The Federal Government says it has begun gathering evidence on government officials linked to the alleged looting of $69bn (N28.3tn) stashed in various bank accounts in Texas, the United States.
The loot reportedly accrued from illegal oil deals involving some officials of the government-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation and the Central Bank of Nigeria during the Goodluck Jonathan administration.
The PUNCH on Friday exclusively reported that an American assets recovery firm, Forensic Assets Investigation and Recovery Services LLC, discovered the $69bn loot.
Findings showed that the American company, FAIR, is a specialist in anti-corruption asset recovery working independently to trace and help repatriate money stashed away in foreign bank accounts and loot converted to real estate, luxury items, yachts and the money markets.
The firm, founded by a lawyer, Gary Riebschlager, comprises investigators, forensic accountants, bankers, and cyber experts who utilise Mutual Legal Agreements and global Financial Intelligence Units, Camden Assets Recovery Inter-Agency Network, Global Focus Point Network in Asset Recovery (Interpol), and the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative of the World Bank.
In a January 2019 confidential memo to the Special Presidential Investigation Panel, FAIR said it could help the Federal Government recover the money if hired and compensated for its services.
Out of the loot, $9bn was reportedly traced to a Texas bank account allegedly belonging to the late National Security Adviser, General Andrew Azazi.
Azazi died in a helicopter crash in Okoroba, Nembe Local Government Area of Bayelsa State in December 2012 alongside the Governor of Kaduna State, Patrick Yakowa, and others.
Two months after FAIR wrote the SPIP, the latter wrote a letter dated March 18, 2019 to the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd), on the matter, explaining FAIR’s proposal.
SPIP stated that FAIR assured that the $9bn allegedly stolen by Azazi could be recovered within three to five months.
The SPIP’s letter to the President, with reference number SPIP/SH/2019/VOL.1/1, was titled, ‘American assets investigation and recovery company has traced a definite $9bn funds linked to the late Gen Azazi.’
The letter was signed by a former SPIP Chairman, Okoi Obono-Obla.
It read in part, “In January 2019, an American assets recovery company, Forensic Assets Investigation and Recovery Services LLC, sent a confidential memo to us stating the discovery of a definite total amount of $9bn in the State of Texas linked to the late General Azazi (former NSA), plus an additional huge amount in excess of $60bn from multiple sources of illegal sales of crude oil from Nigeria into the entire United States of America.
“Mr President, the confidential memo to us prompted our agency to seriously engage the US company to determine the veracity of the information, which resulted in an official invitation to them that they may visit us to further discuss and agree on steps needed to recover and return the funds to the Nigerian government.”
“Follow-up information from the Americans indicate that the definite $9bn can be recovered and returned to Nigeria within 3 to 5 months, if engaged and expense fee is provided, while compensation and charges shall be paid upon recovery. They also informed us that the major funds were stolen via the NNPC and the Central Bank of Nigeria,” the letter to the President further stated.
Following the overwhelming evidence provided by the assets recovery company regarding the $9bn and their capacity to recover and return the fund, the SPIP explained that it decided to engage the American forensic experts on a face-to-face meeting scheduled for March 29, 2019.
The panel also attached a copy of the firm’s acceptance letter to its memo to the President and sought Buhari’s approval for the planned meeting with the American company.
The memo noted, “Mr President, we intend to work together with the Americans in order to secure the recovery of the definite $9bn within 3-5 months they stated and to engage them to see and recover the larger part of the estimated $60bn-$80bn stolen from Nigeria during the oil boom. Also, to engage the NNPC and the CBN in the overall recovery of those funds in the United States.
“Our prayers to the President are: To approve the engagement of the American company to recover the funds and assets in the US and to approve the support of the visiting American firm to integrate software technology in the CBN in order to trace fraud funds.
“To approve the presence of interface offices of the Special Presidential Investigation Panel in NNPC and the CBN. Your Excellency, the immediate recovery of the identified $9bn within the stated timeframe of 3-5 months will totally eliminate borrowing to fund the 2018 budget deficit and sustain the 2019 budget.”
However, two years after the SPIP notified the President of the loot, the Federal Government was said to have not taken concrete steps to recover the money.
Also, Obono-Obla had yet to conclude the recovery process when he was removed from the panel by the President and replaced by the Solicitor-General of the Federation and Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Justice, Dayo Apata.
Over 400 criminal and graft cases retrieved from the SPIP by the office of the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice were also found to have been abandoned.
However, the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN), on Friday told one of our correspondents that the Federal Government had swung into action with the aim of getting adequate information on the $69bn loot allegedly hidden in American banks in Texas as well as the government officials involved.
The AGF also said the relevant bank details would be traced.
