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.