Business mogul and Chairman of Atlantic Energy Limited, Mr Jide Omokore, has been in the eye of the storm over a crude oil deal with the federal government, since the Goodluck Jonathan administration. But under the regime of the All Progressives Congress, it is believed Omokore’s name is being further dragged through the mud. His lawyer and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, RA Lawal-Rabana, says that the government is wrongly calling a business deal that went awry looting of the treasury. Speaking against the backdrop of the recent repeated claims by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo that Omokore colluded with the duo of Kola Aluko and the former Minister of Petroleum Resources, Diezani Alison-Maduekwe, and stole $3bn from Nigeria, Lawal-Rabana in this interview with Bayo Akinloye notes that there is more to the issue than meets the eye
The Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, has been consistently alleging that three persons looted the country’s treasury – stole $3bn from the country’s coffers. On Monday, he issued a statement naming the three individuals: Jide Omokore, Kola Aluko and the former Minister of Petroleum Resources Diezani (Alison-Maduekwe). As a lawyer to Jide Omokore, what’s your reaction to the latest allegation?
Firstly, I’ve issued a press statement debunking everything the Vice President (Prof. Yemi Osinbajo) had said. Firstly, I don’t know where he got the figure of three billion from –three billion, we are not aware of that. It is not true. The facts and figures are all in court. It is within the public domain. It is very, very unfortunate that such kind of statement would come from the highest level of the Presidency and it sends a very wrong signal. People need to understand before you accuse people or tag them with fraud or corruption, there must be a conviction. The general principle we all know or grew up with is that you are presumed innocent (until proven guilty); that is what the constitution says. The 1999 Nigerian Constitution is very clear about it: you are presumed innocent until you are adjudged guilty by the court. So, how can the executive be the accuser and the judge at the same time? And, you don’t prosecute over the pages of newspapers. You don’t prosecute through propaganda. You don’t prosecute through political scheming. It is the judicial process that must be proven beyond reasonable doubt. I am very surprised and shocked that the Vice President’s Office could come out with such a statement.
Are you saying the Vice President made a statement of this nature in an ongoing case in a court of law?
It is ongoing; the prosecuting agency had called six witnesses already, leaving two to be called to close their case. And, it is very unfortunate that he made those comments. It’s even more so that this is a democracy. The rule of law is the kernel of democracy and what is the rule of law? The rule of law is that you respect the rules and laws of the country. If a matter is in court, it becomes sub judice – you don’t comment on it. The intention to (create) bias (in the mind of) the court or to (create) prejudice (in the mind of) the public, is not acceptable and should not be encouraged. And, I am shocked that it is coming from that highest level. If it (statements like that) were coming from prosecutors – maybe police’s rank and file and all that – nobody would blame them. But coming from that level (of the Vice President’s Office), it is quite unfortunate. The matter is ongoing (in the court) and, in fact, we have adjourned to June for the continuation of defence. So, it’s ongoing and the facts are there. All the processes filed by the prosecution – the list of their witnesses, etc. – they are all there. They should go and look at it. Where did they get the three billion from?
So, is he just bandying these figures about to score political points or what?
Well, unfortunately, that is what it appears to be; because we don’t know. I have been a part of this case right from the beginning to date. And, all the evidence in court is about $800m of which even my client is still entitled to some portion of it – it is a dispute of what we call cash call. And, what is cash call? When you lift (crude oil), after deducting all your expenses, whatever is left is shared between you and the NPDC (Nigerian Petroleum Development Company). And, that has been ongoing until we got a report that the operational cost became very difficult and there were some challenges in paying the cash call as and when due. NNPC (the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation) itself did not allege fraud. But all it said in a letter written by this same Diezani that they said we had colluded with to loot – to EFCC, please ‘help us recover this outstanding. It is not a matter of litigation.’ The document is there – duly written.
Did you mean the same Diezani accused of colluding with Omokore to steal $3b wrote a letter to EFCC?
Yes; she wrote a letter to EFCC inviting EFCC to help them recover the money ($800m). The letter is there – (in) black and white.
Is it that the Vice President is not aware of this fact, or there is more to the misinformation?
