abacha actually “saved” the money for Nigeria for a rainy day!
Apart from Buhari’s public defense of Abacha’s larceny in 2008, the posthumous discursive purification of Abacha’s image as a greedy, conscienceless thief was largely informal and took place on the margins of polite society.
Abubakar Malami, Buhari’s Attorney General and Minister of Justice, officialized the revisionism of Abacha’s thievery. In a May 4, 2020 tweet, Malami described repatriated Abacha loot as “Abacha assets.” “I am happy to confirm that the Federal Republic of Nigeria on Monday 4th May, 2020 received $311,797,866.11 of the Abacha assets repatriated from the United States and the Bailiwick of Jersey,” he wrote.
The change from “Abacha loot” to “Abacha assets” was a willful rhetorical move designed to lend official credence to the hitherto fringy, informal but nevertheless robust narrative that Abacha didn’t steal Nigeria’s money.
Led by Sahara Reporter’s Omoyele Sowore, Nigerians on social media pounced on Malami’s tweet and compelled him to retract his incompetent attempt at revisionism. In a woolly, shamefaced, error-ridden retraction, Malami said, “It is to be noted that by way of antecedence [sic] that Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, SAN has been consistently describing the recovered funds as ‘Abacha loot’ at several fora during the process of recovery of the looted funds, particularly before the eventual repatriation of the funds.”
But it didn’t stop there. Buba Galadima, a former Buhari protégé who is now at loggerheads with him because he has been shut out of the orbit of governance, has taken off from where Malami backed off. In a May 17, 2020 interview with The Nation, he said the estimated $5 billion Sani Abacha stole from Nigeria’s trough was actually “saved” for Nigeria—on the advice of Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein—in anticipation of US sanction against Nigeria so that “even if Nigeria’s account was blocked by the US, there won’t be panic.”
Galadima, who was Director General of the National Maritime Authority during the Abacha junta, said the notion that Abacha stole from Nigeria’s till is “based on ignorance.” When an editor forwarded excerpts of the interview to me on WhatsApp, I’d dismissed it as fabricated. I was wrong.
As I pointed out on social media on May 17, the idea that the Abacha loot was “saved” for Nigeria stands logic on its head, considering that Abacha “saved” some of that money in the US whose impending blockage he was allegedly plotting against. How do you “hide” something from someone by “saving” it in his house?
Plus, even Buhari, the choirmaster of the Abacha sanitization chorus, has grudgingly conceded that his former boss stole from Nigeria’s public treasury. For example, in an April 27, 2016 tweet, Buhari said, “Nigeria is awaiting receipt from Swiss Govt. of $320 million, identified as illegally taken from Nigeria under Abacha.”
“Illegally taken” is merely a synonym for stealing. In a February 4, 2020 statement from the US Embassy in Nigeria about the repatriation of the “Abacha loot” from US banks, the US government was unambiguous in stating how the money got to its banks.
“The monies were laundered by [Abacha’s] family, including his sons Ibrahim and Mohammed, and a number of close associates,” the statement from the US reads. “The laundering operation extended to the United States and European jurisdictions such as the UK, France, Germany, Switzerland, Lichtenstein and Luxembourg.”
One of those associates who helped Abacha launder huge sums of money is Kebbi State Governor Atiku Bagudu to whom the Buhari regime wanted to hand over $100 million of the recovered money, according to Bloomberg, but for the resistance of the US government. If the money was “saved” for Nigeria, why did Buhari want to hand over some of it to a person who has been identified as an accomplice in its theft?
The US Department of Justice identified Bagudu as one of Abacha’s network of proteges that, “embezzled, misappropriated and extorted billions from the government of Nigeria.”
It isn’t only the US that unequivocally describes the repatriated funds as the product of Abacha’s criminal despoliation of Nigeria’s resources.
In a June 12, 2017 Radio France International report titled “Swiss make deal with Nigeria on final payout for Abacha loot,” we learn that “The cash was originally frozen in Luxembourg and confiscated by the Swiss as part of a criminal investigation into Abba Abacha, Sani Abacha’s son. Switzerland had already returned some 700 million dollars following appeals by Nigeria.”
In a “Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative – Asset Recovery Watch” bulletin, there’s also a case against “Family of former President Sani Abacha,” where we read that, “In 2006, the World Bank was involved in a similar framework, providing institutional support for the return and use of approx. $723 million in public funds that had been corruptly diverted by General Abacha.”
Not all the money Abacha stole has been recovered. Of the $5 billion that Abacha looted and squirreled away—or “saved” for Nigeria, to use Galadimian logic—in the banks of countries that wanted to “block” Nigeria’s money, $3.624 billion has been recovered so far. Can Galadima help Nigeria recover the rest of the money since he appears to know where the money has been “saved”?
The purveyors of the transparently fraudulent narrative that Abacha “saved” money for Nigeria in foreign banks which his detractors have decided to call “loot” should be told that they can’t rewrite history.
People, mostly young northerners who hadn’t come of age when Abacha’s evil regime reigned, have sent me private messages asking that I help stop the “demonization” of Abacha. For them, it’s a regional and religious project. But that’s misguided. Islam teaches us to be fair, just, and truthful. It doesn’t teach us to lie to salvage the image of a dead thief among us.
The unvarnished truth is that Abacha did NOT save money for Nigeria; he STOLE from it with conscienceless glee. It’s distressing that one has to even say this in spite of the clear evidence that stares us in the face.