The United States Department of Justice has alleged that the Federal Government led by the President, Major Gen Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), is planning to hand over about $100m out of the money looted by former Head of State, late Gen Sani Abacha, to Kebbi State Governor, Atiku Bagudu.
The US Department further stated that the Nigerian government was blocking attempts to recover part of the looted funds allegedly traced to Bagudu, who is the Chairman of the All Progressives Congress governor’s forum.
The Department of Justice made the claim in court papers filed before the District Court for the District of Columbia in Washington, according to Bloomberg’s reports.
Bagudu, who is a close ally of Buhari and a prominent member of the APC, was indicted by the US Government for helping Abacha to transfer billions of dollars in the mid 90s.
According to documents from the Department of Justice, Bagudu spent six months in federal detention in Texas while awaiting extradition to the Island of Jersey.
However, before he was handed over for criminal trial in Jersey, he was said to have quickly agreed to return $163m to Nigeria and was released on bond to Nigeria where he was meant to be prosecuted for money laundering.
But, on returning to Nigeria, Bagudu was cleared to contest in three different election cycles – one as a senator and two as governor – all of which he won and now enjoys immunity as an incumbent governor.
In a report published by Bloomberg on Friday, it was stated that the US Department of Justice claimed the Nigerian government was preventing the US from seizing Bagudu’s alleged loot.
“The Department of Justice also contends that the Nigerian government is hindering US efforts to recover allegedly laundered money it says it has traced to Bagudu. Buhari’s administration says a 17-year-old agreement entitles Bagudu to the funds and prevents Nigeria from assisting the US, according to recent filings from the District Court for the District of Columbia in Washington,” the report says.
According to the report, the disagreement may hamper future cooperation between Nigeria and the US to recover state money moved offshore by the late Abacha, whom Transparency International estimates may have looted as much as $5bn (about N1.8tn) during his 1993-98 rule.
“A commitment by Nigeria to transfer the funds to Kebbi state Governor Abubakar Bagudu appears to undermine Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s pledge to quell rampant graft in Africa’s top oil producer,” the report states.
Bloomberg said neither Bagudu nor a spokesman for Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami (SAN), responded to its requests for comment. It noted that a spokesman for Buhari said the settlement and the litigation were matters for Malami, adding that a spokesman for the Department of Justice also declined to comment.
Successive Nigerian governments have sought to recoup the money looted by Abacha, who died in office, and have so far repatriated more than $2bn (about N720bn) with the cooperation of other countries, according to US court filings.
The Department of Justice said in a February 3 statement that Bagudu, 58, was part of a network controlled by Abacha that “embezzled, misappropriated and extorted billions from the government of Nigeria.”
Bagudu is the chairman of the Progressives Governors Forum, which is an influential body of governors representing the ruling APC, Buhari’s party.
“Despite the forfeiture action being initiated following a Nigerian state request in 2012, Buhari’s government now says it can’t assist the US because it’s bound by a settlement Bagudu reached with the administration of the then-President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2003, according to the court filings,” the report states.
Under the terms of that accord, which was approved by a UK court, Bagudu returned $163m (N58.68bn) of alleged laundered money to the Nigerian authorities, which in exchange dropped all outstanding civil and criminal claims against him “stemming from his involvement in government corruption,” according to a December 23 memorandum opinion by District Judge John D. Bates in Washington D.C.
That meant “Nigeria renounced any interest whatsoever” in Bagudu’s trust assets, including those the US is attempting to recover for the West African nation, the opinion stated.
Bagudu was able to return to Nigeria after concluding the settlement and was elected as a senator in 2009. Six years later, he was voted in as Kebbi’s governor in elections that brought Buhari and his party to power.
After Bagudu successfully sued Nigeria for violating the 2003 settlement, Buhari’s administration, which anchored its campaigns on three cardinal promises, including fight against corruption, reached a new agreement with him in October 2018, according to the court filings.
“That would result in the transfer of ownership of the investment portfolios, worth €141m ($155m) (about N55.8bn) to the Nigerian state, which would then pay €98.5m (about N38.61bn) to Bagudu and his affiliates, according to Bates’ December 23 opinion. The funds are currently restrained by the UK at the request of the US.
Nigeria’s government claims the updated 2018 agreement with the Kebbi governor, which requires court approval in the UK, will “curtail and mitigate its looming exposure” from the judgement in Bagudu’s favour.
Buhari’s administration submitted the 2018 deal to the UK court in September to support its application to unfreeze the assets so they can be sent to Nigeria, according to the opinion. The court has yet to make a decision.
Presidency, AGF dismiss US justice dept’s allegations
Meanwhile, the Presidency, in its response to the report, said on Friday that the Federal Government had more looted funds to recover overseas and would not agree to anyone trying to complicate its efforts at making the recovery.
It said in a statement that the $308m (about N110bn) Abacha loot on which Nigeria recently secured an agreement for repatriation of the funds to Nigeria, would be spent solely on the terms of the agreement, and nothing else.
The statement by the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, was however silent on the allegations raised by the US Justice Department that the Federal Government was planning to give about $100m to Bagudu and that it was blocking attempts to retrieve loot from the Kebbi governor.
The statement partly read, “We have a lot more money to recover overseas and no one has the right to complicate things for the government of our country.
“The United States and the British crown dependency of Jersey have agreed with the President and government of Nigeria to repatriate $308m funds connected to former Nigerian military ruler, General Sani Abacha, the three governments said.