I believe he is being misled; he is being given the wrong information. If he calls for the files, he will see that the letter is there –written by Diezani when she was the minister of petroleum resources. It is this same Diezani that scuttled all efforts to bring in investors to keep the business moving and to repay what was outstanding. It was scuttled by her. So, on what basis will Jide Omokore or Atlantic now collude with her to steal three billion dollars when she was the same person that stood against moving forward in this SA (Strategic Alliance) arrangement? So, it is not true.
What is your next step on this issue since the Vice President appears to be interfering with the court process?
Well, honestly speaking, you have to give it to my client: he didn’t run away. He didn’t flee the country. Even when the court ordered the release of his passport, he said ‘no, I must stay here to clear my name. I’m not a fraudulent person. I am a businessman. And, I have been doing this business long before this SA came on board.’ So, for us, it’s to show the whole world that we are clean and that is why we are focusing on our defence – at the court – to do otherwise will be distractions. Going to court to sue (for defamation) will be a distraction. We want to focus on our defence and at the end of the day, Nigerians will see that this man (Omokore) never committed any wrong. Also, we have said this several times, it’s a contract. They think there is a breach of contract. We say, yes, if there is a breach of contract, let us reconcile figures. They have done that several times. At the point of payment, this same (former) minister that is being alleged we colluded with would scuttle it, or she would reject outright for one reason or other. It lingered on until when it became difficult for the reconciliation to take place. We have been to arbitration.
What was the outcome of the arbitration?
The arbitration is ongoing. Just to show that even they – the federal government – ab initio knew that this is a breach of contract and your remedy lies in recovery, not tagging it a criminal issue. How do you classify an agreement duly signed by a sitting government through the managing director of NNPC and it has been ongoing? It is not the first, not the second. It has been ongoing. So, at times it baffles me that we cannot draw the line between what is business and politics – trying to portray every transaction as being dubious. So many oil companies – go and find out – I mean several, it’s not possible to do business without delayed payment of cash calls. The federal government itself even owes people. Go and ask the IOCs (International Oil Companies). They will tell you that is the practice in that industry. It is not possible to pay as and when due. But over the period you adjust, you conserve and you move on. But this one, the woman was just hell-bent on not allowing the process to continue.
On the basis of what are they now alleging that she colluded with Jide Omokore?
Well, I don’t know. Perhaps, they have some other evidence that we don’t have. But with the evidence at our disposal, there is no collusion between my client, Diezani or (Kola) Aluko. They are the fugitives – they should go and look for them. We are in Nigeria; we have not run away. The man has, every time he was invited by the EFCC, made himself available. So, what next?
Are you not worried that this constant statement by the Vice President might have an influence on the outcome of the judicial process?
Well, I don’t expect that to happen for two reasons: he is a professor of law; he is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria. He knows the ethics and traditions of the Bar that when a matter is sub judice – when a matter is in court – you don’t even comment on it so that you don’t prejudice the mind of the court, you don’t interfere with the judicial process (and) then, you don’t set up the public against citizens by publications like that. So, I am very sure that maybe he is being fed with the wrong information. I do not expect a seasoned lawyer and an administrator – who had been an attorney general for eight years – and now sitting on that privileged seat of the Vice President. There must be caution otherwise it will rub off on the entire system and the entire society. You don’t condemn people on the pages of newspapers so as to score political points. This is a judicial process that is ongoing – allow the judicial process to run through. That is why the law says you are presumed innocent until proven guilty. So, please, I think that it is not right – with all respect to that office – to jump into the public arena and begin to call names as if they are already convicted.
They have alleged in the past that Mr Omokore owns houses in London, the United States, Dubai and that maybe some of these monies were used to acquire those properties. Can you comment on that?
You see, I want you to do some investigative journalism here to find out this man doesn’t have properties in America. The crime office in America came to Nigeria to come and investigate and all they were asking for is the purchase of furniture and some wristwatch items as gifts in a particular shop. Categorically, they said no, they were not investigating him on any property because they were not aware of any property he owns. The United Kingdom crime office also came to Nigeria and wanted to clarify on just one property that the then minister of petroleum resources used to stay in the house. The man said that ‘I wouldn’t know. I have a house in London. I don’t live there. I don’t stay there.’ So, at times, people just keep it open for friends and dignitaries to stay there and they confirmed that – that is the only known property duly registered. So, all this property was long acquired before (this propaganda). These are seasoned departments known all over the world for their detailed and thorough investigation; not being biased, not being politically motivated. These were all the things they came to ask. On the two occasions, I was physically present – nothing bordered on money laundering and nothing bordered on the acquisition of properties all over the world. It was just furniture and wristwatch which were clarified.
