The Federal and Delta State Governments may be heading for another round of confrontation, and perhaps legal tango over the controversial 4.2 million pounds (GBP) recently repatriated to Nigeria by the British government being part of looted funds recovered from former governor of Delta State, James Onanefe Ibori. The federal government has foreclosed the possibility of allowing the oil-rich state to benefit directly from the returned funds. The monies were recovered from Ibori who was governor between 1999 and 2007, some members of his family, and mistress. The federal government on May 10, 2021 formally took custody of the repatriated funds, popularly referred to as the Ibori loot, from Britain.
Recall that when an agreement was signed with the British government on the recovered funds, the attorney general of the Federation and minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, senior advocate of Nigeria, SAN had announced that the money would be channeled to funding three national infrastructures, namely the Abuja-Kano highway, Lagos-Ibadan expressway, and second Niger Bridge, being part of the agreement reached with the government of United Kingdom, UK. The Delta State government and prominent citizens of the state however kicked, and demanded that the money be returned to the state or used to fund some identified federal road projects in the state since it was taken out of the state.
On Wednesday at his quarterly media parley in Asaba, the state capital, the state governor, Ifeanyi Okowa renewed his appeal to the federal government on the request. Okowa said “Now that the money is in the country, we are in the process of making sure it is returned to the state. Letters have been written and we have made appeals to Mr. President and the attorney general of the federation.
“We asked for two things; it’s either the money is returned to us or the money is applied to projects in Delta State and we have suggested some projects to which the money can be applied. The £4.2 million is about N2.2 billion by current exchange rates”.
That request has however been turned down as the federal government insisted Wednesday night that the agreement signed with the British government was “cast in stone” and had been “signed, sealed and delivered”.
The attorney general of the federation and minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, senior advocate of Nigeria, SAN, who made the federal government’s final position known on Channels Television programme, Politics Today monitored by TELL, admitted that there had been correspondences between the federal government and the state government but stuck to his gun that there was no going back on the terms of the agreement with UK.
According to Malami, “Against the background of the fact that an agreement has been signed, against the background of the sanctity of an agreement, it is difficult within the limited consideration of the sanctity of an agreement; within the limited consideration of an international diplomacy, to bring in new considerations after indeed the whole process has been consummated.
“So, in as much as there exists such correspondence from Delta State government, the fact remains that that consideration perhaps can be a kind of considerable proposal as it relates to further negotiations. But as it is, the issue that borders on 4.2 (million pounds) has been signed, sealed, and delivered and Nigeria does not stand a possibility of revisiting same after the repatriation. Perhaps it could have been a possibility before the signing of the agreement, before the repatriation of the money, but certainly not after”.
He said it would be “a reputational issue” within the context of international diplomacy for Nigeria to change its mind “because you are in agreement and you are expected, within the context of the sanctity of an agreement to be bound by what you have agreed upon”.
On the possibility of legal action, the attorney general suggested that it might not achieve anything. He said “You cannot throw out the possibility of a legal action but no legal action can now operate to perhaps maybe bring UK to table for the purpose of renegotiating because as far as this agreement is concerned, it’s signed, sealed and delivered. So, the issue is whether within the context of that agreement, there exists legal rights and obligations that can undo what has been done”.
Affirming the decision of the federal government on how to utilise the repatriated funds and why it cannot be reversed, Malami said “Certainly, it’s the plan and it is the plan against the background of the international commitment that had been given by Nigeria to United Kingdom as it relates to the process of engagement, process of negotiation, inbuilt transparency and accountability associated with the process.
“The way international diplomatic processes operate with particular regard to the recovery of looted assets is more or less about engagement among the nations of interest; in these circumstances, Nigeria and the UK. So, how does it operate?
“It is a process that does not allow for the hook, line and sinker operation, application, and enforcement of Nigerian law exclusively. But it’s a process that factors mutual consideration among the parties of interest. And that mutual engagement, that mutual negotiation, gave rise to what we had as an agreement signed by the two parties – Nigeria and UK. And embedded in that agreement, there is an understanding or factors relating to transparency and accountability on account of which Nigeria and UK came to terms relating to the application of the funds recovered.
“The mutual understanding is an understanding that key projects existing in the nation – Abuja-Kano highway, Lagos-Ibadan expressway, and second Niger bridge – should be considered for the purpose of deployment of this resources with a view to ensure that key infrastructural development projects that affect the entire nation be the utmost beneficiaries of this funds.
“And within the context of the understanding reached, against the background of the agreement signed, I do not see Nigerian State deviating, or perhaps in any way operating in breach as far as that understanding is concerned”.
Asked if the agreement is cast in stone, the nation’s number one law officer enthused: “It’s certainly cast in stone as far as the limited recovery that has already been made is concerned. But then one cannot rule out the possibility of perhaps certain extraneous considerations as it relates to the larger sum being expected which is within the region of around 80 million pounds. “You see, truly, there has been such communications, or correspondence, letters emanating from the state down to the federal government with a particular regard to request for reconsideration. But the point that I think is important for consideration is that the recovery is a function of mutual agreement and mutual agreement as agreed between two nations. So, it’s not an issue that is exclusively within the powers of the federal government as it stands to revisit without recourse to United Kingdom from which country these funds were recovered”.
On why it appeared that the UK was the one dictating the tune, Malami disagreed, saying “I think the question you need to ask yourself is why must a Nigerian consider UK as a destination for looted assets? If Nigerian asset is not looted down to UK, UK wouldn’t have a say as to what we do”.