In September 1999, Swiss lawyer Enrico Montfrini answered a phone call that would change his life.
“He called me in the middle of the night and asked if I could go to his hotel. He said there was something important. I said, ‘A little late, but no problem.’
The voice at the other end of the line was a senior Nigerian government official.
– Can you find the money?
Monsignor says an official was sent to Geneva to recruit then-Nigerian President Olasgun Obasanjo to recover $ 1 billion stolen by Sani Abacha, who ruled the country from 1993 to 1998 until his death.
As a lawyer, Montfrini has worked in coffee, cocoa and other commodities since the 1980s, building a Nigerian client base. He suspects it was recommended by these customers themselves.
“He asked me, ‘Can you arrange to return this money? Nigeria? ‘
“I said yes, but in fact, I didn’t know much about work at the time. I need to learn it very quickly.”
Initially, Nigerian police provided him with details of some Swiss bank accounts that appeared to contain a portion of the money stolen by Abacha and associates, and wrote in his book, Montfrini Recovered Stolen Property.
A preliminary investigation published by police in November 1998 found that Abacha and his accomplices had stolen more than $ 1.5 billion.
One method used to raise such a large sum is particularly embarrassing: Abacha told an adviser to ask for money for a specific investment in the security sector. He then signed the order and the consultant took it to the Central Bank, which usually paid in cash. Most of that money was taken to Abacha’s house.
It was just a way. Another is to contract friends for high inflation, and then pocket the difference or foreign companies will have to pay higher fees to operate in the country.
Abbas steals more than $ 1 billion by pretending to need money for ‘security’ – Photo: Getty Images / BBC
This lasted for about three years, until everything changed when Abacha died suddenly on June 8, 1998, at the age of 54.
His private doctor told the BBC it was unclear if he had suffered a heart attack or poisoning since the post-mortem was not performed.
Abacha died before spending the stolen money, but some bank documents were clues as to where he was hiding.
“Documentary history has given me some links to other accounts,” says Montfrini.
Armed with this information, he took the matter to the Swiss Attorney General. Montfrini successfully argued that the Abacha family and their partners had formed a criminal organization.
This was crucial because it created more options for the authorities on how to manage their bank accounts.
- Fought for the military in the Nigerian Civil War
- The main factor in the two coups before becoming Minister of Defense in August 1993
- He became head of state in a military coup in November 1993
- Your government is being accused of widespread human rights abuses
- He died unexpectedly on June 8, 1998, at the age of 54
- Father of 10 children
The Attorney General issued a public alert to all Swiss banks, requesting that the existence of open accounts with Abbas’ name and alias be disclosed.
“Within 48 hours, 95% of banks and other financial institutions declared their ownership, which seems to belong to the family.”
This will reveal a web of bank accounts around the world.
‘Bank accounts say a lot’
“We find out where the money came from and / or where the money went in each account. The complexity of these bank accounts shows me more information about other payments received from other countries and sent to other countries,” says Montfrini.
“So it was like a snowball. It started with a few animals, and then a lot of animals, and it created a snowball effect that signified a major international activity.”
“Bank accounts and related documents say a lot. We had a lot of evidence of different remittances to the Bahamas, Nassau and the Cayman Islands – you name it.”
The size of Abacha’s network represents a huge effort for Montfrini.
“No one understands how much work this involves. I have to pay a lot of people, a lot of accountants, a lot of lawyers in different countries.”
Montfrini agreed to a commission of 4% of the money returned to Nigeria. The fees, he argues, are relatively “very cheap.”
Finding money was relatively quick compared to returning to Nigeria.
“The abbots fought hard. They appealed to the courts about everything we did. It delayed the process for a long time.”
There was further delay when Swiss politicians discussed whether the money would be stolen again if it was returned.
Five years later, some money was returned from Switzerland.
In 2008, Montfrini wrote that between 2005 and 2007, $ 508 million was sent to Nigeria from several bank accounts of the Abacha family in Switzerland.
In 2018, Switzerland’s return to Nigeria reached more than $ 1 billion.
Other countries took longer to repay. “For example, Liechtenstein was a catastrophe. It was a nightmare.” In June 2014, Liechtenstein sent $ 277 million to Nigeria.
Six years later, in May 2020, $ 308 million in Jersey Island accounts were recovered.
This happened after Nigerian authorities agreed that the money could be used exclusively to finance the construction of bridges, expressways and roads.
Some countries have not yet reimbursed.
Montfrini still expects $ 30 million in the UK, $ 144 million in France and $ 18 million in Jersey Island. “But you don’t know,” he says.
In total, he says, his work received a refund of just $ 2.4 billion.
“Initially, people said Abacha stole at least $ 4 billion to $ 5 billion. I do not think so. I think we have already taken a large chunk of what they have.”
He heard rumors that the Abacha family was not rich now. Or, as he puts it, “they don’t swim in money like they used to.”
Looking back, he seems satisfied with his work. “We did what we had to do.”
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