The Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, recently featured on “Politics Today” a programme on Channels Television from the United States where he was on the federal government’s delegation to the 76th United Nation General Assembly (UNGA).
Mr Malami spoke on the ongoing negotiations to repatriate about $200 million stolen by former government officials and how the stolen monies already repatriated were expended. The minister also spoke on the loot, alleged terrorism funders, the corruption war, the VAT controversy, separatist agitations in the country, among others. PREMIUM TIMES monitored the interview. Excerpts:
Q: You talked about the recovery of $200 million looted by former public officials and stashed in the United States. Can you give us the clue as to those behind this? You said that this money was stolen by past officials. When did they steal this money?
Malami: The way this thing operates, we are very mindful of the need for confidentiality, taking into consideration the multinational engagement associated. And two, we are not interested in allowing, perhaps, pre-emptive disclosure that may have the capacity to undermine what we are doing. But at this stage, and this point, I think what matters most is the executing and signing of the mutual agreement for the repatriation of this money. We are indeed pursuing further recoveries and the recoveries are around $200 million and we are making progress, progress in the sense that the parties of interest, that is the multinational engagement, by that understanding, parties have agreed to develop some draft agreements.
One of the agreements is being developed by the Department of Justice United States of America. And on the other side of the divide, which is the Federal Government of Nigeria, is expected to put up a draft agreement for consideration and further deliberations among the parties. We are looking at the possibility of reconvening sometime in October to kick off the process of such negotiation. One thing that is fundamental and has been the tradition at whatever point…. we now come to terms with the reality on the…. (not audible) or executing the respective agreements, much disclosure—comprehensive disclosure associated with the parties of interest, associated with assets and the volume will certainly be disclosed.
The major consideration arising from understanding among the parties is some level of confidentiality, which I would not like to breach arising from the common understanding of the parties. But the amount involved is in the region of $200 million.
Q: That is a lot of money considering the state of things in the world now. A lot of people are anxious to see that money comes back. For those who believe that it is getting rather sluggish, how soon can we get this money repatriated?
Malami: I do not agree with you that, particularly as regards the use of “sluggish” taking into consideration our antecedent associated with recovery so far. As you know, this recovery has been in process for the past 20 years. And within the period this government came into office, we have succeeded in making multiple recoveries. The recovery of 322 million sometime in 2017, a recovery of 311 sometime in 2020, and associated other recoveries, within the region of 78 million pounds from the UK among others. So, within the context of the fact that we have been aggressive on recovery, which we have indeed recorded the repatriation of such recoveries to the motherland, the idea of using the word ‘sluggish’ as far as this government is concerned in terms of recovery, I think it is an unfair assessment or perhaps unfair logical deduction that cannot stand with the consideration of the recoveries effected.
So, we have been working wonderfully well in terms of making recoveries. And I think within the context of international appreciation of the issues, Nigeria as a country is the only country that has succeeded in having this much recovery in the shortest period of around six years. So, I think the word sluggish is an unfair usage of the word and cannot stand the test of time having regards to the successes recorded by the government of President Muhammadu Buhari in terms of recovery and terms of deployment of the recovered assets to infrastructural development in the country.
Q: Those who are familiar with international engagements know how difficult the wheel of justice grinds slowly. So the use of sluggish is also within the context of how….this is a multilateral engagement that is not within the power of Nigeria. But also—I know the federal government, your office has also appealed to other countries of the world to help get these funds back to Nigeria. While some Nigerians are anxious to see this money come back, they think that some other countries are sluggish in their responses, and that is why the term sluggish comes in. Are you getting the kind of response from other countries in getting these funds, perhaps a push back from other countries? Are you experiencing pushback?
Malami: Nigeria has demonstrated a greater capacity in terms of mobilising international support, international direction as far as processes and procedures relating to the recovery of illicit assets are concerned. With that in mind, other countries have been supportive of what Nigeria is doing, both in terms of building consensus relating to processes and procedure that naturally makes it easy for the repatriation of these assets. I think Nigeria has demonstrated greater leadership capacity in that direction, and it is making an advanced collaborative approach to it by way of gathering necessary supports among the international community, in terms of moving the process, in terms of developing international resolutions, in terms of developing international processes and procedures that can provide a platform whereby we can have illicit assets adequately and speedily repatriated to their countries of origin.
