By Sufuyan Ojeifo
A narrative in a section of the media about the repatriation of our national assets stashed in a number of foreign jurisdictions by the late former head of state, General Sani Abacha, has been insidiously skewed against the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami (SAN).
The narrative has become so routinely rehashed that the underlying motive has now become writ large to the uncritical readers: it is purely to tar Malami with the brush of malfeasance in the loot repatriation. The overarching goal is to damage the Malami persona, discount his integrity capital and contaminate the whiff of his discretionary prowess in decision-taking.
The rash of calumnious campaigns against Malami finds anchorage in the determination of the contract of the Swiss lawyer, Enrico Monfrini, and the engagement of a team of Nigerian lawyers-Oladipo Okpeseyi (SAN) and Tope Adebayo-in Monfrini’s stead to complete the processes that he began.
The Olusegun Obasanjo administration had engaged Monfrini in 1999 to trace, confiscate and repatriate looted Nigerian funds kept in coded accounts by Abacha. From 1999 up until 2016 when Malami disengaged Monfrini, the Swiss had turned the repatriation into a slush fund in service of a cartel. The good news is that Malami had since dismantled the cartel to the chagrin of vested interest.
Nothing validates the claim of slush fund more than the opacity in the regime of payments made to Monfrini by successive Attorneys-General and Ministers of Justice. The Muhammadu Buhari administration does not have any document or correspondence in which Monfrini indicated the specific amount he had received from the Nigerian government as professional (legal) fees for all of 16 years.
Malami’s audacity to dismantle the Monfrini cartel had productive ramifications. Nigeria was able to save money that would have gone into the payment of legal fees to Monfrini’s team. Whereas, Monfrini reapplied for the job at the inception of the Buhari administration, he had requested for payment of a minimum of 20 percent on the value of $322.5 million as his professional fees and $2 million as deposit on account.
The Nigerian team that was engaged agreed to five percent ($16.9 million) on the value of the money without any deposit on account. The Nigerian team actually completed the process that led to the eventual repatriation of the fund which had been lying idle in Switzerland since 2014 when former Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Mr. Mohammed Adoke instructed the Attorney General of Geneva, Mr. Olivier Jornol, to make some deductions from source.
About $60 million from the tranche of $380 million was deducted from source purportedly to pay Monfrini and to settle other obligations. The deductions had brought down the money to $321 million, which later recorded an accretion of about $1.5 million in interest that raised the money to $322.5 million. Specifically, had Malami not determined Monfrini’s contract, Nigeria would have coughed out a fresh 20 per cent (representing about $64.5 million) of $322.5 million as legal fees to the Swiss.
The claim by Monfrini that he did not ask for a fresh legal fee was a disingenuous afterthought that he concocted when he realized that Malami had engaged a team of Nigerian lawyers in his stead. It was a narrative designed to insinuate sleaze in the handling of the loot repatriation by the Attorney General and Minister of Justice. It was not too difficult to decipher Monfrini’s schema when he said in one breath that he had been paid all his fees and in another breath that he did not complete the process of repatriation.
The Swiss man had walked himself into an egregious web of duality by approbating and reprobating on the issue, thus slipping from the pedestal of a reputable international lawyer to the base level as, perhaps, an unreliable officer in the temple of justice. If he did not complete the process as he claimed, it stands to reason that the process was completed by someone else. He had acknowledged in one of his several correspondences that Okpeseyi and Adebayo were engaged in his stead by Malami.
And, if he had been paid all his fees, as he claimed, why did he not complete the process? Why did he reapply to complete it for payment of fresh 20 percent legal fees? It is not enough for him to claim he did not request for additional fees; he should validate his claim by making a contradistinction with one of the correspondences in which he spelt out the standard fees chargeable for cases in that category. According to Monfrini, “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.”
Monfrini also stated that “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….”
Amid this game of wits with Malami, Monfrini did not let the cat out of the bag concerning the exact amount of money that he had received from the Nigerian government through the successive Attorneys General and Ministers of Justice since 1999. Perhaps, cognizant that he had received outrageously more than what was due to him as legal fees; he had decided to keep actual payment to him a guarded secret. But interestingly, vested interests in Nigeria have been committed to consistently skewing the narrative against Malami. Monfrini continues to enjoy misplaced approbation from Malami’s traducers.
This claim is particularly validated by the fact that the anti-Malami elements have continued to rehash the story that he paid money to a team of lawyers for doing nothing. Despite the explanations by Malami published in a national newspaper and an advertorial in another one to put in context the issues involved that apparently resolved themselves in his favour, those behind the narrative to denigrate him have continued on their wild goose chase.
The anti-Malami elements have also begun to weave their whimsical narrative around the $500 million due for repatriation by the United States of America anytime soon. They claimed that the US government told the Nigerian delegation led by President Muhammadu Buhari during the recent visit to the US that it would not deal with middlemen in repatriating the loot. But the truth of the matter is that the US government did not give that condition.
In fact, the team of lawyers, engaged to render legal services for Nigeria in respect of repatriation of all looted funds standing to the credit of Nigeria, was in London on Monday, June 18, 2018. Malami, together with the team, met with the appropriate US officials on the matter. The lawyers’ contract continues to run on a valid power of attorney given to them in the process of repatriating the $500 million, regardless of the dishonest and skewed narrative by Malami’s traducers.
Ojeifo, an Abuja-based journalist, writes via email@example.com