By Femi Ayelabowo
I just finished reading a syndicated story in some online news portals of April 9, 2018 with the headline: â€˜Abacha Loot: Adeosun blocks $17m dubious payment to Malamiâ€™s lawyers.â€™ From the headline, the objective of the report was clear: to assert that the payment of $17 million to the lawyers that the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami (SAN), engaged as consultants to complete the process of repatriation of the $321 million Abacha loot confiscated by the Swiss government, was tantamount to re-looting the loot.
According to the report, the Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun, had refused to approve the payment. In addition, she was reported to have written â€œa strong-worded letter to President Muhammadu Buhari to raise objections to the payment following revelations on the suspected sleaze.â€
The minister on Tuesday denied the report calling it false and baseless.
â€œMy attention has been drawn to false media reports of a â€˜strong-worded letter to the presidentâ€ objecting to the payment of $16.9 million fees to two lawyers for the recovery of Abacha funds,â€ she had said.
One cannot take the claim in the report that the payment is dubious hook, line and sinker as the evangelical truth until the Nigerian Government says so.
Therefore, this may just be an imprudent campaign of calumny to discredit the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation, Mr. Malami (SAN), lawyers that were engaged in the repatriation of the fund and the entire process itself. Interestingly, the report in another area referred to what it called â€œsuspected sleazeâ€. Again, what that means is that the writer is not sure yet that the transaction was sleazy or he was probably trying to play safe.
Noticeably, the pieces of information contained in the report are not entirely new. A greater part has been a rehash in the past few weeks of syndication in some sections of the media, possibly, in furtherance of some ends. What, however, appears new is the reported claim that the Swiss lawyer, Enrico Monfrini, who started the process of tracing, confiscation and repatriation of the looted funds since 1999, that he did not ask the Nigerian government for additional fees to complete the process of repatriating the $321 million.
Whereas, his alleged request for a fresh 20 per cent professional fees on the money and his refusal to accept five per cent that the Nigerian government was ready to pay, was the reason Malami engaged the services of two Nigerian lawyers, Mr. Oladipo Okpeseyi (SAN) and Temitope Adebayo to complete the process of the repatriation of the remaining $321 million from Switzerland; Monfriniâ€™s purported response in the report that he did not make any such request must be subjected to further confirmation and interrogation.
What could be deduced from the purported Monfriniâ€™s statement is that he had been paid his fees by the federal government. If he had been paid his fee, why did he not complete the process? Consider his purported e-mail response to an enquiry: â€œI never had the audacity to claim for additional fees. This figure of 20% is simply invented. I didnâ€™t reject any proposal made by Mr. Malami since my fees were already paid a long time before Mr. Malamiâ€™s appointment as attorney general….
â€œThe repatriation of the $321 million was not completed by me. Itâ€™s a matter which is normally dealt between governments and which doesnâ€™t entail the engagement of lawyers. I have no idea of the whereabouts of these $321 million. I know that they have been restituted to Nigeria by the Swiss government a few months ago. On the other hand, I donâ€™t know why it took about three years for the two governments to agree that said restitution should be monitored by World Bank since this concept was created by me some 15 years ago.â€
A careful deconstruction of Monfriniâ€™s statements brings out some salient points, to wit: one, that Malami did not make any proposal to him; two, that the repatriation of the $321 million was not completed by him; three, that it is a matter which is normally dealt with between governments and which does not entail the engagement of lawyers; and fourth, that he did not know why it took about three years for the two governments to agree that the said restitution should be monitored by World Bank.
Now, to rebut Monfriniâ€™s claim, it behoves Malami to provide documents evidencing offer and counter offer. This is the time to go beyond Monfriniâ€™s words. That will clear the fog on that aspect. If according to Monfrini, the repatriation of the $321 million was not completed by him, it means he did not complete the transaction for which he had been paid. Why did he keep mute when he realised that his assignment had been determined unceremoniously? That questions Monfriniâ€™s integrity. He should have taken steps to advert the attention of the Swiss government, Nigerian government and the World Bank to the development to safeguard due process.
So, from Monfriniâ€™s admittance that he did not complete the process, it could be inferred that some other persons completed the process. From an earlier article I read on this issue, it was clear that the team of legal consultants led by Dipo Okpeseyi (SAN) helped to complete the process. They reportedly provided the services that conduced to the proposition and vetting of additional documents to the MoU listing the social safety net projects that the repatriated fund would be spent on under the monitoring of the World Bank. And this perhaps answers Monfriniâ€™s poser as to why it took about three years for the Swiss and Nigerian governments to agree that the said restitution should be monitored by the World Bank. The World Bank, as reported, did not sanction the first set of proposed projects.
Clearly Monfrini was not on top of the process. If he was, he would have collaborated properly with the former Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Mohammed Bello Adoke with whom he enjoyed a cordial working relationship to vet the MoU to accord with the proposed projects that the World Bank actually believed would be in the interest of the country and her citizens. The Swiss government and World Bankâ€™s interest is the judicious use of the repatriated fund.
Working in concert with Malami on the final process, Okpeseyi (SAN) had reportedly ensured that the needful was done and the proposed projects accorded with the provisions of the MoU. This is what legal guidance and tying up of loose ends in the Swiss legal jurisdiction entailed. The Nigerian government was convinced it needed the services of legal consultants. That was the reason Malami engaged Okpeseyi and co. They had offered services on an agreed payment term, which I believe the Nigerian government should keep to. That cannot amount to re-looting the Abacha loot. It is payment for services rendered.
There is also nothing curious about engaging Okpeseyi and Adebayo who happened to be Muhammadu Buhariâ€™s lawyers in the 2011 presidential election petition that terminated at the Supreme Court. Buhari was then the candidate of Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) while Malami was the partyâ€™s Legal Adviser. The innuendo of pecuniary interest as insinuated in the report is rebuttable. Maybe the reporter expected Malami to engage the lawyers that represented the former President Goodluck Jonathan who was the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). That would be stupidly patronising and empowering the enemies.
In rounding off, I propose that the Federal Government should quickly wade into the issues arising to ensure that nothing was amiss in the process of repatriating the $321 million Abacha loot from Switzerland. And if there is any mischief, the federal government has the capacity to resolve such in the national interest.
â€“Ayelabowo, a public affairs analyst, contributed this piece from Ibadan.