In the fulfilment of this contract, did Atlantic Alliance ever meet any part of their obligations to the government?
Yes. Yes, they did. Some monies were paid. The records are there. I can’t remember the figures outright. But some monies were paid. That was why with the success and their track record in the first one, they now gave the second one. And, it was part of the terms and is still in evidence that because of their performance in the first agreement they were given the second one. So, there is evidence of part performance on our part. We do agree that along the line, there were challenges and delayed payment but that is not fraud. There were records of the movement of the crude, ship with the destination that was delivered and everything. The records are there exhibited by the same NNPC in court. So, how do you now turn round to now say it was a fraudulent transaction, and that they colluded to defraud the government of Nigeria?
Aside from the strategic alliance entered with Atlantic Energy, were there other such alliances similar to this entered into by the government?
There were. There were quite a good number – even the same document in which Diezani wrote to EFCC listed some of the companies that owed cash calls.
Are those companies also facing trials?
No. They are not facing trials. Some of them, their figures were even higher than that of Atlantic’s. The same document that was written to EFCC listed about four or five of such companies. Maybe when next we are in court I have the files I will bring out the letter so that Nigerians can see that NNPC itself never complained. But at times you know, in an attempt to justify or to show, you go beyond what you are asked to do. So, I think it has moved to the realm of politics and not genuinely seeking to recover outstanding monies arising from a commercial transaction.
Concerning the outstanding, how was the repayment meant to be made?
At the end of a specific period, there is reconciliation as to the quantum of crude that had been lifted and the payment was made into a joint account operated by NNPC, NPDC, and the strategic alliance partner. So, it was not money that was supposed to go into the Federation Account. It goes first into that joint partnership account and when all the reconciliations have taken place, then whatever is left is subject to the sharing formula. That money was never paid directly into anybody’s account. No money was paid directly into Omokore’s account or Atlantic’s account. I think the documents are there if they asked for them they would have brought them to court. It should also be on record that the cash calls that Atlantic was meant to pay were supposed to go into a joint account operated by both NPDC and Atlantic. It is called the JV account. This account is for the running of those wells, for paying salaries, for training, for work-over programmes, and other incidental costs. It is not meant to go into the government’s revenue account – that is the first thing Nigerians should know. Secondly, every crude that Atlantic lifted it was meant to be part of the recovery of Atlantic’s. It does not go to the government’s account. It goes to Atlantic’s account. Atlantic will nominate an off-taker that pays directly into Atlantic’s account. So, they computed all this crude that was lifted by Atlantic as if it was government’s crude that Atlantic was lifting. That is a false premise – it is not supposed to be so. Whatever they lifted is deemed to be their profit oil.
Really? How come Atlantic has not made this claim known?
It has been said over and over again but people did not understand because of the negative press they (the government) are giving the whole issue, and we don’t always like joining issue (with the government). We believe in the power of the judiciary that things should be done right. You don’t have to join issue with them every time. Let things take their due process. I think when next we are in court I will not mind making available some of these processes so that people can see. It’s a public document – anybody can read and see the terms of the SAA, all the reconciliations made, the agreements reached, the mode of payment, etc. All clearly set out. There is nothing shady –nothing fraudulent –about the transaction. But unfortunately, any time it’s that fraud, corruption, stealing. Is it possible to go and steal crude oil? Crude oil that is recorded by all the appropriate organs – it takes three months before they move out? And, even the destination is recorded; it’s not bunkering on the high sea. It is recorded, ship movement, ship number, ship destination, the location of delivery; they are all in a chart for everybody to see. So, I don’t understand what is going on. My plea is that we should not play politics with everything. Things go wrong genuinely based on the challenges faced by the ordinary Nigerian businessman. Somewhere along the line, you hit the rock. But that does not make you a criminal, a fraudulent or corrupt person. You hit the rock, you hit the rock and you find a way of getting out of it.
What caused these challenges – was it the drop in oil prices?
There are so many factors which I may not be able to delve into now –most of them are operational reasons.