Temitope Adebayo, one of the Nigerian lawyers hired by the federal government for the repatriation of $321 million Abacha Loot, says they got the job because Enrico Monfrini, the Swiss lawyer “didn’t deliver”.
In 2016, about a year into President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration, Adebayo and Oladipo Okpeseyi were engaged by Abubakar Malami, attorney-general of the federation (AGF), for the repatriation of the money to Nigeria.
The money, before then, had been recovered from Luxembourg and domiciled with the attorney-general of Switzerland for final restitution to Nigeria.
Monfrini, in series of interviews with TheCable had insisted that there were no needs for the engagement of new lawyers as he had already completed the recovery job and all that was left was for the AGF to request, in writing, from the Switzerland government for the money to be paid to Nigeria.
For eight months, the AGF did not respond to TheCable’s freedom of information (FoI) request seeking information and documents on this matter, but Adebayo, eventually, spoke with TheCable, describing Monfrini as a lawyer who was only interested in his fees and cared less about the final repatriation of the money to Nigeria.
“Monfrini was advancing his personal interest more than that of Nigeria, his client,” Adebayo said.
‘MONFRINI DIDN’T PROVIDE LETTER TO CONFIRM TRANSFER TO NIGERIA’
In 2014, Mohammed Adoke, the then AGF wrote Oliver Jornot, the attorney-general of Geneva for the money to be paid into the special recovery account of the Nigerian government with the Bank for International Settlements (BIS)— after a 4% deduction has been made as Monfrini’s fees.
And with this, Monfrini explained that the money had been available to the Nigerian government as early as December 2014.
But Adebayo alleged that when they got involved, they found that the attorney-general of Geneva had decided to authorise the transfer of the money to Bern, after waiting for a letter from Monfrini and the letter never came.
He said Monfrini had developed a mechanism for use and he was expected to communicate to Geneva in writing.
“When the money was transferred from Luxembourg to Switzerland, it was blocked in an account in Geneva under the control of the Geneva prosecutor. The Geneva prosecutor had been waiting for a letter from Monfrini confirming the agreement of the BIS to receive the money, and this letter never came. I understand the money was therefore transferred to the federal authorities in Bern. The Geneva prosecutor lost control of the money,” Adebayo quoted from an email they received from a senior lawyer whom he said they hired to work with them.
He said they wrote a letter confronting the Swiss government, asking why the Swiss involved, Monfrini inclusive, have been paid their fees and the balance hadn’t been returned to Nigeria.
“When they saw that letter, initially they didn’t respond, and we sent via email and they responded that we should meet them in Geneva. We travelled there, and when they saw the level of seriousness and the way things were going, they quickly rushed to Nigeria to sign letter of intent that they want to pay the money,” he said.
Adebayo explained that the federal government needed money and they couldn’t understand Monfrini again.
“He had collected his fees and was no longer interested in what’s to be repatriated to Nigeria,” he said.
“We are Nigerians and we have a stake in this country. We have an emotional connection to the case more than the Swiss. He could afford to keep the money in Geneva and it would be helping their economy. The money could be lost, but we can’t afford it to be lost.
“To let you see that these guys were not eager to release the fund, when we got involved and the letter of intent was signed, it still took them more than a year and a half for them to release the money to Nigeria. We got on the work in 2016, and the money came in in December 2017.”
‘WE RECOVERED THE MONEY, NOT MONFRINI’
The Nigerian lawyer argued that they were the ones who did the recovery — even though they only came into the picture two years after the funds had been recovered from various accounts and domiciled with the AG of Switzerland.
“You put money where your client cannot access it, is that recovery? Recovery is bringing it back to the owner. You have to follow the process through. As a recovery lawyer, we tie all loose ends to ensure money reaches destinations. Recovery is not complete until the owner gets his money. You said you’ve recovered and three years after you are still looking at the money far off?” he said.
Adebayo maintained that they didn’t duplicate Monfrini’s job, and that the Swiss lawyer lost control after the negoatiation that led to the release of the money from Luxembourg to Geneva.
“We traced the money to Bern. We were the ones who gave that information. At the time we were applying for the job, everybody thought the money was in Geneva. We were the one that confirmed to the federal government that the attorney-general of Geneva had transferred it to Bern. We caused a letter of demand to be written to them where we made them to realise the illogicality of holding on to the money, and we began to follow that process through.
“When this government came on board, it got itself dedicated to getting our looted funds back to the coffers of the federal government. And as a result of that, they invited people that knew about where Nigeria’s monies were all over the world to come with information, especially lawyers, and to come with application to help in repatriating the funds.”
He added that he and Okpeseyi, before then, had been engaging some lawyers in the UK who told them that some of the Abacha loot were still stashed all over.
“So we applied as Nigerian lawyers, asking for instruction to pursue this thing. We asked for deposit on account so we can have money to run around, but the president refused. Unlike what they did with Monfrini, they used to give them a million or $2 million dollars deposit on account, and normally that should be the practice. The president said no, that the lawyers should go and look for money, and despite raising money for themselves, they won’t take more than 5% from the recovered fund. Foreign lawyers, in this kind of recovery normally take between 20-30%, but this government said they won’t pay more than 5%.”
