The Truth About The Sani Abacha Heist

On June 8, 1998, Nigerian military head of state Sani Abachi died of what was either a heart attack or poisoning (his personal doctor told the BBC that no post-mortem examination was made of the body). He was 54. A veteran of Nigeria's bloody civil war (1967-1970), Abachi had come to power during a November 1993 military coup, and his administration was accused of the systemic human rights abuses characteristic of such governments, but that wasn't the only wrongdoing Abachi got up to during his time as leader of the country.

According to ONE, Abachi had also used his power to flagrantly steal billions of dollars from Nigeria's Central Bank while in power. Not so much a heist (unless you count government overthrow as one grand elaborate heist) as a systemic corruption of the country's various national security and financial institutions, Abachi's government was run like his own personal ATM. He was found to have pilfered $3-5 billion during his five years in office by employing various — at times, not so subtle — stratagems to move the money into his possession. He used dubious government bonds, phony national security projects, nepotistic state contracts, and enormous kickbacks from foreign companies operating in Nigeria to funnel cash into foreign bank accounts in his name. He even reportedly had stolen money delivered to his house in U.S. bills "by the truckload." Nigerian officials understandably wanted the money back after his death, and they've had a heck of a time doing so.

Nigeria thinks it has recovered most of what Sani Abacha stole

The BBC reports that Nigerian officials called a Swiss lawyer named Enrico Monfrini to help them get their money back. That was in 1999, and he's been at it ever since. He found money stolen from the Nigerian government in accounts in Switzerland, Lichtenstein, France, the United Kingdom, the Cayman Islands, Nassau, the Bahamas, and the United States. Monfrini said that some countries were easier to work with than others. "Lichtenstein, for instance, was a catastrophe," he said. "It was a nightmare."

Still, little by little, Monfrini was able to recover a good amount of the Sani Abacha heist money. As of January 2021, he had recovered just over $2.4 billion of the stolen cash, an amount that he believes is almost all of what Abacha stole. "At the beginning people said Abacha stole at least $4-$5 billion," Monfrini said. "I don't believe it was the case. I believe we more or less took the most, took a very large chunk, of what they had." The lawyer added that he did a job that he could be proud of and tell his children about. "We did the job," he said.