When Nigeria's then-head of state Sani Abacha stole billions of dollars and died before spending his loot, it prompted an international treasure hunt spread over decades. The man hired to get the money back tells the BBC's Clare Spencer how the search took over his life.
In September 1999, Swiss lawyer Enrico Monfrini answered a phone call that would change his next 20 years.
"He called me in the middle of the night, he asked me if I could come to his hotel, he had something of importance. I said: 'It's a bit late but OK.'"
The voice on the end of the line was that of a high-ranking member of the Nigerian government.
'Can you find the money?'
Mr Monfrini says the official was sent to Geneva by the Nigerian president at the time, Olusegun Obasanjo, to recruit him to get hold of the money stolen by Abacha, who ruled from 1993 until his death in 1998.
As a lawyer, Mr Monfrini had built up a Nigerian client base since the 1980s, working in coffee, cocoa and other commodities.
He suspects those clients recommended him.
"He asked me: 'Can you find the money and can you block the money? Can you arrange that this money be returned to Nigeria?'
"I said: 'Yes.' But in fact I didn't know much about the work at that time. And I had to learn very quickly, so I did."
o get started, the Nigerian police handed him the details of a few closed Swiss bank accounts, which appeared to be holding some of the money Abacha and his associates had stolen, Mr Monfrini wrote in the book Recovering Stolen Assets.
He said that a preliminary investigation published by the police in November 1998 found that more than $1.5bn (£1.1bn) was stolen by Abacha and his associates.
'Dollars by the truckload'
One of the methods used for accumulating such a colossal sum was particularly brazen.
Abacha would tell an adviser to make a request to him for money for a vague security issue.
He then signed off the request which the adviser would then take to the central bank, which would hand out the money, often in cash.
The adviser would then take most of that money to Abacha's house.
Some was even taken in dollar notes "by the truckload", Mr Monfrini wrote.
This was just one way Abacha and his associates stole huge amounts of money. Other methods ranged from awarding state contracts to friends at highly inflated prices and then pocketing the difference and demanding foreign companies pay huge kickbacks to operate in the country.
This went on for around three years until everything changed when Abacha died suddenly, aged 54, on 8 June 1998.
It is unclear whether he had had a heart attack or was poisoned because there was no post-mortem, his personal doctor told the BBC.
Abacha died before spending the stolen billions and a few bank details served as clues as to where that money was stashed.
"The documents showing the history of the accounts gave me a few links to other accounts," said Mr Monfrini.
Armed with this information he took the issue to the Swiss attorney general.
And then came a breakthrough.
Mr Monfrini successfully argued that the Abacha family and their associates formed a criminal organisation.
This was key because it opened up more options for how the authorities could deal with their bank accounts.
The attorney general issued a general alert to all the banks in Switzerland demanding that they disclose the existence of any accounts opened under the Abachas' names and aliases.
"In 48 hours, 95% of the banks and other financial institutions declared what they had which seemed to belong to the family."
This would uncover a web of bank accounts all over the world.
"Banks would deliver documents to the prosecutor in Geneva and I would do the job of the prosecutor because he didn't have time to do it," Mr Monfrini told the BBC.
'Bank accounts talk a lot'
"We would find out on each account exactly where the money came from and/or where the money went to.
"Showing the ins and outs on these bank accounts gave me further information regarding other payments received from other countries and sent to other countries.
"So it was like a snowball. It started with a few accounts, and then a large amount of accounts, which in turn created a snowball effect indicating a huge international operation.
"Bank accounts and the documents that go with them talk a lot.
"We had so much proof of different money being sent here and there, Bahamas, Nassau, Cayman Islands - you name it."
The size of the Abacha network meant a huge effort for Mr Monfrini.
"Nobody seems to understand how much work it entails. I have to pay so many people, so many accountants, so many other lawyers in different countries."
Mr Monfrini had agreed a commission of 4% on the money sent back to Nigeria. A rate he insists was comparably "very cheap".