I think within the context of what Nigeria is doing in terms of developing international consensus-building and resolution, I think a lot of progress has been made with particular regard to speedy repatriation of assets.
Q: Before I come to this repatriation funds are being utilised and the issue of transparency, let us get an update on the looted (James) Ibori fund. You told us some time ago that you are working on getting other tranches of it back into the country, what is the latest on that?
Malami: We are still negotiating and discussing these assets being considered for repatriation—I am talking of the 200 million dollars. It constitutes the fact of those assets. We are aggressively pursuing things from multiple directions, from multiple personalities and multiple corporate bodies and we are making progress in that respect. The progress we are making relates to the exchange of draft agreement for consideration, deliberations and negotiation are all part of it. So Ibori’s and associates, Alamieyeseigha assets among others are part of the assets being considered for repatriation, and the 200 million dollars we are talking about constitute a fraction of such assets.
Q: So, what can you tell Nigerians that have received the news of repatriation with restrained optimism of these loots finding their way back to being looted again? What assurances can you give Nigerians about the state of these funds and the assurances that they are not re-looted and where those funds are being utilised. How can we track them?
Malami: In terms of assurances, I think our conduct as it relates to the recoveries, taking into consideration that we have indeed given Nigerians commitment that we will take effective steps in terms of recovery and eventually we succeeded in making such recoveries, is enough assurance that we are indeed doing the needful and we are pursuing such assets at the desired aggression. In terms of deployment of those assets, I think we have demonstrated a clear commitment which has come to pass as a reality of the situation. As you know, the first tranche 322 million dollars recovered from Switzerland was essentially deployed to social investment programmes of the federal government, the N-power, the school feeding programme, the tradermoni and associated programmes of the federal government that have succeeded in eventually bringing some level of succour to the less privileged, to the poor in the society and demonstrated our commitment to deploying the resources, based on the agreement with the international community.
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As it relates further to the 311 million dollars, which was eventually repatriated/recovered in 2020, you know very well, the commitment of Nigeria under the leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari was to have the same deployed to infrastructure. Eventually, what we are witnessing today, between Abuja and Kano in terms of road infrastructure, part of that money was deployed for that project; part of it was equally deployed to Lagos-Ibadan Expressway. We are living witnesses to the progress recorded and made to the road infrastructure associated with.
Above all, the second Niger Bridge is also a living witness to the deployment of such recovered assets. So, as far as President Muhammadu Buhari is concerned, I think there has never been a story of re-looting the assets, but a story of applying and indeed deploying the assets in line with international agreement, in line with the best practices under (not audible)and deploying same in such a way and manner that Nigerians can visibly see the effect and impact of such recoveries made in terms of deployment, in terms of application and indeed in terms of visible development, both in terms of infrastructure and in terms of improving the living condition of Nigerians.
Q: This government, one of the major agendas, is to fight corruption and fight it hard. What then would you say to those who believe that corruption is even more rampant these days?
Malami: It depends on your assessment maybe. One thing I can tell you is that the government has recorded tremendous success as far as fighting corruption is concerned. One, if you are looking at the fight from the point of recovery, I have stated that we have indeed succeeded in recovering a large sum of $322 million and an additional sum of $311 million and we are pursuing an additional sum of about $200 million. Ao, within the context of recovery, that is a clear demonstration that the fight against corruption embarked upon by President Muhammadu Buhari is paying off in terms of recovery.
If you are looking at it in terms of policy and a kind of technological deployment policy, what we have succeeded in doing as it is, for example, in terms of blocking the leakages associated with financing and funding terrorism is a clear indication of the fact that we are indeed…we are recording successes in terms of the fight against corruption. Look at the issues associated with legislation, we have put in place legislations, the effect and impact, of which is an attack, a frontal attack on the fight against corruption. If you are looking at it from the perspective of prosecution and conviction, this is a government that has recorded high profile convictions.
So within the context of legislation, within the context of policy, within the context of recovery, it is indeed not a fair assessment of the success associated with the fight against corruption under the leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari. For anyone to judge the fight against corruption as being cosmetics. It is a fight that anyone can visibly see, with real evidence on the ground, and evidence associated with improved legislation and evidence associated with allowing the institutions to now do their job without fear or favour as against a situation where we had before, where individuals are stronger than the institution, our institutions.
