SaharaReporters, New York
The Federal Government of Nigeria shelled out a whopping $1.6 million in a legal settlement in the United States in 2008, as well as N30 million in related expenses in Nigeria.
And it was not even a party in the matter.
Involved in the matter was General Abdulsalami Abubakar, who was briefly Head of State of Nigeria following the death of General Sani Abacha in 1998. Mr. Abubakar was sued by the Hafsat Abiola, Enahoro et al. in the US for human rights violations. In order to avoid trial, Abubakar appealed to then President Umaru Yar’Adua to provide financial assistance for an out-of court settlement including instructions that his US lawyer, Emeka Ugwuonye be paid for his services.
Documents available to SaharaReporters from the office of Mr. Michael Aondoakaa, the former Attorney General of the Federation and Minister for Justice, show how freely the funds flowed. Mr. Aondoakaa sent the documents in a letter to the Embassy of the United States in Nigeria aimed at proving that Ugwuonye, a Nigerian lawyer who works in the United States, was fully paid for the services he performed for the former military dictator.
Smarting from revocation of his visa, Mr. Aondokaa, according to the letter, wanted to debunk recent allegations by Mr. Ugwuonye that he (Aondoakaa) hired him to bribe Supreme Court justices to validate, Mr. Yar’Adua’s flawed 2007 election into office. In recent postings on a listserv, Mr. Ugwuonye claimed he possessed email communication between him and Aondoakaa requesting his services to help bribe Supreme Court justices. Mr. Aondoakaa has challenged Mr. Ugwuonye to release the emails to the public but the controversial attorney has failed to do so.
Mr. Ugwuonye, who is on trial in Nigeria for fraud relating to the illegal confiscation of proceeds of tax refunds from real estate transactions undertaken for the Nigerian embassy in the US, has often said that he was never paid for his representation of Mr. Abubakar, a reason he has given as being responsible for his confiscation of $1.5 million Embassy of Nigeria tax refunds that he had access to. The documents obtained by SaharaReporters shows that Ugwuonye was retained by the former military dictator, Abdusalam and not the Nigerian government.
The documents available to SaharaReporters also shows that Ugwuonye was fully paid for his services to the former military president via a transaction in which he fully participated providing his US bank account records to Aondoakaato (by email) facilitate the remittance of $750,000. This transaction was concluded to Mr. Ugwuonye’s satisfaction.
How freely did the largesse of the federal government flow from Yar’Adua in this case? At an exchange rate of N119.15 on April 8, 2008:
· $750,000.00 was paid to ECU Associates, owned by Mr. Ugwuonye, representing Mr. Abubakar;
· $800,000 was paid to the plaintiff’s counsel;
· N30 million was paid to Summit Chambers, Mr. Abubakar’s Nigeria lawyers; and
· $50,000, to the Federal Ministry of Justice, for documentation; and the entire process was concluded and documented.
The documents literally put paid to the claims by Mr. Ugwuonye that he seized the tax refunds belonging to the Nigeria Embassy in Washington DC because the government was owing him, although, even then, it is unclear how services rendered to a private individual (former military president Abubakar) came to be considered services to the Nigerian nation.
It is also of great interest that the entire payout was wrapped up—from Mr. Abubakar’s first letter to the Chief of Staff to the President, Major General A. Mohammed, on the 17th of January 2008 to the great payday on May 8, 2008—in just over three months. Under normal circumstances in Nigeria, that process would have taken years.
This story—and the documents now available—demonstrate how flippantly Nigeria’s rulers disburse the nation’s scarce resources in favour of citizens and causes of their choosing. While it is true that Mr. Abubakar had said he did not accept the jurisdiction of the US authorities over the matter, he seemed quite happy as long as it was the national purse, not his own considerable resources, that were being emptied so that he would not need to defend himself. President Yar’Adua, who ordered both the payment and evidently influenced the sprint at which the funds were disbursed, did not seem to care, either.
Mr. Abubakar also said in his letter to Yar’Adua’s Chief of Staff that he had turned down an approach by the plaintiff’s lawyer to settle out of court because he believed that “the clear motive of this suit in the first instance was to extort money.”
But then, wrote Mr. Abubakar: “It is at this juncture that a well-meaning Nigerian intervened and requested the plaintiff’s lawyer to terminate the case. The lawyer agreed to do so on the condition that he be paid certain amount to offset his expenses.”
The former Head of State did not clarify whether the well-meaning Nigerian meant well for Nigeria, or for the well-connected former ruler.
In that 17th of January 2008 letter to Major General Mohamed, Mr. Abubakar outlined all the monies that needed to be paid out. The documents show that General Mohamed gave approval just four days later, on January 21.
One day after that approval, on 22 of January 2008, Mr. Abubakar, in memo AAA/757/CHCASE, authorize the AGF to act on his behalf with the Honourable Minister of Finance “to effect the necessary remittance of payments to all the parties as per the President’s approval.”
The Attorney General must have done so, with alacrity:
On February 25, Mr. Salman N. Mann, the Deputy Director (Budget) of the Federal Ministry of Justice, fired off a memo (CA/3/97/Vol.1) to the Minister of Finance. Waving a photocopy of “Mr. President’s approval,” he asked for the Authority to Incur Expenditure (AIE) from the Service Wide Vote of the President.
April 8, the Accountant-General of the Federation, in a memo signed by Mr. Babayo Shehu, asked the Central Bank of Nigeria to release $1.6 million and N30 million, “IMMEDIATELY,” to effect “final settlement” of the lawsuit.
Exactly one month later, on May 9, the Assistant Director (Payment and Settlement) of the Central Bank of Nigeria sent a memo to the Director of Finance of the Federal Ministry of Justice confirming that the payments to the United States law firms had been made the previous day.
In his letter to the US Embassy, Mr. Aondoakaa noted that up to the time he left office on the February 10, 2010 (about 21 months later), the Federal Government had received no complaints from any of the parties for non-payment of the approved fees.
The letter also pointed out that ECU Associates, including Mr. Ugwuonye, was never briefed by Mr. Aondoakaa to handle any matter on behalf of the Federal Government of Nigeria. Mr. Ugwuonye had given such an impression.
Furthermore, the letter said neither Mr. Aondoakaa nor the Federal Government of Nigeria briefed ECU Associates or Mr. Ugwuonye to handle the defence of Gen. Abdulsalami, and that if they had any issues they could have approached Mr. Abubakar, as he was the one who had hired them.
“These facts can be independently verified by the Press, and US or Nigerian authorities,” the former AGF said, calling for an investigation. “The falsehood by ECU Associates or Mr. Ugwuonye is an unjustified campaign of calumny to perpetrate blackmail against Aondoakaa and the Federal G Mr. Ugwuonye, who is facing trial in Nigeria and had made a habit of litigating against Nigerian citizens who exposed the shady underhand dealing involving the seizure of embassy fund, began raising sponsored articles and petition on the internet that his life was in danger due to his upcoming trial for fraud in Nigeria.