Mr. Ojeifo, an Abuja-based journalist, contributed this piece via email@example.com
By Sufuyan Ojeifo
I got a credible information last week from some grapevines in Abuja that the much-talked about outstanding sum of $322 million (not $321 million as has been widely reported) stashed away in some secret accounts by former military dictator, the late General Sani Abacha, in Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and Switzerland, routinely referred to as “Abacha loot”, has been repatriated and it is sitting pretty in a dedicated account in the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).
This calls for pomp and ceremony, especially by the office of the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami (SAN), which had committed to ensure that the loot was repatriated, regardless of the shenanigans and blackmail from within and outside some official quarters in Nigeria.
A powerful Nigerian delegation, led by Malami and comprising a team of Nigerian Law Firm of Oladipo Okpeseyi and Co., had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Swiss Federal Council and the World Bank on December 7, 2017 for the repatriation of the loot, composed of $250 million traced to Liechtenstein and $72 million traced to Luxembourg, which was confiscated by the Court of Switzerland. The repatriation of the fund actually began two weeks from the day the MoU was signed in accord with its (MoU’s) provision.
The success of the effort must be celebrated on three planks. The first is the critical condition given by the Swiss authorities and the World Bank that the money must be channeled to some development projects that would benefit Nigeria and her people; otherwise, it would not be repatriated. The condition had a background. The money repatriated before now was allegedly misappropriated. For instance, $1.25 billion was repatriated under the Olusegun Obasanjo administration without anything concrete to show for its expenditure. More than $5 billion was reportedly stashed away in foreign bank accounts by Abacha.
It is celebratory that the Muhammadu Buhari administration, whether rightly or wrongly, enjoys the trust of these foreign entities. They, however, believe his administration should be assisted to judiciously use the outstanding $322 million from the Swiss, Liechtenstein and Luxembourgish axis in the execution of the sanctioned projects in the trilateral agreement, specifically for some security and safety net projects in the health and education sectors.
The World Bank was for good reasons responsible for the initial delay in the fund’s repatriation because it did not sanction the first set of projects proposed by the Nigerian government. The Bank strategically sanctioned the new projects that fell within the purview of its original programmes of intervention. In essence, it would not spend a dime but would only partner Nigeria to help monitor and supervise the execution of the projects. The whole essence is to ensure that the repatriated fund was not re-looted or misappropriated. This is commendable and one is eager to see an exemplar, in this instance, of how to utilise and maximize public funds for public good.
The second plank is the demonstrated capacity by the federal government through the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice to enhance the integrity of the process by not resorting to acts that could question the honesty of the administration and taint its vaunted anti-corruption capital in the perception of the foreign entities. Malami must be commended for acquitting himself creditably in this area. He was able to reject an offer by the foreign lawyer who was on the issue from the outset, Mr. Enrico Monfini. He asked for a fresh 20 percent on the value of the total money as his professional fees after he had reportedly been paid for the same services by the previous administration.
Perhaps, given the seeming lack of experience by Malami, Monfrini had thought he could arm-twist and hold him to ransom, but Malami, courageously, and with his eyes on prudence, made a counter offer of five percent, which Monfrini rejected, thus prompting Malami to engage from a list of three indigenous firms, which expressed interest in completing the process, an experienced team of Nigerian lawyers, to wit: Mr Oladipo Okpeseyi (SAN) and Mr. Temitope Isaac Adebayo, who have vast contacts in the area of international litigation, arbitration, mediation, conciliation and negotiation. Remarkably, they were offered four percent which they accepted, in the national interest, to complete the critical last leg of the process.
Interestingly, that was a process that some forces in some government quarters have continued to claim had been completed by Monfrini and that Malami was possibly manipulating the process in order to fleece the federal government. They were obviously out to fault Malami’s engagement of the Nigerian senior lawyers. I shudder at their claims and suggestions, contoured by the obvious illogicality of their warped logic. If the repatriation process had been completed by Monfrini as they claimed, why did Monfrini reapply to complete the process on payment of a fresh 20 percent on the value of the total money as his professional fees?
Was Monfrini, perhaps, acting in concert with some influential Nigerians in the immediate past administration to re-loot part of the funds? The agency of government in Nigeria and other individuals in the vanguard of trying to blackmail Malami may have, after all, embarked on a wild goose chase of trying to search for a skeleton in his cupboard. Their searchlight may eventually expose individuals who started the process as those to indict.
The third plank on which the successful repatriation of the Abacha loot must be celebrated is the utilisation of the local content capacity of the nation’s legal capital in the face of intimidatory antics posed by the acclaimed savvy of the foreign lawyer. Using Nigerian lawyers to complete the process on payment of rock-bottom professional fees is salutary in many ways. It reinforces the patriotic zeal and nationalistic spirit of the Nigerian Bar. Besides, the nation is, by and large, building a body of legal experts in the apparently recondite area of tracing, confiscation and repatriation of looted public funds for future engagements.
The duo of Okpeseyi and Adebayo must be commended for their effort at providing professional services without acting the shylock. Four percent is considered fair enough against Monfrini’s offer of 20 percent that was counter-offered by Malami’s five percent. If this, in the views of those who have tried to tar Malami with a brush of malfeasance in the repatriation deal, is how to provide “jobs for the boys”, I sincerely believe we need more of such “jobs for the boys” that ensure cost-effective negotiations in the management of our public finance. For rendering professional services, they deserve their wages, which payment should be expeditiously facilitated by the relevant government ministries.
Overall, we need transparency, which is key and, which the World Bank’s monitoring would ensure in the deployment of the repatriated loot in the execution of target-specific projects. But if those who are intent on blackmailing Malami and the process of repatriation of the funds have evidence of sordid and immoral deals, they should spill the beans now with evidence, not unsubstantiated claims; otherwise, they should stop their time-wasting exertions and the dishonourable tactics of muckraking when and where no muck possibly exists.