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 him out 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.
In a telephone interview with PREMIUM TIMES, Benneth Amadi, Mr Nnaka’s lawyer, said after it became clear to Mr Malami that his client was not ready to share his fees with him, he started acting in a “vindictive manner.”
“Mr Malami indeed asked my client for 70 percent of his fees. We would prove it in court. Of course I don’t expect him to admit to you that he did but we have evidence to prove it in court,” he said.
After the breakdown of the discussion between Messrs Nnaka and Malami, the AGF then appointed another attorney to represent Nigeria in the case.
Documents seen by PREMIUM TIMES shows that in May, a Los Angeles based lawyer, Anthony Egbase, notified the U.S. District Court that the Nigerian government had authorised him to appear in court as its attorney in the case.
Mr. Amadi said by the appointment of Mr Egbase, Mr. Malami may have gotten what he was not able to get from his client, Mr Nnaka. He claimed the new attorney was yet to file anything in relation to the case since he was appointed by Mr. Malami.
On why his client was asking for a fee as steep as 40 percent of the recovered fund, Mr Amadi said it was the standard practice in the United States. He however added that Mr. Nnaka was ready to negotiate for a lower fee if the federal government was ready to play ball.
“Here in the US there is what is called the contingency fee arrangement that an attorney and his client may enter into. That was the agreement he entered into with Nigeria at the time and the contingency fee is is normally 40 percent though they may negotiate and reach an agreement which may be less than the 40 percent.
“When you are negotiating someone does not negotiate against themselves. Here you are required to make your offer but how much has Nigeria offered? They have offered zero as if the whole thing is a joke.”
When contacted, Mr Malami said Mr Nnaka was “incompetent” and a “fraudster” who couldn’t recover a kobo of the stolen wealth for 14 years. He said Mr Nnaka was not licensed to practice law in the United States like he claimed.
“If he claimed he has recovered the money let him show you where the money is? Which federal government account was it designated to. As far as I am concerned I know he is not licenced as a lawyer to practice in the US. So there was a problem of misrepresentation on his part when he approached me. He didn’t disclose that,” Mr Malami said in a telephone interview with PREMIUM TIMES.
“He claimed to have been retained by AGF Olujimi over 14 years ago and as of this moment he has not succeeded in recovering a kobo for the federal government. For 14 years because he doesn’t have the competence and capacity to make any recovery he could not recover a kobo.”
He said that the letter of instruction given to Mr. Nnaka by Mr Olujimi required him to give the government feedback on his progress after which he would be given further directives on how to proceed but Mr Nnaka failed to do so because he had nothing to report.
“And in fact, even the letter of instruction he claimed to have as claimed to have emanated from Olujimi, it was provisional letter given to him to go and trace the fund and report back to the office of the Attorney general for proper instruction.
“Because of his incompetence he could not trace any fund much more come back with a formal letter. So if truly he has been engaged by the office of the attorney general and he has recovered the funds why is he now seeking further instruction.”
He added that Mr Nnaka threatened to embarrass President Buhari during one of his official visits to the United States. Mr Malami said that was the point he decided to cut further discussions with the US-based attorney.
“So when I was appointed into office he approached me for such instruction. But then what annoyed me most was that he now used threat. He threatened me that if I do not give him the letter of instruction, when Mr President’s flight arrives in New York, he would embarrass the federal government. I then became annoyed because I do not naturally stand to threat. Nobody can intimidate me like a baby for procuring a letter of instruction. And on that basis I said he should do his worst. That was the genesis of the problem.”
Interestingly, just like Mr. Naka accused him of working with the Abachas to divert the fund, Mr. Malami too accused him of working for those who does not want the funds repatriated to Nigeria.
“My logical conclusion arising from the way he behaved in court by filing series of applications so as to stop and frustrate that repatriation of the money to Nigeria is that he was not working for national interest,” the justice minister said.
“Perhaps he was working with the people from whom Nigeria is trying to recover the looted money from. Because no lawyer can pursue a case for 14 years without making any meaning progress. The position of things now is he is a clear criminal. He is clearly incompetent. We are not negotiating anything with him at all if he has a case let him go to court,” he said.
Mr Amadi, however, said Mr Malami was like a drowning man who is clutching to a straw. He said it was not true that Mr Nnaka was not licensed to practice law in the United States.
“He is just talking nonsense,” Mr. Amadi said. “He is like a sinking man trying to gather some straw, which would not help him at all. The money has been frozen in different banks in different countries. The only thing stopping the money from being repatriated is this lawsuit. If the Nigeria government agree to reach a settlement with Mr Nnaka, the court will order that the funds should be unblocked and returned to Nigeria,” he said.
“The retainer he got was go and look for the money. Take the necessary step to get where the monies are. If you see them, recovere them. To recover the money, you don’t go into a bank and start collecting the money. Necessary steps have to be taken as they are being taken now.”
On Mr Malami’s claim that Mr. Nnaka is not licensed to practice law in the United States, Mr Amadi said the AGF was merely peddling falsehood. He said Mr. Nnaka’s licence to practice in the state of Maryland was revoked, but that he still has a licence to practise in Washington DC.
“In US you have different states giving lawyers licences to practice. It is not like in Nigeria where a body of benchers give licenses to lawyers to practice throughout Nigeria. Here each state gives licenses to lawyers to practice in that state and if one needs to practice in another state you will have to get license from the state. Nnaka has license to practice in some state. He has license practice in Maryland. But there was a time he had some problem.
“He gave his cases for some lawyers to handle his cases for him so the lawyers he gave the cases to could not meet up with one case and then the matter was reported and they wrote letters, then he was not around because he was looking for this money and working on this Nigerian case before he could come back they had taken decision and withdrawn his license in Maryland. Only Maryland. But he has a license to practice in Washington DC. He has an office.
“At the time he was given the retainer to look for these funds, he was fully in licence. His license was not touched. None of them. Even if he does not have license he retained lawyers to do the work, he hired investigators to be looking for where this money was. So what the attorney general said doesn’t make sense at all,” he said.