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Nigeria Demands Return of Looted Money

Nigeria is accusing the Swiss government of delaying the return of looted funds while asking for the repatriation of Nigerian criminals. Swiss officials have denied the accusation. They say the process of returning the money stolen under a former military ruler is being handled by the World Bank.

Switzerland's ministry of justice is handling the return of $460 million stolen by the late General Sani Abacha. A ministry spokesman, Livio Zanolari, says his government is doing everything it can to get the money back to the Nigerian people.

Mr. Zanolari says Switzerland has placed no conditions on the return of the money, now in Swiss bank accounts. He says any delays are simply a question of carrying out monitoring requirements in cooperation with the World Bank, which is overseeing the process.

The reaction by the Swiss government comes just days after Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo accused Swiss authorities of stalling the return of the funds and demanding the return of Nigerian citizens suspected of committing crimes in Switzerland.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo
"They have even resorted to blackmail to the ridiculous extent of giving conditions for us to repatriate Nigerians alleged to have run afoul of their laws before releasing our money,” said Mr. Obasanjo. There can be absolutely no connection between the return of stolen funds and the repatriation of random nationals."

Though the justice ministry spokesman, Mr. Zanolari, says the two governments have discussed the repatriation of suspected Nigerian criminals in the past, he says there is no connection with the Abacha money.

In Nigeria, Mr. Obasanjo's comments, which were broadcast on national television and radio Sunday, left many, like Lagos engineer Femi Oyebode, angry and resentful. Mr. Oyebode points to the Swiss Supreme Court's decision to return the money, saying the country's government has no right to hold the funds.

"The Swiss government is not being fair to Nigeria, in the fact that, if their own Supreme Court has ordered the release of [those] funds, I believe it should be released. I believe that Nigerian money belongs to Nigeria. Period," said Mr. Oyebode.

Nigeria accuses General Abacha, who seized power in a 1993 coup, of stealing over $2 billion from government coffers during his five years in power and hiding it in foreign bank accounts.

President Obasanjo, who was elected in 1999, has been pushing for the money's return as part of an anti-corruption drive.

So far, Switzerland has returned around $215 million of the more than $700 million it froze after General Abacha's death in 1998.