The refusal of Minister of Finance, Mrs Kemi Adeosun, to approve the payment of $16.9 million fees to two lawyers for the recovery of Abacha loot worth $321 million has sparked some controversy.
The controversy followed alleged moves to pay $16.9 million fees to two new lawyers hired by the Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, for the recovery of the loot traced to a former Nigerian head of state, Sanni Abacha.
But Adoeosun, according to reports, would have none of that. The minister therefore wrote a strongly-worded letter to President Muhammadu Buhari, raising objections to the payment.
The loot is worth $321 million.
The whole disquiet started the decision of Mr. Malami to engage the services of two new lawyers after a Swiss lawyer hired to help in the recovery completed his brief.
Enrico Monfrini, the Swiss lawyer hired by the Nigerian government since 1999 to work on recovering the loot, completed the Luxembourg part of the job in 2014 during the reign of Bello Adoke as Attorney-General of the Federation.
Mr. Monfrini had also been paid his fees by the Nigerian government, in a deal that reportedly saw both parties agree that no other lawyer would be hired to execute the repatriation.
“It is true that a request was made to the Minister of Finance for the payment to the Nigerian lawyers, but approval is another thing altogether,” a senior government official said,weekend, adding that the request had been sent back to the Ministry of Justice. TheCable had reported that Enrico Monfrini, a Swiss lawyer hired by the Federal Government since 1999 to work on recovering Abacha loot, had finished the Luxembourg leg of the job since 2014 when Mohammed Bello Adoke was Attorney-General of the Federation. Monfrini had also been paid his fees by the Federal Government.
The recovered money was then domiciled with the attorney-general of Switzerland, pending the signing of an MoU with Nigeria to avoid the issues of accountability around previous recoveries. All that was left after the signing of the MoU was a government-to-government communication for the money to be repatriated to Nigeria.
But according to online platform, TheCable, it has been repatriated to Nigeria by the Swiss government, following the execution of the memorandum of understanding, MoU, between the two countries for the judicious use of the recovery.
However, Abubakar Malami, Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation, had engaged the services of another set of two Nigerian lawyers in 2016 for a fee of about N6 billion. The two Nigerian lawyers are Mr Oladipo Okpeseyi, a senior advocate of Nigeria (SAN), and Temitope Adebayo.
The Cable Newspaper Journalism Foundation, CNJF, a partner organisation to TheCable, then sent a Freedom of Information, FOI, request to Malami for a copy of the agreements reached with Monfrini for the recovery.
TheCable understands that the terms in the agreement were clearly spelt out, such that no other lawyer would be needed for the return of the money to Nigeria. Malami refused to accede to the FOI request, but the Cable Foundation is currently in court to seek an order of mandamus to compel the attorney-general to make the documents public.
In an email to TheCable, however, Monfrini explained that there was no truth in the allegation. He said: “I never had the audacity to ask for additional fees. This figure of 20 per cent is simply invented. I didn’t reject any proposal made by Mr. Malami since my fees were already paid a long time before Mr. Malami’s appointment as attorney general. Any allegations against that would just be a lie.”
Mr Oluyinka Akintunde, the Special Adviser, Media and Communications to the Minister of Finance, in a statement on Tuesday affirmed the government receipt of the loot from the Swiss government.
According to Akintunde, the government received the money since Dec., 2017.
Akintunde said there was no controversy surrounding the recovery of stolen funds by the former head of state from the Swiss Government.
“The minister wishes to dissociate herself and the Federal Ministry of Finance from recent reports on the Abacha refunds.
“The minister had at no time written any letter to the President or any member of the Federal Executive Council (FEC) on the payment of lawyers for the Abacha recovery.
“She also refutes the flawed reports of controversy surrounding the Abacha recovery.
“We wish to state that the sum of 322,515,931.83 dollars was received into a Special Account in the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) on Dec. 18, 2017 from the Swiss Government.
“For the avoidance of doubt, there is no controversy concerning the recovery of the Abacha monies from the Swiss Government,” he said.
Akintunde said the Minister of Finance, Mrs Kemi Adeosun, frowned at a recent report that she objected to the payment of 16.9 million dollars to two lawyers who recovered the Abacha funds.
But TheCable stands by its publication. In a separate report Tuesday, thee news online insisted that the minister was pressurised to make the disclaimer.
Again, quoting an unnamed aide to the finance minister, the paper reported that “there have been calls from all over the country putting her under pressure and suggesting that she is fighting the president.”
According to the news online platform, it had a private WhatsApp message exchange with Mrs Adeosun before publishing the contentious report, threatening to make the WhatsApp message public if its integrity is questioned by the disclaimer.
“The management of TheCable has decided to make the screenshot of the conversation public ‘if it has to come to that’,” the paper said.
Mr Malami, who is at the centre of the controversy, is yet to make any public statement on it.