The messages are familiar to almost anyone with an e- mail account. During the
early 2000s they became an international punch line. Often purporting to come
from the relative of a Nigerian government official, they requested the recipi-
ent’s help to transfer vast sums of money out of the country. In return for this as-
sistance, the recipient would receive a significant percentage of the funds being
transferred. Usually unsaid was that the money had been acquired corruptly
and that the sender needed help in avoiding the attention of law enforcement.
This high- tech update to the old Spanish Prisoner scam often appeared over the
name of Maryam Abacha, widow of General Sani Abacha, who was Nigeria’s
military head of state from 1993 until his death in 1998. General Abacha had
gained notoriety for the brutality of his regime and for personal corruption.
As Nigeria moved to civilian government after his death, various estimates
emerged of how much he and his family had taken out of the country— U.S.
$2 billion, $3 billion, $8 billion, $9 billion. The Nigerian government sought
international cooperation in 1999 to trace embezzled money, and in response
Switzerland froze nearly $700 million in Abacha family assets.1 The ensuing
drama garnered im mense press coverage, as the government repeatedly de-
tained Mrs. Abacha and members of her family, and as talks between govern-
ment lawyers, family members, international banks, and foreign governments
resulted in considerable sums repatriated. The negotiations were fraught— the
newspaper Tempo reported Mrs. Abacha was “snobbish and uncooperative”
with government negotiators2—but Mrs. Abacha became something of an in-
ternational celebrity, famous as mistress of a misappropriated fortune.
And thus the e- mails. Mrs. Abacha might not have been such a compel-
ling signatory if her husband’s regime had not already been known for human
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