Abacha Loot: Fraud Allegation Over $6bn Legal Fee Targets Buhari – Malami SAN


Minister of Justice and the Attorney-General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, in this interview speaks about the hullabaloo that has greeted the legal fees paid for in the recovery of the $321 million Abacha loot and other issues. MUHAMMAD KABIR reports
Recently there were issues that you ordered payment of N6 billion as lawsuits fees over the recovery of the Abacha loot. What actually happened?
Well in addressing the issue of payment to the lawyers it is important to take you through the antecedent of assets and money recovery before even the coming of this government. Originally, there is a constitutional provision that says all assets and funds recovered should go into the Federal Government’s consolidated account before anything is done about it. So there is that constitutional provision, but before the coming of Buhari’s administration, such provision was been observed by the previous governments in breach, in the sense that payment particularly for lawyers are been deducted, particularly professional fees for lawyers, were been deducted from the source, even the money was confirmed by the Federal Government that was the prevailing situation before this government.
And two the amount that was paid than as professional fees was between 10 to 20 per cent, so when this government came in, President Muhammadu Buhari sought my opinion on the percentage payment on recovered funds, and I suggested that the reasonable amount that could be charged for services rendered should actually not be above five per cent, looking at the volume of the money concerned, and I equally suggested that in the interest of transparency all money should first get into the consolidated Federal Government account and that there after processes should be conducted and consummated by the Ministry of Finance.
And I equally suggested to Mr. President that we should converge and accommodate certain organisations so that things would be done transparently and the world would know what we are doing is on a standard transparency and accountability. Mr. President graciously accepted my proposals relating to the bringing in of professional bodies, payment of recovered money into the consolidated account and the accommodation of civil society organisations. We now put it up that all recovery agents that are interested in the exercise should submit their proposals for the recovery plans.
It was against this background that a lot of lawyers, both local and foreign, filed in their application and proposals for the recovery assets. Of particular interest is the $321 million you are talking about. The key lawyers that showed interest are one Enrico Monfrini, a foreign lawyer, and then two other lawyers by name Oladipo Opeseye, (SAN), and Temitope Adebayo, (SAN). A point of interest with the regard to the foreign lawyer Enrico was that his application was facilitated by a former president.
Did the foreign lawyer argue that nobody should entertain this case except him alone?
I will take you through. I told you that there existed an agreement before this government with the lawyer Enrico Monfrini to make recovery and to be paid 20-30 per cent and his deduction made at source and no payment should be done to the coffers of the Federal Government is made till his money is been paid. And he was indeed paid an amount which was not clear as to the concept and extent of what services he rendered whether this $321 million was part of his facilitation. But a point of interest is that as at the time this government came in the $321 million was not paid by the Swiss government. It was a subject of judicial litigation pending before a court. So that is the crux of the matter.
Now when an application was filed by Monfrini among others, yes he was considered to be among others for the recovery of $321 million but he was asking for 20-30 per cent as against the conventional five per cent approved by the Federal Government. Still I wrote a letter to Mr. President to consider Monfrini against the background that he was part of the recovery processes. I also tried to convince Mr. President to allow him a special concession of having 10-15 per cent and Mr. President reluctantly considered my plea.
So a letter of engagement was generated for him but Enrico Monfrini rejected the offer because of the complexity associated with the whole thing and wrote us, insisting on 20-30 per cent but Mr. President refused to grant that offer. This now generated another letter so it was against this background that a consortium of lawyers of Nigerian origin now submitted their proposals and we accepted their letters and they swung into action. Arising from that the money was eventually recovered and when the money was recovered and paid to the consolidated revenue account of the Federal Government they now forwarded a letter seeking to be paid the five per cent professional fees agreed upon. I now generated a letter to the Central Bank seeking for the confirmation of the payment into its account, and the CBN established that the money was paid into their account, provided a statement of account to the effect that the money was paid into Federal Government consolidated revenue account. Now armed with their letters of letters of engagement I now proposed to the Minister of Finance for the payment of their fees.
But initially payments were said to have been made directly to the account of the Swiss Attorney General before been transferred into the Nigerian government’s account. This time around what happened?
