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From The Archives: How Gwarzo Ran Looting Errands For Abacha


The Confessions of Gwarzo

The former National Security Adviser [NSA] has opened more cans of worms on General Abacha’s looting spree. 

His testimony is the jugular of the government case against Mohammed, the dictator’s son, who will face trial for his role in the looting.

On November 30, 1996, a year after the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Ogoni nationalist hero, Mohammed, eldest surviving son of General Sani Abacha, was sent on an important errand by his father.

On November 30, 1996, a year after the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Ogoni nationalist hero, Mohammed, eldest surviving son of General Sani Abacha, was sent on an important errand by his father. 

It was a routine job that Abacha, Nigerian dictator since he seized power from the regime of Ernest Shonekan, considered very important and could only be carried out by his son. 

Mohammed soon hurried to the official residence of Ismaila Gwarzo, former police commissioner who was Abacha’s national security adviser, NSA. Mohammed was accompanied by a trusted aide of his father, Zazzawa Zafara. 

The two were soon at Gwarzo’s residence where they met the highly expectant NSA. Everyone was happy. Gwarzo soon handed over to the First Son, the official title of Mohammed in the warped lingo of the Abacha court, the carefully packed bales of American dollars.

The trusted loaders soon concluded their job and the bullion van roared off with its cargo of $50 million (N5 billion) to Aso Rock Villa, the official residence of Abacha. Mission accomplished. 

The $50 million haul is one of the evidence of direct looting of the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, that the prosecution is going to confront Mohammed Abacha with when his trial and that of others open in Abuja this week. 

F. N. Molokwu, the federal Director of Public Prosecution, DPP, has already filed a 30-count charge of stealing and receiving stolen goods against Mohammed, whom the prosecution is determined to reveal as the willing instrument of treasury looting by his father.

For the trial, the government has assembled many witnesses, including several men who participated in the carting away of billions of dollars and pounds from the CBN. 

Those who may testify for the prosecution include officials of the CBN, drivers who helped bring the crates of crisp currencies and the sundry labourers who helped re-bag the money in the sprawling compound of Gwarzo. 

It was in the re-bagged form that the money would be taken to Aso Rock, and Mohammed would help channel the money to the many shell companies abroad maintained by what investigators called “The Abacha Criminal Organisation.” 

So far, only 52 of those companies have been discovered.

The prosecution is going to rely heavily on the testimony to be given by Gwarzo, according to competent sources at the Aso Rock Presidential Villa, Abuja. 

Though he was unable to remember many of the details, he was said to have listed at least 15 instances when money was taken directly from the CBN and handed over to Mohammed, who received on behalf of his father. 

The lowest sum ever collected was $1.21 million on March 6, 1997. The highest, according to Gwarzo, was £147 million collected from the CBN on April 29, 1997. The money was taken out in cash.

The November 30, 1996 heist, which was $50 million, was only one of many instances that typified the way Gwarzo helped Abacha to plunder the CBN. 

A week earlier, Gwarzo, following a discussion with Abacha, had applied to the dictator for the sum of $100 million (N10 billion) for spurious security operations abroad against the activities of the opposition National Democratic Coalition, NADECO. 

Abacha, in mock modesty, approved only $50 million.

With the instrument of Abacha’s approval in his hand, Gwarzo now directed his aide, Abdulganiyu Lawan, to go and meet Paul Ogwuma, the governor of the CBN. 

Lawan was well known to Ogwuma who as soon as he collected the paper and was satisfied that it was Abacha’s signature, quickly gave the necessary instructions.

The men who carried out Ogwuma’s instructions were the staff of the Foreign Exchange Department of the CBN. The pointmen there were A. Yabugi and Gregory Egentih. 

These two men supervised the loading of the money from the vaults into the bullion vans waiting with armed guards. 

The vans, as usual, sped to the home of Gwarzo, who was also waiting to receive his emissary. Lawan delivered the haul to his boss. A team was already waiting: the re-bagging team.

According to the instructions of Abacha, he would not accept the money in CBN sacks and wrappers. Therefore, Gwarzo had a team, supervised by Lawan, who did the re-bagging. 

There were five regulars in the re-bagging squad. These are Aruba Ajijola, Bulama Mohammed, a police inspector, Michael George, Alhaji Audu and Francis Gagere. 

They pursued their assignment with dispatch, and, soon, the money was wearing a new wrapper for onward movement to Aso Rock.

