By Sufuyan Ojeifo
Some backgrounds are necessary for a proper understanding of the subject that I seek to herein interrogate. Nigeria’s money, looted by the late former Head of State, General Sani Abacha, and stashed in coded accounts in different jurisdictions in Europe, remains a notorious issue because of the sheer volume involved.
Although, it has been difficult to place a finger on the exact amount, reports that have done the rounds since 1999, when the administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo stepped in the saddle and committed to seek international assistance for tracing, confiscation and repatriation of the money, put out conflicting figures that have oscillated between $5 billion and $10 billion or even more.
Some countries that are beneficiaries of the criminal deposits have been reluctant to encourage full disclosures of such monies in the vaults of their banks. But for economic reasons, their systems ordinarily have the capacity to track such illicit funds. So far, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein have, to a greater extent than other jurisdictions like United Kingdom, France, US, et al, cooperated with Nigeria in tracing, confiscating and repatriating some of the looted funds.
Under the Obasanjo administration, $1.25 billion was reportedly repatriated. There are reports that about $500 million was repatriated under the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan. But the repatriated funds have become subjects of concern by the international community due to their imprudent use. The verdict out there is that the funds have either been misappropriated or re-looted by some officials of those administrations who have not been called to account.
On that score, the National Assembly has failed in its responsibility to carry out effective oversight on the expenditure of the funds. The international community has disapprovingly watched as our successive governments continue to misappropriate the funds in service of pecuniary interests. However, in order to ensure judicious use henceforth, the Swiss government and the World Bank decided to tie the repatriation of the $322.5 million to expenditure on some National Social Investment and Safety Net projects.
That was one of the primary bases of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that Switzerland, Nigeria and the World Bank signed on December 7, 2017. The global banking institution would now compulsorily monitor the projects on which the repatriated fund would be expended. The trilateral agreement in that respect resulted in the funds’ repatriation about two weeks after the signing of the MoU.
But rather than brace up to deploy its oversight power in support of the World Bank’s monitoring of the projects that the money would be deployed in, the House of Representatives has wittingly or unwittingly lent itself as an instrument of vendetta, in the hands of some vested interests, to probe the $16.9 million (representing 5 percent) professional fees on value of the repatriated loot that would be paid to some Nigerian lawyers- Mr. Dipo Okpeseyi (SAN) and Mr. Temitope Adebayo-who provided legal and other ancillary services that culminated in the signing of the MoU and the completion of the repatriation process.
Sadly, the intervention by the House was not as a result of a rigorous oversight or independent investigation. It was based on a report by an online news portal, which sought to portray the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami (SAN) and his handling of the entire repatriation process as fraught with dubiety and sleaze. The campaign to discredit Malami has become fashionable, understandably, for political reasons. Fingers of guilt are pointed at some vested interests that appear fixated about the possibility of supplanting him.
The online newspaper’s report, which was syndicated in a number of other news outlets, provided the basis for the ballyhoo that has unsettled the polity in recent times over the repatriated loot; whereas, the controversy is unnecessary. The report claimed that the Swiss lawyer, Mr. Enrico Monfrini, who began the process of repatriating the looted funds in 1999, had already completed the process; and, therefore, there was no need to engage another lawyer.
But in the same online report, Monfrini was quoted to have said that the repatriation process was not completed by him. If the process was not completed by him, it simply means that he did not complete the process as the report claimed. Monfrini is seized of the fact that the process was completed by the legal team of Okpeseyi and Adebayo who entered into a valid contract with the Nigerian government after the determination of his contract.
What should be of interest is the reason why the Nigerian government disengaged Monfrini. The Swiss lawyer had reapplied to complete the process on payment of a fresh service charge of twenty percent ($64.2 million) on the value of the money, besides the deposit on account usually about $2 million that would be paid up front. The Nigerian government counter-offered. Monfrini did not accept, thinking Nigeria was stuck with him forever.
Determined to stop the mind-boggling fleecing of Nigeria through opaque service charges by Monfrini, AGF Malami went ahead to consider the proposals by the Nigerian lawyers, mutatis mutandis, which they accepted. The Nigerian lawyers demanded deposit on account prior to commencement of services and ten 10 percent on the value of the amount to be repatriated. The AGF, according to grapevines, rejected the demand for deposit on account, on the grounds that government did not have money for that, and offered to pay them only 5 percent on the value of the money to be repatriated, which they accepted.
After Monfrini became aware of the engagement of the Nigerian lawyers, he wrote a letter in March 2016 to Malami wherein he claimed, for the first time, that his fees had already been paid in respect of the “USD 320 million (which grew to #322.5 million in deposit) recovery, so that your Government would incur no further expense from my intervention.” Monfrini’s claim that there was no need to engage the Nigerian lawyers and his admission that his fees had been paid after his application for a fresh 20 percent was rejected, amounted to a mischievous afterthought to tie the hands of the Federal Government and the repatriation process irrevocably to him.
Although, he claimed that his fees for the repatriation of the Abacha assets recovered in 2013 and 2014 in Switzerland, Liechtenstein and London which were not subject to the US freeze orders, were paid by the Attorney General of Geneva out of the Luxembourg funds in December 2014, there was nowhere in any of his correspondences with the Buhari administration where he mentioned how much he had so far received before the determination of his contract.
Interestingly, the amount that was to be repatriated from Switzerland was originally $380 million, but the former Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Mohammed Bello Adoke (SAN), according to grapevines, wrote the Attorney General of Geneva to request that certain deductions be effected from source. The belief is that $60 million must have gone into paying Monfrini and other obligations supposedly on only this tranche of the recovered assets.
I believe that what the Nigerian government did through Malami’s office was to put a stop to the opaque operations of an international cartel that had turned the process of repatriation of our looted assets into a slush fund. The House of Representatives should not have allowed itself to be misguided by Mark Gbillah’s motion, which was so hurriedly done that one cannot but insinuate influence by some external interests who, having failed to use the media to rubbish Malami and the process of repatriation, decided to resort to legislative filibustering to stall the expeditious payment of the Nigerian lawyers who had rendered genuine services and therefore deserve their wages.
Minister of Finance, Mrs. Kemi Adeosun, had issued a statement that contrary to a syndicated media report, she had not blocked payment of $16.9 million to the Nigerian lawyers and that she also did not write any “strongly-worded” letter to the president on the issue. She had confirmed that Nigeria had received the sum of $322.5 million from the Swiss government and that there was no problems whatsoever with the process and the payment due to the Nigerian lawyers.
But some back-end interests decided to use the legislature to sustain the campaign of calumny. Gbillah was such in a hurry that he adopted almost verbatim the words and claims, including defamatory lines, in the online publications. It is sad that he did not even have the equanimity to intelligently adapt the report in a decent language in moving his motion that culminated in the setting up an ad-hoc committee to probe payment to Nigerian lawyers for services rendered.
- Mr. Ojeifo, editor-in-chief of The Congresswatch magazine, contributed this piece from Abuja via firstname.lastname@example.org