Finding the money turned out to be relatively quick in comparison to getting it returned to Nigeria.
"The Abachas were fighting like dogs. They were appealing about everything we did. This delayed the process for a very long time."
Further delays came as Swiss politicians argued over whether the money would just be stolen again if it was returned.
Some money was returned from Switzerland after five years.
Mr Monfrini wrote in 2008 that $508m found in the Abacha family's many Swiss bank accounts was sent from Switzerland to Nigeria between 2005 and 2007.
By 2018, the amount Switzerland had returned to Nigeria had reached more than $1bn.
Other countries were slower to return the cash.
"Liechtenstein, for instance, was a catastrophe. It was a nightmare."
In June 2014, Liechtenstein did eventually send Nigeria $277m.
Six years later, in May 2020, $308m held in accounts based in the Channel Island of Jersey was also returned to Nigeria. This only came after the Nigerian authorities agreed that the money would be used, specifically, to help finance the construction of the Second Niger Bridge, the Lagos-Ibadan expressway and the Abuja-Kano road.
Some countries are yet to return the loot.
Mr Monfrini is still expecting $30m he says is sitting in the UK to be returned, along with $144m in France and a further $18m in Jersey.
That should be it, "but you never know", he says.
In total, he says his work secured the restitution of just more than $2.4bn.
"At the beginning people said Abacha stole at least $4-$5bn. 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."
He has heard rumours that the Abacha family are not so wealthy any more.
Or, as he puts it: "They are not swimming in money like they used to do in the past."
When he looks back, he seems satisfied with his work.
"When I speak to my very many children about this case, I tell them I found money and I blocked the money, I persuaded the authorities to go after these people and get the money back to the country for the good of the Nigerian people.
"We did the job."
In November 2017 Zimbabwe’s military replaced Robert Mugabe as head of state with his long-time confidante Emmerson Mnangagwa. He declared Zimbabwe “open for business”, linking foreign relations with economic policy. As he stated
We look forward to playing a positive and constructive role as a free, democratic, transparent and responsible member of the family of nations.
International expectations (more so than those among local people) looked forward to translating these promises into policy. This was despite the fact that Mugabe’s departure had been anything but democratic.
But there have been few if any changes in Zimbabwe’s political trajectory. A deepening economic crisis combined with a brutal crackdown on the government’s domestic opponents has resulted in disappointments.
On the foreign policy front Mnangagwa has fared no better. In a recently published analysis we examine the status of Zimbabwe’s foreign policy. We identify what’s gone wrong in its efforts at rapprochement with Western countries in a bid to get sanctions lifted, and why its efforts at cosying up to China haven’t gone to plan either.
We conclude that Mnangagwa’s hopes of reorienting Zimbabwe’s foreign policy have been confounded by his government’s own actions. Its repressive response to mounting economic and political crisis increased rather than diminished its isolation. The more the Mnangagwa government fails to engage democratically with its own citizens, the more it will negate any prospect of re-engagement.
Relations with its neighbours
Since the Mugabe era the African Union and Southern African Development Community (SADC) have been tolerant of the Zanu-PF regime’s politics.
SADC’s annual summit in 2019 demanded an end to Western sanctions. But the continued repressive nature of Mnangagwa’s regime is not making this loyalty easy.
Tensions have begun to show. In August 2020, South Africa dispatched official envoys to Harare to press for restraint on the Mnangagwa government in its actions against opposition figures. The envoys weren’t greeted warmly. Instead they were subjected to a presidential harangue and denied the opportunity to meet the opposition.
A subsequent mission by South Africa’s governing party the African National Congress (ANC), acting as a fellow liberation movement, was as shoddily treated.
South Africa’s patience may be wearing thin. But, for its part, the Southern African Development Community has preferred to officially ignore developments by remaining silent. But while “business as usual” translates into continued political loyalty, it does not translate into increased economic collaboration.
