Abubakar Atiku Bagudu, governor of Kebbi state and former senator, has been in the news lately over plans by the US to help Nigeria repatriate $308 million from the British Island of Jersey.
The funds are part of the billions of dollars traced to Sani Abacha, the late military dictator who ruled Nigeria from November 1993 till his sudden death in June 1998, and his associates.
Nigeria has repatriated various sums since 1998 when the recovery efforts began under Abdulsalami Abubakar, who succeeded Abacha in office.
On February 3, 2020, a repatriation agreement was signed by Mark Temple, the solicitor-general and attorney-general designate of Jersey, on behalf of Jersey, Brian Benczkowski, a deputy assistant attorney on behalf of the US, and Abubakar Malami, the attorney-general of the federation (AGF).
The federal government has said it plans to spend the $308 million on funding three ongoing projects, dubbed the “triplets”: the second Niger bridge, the Lagos-Ibadan expressway and the Abuja-Kaduna-Zaria-Kano expressway.
BAGUDU TO RECEIVE $100 MILLION FROM ABACHA LOOT?
Shortly after the agreement was signed in the US, Bloomberg wire service reported that officials of the US department of justice (DoJ) were kicking against plans by the Nigerian government to return $100 million to Bagudu from the Abacha Loot.
The DoJ had said in a February 3 statement — separate from the joint statement earlier issued with Nigeria — that Bagudu was part of a network controlled by Abacha that “embezzled, misappropriated and extorted billions from the government of Nigeria”.
The Bloomberg report said paying the money to Bagudu “may hamper future cooperation between the two nations (US and Nigeria) to recover state money moved offshore by Abacha”.
Effectively, the Bloomberg report suggested that Nigeria would get only $208 million from the latest repatriation while Bagudu would be paid the balance.
This incurred the anger of many Nigerians, but Malami has moved to dispel the report, maintaining that Bagudu would not be paid a dime from the funds recovered from the Abacha family.
BACKGROUND: THE OBASANJO DEAL
In 1999, the Nigerian government engaged Enrico Monfrini, a Swiss lawyer, to launch legal proceedings to recover assets linked to Abacha, his family and associates in Switzerland, France, Jersey, the UK and other jurisdictions.
The assets of Bagudu, who was an associate of the Abacha family, were frozen along with those traced to the Abachas.
However, Bagudu launched civil proceedings against the federal government over the freezing of the investment portfolios held by his company, known then as Ridley Group.
In 2003, after a series of litigation, President Olusegun Obasanjo decided to resolve the issue out of court by entering into an “original settlement agreement” with Bagudu and a “global settlement agreement” with the Abachas.
In the “final resolution” with Bagudu seen by TheCable, the following terms were agreed:
• The federal government would drop all civil and criminal claims against Bagudu in the UK
• Bagudu would drop all civil claims against the federal government
• Bagudu would forfeit some assets to the federal government
• He would then keep his investment portfolios
The agreement, dated August 21, 2003, was subsequently approved by a UK court and registered with the National Crimes Agency (NCA) — with section 12 stating that “this Agreement is governed by English Laws, and the English Courts shall have jurisdiction over any disputes arising out of or in connection with it.”
The recovered funds, including an estimated $1 billion traced to the Abacha family who were allowed to keep $100 million as part of the settlement, were thereafter repatriated to Nigeria.
Obasanjo would later confess that allowing the Abacha family to keep $100 million was the hardest decision of his life.
In 2004, Bagudu’s previously disputed assets in Ridley, his old company, were settled in new companies under Blue Family Trusts, and he continued to do business in the UK — until a twist in the tale in 2013.
THE ADOKE LETTERS
On August 28, 2012, Mohammed Bello Adoke, as AGF and minister of justice, wrote a “letter of request” to the US department of justice, enlisting their support to recover more Abacha loot.
This was the beginning of the current dispute as the DoJ, acting on Adoke’s letter, commenced a criminal case in the District Court in Washington DC on November 18, 2013 against Bagudu’s companies as part of the claim against the Abachas.
On February 25, 2014, the assets of Blue Family Trusts were frozen by the English Commercial Court based on an exparte application filed by DoJ — grounded on its money laundering proceedings in DC.
Ricky Tarfa, Bagudu’s lawyer, wrote a letter to Adoke on March 12, 2014 to inform him about the development, which was apparently at variance with the agreement reached with the Obasanjo government in 2003.