“By a decision of this government, the entire sum will be paid to the Nigerian Sovereign Investment Authority, NSIA and will be used in expediting the construction of the three major infrastructure projects across Nigeria – namely Lagos-Ibadan Expressway; Abuja–Kano Expressway and the Second Niger Bridge.
“The position of the Buhari administration is still the same on this. The Embassy of the United States may be approached for any clarification on the agreement already reached by the three parties.”
Also, the Special Adviser, Media and Public Relations, Office of the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Dr Umar Jibrilu Gwandu, while dismissing the allegations by the US said, “The story regarding paying a governor certain amount of the repatriated Abacha loot is unfounded and baseless.
“It is only a fiction and figment of imagination of mischief-makers who are bent on destroying the good efforts of the Federal Government. The report should be disregarded by any sensible and well-meaning persons.”
Also, efforts to get Bagudu’s reaction were not successful as calls made to his Special Assistant on Media, Yahaya Sarki, were not answered. He had also yet to respond to the messages were also not responded to as of the time of filing this report.
PDP, CACOL, others demand probe as SERAP heads to court
Major opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party, described the refusal of the Presidency to speak on the alleged plan by the Federal Government to block the recovery of the money and give part of the money to Bagudu as an indication that the government was not sincere “despite its acclaimed integrity and fight against corruption.”
The party, therefore, called on Nigerians to ask the President to speak on the alleged plan to pay the governor the huge sum.
National Chairman of the party, Prince Uche Secondus, who spoke to one of our correspondents on the issue, also called on the United States Government to insist that the government must explain how it would spend the money when repatriated.
He said, “Remember that the President even said the late General Abacha did not steal a kobo from the Nigeria government? So, if the same regime is planning to give a governor that huge sum of money from the loot, then you should understand.
“I want Nigerians to demand probe, as we are doing now. Poverty is killing Nigerians. The roads are bad, airports are almost dysfunctional and nothing seems to be working. The majority of Nigerians cannot even afford a meal a day. Killings are on the increase, Nigerians are losing their jobs while businesses are closing down. Government is not talking or addressing these issues, but it would pretend that everything is okay and would rather give such a large sum of money to a governor on the platform of his party. We cannot continue like that.”
Also, a civil society organisation, Centre for Anti-Corruption and Open Leadership, has asked the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and the independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission to prosecute any political office holder linked to the late Abacha’s loot.
The Executive Chairman, CACOL, Mr Debo Adeniran, noted in an interview with Saturday PUNCH that the Federal Government should “stop engaging in self-denial” and allow the anti-graft agencies to probe anyone linked to Abacha’s loot. He said it was not possible for the former Head of State to have singlehandedly stolen the country’s money.
He said, “Since a very long time, we have been raising the argument that there is no way only the former Head of State, Abacha, could have laundered so much money without having some other agencies or persons in government or out of government with him.
“We have advised the EFCC to stretch its dragnet beyond the Abacha family to include those who worked with that government. Basically, we are gradually having clues around the Abacha loot.
“Most of it may not have been stolen by Abacha alone. EFCC and ICPC have a lot of work to do to unearth those behind or linked to the loot. Now that Nigeria has mutual legal assistance treaty with the United States of America, more should be achieved.
“It is unthinkable that after many years, nobody apart from the late Abacha is being castigated for the laundering of that money. We are aware that it is not possible for only one person to launder the country’s money abroad.”
Meanwhile, anti-corruption group, Socio-Economic Right and Accountability Project, has rejected attempts by Buhari’s government to hand over $100m to Bagudu. It, however, said it would take legal action.
In a tweet on Friday, SERAP stated, “The reported plan by the Nigerian government to give $100m from loot recovered from Sani Abacha to Kebbi State Governor, Atiku Bagudu, is a betrayal of the victims of corruption and an affront to the UN Convention against corruption. We’ll sue to stop this from ever happening.”
There was, however, outrage on Friday after the story went viral, with many accusing the Buhari government of hypocrisy and shielding corrupt persons, especially concerning the Federal Government’s much touted anti-corruption fight.
As of 10pm on Friday, Abacha and Bagudu were part of the top trends on Twitter. As of the time of filing this report, Abacha as a trend had about 12,500 tweets while Bagudu had 8,097 tweets.
One of those who commented, Misogynist-General, tweeted via @VillageParrot, “Buhari wants to give $100m of the repatriated Abacha loot to Kebbi Governor, who helped Abacha loot the funds in the first place. America disagrees. That is how Buhari is fighting corruption. End of discussion.”
Also, Adetutu Balogun, who tweeted via @Tutsy22, wrote, “US Govt is opposing Buhari’s plan to give $100m of Abacha loot to Kebbi State Governor Bagudu. The man that helped Abacha to steal the money. Let me just wait for Buharists to come and tell us who sensible Buhari is.”
In his comment on the website of The PUNCH, one Azzo wrote, “The point is that there is a guilty party to the whole loot in Buhari’s government in the person of Bagudu. Buhari claims to be fighting corruption, what is Bagudu still doing in the APC unchecked and even so a key figure? Why is Buhari not interested in investigating Bagudu whether or not the loot was during the PDP era. We are all about matters at hand right now and not at any other time. If it weren’t broke we would not be needing a new party (APC) to repair it. I am 100% sure no one knew about Bagudu’s involvement in the Abacha loot during the Abacha regime until now.”