One of the issues believed to have been discussed by President Muhammadu Buhari and the visiting U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, during a closed-door meeting last Tuesday was the return of millions of dollars of Nigeria’s money looted by late military dictator, Sani Abacha.
However, Nigeria stands the risk of forfeiting a hefty N218.3 billion ($550 million) already recovered from Mr Abacha’s estate if a suit filed by an American-based Nigerian lawyer against the Nigerian government in a United States federal court is not quickly resolved.
Texas-based attorney, Godson Nnaka, who was contracted by the Nigerian government in 2004 to help find and recover funds siphoned by Mr Abacha and his associates, has asked the court to appoint him a private attorney general of the fund as well as award him 40 percent of the recovered fund. He claimed he made the request in line with United States law.
Mr. Nnaka has also accused the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, of demanding kickback of as much as 70 percent of his fees and acting in a vindictive manner after he turned down his demand. Mr. Malami strongly denied the allegations.
The Letter of Instruction
In 2004, Mr. Nnaka approached the Olusegun Obasanjo administration with a proposal to help find and recover millions of dollars stolen by Mr Abacha. Having convinced the government that he could trace and recover the looted funds, the Attorney-General of the Federation at the time, Akinlolu Olujimi, in a November 25, 2004 letter, instructed Mr Nnaka “to proceed in a professional manner to recover the funds on behalf of the country.”
“Government will only pay for your professional services a percentage as may be agreed for any sum actually recovered,” the letter added.
In a letter to President Muhammadu Buhari in August 2015, Mr Nnaka said he carried out the task. He claimed he hired a group of lawyer, financial consultants, and academics across the world to help identify and trace the funds.
He also said he travelled to France, England, Switzerland, Angola, Turkey, and Austria, to meet with government officials, law enforcement agents and financial experts with the aim of finding and securing the funds.
Mr. Nnaka further claimed in that 2014, after a district court ruling forfeiting the money to the United States government, he singlehandedly filed an appeal when he entered appearance to “protect the interest of Nigeria” when no one did. According to him the court would have awarded the money to the United States if no one hand entered appearance on behalf of Nigeria within 35 days.
He said unfortunately all his efforts to secure the fund for the country were antagonised by the former Attorney General of the Federation, Mohammed Adoke, and his successor Mr Malami.
Mr. Adoke’s cold shoulder
Mr. Nnaka explained that he approached Mr Adoke and explained the need for the Nigerian government to act quickly or stand the risk of forfeiting the funds to the United States. He said he needed Mr. Adoke to sign a mandatory verification required by law for him to perfect the claim filed in court to secure the recovered loot.
But on May 26, 2014, Mr Adoke wrote the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), saying the Nigerian government did not authorise Mr Nnaka and three other persons to represent it in the asset forfeiture case.
Mr. Nnaka said Mr. Adoke wrote the DOJ despite receiving a letter from Mr. Olujimi on May 15, 2014 confirming that he was indeed hired by the Nigerian government to help find and recover the loot.
Subsequent to the refusal of Mr. Adoke to sign the mandatory verification and his letter to the DOJ, the court ruled that the fund should be forfeited to the United States government.
Mr. Nnaka said he immediately filed an appeal to preserve the interest of Nigeria in the case and to stop the money from being forfeited to the US government.
Mr. Nnaka alleged that Mr. Adoke, and later Mr Malami, wanted himout of the case because he refused to accede to their fraudulent demands. He claimed they planned to enrich themselves from the recovered fund.
“Mr Adoke intended to corruptly chase plaintiff away from the recovery of the looted funds so that Mr. Adoke would recover and re-loot the funds for himself by himself or through proxies and for his self-enrichment and/or for his associates in crime,” he wrote in a petition to a federal court in the U.S.
“Malami asked me for 70 percent of my fee”
In April, frustrated for being repeatedly stonewalled by the Nigerian government, the US-based attorney through his lawyer, Benneth Amadi, filed a civil suit against the Nigerian government and Mr Malami at a US district court in Washington DC.
In the complaint and petition accompanying the suit, he requested to be appointed a private attorney general of the recovered funds. Mr Nnaka also claimed that Mr, Malami, just like Mr Adoke before him, is “convincingly” working with the Abacha family with the intention of criminally diverting the funds for his enrichment and those of his unnamed associates.
He said after the 2015 presidential election, he approached Mr. Malami through his representatives with relevant documents and personally appealed to him to undo the wrong perpetrated against him by his predecessor.
He claimed that Mr Malami initially appeared to be working in the interest of the country and seemed genuinely interested in the repatriation of the funds. He said the AGF promised to sign the necessary papers setting aside the letter written by Mr. Adoke as well as promising to sign the mandatory verification letter that would reinstate him as the government’s attorney.
He said trouble started when Mr Malami started making “shocking” demands.
“Mr Malami started making shocking proposals and demands before he would sign the documents. Mr Malami proposed that the plaintiff should agree to part with and to pay a significant portion of his fees in the aforesaid matter to him as a condition for Malami to sign and deliver the necessary documents for the verification and the reactivation of the mandate letters to the plaintiff,” the petition read.
The petitioner further stated that he would prove in court that Mr Malami, who he claimed was a former lawyer to the Abacha family, was working in cohort with the Abachas, Abubakar Bagudu, who was Mr Abacha’s bagman, to divert the fund for himself.
Mr Bagudu is a governor of the Nigeria’s North-West state of Kebbi.