Malami’s Special Assistant on Media and Public Relations, Dr Umar Gwandu, who spoke on behalf of the minister, said the government was at the information-gathering stage and would work on verifiable information.
Gwandu said, “The government has swung into action to generate adequate information on the alleged $69bn, inclusive of the Nigerians involved, incidental bank details, and actionable intelligence to enable us to deal with the matter.
“The details of the alleged lawyers involved and what information is at their disposal can also be very helpful.
“The office of the Attorney General of the Federation works on cogent and verifiable information, not on media sensations or on speculations.”
Gwandu said the Buhari regime had the track record of repatriating stolen funds stashed in foreign accounts, saying it was one of the “visible and indelible” successes recorded by the regime.
He said, “The Office of the Attorney General has established a historical record of acting on cogent and verifiable information that has led to the recoveries of looted assets upon valid revelations that are subjected to integrity test by the assets recovery units of the office of the Attorney General of the Federation.
“The integrity test of information is not media-based but a process being conducted through the laid-down official process in compliance with the extant laws.
“One of the prime and uncompromising policies of the present administration under the leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari is the fight against corruption.”
Meanwhile, the Group General Manager, Group Public Affairs Department, NNPC, Kennie Obateru, told one of our correspondents that the corporation had nothing to say about the allegations.
“You know the way NNPC is run, particularly on issues like this. We don’t have anything to say about it,” he stated.
However, some officials of the NNPC who spoke on condition of anonymity, expressed doubt over the authenticity of FAIR’s findings.
“What is the entire budget of the country for a company to come up with an allegation that $69bn from illegal oil deals by NNPC was traced to American accounts?” asked an official, who requested not to be named due to the nature of the matter.
The official added, “Because somebody made an allegation does not mean that it has become a fact. Proper investigations should be done.”
Besides, as of the time of filing this report, efforts to get the reactions of the CBN, Ministry of Finance, Budget, and National Planning had yet to yield positive results.
SERAP, CACOL, SAN, lawyers call for thorough probe
However, civil rights organisations, including the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project and the Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders, have called on the Federal Government to conduct a thorough probe of the alleged $69bn loot in Texas banks.
The Executive Director of SERAP, Adetokunbo Mumuni, in an interview with Sunday PUNCH, said there were certain international procedures that Nigeria could follow to recover the looted funds, adding that the money was needed in the country.
He said, “The Nigerian authorities should investigate how the money got to the said accounts and hold whoever is/are responsible for it accountable so that the money does not get finally lost.”
Also, the Executive Director, CACOL, Debo Adeniran, said no stone should be left unturned in ensuring that the loot was repatriated back to the country.
“All of us should be vigilant, the media and the anti-corruption agencies, to ensure that no stone is left unturned on this matter,” he said.
Adeniran argued that the fraud happened in the first place because institutions such as the Ministry of Petroleum Resources, Office of the Accountant General, and anti-corruption agencies did not perform their duties of monitoring the receipts and expenditures of oil revenue.
He said, “There are international protocols which the Attorney General ought to have commenced but has been reluctant to do.
“The Auditor-General, Accountant General, and the minister under who it happened must answer questions.”
Also, a human rights lawyer and former General Secretary of the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, Malachy Ugwumadu, said it was the responsibility of the government to recover stolen funds.
He said, “The government should try to avoid the pit-holes that we have all been encountering in the efforts to recover stolen funds in the past.
“Some of those pit-holes include the lengthy period of time that it takes to recover them.
“Take a look at the (Sani) Abacha loot, do you remember when Abacha ruled Nigeria?”
The lawyer advised that the issue should be tackled at the level of diplomatic engagement so that the loot would be “almost automatically” repatriated.
Meanwhile, the Convener, Coalition in Defence of Nigerian Democracy and Constitution, Dare Ariyo-Akintoye, tackled the Buhari regime, saying it had no good reputation in dealing with foreign loot recovery firms.
He said, “Ordinarily, the Buhari administration is incapable of such recoveries, but if it can swallow its pride and seek the help of global assets recovery firms, it has a chance.”
Also, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mike Ozekhome, urged the government to recover the loot and use it for the benefit of Nigeria in a transparent and accountable way.
“The government should go ahead and recover the funds. It’s Nigeria’s money and it should be recovered and used for the Nigerian people. And there must be transparency and accountability in the use of the money.
“What projects is the money being used for? How is it being used? Where will it be kept first when it comes? How much is it? There must be transparency and accountability about it,” he said.
Meanwhile, when asked if the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission would investigate the graft case, the commission’s spokesperson, Wilson Uwujaren, simply said the agency doesn’t give advance notice of its investigations.
He also declined to speak further.
The Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission spokesperson, Mrs Azuka Ogugua, could not be reached for comment on Saturday.