The fight against corruption in Nigeria is now stronger than any individual. We have recorded tremendous and unprecedented convictions of high profile personalities. If it is about legislation, we have stronger legislation; if it is about institutions, our institutions are now more robust and aggressive in the fight against corruption. If it is about recovery, you can see for yourself what we have succeeded in recovering.
Q: Let me perhaps wrap up the issue of anti-corruption (with) the Delta State matter on the Ibori loot. How have you been able to resolve it with the Delta State Government which said they want that money to come to them? Have you been able to resolve that?
Malami: The recovery was made in the name of the federal government, as you rightly know and not in the name of Delta State. So with that in mind, as far as the office of the attorney general is concerned, whatever is recovered, is recovered on behalf of the federal government and not on behalf of the subnational. With that in mind, you cannot rule out the possibility of engagement, but the fact remains that the agreement signed at the point of such recovery was an agreement that borders on Nigeria as a focal consideration not a subnational. So the true position of things is that the agreement signed, what was considered, what was under consideration was Nigeria as a victim of crime not a subnational. So the fact remains, that Nigeria was a victim of crime, and it was with that understanding that international negotiations were engaged and then recoveries made arising therefrom.
You cannot rule out the possibility of associated negotiation, but the fact remains that the victim of crime is the federal government and an agreement was signed between Nigeria and the international community about such repatriation, the understanding that Nigeria was a victim of crime and beneficiary.
Q: Let me go into those funding terror in Nigeria. The UAE for example gave names, but the federal government says no, we don’t want to go that route, we want to get to the root of that matter. What is the timeline in terms of the investigation and prosecution of these financiers? Bring us up to speed on that.
Malami: Investigation as you rightfully noted is not something you can give a clear timeline as far as its conclusion is concerned. But one thing I can tell you is that we have indeed embarked on an aggressive local and international investigation of terror funding, and indeed our investigations are yielding the desired output, arising from the investigation. A lot of people were taken into custody through the judicial processes of taking court orders and with that in mind… With the fact that court orders were obtained to take people into custody for investigation, the fact remains that the matter is a matter that has been submitted to the judicial process.
The matter, having been submitted for the judicial process, is a clear provision that no action, in terms of release and otherwise can be possibly effected without recourse to the judicial process. One thing I can further tell you, there can never be any release without recourse to the court, and no release has been effected. The fact that some people are insinuating mischievously that some people, some individuals were released is not true, and it could not have been true. Against the background that this indeed is a judicial matter, the fact that they were taken to custody arising from judicial order only accords with common sense and reason that you can only release them after having recourse to the judicial process. And no application for release was ever filed by the office of the attorney general of the federation. The fact remains that we are making progress, in terms of investigation, in terms of prosecution, and submitting the matter to judicial process.
Q: On Value Added Tax, give us the interpretation of the court judgement based on the fact one from the point of view of the federal government because as it stands now, nothing precludes the states from collecting VAT.
Malami: A lot has precluded states from collecting VAT. One, generally speaking as you rightly know, the issue of Value Added Tax is an issue that is within the exclusive legislative list. And the implication of being an exclusive legislative list matters—only the National Assembly can legislate on it.
The question that you may perhaps have your mind on is whether the existing national legislation has conferred on the states the powers to collect VAT. And my answer is no. In the absence of a law passed by the National Assembly in that direction, no state can have a valid claim to a collection of VAT. The responsibility, rights, and constitutional powers to legislate on a collection of VAT is exclusively and constitutionally vested in the National Assembly and not in the state.
And where the National Assembly has not passed any law in that regard authorising the state to collect VAT, then it goes without saying – no state can arrogate onto itself the powers to collect VAT. That is indeed the position of the federal government. But then over and above that, the fact remains that the matter has been submitted to judicial process for determination and a position has been taken that status quo be maintained.
When you are talking of the status quo as far as the collection of VAT is concerned, it is the submission of positions of both parties to judicial determination. Which position is clear – that the Federal Inland Revenue Service which has been the agency and institution vested with the power arising from the law passed by the National Assembly, is the one responsible for such collection until after the matter is virtually determined by the court. And again, the FG has decided to approach the Supreme Court because again, once a matter involves a dispute between FG and a state government, the proper court is not a high court of the state, it is not the federal high court, but indeed the Supreme Court. So the federal government is instituting an action for this matter to be settled once and for all. Certainly, we will submit to the jurisdiction to have this matter determined.