Bagudu’s lawyers wrote to Adoke over asset freeze proceedings by the US department of justice
In a reply dated March 14, 2014, and written on Adoke’s behalf by Taiwo Ogunleye, his senior special assistant, he advised Tarfa that Bagudu should enter appearance in the UK proceedings “with a view to seeking a variation of the Orders of the Court so as to preserve and/or exclude the assets that were subject to the Agreement of 21st August 2003”.
Meanwhile, Bagudu’s lawyers filed an appeal against the freeze in the UK and it was upheld by the Court of Appeal on the ground that the procedure followed by the US was wrong.
Thereafter, TheCable understands, the US — switching from the civil case — wrote to the NCA, the UK agency of government responsible for economic crimes across regional and international borders, to request that the assets held by Blue Trusts be frozen.
According to the DoJ, some of the transactions which passed through US banks and were carried out using US dollars should be considered as “the fruit of a poisonous tree”.
On April 16, 2014, Bagudu and his companies filed a settlement agreement claim against Nigeria in the UK over the non-compliance with the 2003 agreement.
Bagudu complained to President Goodluck Jonathan, according to sources in the know.
Adoke to write to the US to clarify that Blue’s assets were not part of the Abacha loot to be recovered.
On June 16, 2014, Adoke wrote to the asset forfeiture money laundering section of the DoJ, reiterating that by the terms of the August 21, 2003 settlement agreement between Bagudu and Nigeria, “the Federal Government of Nigeria has no claim” over Blue’s assets.
He said Bagudu and the Blue companies were entitled to keep the assets under section 7.8(b) of the settlement agreement.
The clause says Bagudu and his companies shall hold the assets “free from any claims existing or future, direct or indirect, contemplated or otherwise by the FRN or in whole or part at its behest or on its behalf or for its benefit”.
Adoke concluded: “Accordingly, and respecting the contractual commitment made by the Federal Republic of Nigeria to the United States, I would ask that insofar as the Letter of Request from the Federal Republic of Nigeria to the United States can be read as relating to Mr Bagudu and/or the Blue Companies and/or the Ridley Assets, it should be treated as withdrawn.”
REVISING THE SETTLEMENT DEAL
The DoJ did not honour Adoke’s letter, insisting that the Obasanjo deal was not binding on the US.
Bagudu’s assets have remained frozen since then.
In April 2015, Bagudu complained to the high court in the UK that Nigeria had violated the 2003 agreement, arguing that the freeze order was based on a letter of request from the federal government in 2012. The court entered a default judgement against the country on July 8, 2015.
Nearly three years later, the federal government entered into a revised agreement with Bagudu on October 26, 2018, a copy of which was seen by TheCable.
In the agreement, the federal government, Bagudu and Blue companies said they had decided to resolve the settlement agreement claim “without further proceedings or dispute”.
Bagudu and Malami signed a revised settlement under which Bagudu’s Blue companies will pay a tax of €42 million to the federal government from the assets
Significantly, the agreement also stipulated that the frozen assets, which are now said to be worth about $155 million, should be returned to the federal government as the legal owner “subject to the terms of this agreement”.
It also provided that the federal government “will hold the same free from any claims existing or future, direct or indirect, contemplated or otherwise, made by the Blue Family Trusts, AB or his affiliates, in whole or in part, at their behest or on their behalf or for their benefit or purported benefit, while compensating the Blue Family Trusts and AB for the Settlement Agreement Claim”.
The market value of Blue’s assets held in accounts at Waverton Investment Management Limited and James Hambro & Partners LLP, among others, were valued at €141 million, out of which Bagudu and affiliates were mandated to pay a tax of €42 million to the Federal Government of Nigeria.
‘ABACHA LOOT WILL BE PAID TO FG IN FULL’
TheCable’s interview requests sent to both Malami and Bagudu were unacknowledged, but several government officials in the know of the agreement have insisted that Nigeria signed an agreement as a sovereign country with Bagudu in 2003 and it remains binding.
However, with the freeze order on Bagudu’s assets in the UK yet to be removed because of DoJ’s criminal proceedings in DC, the dispute may not be ending soon.
The $308 million Abacha loot is expected to be repatriated to Nigeria from Jersey any moment from now while Bagudu’s lawyers continue their fight to get the DoJ to unfreeze his own assets.
While the US insists those assets are fruits of a poisonous tree, there seems to be some difficulty with getting evidence to get a forfeiture order against Bagudu in either the US or UK.
TheCable understands that the DoJ has asked for assistance — without luck — from the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to link the funds to money laundering since Bagudu was a known Abacha associate.
Bagudu may yet launch legal proceedings against the DoJ if the deadlock continues, TheCable learnt.