The operation was a truly successful one. 

According to evidence that may be presented in court at the trial of Mohammed, Gwarzo, within a period of 16 months, June 1996 and October 1997, sent Lawan to collect $456.5 million (N45.65 billion) and £232 million.

The money was taken away in cash. He also collected $37.6 million and £2 million in travellers’ cheques. 

Gwarzo’s driver, Onoja Michael, always led the convoy to the CBN, Abuja, and he usually participated in the re-bagging work.

Competent sources said Gwarzo had confessed that the looting festival was initiated by the dictator himself. 

Abacha had called Gwarzo, shortly after his regime came to power, stating that the NSA should advise him on how to put away substantial “golden eggs” in foreign banks. 

This, the dictator explained to Gwarzo, is because of “the uncertainties associated with governance in Nigeria and Africa.” The two men held series of discussions. 

Arrangements were made with foreign banks and interested international wheeler-dealers were contacted to help set up shell companies and open offshore accounts in mostly outlaw countries.

Abacha approved his two sons, Ibrahim, who was to die later in a plane crash in January 1996, and Mohammed, as his representatives. 

Gwarzo was to deal with these two young men, who were to collect the ‘harvest’ on behalf of their father and help him channel the money abroad.

In February 1995, the ‘Abacha Looting Brigade’ visited the CBN twice. On February 15, 1995, the brigade took $4 million and £2 million from the CBN. 

The operation was led by Lawan, who brought the money to Gwarzo’s residence. The money was re-bagged and delivered to Aso Rock. 

Those who took delivery on behalf of Abacha were his son, Mohammed, and his trusted aide, Zafara. 

By February 17, 1995, members of the brigade were back again at the CBN. This time, they carted away $4 million and £2 million for the second time. 

The brigade, after that, according to the statement of Gwarzo, bided its time until December 1995, when it carted $5 million from the apex bank.

In 1996, apart from the $50 million mentioned above, Abacha also raided the CBN two other times. 

The first time was in March, when the gang made away with $5 million and £3 million. The second time was in September 1996, when Gwarzo presented to the governor of the CBN Abacha’s authority to take away $5 million and £5 million. 

Sorry, he was told, the CBN was short of cash, especially pound sterling. Would Gwarzo take dollars in exchange, the CBN implored him? 

Abacha was quickly contacted, and he gave the go-ahead, saying he could be paid in any hard currency, the equivalent of what he had requested. The entire sum was then paid in dollars, totalling $12.5 million. 

On December 11, 1996, the gang was back again at the CBN, carting away $50 million and £30 million.

By 1997, some top staff of the CBN were asking for “proper authorisation” for the carting away of these cash on the ground of security. 

Anthony Ani, the minister of finance, dutifully informed Ogwuma of the CBN, instructing him about the need to co-operate in the interest of national security. 

That opened the floodgates!

On April 22, 1997, the seventh anniversary of the bloody putsch against the dictatorship of General Ibrahim Babangida, Abacha withdrew $60 million from the CBN. 

Three months later, the ogre was back again at the vault of the CBN, carting away another $60 million and $30 million on July 7, 1997.

The biggest harvest for that year was on November 26, 1997, when $120 million and £50 million were carted away from the CBN.

They were dutifully delivered at Gwarzo’s residence, re-bagged and handed over to Mohammed at the Aso Rock Villa. 

Though after many sessions of interrogation, Gwarzo said he could only remember some of their operations, Mohammed even fared worse. 

He told his interrogators that he could only remember two or three instances when he collected money from Gwarzo on behalf of his father. 

And what his father gave him, as far he was concerned, was a paltry sum on each occasion. Once, he was broke and he needed some pocket money. 

He approached his father over this little problem. The doting father dashed into his room and quickly gave his son $2 million. 

Mohammed said the money was small all right, but it was enough to solve his immediate problems. 

He took the $2 million to Ahmadu Daura, the proprietor of Sunshine Bureau de Change, Apapa, Lagos, who helped him change it to naira (about N200 million).

“The source of the money that was exchanged was from parts of the money delivered to my father by Alhaji Gwarzo,” he said. “I requested the amount from him (Abacha) and he gave it to me.”

With the mountain of naira in his possession, Mohammed was able to settle bills at some of his companies, including Systems Engineering in Abuja, Selcom Aluminium in Lagos and a property company in Lagos and Abuja. 

On other fronts, Mohammed maintained consistently that he could not remember much.

