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Abacha Loot: Finance ministry speaks on N7bn lawyers’ fees

The ministry of finance says it has no information on the payment of lawyers hired by Abubakar Malami, attorney-general of the federation (AGF), for the recovery of  $321 million looted by Sani Abacha, former military dictator.

Acting on a tip-off that the Nigerian lawyers were about to be paid, the Cable Newspaper Journalism Foundation (CNJF), a partner organisation with TheCable, had asked Kemi Adeosun, minister of finance, to explain the N7 billion fee and provide details.

The AGF had engaged Oladipo Okpeseyi, a senior advocate, and Temitope Adebayo, two Nigerian lawyers to do a job that had already been completed by Enrico Monfrini, the Swiss lawyer hired by the Nigerian government since 1999 to work on recovering the loot.

TheCable reported how the lawyers will be paid $17 million (about N7 billion) for their services, this amount nearly thrice more than what was already paid to Monfrini for the same job.

Adeosun had stalled on the payment, but she was later brought under pressure to deny blocking it.

In a Freedom of Information (FoI) request to the ministry in August, CNJF asked to be furnished with a breakdown of the amount approved and released for the lawyers since they were appointed in 2016, in addition to records showing payment timeline for the services of Monfrini.

“The Federal Ministry of Finance does not have any information regarding any payment made to the Solicitors,” the ministry said in its response to CNJF’s request in a letter dated August 30, 2018.

“You may therefore wish to direct your request to the Federal Ministry of Justice,” the ministry added.

However, Malami, in an interview with New Telegraph, said he had already proposed to the ministry for the lawyers to be paid.

“Now armed with their letters of engagement I now proposed to the Minister of Finance for the payment of their fees,” he said in the interview.

At a plenary in April, some of the lawmakers described Malami’s engagement of the lawyers as height of injustice”.

A motion was then raised by Mark Gbillah, a lawmaker from Benue state, asking the house of representatives to carry out a “forensic investigation” on the issue.

In May, TheCable reported how the ministry delays the probe by not submitting its report to the house of representatives’ ad-hoc committee set up to investigate the matter.

The AGF’s office, TheCable also reported, has been frustrating the investigation by the lawmakers.

“Of course, the AGF is trying to frustrate the investigation,” a source at the national assembly had told TheCable.

He explained that the AGF didn’t submit the required documents to help investigate the matter.

Monfrini had also questioned the engagement of the lawyers in an email interview with TheCable, saying there was nothing more to do after he had helped recover the funds from Luxembourg and domiciled them with the attorney-general of Switzerland.

He added, in another email, that the repatriation “is a matter which is normally dealt between governments and which doesn’t entail the engagement of lawyers.

CNJF had earlier requested from the AGF a copy of the agreement signed with Swiss lawyers for the recovery of the loot.

The AGF did not respond to the FoI request, and CNJF had gone to court seeking an order of mandamus compelling the AGF to make available the information and documents requested from its office pursuant to the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act, 2011.