The Swiss Attorney General simply propelled the judicial process allowing for the freezing of the money in the Swiss accounts and after the court order by which the money in question was released. But you should know that conventional practice before than the whole money would be released to the account of Enrico Monfrini who would now take his fee and release the balance to the Federal Government. But now the lawyers’ terms of engagement is they are simply to process the payment of that amount into the CBN and thereafter made a demand for the payment of their fees. So what the Attorney General of Switzerland did was simply to initiate a process of the warehousing of the money and what we did here was the processing of the released of the money through legal means to CBN
What caused your disagreement with the Minister of Finance?
Now the payment is been processed and naturally if for whatever reason the Minister of Finance requires to know the issue at stake or the fund exceeds the limit of the threshold of her approval for the payment of fee, there are two ways to go about it. One is either to generate a memo to the President notifying him of the demand and he will eventually give directive for payment or in the alternative write to the Attorney General seeking for the presentation of the titled memo of the council to collectively look into the issue and decide what happens. But the Federal Government is committed there is an officer who has the constitutional right, who is the custodian of public and interest of justice, who is mandated by law to commit the Federal Government of course after due process and judicial procedure, who will facilitate everything legal.
Why do you think the Minister of Finance has taken that stance against the payment?
Well, I was privy to certain correspondences anyway in the media not between her office and the office of the Attorney General and I’m also privy to a press statement issued by the minister denying any correspondences between her office and this office relating to either objection or anything to do with the payment of any money. So to that extent I don’t think there is any issue at stake and for me to raise any objections to something that is not there is uncalled for me. But the bottom line is after I process for the payment the responsibility lies in my office and I don’t think I should take any correspondences to her and I have not received any formal correspondence from her.
There are allegations that you gives this job to personal friends and those whom you work with as a legal team of APC?
Well, the truth of the matter is a relationship between the lawyers and I exist. There is no doubt about that.
You mean close relationship?
No. It is a professional relationship in the sense that I share principles in common  with them that of integrity don’t forget that these were the lawyers, I mean myself and they were all contacted to be part of the legal team related to the prosecution of the election petition of the ruling PDP government then. But we all declined and then arising from that we equally formed the team that believes in the integrity of President Buhari which stood by him then despite the fact that he was going against the government in power and with no money.
So if there is any relationship that binds me with the lawyers it is a relationship of integrity and a professional relationship on account of one single believes honesty. But constitutionally what is required for the engagement of a lawyer is the call to the Nigerian Bar and I think their relationship with me and that of Mr. President is exclusively based on integrity and that should be a plus for them for consideration and engagement and not a minus.
Where do you think the issue of fraud came from in the first place?
Well the issue of fraud as far as the antecedent of this government is concerned does not even arise. I believe you are all living witnesses of what is happening regarding Cambridge Analytica and the programme a project that was targeted at the integrity of Mr. President and casting aspersions on Mr. President and against the background that we have that there are certain elements that were corrupt in the position have indeed taken a step at attacking the integrity of Buhari and doing what they are doing, it is only logical that you cannot disproof any possibility of attacking anybody of similar integrity around the President, and that become more material now that we are approaching elections.
Much more than any other time they have the resources they control sizable portion of the media and it has been their traditions to cast aspersions on persons with high integrity. So the revelation of fraud is something that would be deduced from that logical conclusion but one thing is certain that this is a government that exists on constitutionality as far as payments of lawsuits are concerned.
We have to ensure that funds are remitted first to the coffers of the Federal Government, because this is a government that believes wholeheartedly in transparency, this is a government that insisted on five per cent against the whooping 30-40 per cent collected at source, and this is a government that is open in all ramifications with regards to retrieving of stolen money. So if truly there is element of fraud in the whole process why must you insist on constitutionality? Why must you insist on engaging civil society organisations in the open conduct of the recovery? Why must give regard to the lawyers regard any contributions they would give in the recovery? So it is simply political insinuation and undertone targeted at casting aspersions on the personality of the government. But the best logical way and manner to handle it is to see the allegations as coming from the rejected antecedent of payment collection at source, antecedent of payment of 30 to 40 per cent and antecedent to refusal to make direct payment into the coffers of the Federal Government.
Don’t you think that these bottle necks relating to return of looted funds to Nigeria it will affect other monies lying fallow in other countries?
No, it won’t affect it because the international community believes in the transparency carried out by the government of Buhari and you should know that of recent the Nigeria model of assets recovery is an internationally acknowledged and accepted model as the best model. So regardless of what the opposition is doing in trying to dent the credibility of the Buhari government we are in fact on daily basis receiving commendations.
Culled from newtelegraphonline