The Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, may be on a collision course with the Nigerian Governors Forum for insisting on the deduction of $418m Paris Club refund from the federation account.
Speaking to State House correspondents in Abuja on Thursday, Malami stressed that the state governors had no right to complain about the deduction which he said was meant for the consultants purportedly hired by the state governors and local governments.
But top official of the NGF, who spoke on condition of anonymity, hit back, saying the AGF appeared to be working for the consultants instead of representing Nigerians in the matter.
The consultants had demanded the amount as payment for services rendered to the states and local government councils but the governors requested a forensic audit of their claims.
In March, the attorneys-general of the 36 states appealed a judgment that dismissed a suit seeking to restrain the Federal Government from effecting the planned deduction of $418 million from states’ funds.
In response to a November 11, 2021 letter from the minister of finance, budget, and national planning, the governors in a letter dated April 4, 2022 asked the FG to refrain from deducting from funds accruing to them and all local government councils as liquidation for the alleged Paris Club loan refund-related judgment debts.
But responding to questions from journalists at the 46th Session of the State House Ministerial Briefing organised by the Presidential Communications Team at the Aso Rock Villa, Abuja, on Thursday, the AGF declared that the governors created the liability whose payment they had also indemnified.
He noted that when the refund was paid to the states, a part-payment was also made to the consultants, but the governors eventually halted further payments and requested an out-of-court settlement instead.
According to Malami, the governors’ decision prompted a request to the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), to disburse the payments.
The request, he explained, was forwarded to the Office of the Attorney-General for its legal counsel.
After running the required checks, the AGF’s Office spotted no elements of fraud involved, Malami said.
Justifying his action, he stated, “On the issue of Paris Club, you mentioned that there exists a presidential directive that payments should not be made and then in breach of that directive, payments were made. You need to be informed as to the antecedents and how the liability arose.
“Now, the liability or judgment debts related to Paris Club was indeed a liability created by the Governors Forum in their own right. How do I mean? The Governors Forum comprising all the governors sat down, commonly agreed on the engagement of consultants to provide certain services for them relating to the recovery of the Paris Club. So, it was the Governors Forum, under the Federal Government in the first place that engaged the consultants.
“Two, when eventually successes were recorded associated with the refund, the governors collectively and individually presented a request to the federal government for the fund. And among the components of the claim presented for the consideration of the federal government was a component related to the payment of these consultants that are now constituting the subject of contention.
‘’So, the implication of that is that the governors in their own right recognized the consultants, recognized their claim and presented such a claim to the federal government.”
He explained that when the claims were eventually processed and paid to the NGF, the forum, without the FG’s intervention, made part-payments to the consultants, acknowledging their liability over the same.
The AGF noted that the governors later halted payment to the contractors, causing them to drag the forum to court.
“And what happened in court? They submitted to a consent judgment. They asked and urged the court to allow them settle out of court. They committed to terms of settlement in writing, they signed the terms of settlement, agreeing and conceding that such payments be made to the consultants.
“The FG under the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari was requested to comply with the judgment and effect payment. The President passed all the requests of the governors to the Office of the Attorney General for consideration.
“I suggested to the President on the face value of the judgment and the undertones associated with the consultancy services, it was my opinion, the same treatment we meted to P&ID, that ‘let us subject this claim, the consent judgment to investigation by the agencies of the government.’
“Mr President approved; I directed the EFCC and DSS to look into these claims and report back to the office of the Attorney-General. And these agencies reported and concluded that there is no problem undertone associated with it. The government may continue to sanction the payment dependent. Now, that was the background,’’ he clarified.
The Justice Minister said the FG took further steps to demand for indemnity from the governors.
That way, he said, it would be certain that the payments are made with the NGF’s consent in writing.
He added that the new leadership of the NGF instituted an action despite the FG acting on the Supreme Court’s judgment.
Malami added, “They now embarked on a fresh legal suit, challenging the payment, the previous agreement, the indemnity and the Federal High Court dismissed their case.’’
But a top NGF official said the governors would not respond to Malami officially because the case was in court and therefore, sub judice.
According to him, since the President had directed that the payment should be stopped until the case is decided by the court, the AGF should allow the court to decide the matter.
The source said, “I don’t know what he (Malami) wants to do. But Buhari has authorised that no payment should be made. So, can he now go and continue to effect payment? He has tried every means.
“He is trying to get this matter through another way. It did not go. The courts are still on it. There is an appeal. One of the consultants even went ahead and did his own case.”