Two decades ago the US and European Union imposed sanctions on those linked to the government in response to human rights abuses. Mugabe’s regime reacted by blaming its economic woes on the West. Mnangagwa decried sanctions as western attempts to bring about “regime change”.
In contrast, the EU demonstrated more willingness to reengage with Harare. In October 2019 the EU announced an aid package, bringing support during the year to €67.5 million. Aid to Zimbabwe since 2014 stood at €287 million in 2020. This made the EU Zimbabwe’s biggest donor. To ease the woes of the COVID-19 pandemic, it added another €14.2 million humanitarian assistance in 2020.
Mnangagwa, however, continued to blame the West for sanctions he compared with cancer. Responding to criticism the EU declared
Zimbabwe is not where it is because of the so-called sanctions, but years of mismanagement of the economy and corruption.
Similarly, the US Ambassador dismissed “any responsibility for the catastrophic state of the economy and the government’s abuse of its own citizens”.
US Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Jim Risch called upon the Southern African Development Community’s 16 members states to
The deterioration of Zimbabwe’s relations with the West coincided with growing Chinese interest in access to African resources for its own rapidly expanding industries. Zimbabwe’s growing isolation offered a convenient entry point.
But, China’s greater involvement was spurred less by solidarity than by self-interest. And it’s singular importance in throwing a life-line to the Zimbabwean regime in need gave it enormous influence in directing the collaboration. Failure to mend relations with the West and other global institutions leaves Zimbabwe with no other partners for development and cooperation, thus vulnerable to manipulation by China.
An initial honeymoon started at the turn of the century, after Zimbabwe became isolated from the West through its fast-track land reform of 2000, and the increased repression of the political opposition. But China became increasingly concerned about Mugabe’s indigenisation policy. With Chinese companies the largest foreign direct investors, the announced enforcement of the 51% Zimbabwean ownership in assets exceeding US$ 500,000 from April 2016 caused discomfort.
Mnangagwa’s elevation to the presidency may have received China’s blessing as the best option available. Nonetheless, strains soon appeared. When it became increasingly apparent that Zimbabwe was unable to service its debts, China wrote off some of the liabilities in 2018.
What particularly rankled Beijing was that Harare’s incapacity to pay its debts was deemed to be due to the government’s misappropriation or misuse of Chinese funds. Accordingly, there was need to tighten controls. This culminated in the signing of a currency swap deal in January 2020.
Back in mid-2019 China’s embassy in Harare had already stressed that development relied mainly on a country’s own efforts. It expressed hope that the Zimbabwean side would continue to create a more favourable environment for all foreign direct investment, including Chinese enterprises.
Indications suggest that China’s patience with the ailing Zimbabwean “all weather friend” is wearing thinner. The new economic challenges following the COVID-19 pandemic might have shifted priorities in global supply chains. This is also affecting the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s massive global infrastructure project. This might reduce interest in what Zimbabwe has to offer by way of natural resources.
No stability, no money, few friends?
Zimbabwean foreign policy remains locked in the parameters of recent times past: looking to regional solidarity, estranged from the West, and increasingly dependent on China.
Yet China has its own very clearly defined interests. These focus on resource extraction in mining and agriculture for its own domestic economy. As a strategic and developmental partner, Zimbabwe is of minor interest.
Chinese-Zimbabwean relations serve an elite in the Zanu-PF government. They are accused of “asset stripping”. They exclude any oversight, civil society involvement, and lack transparency and accountability. The absence of visible benefits for ordinary Zimbabweans has engendered anti-Chinese sentiments.
Having failed to restore friendly relations with the West, and its “look east policy” not bearing fruits, has left the Mnangagwa regime with few options. Russia has entered the arena, showing increased interest in the extractive industries, arms trade and political fraternisation.
This sounds not much like an alternative to the current ties with China. The bedfellows remain more than less of the same. And an old adage comes to mind: with friends like these one does not need enemies.