Mar. 10 (GIN) – Four years ago, at a conference in Lagos, three eminent leaders took a swipe at the increasing rate of corruption in Nigeria.

“Nigeria is too rich for any of its citizens to be poor… Nigerians must rise up immediately to fight the scourge of corruption ravaging the country.” That was the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Concurring with Jackson were Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka and Lord Paul Boateng, the UK’s first black minister.

It’s a “heinous crime against the nation that must be tackled by every means possible,” said Soyinka, “before it destroys the value and sense of nationhood.”

All would be heartbroken today upon hearing of the latest heist from Nigeria’s coffers – over half a billion dollars – reportedly moved to foreign bank accounts by Sani Abacha, a former president, his son and an associate.

The Nigerian funds were located by the U.S. Dept. of Justice which has been taking action against money laundering that, in this case, involved the purchase of U.S. bonds backed by the United States using US financial institutions.

Gen. Abacha, a military loyalist, seized power in 1993 after cancelling presidential elections and sidelining Chief Moshood Abiola, the presumed winner of the 1993 vote.

“General Abacha was one of the most notorious kleptocrats in memory, who embezzled billions from the people of Nigeria while millions lived in poverty,” said U.S. Acting Assistant Attorney General Mythili  Raman.  In addition, he restricted civil liberties and continuously purged the military of “enemies.” Most controversially, he ordered the execution of poet and community organizer Ken Saro-Wiwa and others protesting the pollution of the Niger Delta region. All were hanged despite a worldwide campaign to save their lives.

This month, paradoxically, Abacha was among 25 chosen by President Goodluck Jonathan for the national centenary award honoring outstanding Nigerians alive or dead. Three recipients promptly rejected the prize including Soyinka and the family of famed singer/songwriter Fela Kuta.

An aide to President Jonathan defended the award to Abacha. “The centenary award is not a test of sainthood … the committee in charge made it very clear that the award in the category in which the former Head of State appeared was awarded with regard to the contributions of those individuals in keeping Nigeria together. “

Allegations of money laundering and forfeiture of money was another matter entirely, he said, in which the government was also interested.

Other strong objections to the Abacha award included SERAP (Socio-Economic Right Accountability Project): “The award to the late military dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha… cannot be justified on any ground and in fact sends the message that corruption pays.”

Professor Peregrino Brimah at Medgar Evers College and the State University of NY, Downstate Medical, wrote in “Giving an award to a thief is not only a national insult, it is treason… This is no longer an issue of ethnic groupings or religious differences. This is wickedness to the poor, the dead and dying… There is no room in our national honor rolls for these thieves. This is not an example to be given to our kids or an image to be broadcast of our nation.”