â€¢ $1m traced to Alamieyeseigha ready for release
â€¢ Ministry disputes claim of rejection of FG lawyers by US DOJ
Tobi Soniyi in Lagos
The federal government has initiated talks with the family of the Kebbi State Governor, Abubakar Atiku Bagudu, to give up their claim to $145 million traced to the family of the late military Head of State, General Sani Abacha in the United States, just as the U.S. has also given conditions for releasing another $480 million also linked to Abacha but has been forfeited by U.S. courts to the countryâ€™s Department of Justice (DOJ).
A top source at the Ministry of Justice, who confided in THISDAY on the negotiations between his ministry and the U.S. DOJ, said this was the outcome of the meeting between the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN), and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, during President Muhammadu Buhariâ€™s four-day official visit to Washington D.C. early this month.
The ministry source confirmed that the U.S. government was willing to release the $145 million to Nigeria but for the suit instituted against the return of the money to the Nigerian government by the Bagudus.
According to the source, if the Bagudu family is willing to allow the U.S. to enter a default judgment regarding the money, it would repatriate the $145 million and $480 million, making a total of $625 million to Nigeria by September.
THISDAY learnt that the Bagudu family had filed a case in a U.S. court challenging the forfeiture of the $145 million and the decision to repatriate it to Nigeria.
The said $145 million, investigations showed, was held in what the U.S. government described as the â€˜Blue Trustâ€™.
To make the deal possible, the source said, Malami had assured his U.S. counterpart, Sessions, that he would talk to the lawyers representing the Bagudu family to give up their claim to the money.
However, it is not clear, if the Bagudus will agree to relinquish their claim to the money.
â€œAs a matter of fact, the minister has assured the U.S. authorities that he would persuade the Bagudus to drop their claim. He is very confident that the talk with the Bagudus will succeed,â€ the source said.
The Kebbi governor was closely involved with the Abachas and was linked to some of the funds stolen from Nigeria during the reign of the late head of state.
On the $480 million already with the DOJ, the source said that there were still third parties laying claim to the funds, but did not divulge their identities.
Some lawyers who claimed they were entitled to some commission from the money had threatened to go to court to stop the repatriation.
The source, however, said that the third parties also have 90 days to appeal the decision of the U.S. government to release the $480 million to Nigeria, failing which it will be repatriated by September.
Between 1994 and 1998, the Abacha family reportedly stole more than $2 billion from Nigeria under the pretext that the money was meant for national security.
The source said the conditions given by the U.S. before the funds could be released to the federal government include the demand that Nigeria must identify specific projects that the Buhari-led administration will spend the money on when released to Nigeria.
He said the U.S. also demanded that a framework for monitoring how the funds would be spent be put in place.
The source further said that U.S. noted that even though there was a third party claim to the funds, both countries should jointly work on a memorandum of understanding detailing specific projects on which the funds would be utilised.
â€œThey also gave any third parties interested in making a claim on the funds to do so within 90 days or by September 2018 when the period to appeal will lapse.
â€œAs I speak to you, the federal government is working to identify specific projects that will benefit from the funds,â€ the source added.
Investigations by THISDAY further revealed that when the U.S. asked the justice minister to identify the projects that the Nigerian government would spend the funds on, Malami told them that he would have to consult with the president and the economic team for a decision on the project.
The source could not confirm whether Nigeria has submitted a list of the projects to the U.S. as of press time.
The source explained that the U.S. expected Nigeria to submit specific projects for which the funds would be applied before the end of this month to enable the U.S. take a decision on the projects next month.
He said that the U.S. would have to vet the list and approve it before the funds can be repatriated to Nigeria.
Investigations revealed that the U.S. was being guided by past experience when Nigeria could not account for how it managed funds repatriated to it.
The source also disputed claims that the U.S. DOJ has blocked the federal governmentâ€™s lawyers representing Nigeria in the claims challenging the forfeiture of the funds and their repatriation to Nigeria from earning their commission.
According to him, â€œContrary to some sponsored news reports, the federal governmentâ€™s lawyers said to have been barred by the U.S. DOJ were even at the meeting between Malami and Sessions in Washington D.C.
â€œI donâ€™t know where these stories emanated from, but I can assure you that the federal governmentâ€™s lawyers have not been stopped by the U.S. DOJ. Even the U.S. DOJ is using lawyers to represent it in both cases, so how can they bar the legal representatives of the Nigerian government?â€
He said during the meeting, discussions also shifted to another $1 million linked to the late governor of Bayelsa State, Diepreye Alamieyesiegha, which the U.S. government also agreed to repatriate.
As a precondition for the release of the $1 million, the U.S. government has asked Nigeria to submit a proposal on how the funds will be utilised in Bayelsa State.
The THISDAY source also stated that about $3 million recovered from the assets traced to a former governor of Delta State, Chief James Ibori, in the U.S. remained trapped because the former governor is contesting his conviction by a court in the United Kingdom.