BY EMEKA EJERE
The lingering dispute between the governors and the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami over the $418 million Paris Club refund debt is getting deeper by the day amid growing trust deficit.
On Thursday the AGF said it was too late for the 36 governors to seek the reversal of the decision since they had earlier acknowledged the debt and made a commitment to pay the consultants and private firms.
The aggrieved governors under the aegis of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF), had accused Malami of bias in his handling of the disputed debt, saying that funds belonging to the Federation Account should not be arbitrarily deducted.
The governors’ accusation contained in a statement signed by the Executive Secretary of NGF, Abdulrazaque Bello-Barkindo, was in reaction to a statement by Mr. Malami’s media aide, Umar Gwandu, who had supported deductions of the states’ resources amounting to $418 million from the Federation Account.
The amount is allegedly owed the consultants and/or contractors for services rendered during negotiations for the refund. The Paris Club fund has since generated dispute among the three tiers of government.
Gwandu’s statement was in reaction to interim restraining orders obtained by the states. The Federal High Court Abuja had on Friday (November 5) stopped the federal government from deducting $418 million from the accounts of the 36 states government to settle the judgment debts concerning the Paris and London clubs refund.
The debts had accrued from court judgments awarding the creditors, who claimed to be consultants and contractors to the states and local governments, various sums of money which currently stand at $418 million. President Muhammadu Buhari, was said to have ignored the protests by the NGF to approve the refund to creditors.
But according to the NGF spokesman, the decision of the AGF to throw its weight behind the consultants who had been battling desperately to grab $418 million from the accounts of states and local governments raised questions of propriety and spirit of justice.
The statement read: “The attention of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum, NGF, has been drawn to a statement issued by the media aide to the Attorney General of the Federation, AGF, Umar Gwandu, on Friday, November 5, 2021, published in a national daily of same date in support of deductions of humongous state resources amounting to $418 million from the Federation Account.
“The payments are made in favour of private contractors and/or consultants for alleged work done to the Paris Club Refunds to the states and local governments. Since the Attorney General of the Federation has not contradicted his aide, it is, therefore, deemed that the statement was issued with his authorization and consent.
“We need to state quickly that when we first read this press release, we had to double-check to be sure it was not authored by a lawyer representing either one or all the promissory notes recipients.
“The AGF is supposed to be the chief arbiter in all matters concerning Nigerians, especially the poor masses of this country. It is incumbent upon him to, not just ensure that justice is done, but that justice is seen to have been done.
“The undue haste, with which the statement was issued even before the service on the AGF of the court processes and the order dated November 5, 2021, restraining the federal government, seems to suggest that there is a special relationship between the Office of the AGF and the consultants over and above Nigerian citizens, whose interest the AGF as the chief law officer of the federation is statutorily bound to always protect.
“The statement also suggests that the restraining order issued last Friday not only unsettled preconceived plans and angered the unnamed ‘government officers’ referred to by the media aide.”
Barkindo said Malami’s claim that he intervened to pay the contractors to avoid execution of the judgments against the federal government resources was false.
He said also that the NGF and LGAs sought to transfer their liability to the federal government, adding that there was no liability to transfer in the first place and that none existed.
The NGF spokesman said the governors did not provide any undertaking or indemnity to the federal government to act on their behalf as represented by the AGF.
Barkindo advised Malami to remain neutral and protect scarce public resources, instead of taking sides with the consultants.
“Let him advise the contractors to wait until all appeals and litigations in court are concluded. That is the true test of observing the rule of law. There is no other way, uncomfortable as that would appear,” the statement adds.
“State resources needed for critical development should not under any guise be frittered away as payments for contracts whose veracity and authenticity is still a subject of litigation and disputation.
“These contractors are impecunious and cannot restitute the states/LGAs if the appeals or other litigation are determined against them.
“We call on the general public to be alert and vigilant. The debt relief granted to Nigeria by the Paris Club in 2005 was meant to enable her to have a respite and use the resources saved for meaningful development.
