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Abacha loot and a dismantled cartel

 By Sufuyan Ojeifo
Through a Swiss lawyer, Mr. Enrico Monfrini, contracted in 1999, the Nigerian government was able to trace and confiscate staggering sums stashed in different coded accounts in Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, et al, by the late General Sani Abacha, his family and associates.    

About $1.25 billion was repatriated under the Olusegun Obasanjo administration.  $700 million was returned to Nigeria under the Goodluck Jonathan administration.  In December 2017, the last tranche of $322.5 million in Switzerland was repatriated to Nigeria, following the signing of a trilateral agreement among the Swiss government, the Nigerian government and the World Bank.

The agreement was, to among other things, ensure the utilisation of the Abacha loot for provision of national social investment and safety net projects, especially in the health and education sectors, under the monitoring of the global banking institution.

About two weeks after the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed on December 7, 2017, with the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami (SAN) in attendance, assisted by a team of Nigerian lawyers led by Mr. Oladipo Okpeseyi (SAN), who provided legal services towards the completion of the process, the Swiss government transferred the money from the Bank of International Settlement to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).

Nigeria’s Minister of Finance, Mrs. Kemi Adeosun, had in April 2018 confirmed receipt of $322.5 million warehoused in a special account with the CBN.  Adeosun had explained that there were no problems with the repatriated fund and the $16.9 million (representing five percent on the value of the money) to be paid as service charges to the Nigerian lawyers engaged by the federal government to complete the repatriation process.

Her clarifications came amid media reports that Malami engaged the services of the Nigerian lawyers to complete the process that the Swiss lawyer had already completed. But while the federal government did not fault the contract, some vested interests did; and, they had gone ahead to activate the intervention of the House of Representatives which had, via a motion, set up an ad-hoc committee to probe the payment to the Nigerian lawyers.

Monfrini’s contract was determined in February 2016 by Malami, after he reapplied for the completion of the repatriation of the Abacha loot in Switzerland on payment of a fresh 20 percent professional service fees.  Opaqueness in the payment for services rendered by Monfrini was a moot point to Malami.

According to credible information, close to $60 million was lost to opaqueness on the last tranche of $321 million alone. The amount came up to $322.5 million when the interest on deposit of $1.5 million was added.  But the actual amount involved was $380 million.  The former Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Mr. Mohammed Bello Adoke (SAN), reportedly wrote to the Attorney General of Geneva in 2014 to make some deductions from source.  It was believed the deductions went into Monfrini’s payment and allied matters.

Interestingly, in all of Monfrini’s correspondence to the Nigerian government since the inauguration of the Muhammadu Buhari administration, there was nowhere he mentioned the actual amount that he had received as payment for services rendered.  He smartly sidestepped the issue.

In his January 29, 2016 letter to Malami, he did not indicate that he had been paid any money.  He referred to Malami’s letter of January 6, 2016 that indicated the federal government’s interest in his continued services.  He,however, rejected the terms of his re-engagement by the federal government and insisted on 20 percent success fees on the value of the total amount repatriated.

Monfrini had requested for a meeting with Malami and the Nigerian team in charge of conducting and coordinating the asset recovery efforts.  According to him, “indeed the percentage of the proposed success fee (by  Malami) is far below the one we had offered, and we need to assess whether it would make sense in regard of the time, costs and risk that such proceedings as the ones which are contemplated entail.”

He continued: “Furthermore, our offer of services and the corresponding success fee only cover criminal and administrative proceedings, at the exclusion of civil proceedings. The cost of asset recovery through civil proceedings, both in common law and civil law jurisdictions (including advance court fee costs that often exceed 10 percent), is very high and often represents in excess of 20 percent to 30 percent of the value at stake.

“Therefore, our proposal in respect of such civil proceedings was, and still is, that they be dealt with on a case by case basis and we are either independently paid by the Federal Republic of Nigeria or by third party litigation funders, which we could assist in obtaining….”

Malami was smart enough to know that sticking with Monfrini would result in loss of a good chunk of the Abacha loot to him and the varied interests that he had all these years allegedly represented.  To retain Monfrini was to acquiesce to the carefully laid-down plan of a cartel that had turned the Abacha loot into a fund that could be fleeced.

When Monfrini met with Malami and the Nigerian team on February 24, 2016 in Abuja, the Swiss was confronted with the cold reality that his monkeyshines were over. He became aware that some Nigerian lawyers had been engaged to complete the repatriation of the Abacha loot in Switzerland and some other jurisdictions.

In a letter to Malami, dated March 15, 2016, Monfrini took notice of the appointment of Messrs. Oladipo Okpeseyi (SAN) and Temitope Adebayo to act for and on behalf of the Nigerian Government “for the purpose of international mutual assistance meetings, negotiations, discussions and proceedings with respect to the recovery of the funds which form part of the Nigerian public funds looted by the late Head of State, General Sani Abacha, his family members and associates.”

According to him, the scope of their authority was limited to “funds from Luxembourg (approximately USD 300 million) held by the Canton of Geneva; funds in London (approximately USD 20 million) frozen for the benefit of the United States of America; funds in Jersey (approximately USD 300 million) frozen for the benefit of the United States of America; and funds in London (approximately USD 150 million) frozen for the benefit of the United States of America.”

Monfrini was in pari materia with the tasks of the Nigerian lawyers; yet some media reports had suggested that they were to be paid for doing nothing.  The Swiss lawyer had, in the letter, resorted to subtle threats to regain the lost contract.  According to him, “as indicated during our first meeting of 24 February 2016 in Abuja, it is however my duty to point out that the appointment of my esteemed colleagues may not be in the best interest of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”

The question was – who should decide what might or might not be in Nigeria’s interest?  For the first time, Monfrini, who had earlier requested for payment of at least 20 percent success fee, which Malami had counter offered with a much lesser percentage, surprisingly claimed that his fee for the recovery of $321 had already been paid “so that your Government would incur no further expense from my intervention.” 

Even with that claim, the clever Swiss lawyer still did not mention the amount that he had been paid for his services. This, indeed, remains curious. But, Malami had crossed the Rubicon, having become clear-headed about the exigency to dismantle the Monfrini cartel that had been fleecing the nation through the Abacha loot. And that, exactly, was what Malami did by dumping Monfrini. He should be commended. 


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