In September 1999, Swiss lawyer Enrico Monfrini responded to a phone call that would change his life.
“She called me in the middle of the night, asked me if I could go to her hotel, that she was something important. I said, ‘It’s been a while, but it’s okay.”
The voice at the other end of the line was that of a senior government official in Nigeria.
– Can you get money?
Monfrini says that the officer was sent to Geneva when Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo appointed him to recover the amount of one billion dollars stolen by Sani Abacha, who ruled the country from 1993 to 1998 until his death .
As a lawyer, Monfrini had built a Nigerian client base working with coffee, cocoa and other commodities since the 1980s. He suspects that these customers have recommended him.
“He asked me, ‘Can you arrange to return this money to Nigeria?’
“I said yes. But really, I didn’t know much about work at the time. And I had to learn it very quickly.”
To begin, the Nigerian police gave him details of some Swiss bank accounts, including part of the money stolen by Abacha and his associates, which Monfrini wrote in the book Stolen property recovered (To recover stolen goods in free translation).
He says a preliminary investigation published by police in November 1998 found that more than $ 1.5 billion had been stolen by Abacha and his associates.
How does the plan work
One of the methods used to deposit such a vast amount of money was specifically Brazen: Abacha asked an advisor to ask him for money for unspecified investments in the field of security. He then signed the order, and the consultant took it to the central bank, which would normally provide the money in cash. Most of that money was taken to Abacha’s house.
It was just one way. Another was to award contracts to friends at highly inflated prices and then pay the difference to foreign companies to work in the country or pay higher fees to foreign companies.
This went on for almost three years, until everything changed when Abacha died suddenly on June 8, 1998, at the age of 54.
It is unclear whether he suffered a heart attack or was poisoned because there was no autopsy, his personal physician told the BBC.
Abacha died before spending the stolen money, but some bank records gave clues as to where he was hiding.
“Documents with account history gave me some links to other accounts,” Monfrini says.
With this information, he took the case to the Swiss Attorney General. Monfrini successfully argued that the Abacha family and their allies formed a criminal organization.
This was important because it created more options for how officers could handle their bank accounts.
Who was the woman?
– Nigerians fought for army in civil war
Key elements in the two wells before becoming the defense minister in August 1993
Became head of state in a military coup in November 1993
– Your government is accused of widespread human rights abuses
– He died prematurely on 8 June 1998 at the age of 54
– Father of 10 children
The Attorney General issued a general warning to all Swiss banks demanding that they reveal the existence of open accounts with Abach’s names and pseudonyms.
“In 48 hours, 95% of banks and other financial institutions declared what they owned and belonged to the family.”
This will reveal a web of bank accounts worldwide.
‘Bank accounts say a lot’
“We will find out in each account where the money came from and / or where the money went. Show me the intricacies of these bank accounts gave me more information about other payments received from other countries,” says Monfrini. .
“So it was like a snowball. It started with a few beads, and then a large number of beads, which in turn created a snowball effect that was a sign of a major international operation.”
“Bank accounts and accompanying documents say a lot. We had lots of evidence of different funds and sent to Frau, Bahamas, Nassau, Cayman Islands – you name it.”
The size of Abacha’s network represents a great effort for Monfrini.
“Nobody seems to understand how much work is involved. I have to pay so many people, so many accountants, so many people in different countries.”
Monfrini agreed a 4% commission on the money sent back to Nigeria. A fee which he insists was comparatively “very cheap”.
It became relatively quick to trace the money compared to returning it to Nigeria.
“Abkas struggled fiercely. He appealed to the courts about everything we did. The process was delayed for a long time.”
Further delays occurred when Swiss politicians debated whether the money would be stolen again if it was returned.
Some money was returned from Switzerland after five years.
Monfrini wrote in 2008 that $ 508 million found in several bank accounts of the Abacha family in Switzerland was sent to Nigeria between 2005 and 2007.
In 2018, the amount returned to Nigeria exceeded 1 billion dollars.
It took longer to return the money to other countries. “Liechtenstein, for example, was a catastrophe. It was a nightmare.” In June 2014, Liechtenstein finished sending $ 277 million to Nigeria.
Six years later, in May 2020, $ 308 million held in Jersey Island accounts also returned.
It was only after the Nigerian authorities agreed that the money would be used exclusively to help build a bridge, expressway and road.
Some countries have not returned the money yet.
Monfrini still expects $ 30 million, which he says is in the UK, $ 144 million in France and another $ 18 million on the island of Jersey. “But you never know,” he says.
Overall, he says his work garnered more than $ 2.4 billion in refunds.
“Initially, people said that Abacha stole at least $ 4 billion to $ 5 billion. I don’t think that happened. I think we’ve already taken the most, which was one of the things he had. Big part. “
He heard rumors that the Abacha family is no longer wealthy. Or, as he says, “They are not swimming in money like they used to in the past.”
When he looks back, he seems satisfied with his work. “We did what was to be done.”