“It was not for distribution to private persons to fund their luxurious lives; neither can Nigeria justify her borrowing funds all over the world to fund capital projects and turn round to disburse state resources to individuals in a manner that offends all public sensibilities.
“We urge all those appointed as gatekeepers to our laws to ensure that the laws of our land are respected and protected. Let professionalism, reasonable caution and due diligence prevail on this matter, please,” the NGF scribe said.
Blowing hot and cold
However, the AGF said, not only did the NGF, the Association of Local Government of Nigeria (ALGON) and the consultants enter into a consent judgment of $3,188, 079,505.56 ($3.2 billion) in 2013, they made the commitment to pay and actually made part payments between 2016 and 2017.
He accused the NGF of blowing hot and cold at the same time and seeking to shut the barn door after the horse had bolted.
On whether the federal government’s insistence on the deduction would not amount to disrespecting an existing court order and circumventing pending court cases, Malami wondered why the states, which made a part payment since 2013, decided to go to court.
Tracing the genesis of the crisis, Malami said: “Sometimes as far back as 2013, there was an engagement by the outgoing administration and the NGF in respect of certain consultants that were engaged by the two (NGF and ALGON) for the purpose of recovering certain amounts of money relating to Paris Club refund.
“And these consultants that were engaged have indeed, delivered and fundamentally, they were not paid the fees for the services they claimed to have rendered and on account of which they approached the judicial system for the determination of their rights and indeed, the enforcement of their fees.
“Now, in 2013, the then federal government and the governors’ forum came together, agreed and submitted to a consent judgment by the court of law in 2013. That consent judgment is what gave rise to the liability in contention as we are talking today.
“Some years back, the federal government was approached by these consultants for the purpose of payment of their respective professional fees. The federal government then approached the governors’ forum and ALGON and they collectively walked to the federal government and conceded to the position that the consultants have indeed, provided the services and that they were ready and willing to pay.
“The point of interest arising therefrom is that the governors’ forum and ALGON walked to the federal government and conceded that payment should be deducted from their monies and then, should be effected to the consultants.
“And then, in 2016, 2017, these deductions were carried out at the instance of the governors’ forum and ALGON. Now, that was the situation on the ground.”
Malami recalled that since the Federal Government was suspicious of the huge claim the NGF and ALGON made on behalf of the consultants, which was in the region of $3.2b, the FG invited the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the State Security Services (SSS) to verify the services rendered by the consultants.
He added: “So, when eventually the services rendered were confirmed, the Federal Government took steps to demand confirmation in writing from ALGON and the governors.
“The governors individually wrote to the effect that they were liable. ALGON wrote to the effect that they were liable. And eventually, this payment commenced as far back as 2016.
“Now, nothing untoward happened thereafter until perhaps, of recent when the governors wrote seeking to avoid their liability.
Reacting to the crisis, a public affairs analyst, Mr. Philips Okoye, who does not understand the need for the consultants, wondered why the states and the local governments were not part of the process that led to the engagement of their (consultants’) services since they were the beneficiaries of the services.
Okoye queried: “Did we really need the services of these consultants? Whose interest is Malami protecting? Why are we so fast in paying this debt?
“How come the states and local governments that these consultants rendered the service to were not carried along. Who actually signed for these consultants to help in sharing the money?
“Did we really need the consultants? Obasanjo secured the money (the debt relief), the issue now is how it was shared.”
Similarly, a policy analyst, Mr. Michael Ajayi, wondered why the AGF did not make any attempt to challenge the judgment that awarded the payment to the contractors.
He argued that if there were any need for the service the contractors claimed to have rendered, it is the government agencies that should have done that, not private firms or individuals.
“It is even the federal government that is supposed to challenge the judgment secured by the consultants, not even the governors, if it (FG) is not interested in filtering away the nation’s resources,” Ajayi said.
“What are we paying these contractors for? What did they do? What are the government agencies doing? Are they not the ones that are supposed to render the said service if need be?”