Mohammed Abacha helped his father steal billions of dollars from Nigeria’s public coffers, international investigators say. Now he’s been selected to run for high office in Africa’s biggest economy.
The 54-year-old, who US prosecutors and a Nigerian probe say helped the late dictator Sani Abacha to embezzle about $2.3 billion in the 1990s, is seeking to become governor of northern Nigeria’s commercial hub. He’s one of at least four candidates from families with members accused of looting large sums from the state — from millions to billions of dollars — that won primaries held by the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party last month, and could win in February’s elections.
Good-governance experts said their primary wins add to a long history of impunity among political families in Africa’s biggest crude producer. Mohammed Abacha, who has long denied allegations of wrongdoing, didn’t respond to requests for comment by phone, email and text message.
“It shows how permissive we are as a society of corruption and looting,” said Ayisha Osori, a director at the Open Society Foundations who unsuccessfully sought to represent the then ruling PDP in elections held in 2015. “The children of these people see Nigeria as the goose that lays the golden eggs.”
Mohammed Abacha, who is running for governor of Kano state, was a key member of the group that enabled his father to steal about $2.3 billion, according to US prosecutors and a probe ordered by Sani Abacha’s successor, General Abdulsalami Abubakar. Investigators in numerous countries including Nigeria, the US, the UK and Switzerland have spent years tracking down the estimated $3 billion to $5 billion Sani Abacha is alleged to have stolen in total during his brutal five-year rule.
More than $700 million of those funds were delivered “in bags or boxes full of cash” to the younger Abacha, who arranged for the money to be transferred to bank accounts he held overseas, the US Justice Department alleged in a 2013 asset-seizure case that is ongoing. They said his partner in shifting the money abroad was Abubakar Bagudu, who is currently governor of the northwestern Kebbi state and next year will vie for a seat in the Senate for the ruling All Progressives Congress.
Mohammed Abacha and Bagudu said that they were holding the public money received in cash in foreign bank accounts “for state and security purposes” and that they have repaid the funds to the state, according to a 2001 court case in the UK. He has argued in court in Nigeria and the UK that other transactions he was involved in weren’t corrupt.
Mohammed Abacha was released from prison in 2002 after three years in pre-trial detention on corruption charges related to his father. In 2014, the Nigerian government dropped a court case against him over receiving stolen property linked to his father, arguing the decision would facilitate ongoing recovery efforts. He, one of his brothers and Bagudu had returned more than $700 million to Nigeria by 2008, according to an article published that year by Enrico Monfrini, a Swiss lawyer who was hired by Nigeria to get back the money. The Nigerian government subsequently secured multiple deals with foreign countries to recover hundreds of millions of dollars the Abachas moved overseas.
Another PDP candidate, Erhiatake Ibori-Suenu, 42, defeated the incumbent for the right to run for a federal House of Representatives constituency in Delta state, where her father was governor for eight years from 1999. A UK court sentenced James Ibori to 13 years in prison in 2012 after he pleaded guilty to defrauding Delta of $50 million. At the time, the judge said the sum the ex-governor admitted to stealing was “ludicrously low” and prosecutors estimated the real figure at about $250 million. Ibori-Suenu has never been accused of any wrongdoing.
Ibori, who returned to Nigeria in 2017 after being released, remains highly influential in his home region and recently campaigned for his daughter, who has been a member of the state assembly in Delta since 2015.
Ibori-Suenu didn’t respond to requests for comment via her official Facebook page or an email sent to a charitable foundation she founded. A UK law firm representing Ibori didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“Politics in Nigeria remains largely a criminal enterprise,” said Jibrin Ibrahim, director at the Centre for Democracy and Development in Abuja, the capital. “Those people who have been in power and accumulated vast resources through corruption are in a position to promote their children to get into political office.”
Ibori-Suenu’s prospects of triumphing in the election appear better than those of Mohammed Abacha, who is likely to face two strong challengers. Ibori’s daughter is an “entrepreneur” and “politician,” according to her foundation’s website. Mohammed Abacha, who lives in Kano and Abuja, describes himself as “businessman” and rarely appears in public. He failed to secure a party ticket to compete for the governorship of his state on two previous occasions.
The children of two other former governors — Sule Lamido and Ayodele Fayose, who ran Jigawa and Ekiti states, respectively — were also chosen to run for federal office for the PDP next year. Both ex-governors are currently on trial in Nigeria, accused by the country’s anti-corruption agency of stealing millions of dollars while in office. Mustapha Lamido, who will contest the Jigawa governorship, has been charged alongside his father. Both ex-governors have argued that their prosecutions are politically motivated.
Mustapha Lamido didn’t respond to a request for comment. Bloomberg’s efforts to contact Oluwajomiloju Fayose, who isn’t involved in his father’s legal troubles, were unsuccessful. Lawyers for both of their fathers didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Politics “becomes the family business,” said Osori. “Nigeria and its common resources become the family’s business.”