Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN), in this interview with newsmen in Kano voiced out his stand on the controversy surrounding the payment of legal fees to lawyers that participated in the recovery of the looted funds associated with former Nigerian Military Head of State, the Late General Sani Abacha. ABDULLAHI YAKUBU was there for LEADERSHIP
Recently, there was this insinuation that you ordered for the payment of N6 billion legal fees for lawyers that participated in the recovery of some part of the Abacha looted funds from overseas. How true was that?
Well, in addressing the issue of legal fees made to the lawyers involved in the recovery of the looted funds, it is important to take you through the antecedents of the assets and money recovery before the coming of this government. Originally, there is a constitutional provision that all assets and funds recovered should go into the Federal Government Consolidated Revenue Account before anything is done over it.
Interestingly enough, there is that constitutional provision, but before the coming of the Buhari-led administration, such provision was observed by the previous governments in breach, in the sense that there were deductions in the name of the services rendered by lawyers which were made directly from source, the money has to be confirmed by the federal government before payment and that was the prevailing situation before the coming of this government.
Secondly, the amount that was paid as professional fees was fixed at 10 to 20 percent, by the foreign legal luminary. So, when this government came in, President Buhari sought for my opinion on the percentage to be paid on the recovered funds, and I suggested that the reasonable amount that could be charged for the services rendered, should actually not exceed five percent looking at the quantum of the money involved.
I equally suggested that in the interest of transparency, all funds should first get into the Consolidated Federal Government Account and then due process followed before any payment could be made for any legal service rendered. And I equally suggested to him that we should converge and accommodate certain organizations also so that things could be done transparently and for the whole world to know what we are doing whether it tallied with the international best practices.
Luckily enough, Mr President graciously accepted my suggestions relating to the issue of engaging professional bodies, and the amount to be paid to those who help in the recovery of the looted funds and lodgements into the consolidated revenue account as well as accommodating even the Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) to facilitate recovery.
We now put it up that all recovery agents that are interested in the exercise can submit their proposals for the recovery plans. It was against this background, that a lot of lawyers, both local and foreign, filed in their applications and proposals for the recovery of assets, and of particular interest was the $321 million you are talking about. The key lawyers that indicated interest are one Enrico Monfrini, a foreign lawyer, and then two other Nigerian lawyers by name Oladipo Opeseye (SAN), and Temitope Adebayo (SAN) have both shown interest. With regards to the foreign lawyer, his application was even facilitated by a former Head of State.
The foreign lawyer, Monfrini, was qouted as saying that nobody should be allowed to render this service except his legal firm, does that conform with the rules of engagement?
I will take you through, I told you that there was an agreement before this government with the foreign based lawyer Enrico Monfrini to make recovery and that he was to be paid 20-30 percent of the total amount which will be deducted from source and no payment should be made into the coffers of the federal government till his money (legal fees) is being paid.
There was this agreement, and he was indeed to be paid some amount before the coming in of this government which was not clear as to the concept and extent of what services he has rendered towards the recovery of the amount in question but at the time this government came in, the money was not even remitted by the Swizz 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, he was considered to be among those to be settled for the recovery of $321 Million dollars but he was asking of 20-30 percent which was too outrageose and it was against the conventional 5 percent approved by the federal government under President Muhammadu Buhari.
In fact, I still went ahead and wrote a letter to Mr President to consider Monfrini against the background that he was part of the recovery processes. I also tried by all means to convince him to allow the lawyer special concession of having 10-15 percent, Mr President reluctantly considered my plea.
A letter of engagement was generated for him but Monfrini rejected the offer and posited that he declined the offer based on the complexity associated with the whole excercise and wrote that he turned down the offer insisting for 20-30 percent but Mr. President refused to grant him such an offer.
And I now generated another letter opening another window for our local lawyers to continue from where he stopped. It was against this background that a consortium of Lawyers with Nigerian origins now submitted their proposals and the government was comfortable with their terms of engagement and gave the go ahead for them to help in recovering the funds from overseas which they competently handled.
The Nigerian legal practitioners immediately swung into actions, arising from that, the money was eventually recovered and paid into the consolidated Revenue Account of the federal government, they now forwarded a letter seeking to be paid the 5 percent professional fee as earlier agreed upon.
I now wrote a letter to the Central Bank seeking for the confirmation of the payment into its account, the said amount when the Apex Bank established that the money was indeed paid into its account, and went ahead to provide us with a Statement of Account to that effect stating that the money was paid into the federal government consolidated Revenue Account; now armed with these letters, I now proposed to the Minister of Finance to expidite action and ensure the payment of the legal fees promptly.
The legal practitioners were expected to process the payment of that amount into the CBN and then thereafter make a demand of the payment of their legal fee. So, what the Attorney General of Swizz did was simply to initiate the process of the Warehousing of the money and what we did here was the processions of the released of the money through legal means to the CBN.
What now led to your disagreement with the Minister of Finance on the expedious payment of the legal fees?
Now the payment is being processed and then naturally if for whatever reason the minister of finance required to know the issue at stake or the fund exceeded the limit of the threshold of her approval, there are two ways to go about it. One, it’s either to generate a memo to the president notifying him of the demand. He will then eventually give instruction for the 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 on the next line of action.
Although 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 the law to commit the federal government, of course, after due process, and judicial procedures are foĺlowed, will facilitate everything to its logical conclusion.
Why do you think that the Minister of Finance made such a dogged stand against the payment of the legal fees?
Well, I was privy to certain correspondences anyway in the media, not between her office and the office of the Attorney General and I am also privy to a press statement issued by the minister denying any exchage of correspondences between her office and his 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 an objections on something that is not there, that I think is uncalled for for me to make any comment.
But the bottom line is after I processed 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 till date.