On January 6, 2016, the lawyers got the letter of instruction and power of attorney for the repatriation of the money.
“They gave us the brief and I persuaded my partner who was worried about us not ending up incurring liabilities in the case government changes and or something else happens. I pleaded with him for us to go and raise the money and we approached litigation funders in the UK to fund the entire process,” he said.
He said they couldn’t come to an agreement with litigation funders who were ready to provide $2 million but would take a 10% cut from the recovered money, and they resorted to taking loans to do the job.
“The federal government’s decision to take it from Monfrini and give to us was because of Mofrini’s seeming non-commitment to the final repatriation,” he said.
“Monfrini was the one who was advising the federal government in respect of these funds before. When the Luxembourg fund was about to be released, he was the one that advised Adoke in 2014 to write a letter detailing deductions to be made. As an expert in the field, he knew that the money was going to be withheld, shouldn’t he have advised Adoke on this? He gave impression to the government that the money would be paid simultaneously. And that was what made Adoke sign that letter.”
He said Monfrini wasn’t the “almighty tracking the money”, that a panel set up by Abdulsalami Abubakar, former military ruler, had investigated and found where the monies stolen by Abacha family were.
“And when Monfrini says the remaining thing is just government to government, he should know everything in asset recovery is always government to government,” Adebayo said.
“What lawyers do is to advise the government. We advised the government to send out mutual legal assistance (MLA) letters to all the jurisdictions the money went. It’s government power that you can use to trace money in bank. The monies in Luxembourg were forfeited through the activities of the canton of Geneva.
“What Monfrini did was a watching brief. Being the agent of the Nigerian government, he was writing letters and facilitating meetings.”
For about seven years, Adebayo said, there were no activities on this matter.
“I think one of the reasons the AGF ended Monfrini’s service was because, when they got their own percent of the money, they abandoned Nigeria,” he said.
“Monfrini is a Swiss citizen. The money had come into their country, our AGF (Adoke) wrote them, release money to this number of people and the balance, credit our BIS account, but they withheld the money for three years, and we are now saying the new AGF should still retain the same person to continue to advise Nigerian government?”
When they were negotiating the agreement, Adebayo alleged that Monfini’s plan was that all these monies should first go to the USA and then the USA decides whether it would give it to Nigeria or not. In 2012, he alleged Monfrini had sent an MLA to the USA, and in 2014 the Abacha family agreed for the repatriation of the money to Nigeria.
“When the negotiation was going on, Monfrini wanted to get a clause on the agreement that they will not disallow USA from having direct repatriation of those funds in those jurisdictions but the Abacha family said no, insisting money must go to Nigeria. Grudgingly, he accepted. And that was what led to the agreement— that the money should go back to Nigeria,” he said.
“That, for me, again must have played in the AGF’s mind that why can’t we develop local capacities and look for people that can do this thing within Nigeria?”
WHY CAN’T THE AGF WRITE A SIMPLE LETTER INSTEAD OF APPOINTING NEW LAWYERS?
Adebayo said he wouldn’t know if the AGF attempted to write to his counterpart in Switzerland as Monfrini insisted this was all left for the money to be in Nigeria and not engaging new lawyers.
“I’m not sure,” Adebayo said, adding that the AGF would be in a better position to answer that.
“It is not in my place to answer the question. What I know is that I was aware money belonging to Nigeria was hanging somewhere and we applied for it to be repatriated. It’s like when somebody is owing you money, and I apply for you to engage me to go and get the money.”
When asked if they, newly engaged lawyers, were aware of what Monfini had done, and could have possibly advised the AGF to only do a letter to Switzerland — so Nigeria wouldn’t have to pay lawyers another 4% from the money, he said things don’t work that way.
“It’s a process. I laugh when Monfrini say it’s mere government to government affairs, because he was not the one that went to court for Nigeria. It was the prosecutor of Geneva. Lawyers are just to sit at the background and advise the government on what to do. You can’t get to the middle and abandon it and say it’s a government to government affair. Who is going to move the hand of the government?” he asked.
He said if the repatriation agreement was that the money would be transferred in kind, that is using the money for projects in Nigeria, Monfrini would have said to have completed his job. But the agreement, Adebayo said, was that the money should be transferred in cash.
“And your client has not received the money and you are claiming you have finished the work?” he asked.
‘WE HAVE NOT BEEN PAID’
TheCable had reported how the two Nigerian lawyers would be paid about N7 billion from the recovered money, and in an interview with New Telegraph, Malami disclosed he had already proposed to the ministry of finance for the lawyers to be paid.
Adebayo, however, said they are still waiting and yet to be paid.
“Not a kobo has been paid us,” he said.
“We agreed that we would be paid when the money is recovered. When the money was recovered, we applied to the government for our payments and this was transmitted to the ministry of finance, and we are still waiting.”
He added that they used the services of experts in Switzerland and elsewhere and they have bills on them to clear.
At reporting, the head of external relations at the office of the Swiss attorney-general was yet to respond to TheCable’s enquiry on why a letter was expected from Monfrini for the recovered money to be returned to Nigeria.