He could not remember also details of many local and foreign accounts to which he was a signatory, either singly or in conjunction with his siblings, especially Abba, his sister, Zainab, and his business collaborator, Abubakar Bagudu. 

He could only remember some of his bank accounts held with the Midland Bank London, Citibank, London, and Union Bank, also in London. 

“I believe I have about three accounts in London and one or two accounts held in Paris,” he was said to have told investigators. “The other accounts are jointly held by me and Mr. Bagudu.”

Of the numerous cases of direct looting from the Central Bank in which he was involved, he said he could not remember those details. 

Said he: “I remember that I collected certain amounts of money from Alhaji Gwarzo about twice or so in his residence for onward delivery to my father.”

He told investigators, however, that the Abacha organisation has an account with Inland Bank, and that the bank helped in transferring huge sums of money abroad to many Shell companies. 

He said, however, that he was not sure whether his brother, Ibrahim, had an account with the bank, or whether he was, indeed, a part owner of the bank through a front.

Notwithstanding his denials, investigators, discovered that Mohammed was the sole signatory to five overseas accounts apart from the ones he confessed to. 

These are his accounts with:

Bankers Trust Company, New York; 

Bankers Trust Company in London; 

Bankers Trust International Frankfurt, Germany; 

Citibank N. A., Milano, Italy; and,

Norbanken in Stockholm, Sweden.

While the prosecution has an array of evidence against him, it has decided to concentrate on the operations for 1997 alone.

That year, from February 18 to December 18, Mohammed received money from the CBN on behalf of his father 15 times. 

On June 30, 1997, the gang took £4.9 million. 

On August 8, it was $10 million that was delivered to Abacha and Sons and, on October 18, it was £12.3 million.

The most profitable month so far was October 1997, when the gang visited the CBN several times. The October harvest started on October 18, with a £12.3 million haul. 

Three days later, Abacha’s men were back, taking away £5.8 million from the CBN vaults on October 21, 1997. Forty-eight hours later, the gang was back again, carting away £14.7 million. 

The month ended with a harvest of £11.7 million that was carted away on October 29, 1997.

Though the government believes it has an iron-cast case against Mohammed and other members of the Abacha family, it is reluctant to go the whole hog.

The federal government’s team is still negotiating with the Abacha’s lawyers over the return of the loot that has been discovered so far. 

While the Abacha family is ready to part with as much as 60 per cent of the money, President Olusegun Obasanjo is insisting on 100 per cent. 

Investigators believe that they are yet to discover a substantial part of the money and that huge sums are still being kept in hidden bank accounts scattered all over the world in the names of shell companies and trusted fronts.

With so much money at stake, Mariam, the widow of the dictator and matriarch of the Abacha family, has already given instructions to her lawyers to file cases in court to challenge the federal government. 

She wants the court to stop the trial of Mohammed and her other children. 

She, too, is facing indictment over money she made through the multi-billion naira Family Support Programme, FSP, which she founded and substantially ran as a private empire.

There are indications that the government may not yield ground to the Abachas’ lawyers, considering information from the international community. 

Already, leaders of Western countries have pointedly told President Obasanjo that he must show seriousness in combating crime of looting of the public treasury. 

There is also pressure on Obasanjo to deal with those in his government and in the legislature who might have facilitated the looting of the Abacha era. 

Two senators have already been indicted and one of his ministers was said to have helped Abacha to launder his money when the minister was the managing director of Inland Bank.

According to sources, Gwarzo’s confessions of his role in the large-scale looting by the late dictator have been most helpful to government investigators in unravelling the complex web of plundering Abacha put in place, and all those involved in it. 

Without his cooperation, the government may not have succeeded so far, in its battle to recover the monies Abacha, his family and his gang stole. 

Gwarzo’s reward is his promotion to a prosecution witness. This and his fragile health may eventually earn him a reprieve from trial.

The Abachas’ case may then only be a test-run for many legal battles in front of President Obasanjo. 

Already, many of those who have been indicted, including senators and several businessmen, have returned parts of their loot in exchange for amnesty. 

Though Obasanjo has been glad to receive the returned loot, he is still facing pressure from powerful forces within his administration to bring such corrupt top Nigerians, including his minister, to trial.

Culled from TELL edition of August 7, 2000; send eyewitness accounts/reports/articles to publisher@elombah.com; follow us on twitter @Elombah; like our Facebook page: Elombah.com; join us on WhatsApp HERE

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