A Nigerian delegation is to visit Switzerland next week to collect $618 million believed stolen from state coffers by previous military governments.

According to Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the $618 million will be channeled into the 2004 budget. Minister Okonjo-Iweala said budget reforms had been put in place in Nigeria to ensure that funds would be directed to priority areas, such as health, education and the agricultural sector.

Such assurances were sought by the Swiss government as a condition to releasing the money.

Since coming to power in 1998, President Olusegun Obasanjo has steadfastly pursued the return of millions of dollars he says were looted from the government by previous military regimes. Nigeria believes that former military dictator, General Sani Abacha, stashed as much as $3 billion in Swiss bank accounts.

Investigators in Nigeria found that 30 major banks in Britain, Germany, Switzerland and the United States have received General Abacha's stolen millions.

Nigeria is rich in oil, but most of its people live in poverty. Plundering of the treasury by a succession of dictators and their cronies has not only emptied the state treasury, it also drove away potential foreign investors.

Short of cash, Nigeria has amassed a $30 billion foreign debt and now spends more on servicing its debt than it does on education.

President Obasanjo has repeatedly asked Western creditors for debt relief on the grounds that much of the previous lending went to enriching the corrupt leaders, not benefiting the people.