Q: Some states would believe that the VAT, they are going ahead to collect it and, at the end of this month, they would be collecting it. How would you react to such?
Malami: I believe in a constitutional order that all the states and indeed the federal government are bound by prevailing legislation relating to the issue. And above all, the parties have submitted their grievances to a judicial process. I do not see any state perhaps taking the law into its hands without allowing the process to take a natural course and in breach of prevailing legislation. I do not see the states acting arbitrarily by setting bad precedence as far as governance is concerned. With particular regards to the fact that the matter is in court. I cannot bring that thought into consideration. I believe it will amount to recklessness on the part of any state government to be in breach and a lawless governance style as far as the Nigerian state is concerned.
Q: Is the federal government planning to amend the constitution because there seems to be a vacuum or lacuna in the law relating to the VAT?
Malami: I believe it is only natural and in accord with common sense that the National Assembly which is the institution responsible for such amendment should be allowed to do its work and any grievances associated with a demand or request for constitutional amendment should as well be channelled through the National Assembly process.
What I am saying in essence is that you must allow due process to take its course, which could be either legislative or judicial. But certainly, it does not accord with the reason for any state government to take the law into its hands without allowing the judicial or legislative process to take its natural course.
Q: What I am saying is that there is a legislative bill called the executive bill. Will your office be transmitting a bill to amend the constitution? Is there a possibility of that?
Malami: As far as we are concerned, we have not seen a lacuna in the law. The constitution is clear that the power to put in place a law relating to the collection of VAT is exclusively vested in the National Assembly. It is an issue that is embedded in the exclusive legislative list. So, as far as the federal government is concerned, such lacuna is visibly seen in the constitution. And it is not resolved to make any recourse to the National Assembly by way of a bill. We have no such intention, and we are happy with what is on the ground and then we will challenge the purported laws put in place by some states, that are targeted at undermining the existing legislative arrangement. The constitution has covered the issue of VAT. We do not have any desire to put across any legislative bill in that regard.
Q: You are in New York, and you have seen the anti-Buhari and pro-Buhari protests on the ground at the UNGA. We have been seeing the division along ethnic lines. Is the federal government considering a political means of dialoguing with concerned persons and sections of this country?
Malami: I cannot rule out all possibilities, but one clear thing is that no such considerations are on the table as far as the position of the government is concerned. The agitations are international, even China, there are people from China, those that are propagating an agenda and those that are against it. If you talk of other countries, including Senegal, they are all there on the street protesting. It all boils down to freedom of association, which Nigeria has been tolerating over time, both locally and international. It is about freedom of expression, which forms part of our constitution, which we have agreed as a nation to tolerate. You cannot stop them from agitating, but as far as reaching out in terms of providing reconciliatory formwork is concerned, I think there is no serious source of concern, more so, when people– as far as the Nigerian state is concerned—have chosen among others to submit their grievances to the court of law for determination.
I think existing platforms of our judicial and extrajudicial and legislative have provided a wider platform for those that are agitating for one concerned or one grievances or the other to put across their grievances for consideration through the legislative means, among others. I think the idea of reconciliation does not come into place because nobody is fighting. But it is about the expression of opinion, it is about constitutional tolerance against the background of the constitutionality of freedom of expression.
Q: I am asking this question against the backdrop of the agitation by some for self-determination. Sunday Igboho’s case is in Oyo State. You reacted to it in New York. And the consideration of the fact that how can we stem the tide of these different agitations that are causing unrest in this country, is it by legal means or extra-legal means?
Malami: The major consideration of the federal government is the legal and legislative means. Those that believe in the constitution amendment can approach the National Assembly. Those that believe that their grievances are judicial can approach the judicial system. And the fact remains that this government is not interfering in the judicial and legislative process of the federal government.
Whoever is considering means that are outside the scope of the legislative framework, legal framework perhaps agitating out of the bounds of the constitution, the law must naturally take its course to ensure that people operate within the ambit of the law.
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